Shirley S. Allen: Beyond Publish or Perish

Shirley S. Allen: Beyond Publish or Perish

Where better to set a mystery than a small campus oozing with academic rivalry? And who better to write it than a retired professor?

Academic Body, a cozy mystery by Professor Shirley S. Allen, takes place at a private East Coast college.

Picture the stately buildings, the red-orange leaves blanketing the tree-lined paths as the students return. John Updike wrote of school and September:

The breezes tastes
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel —
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.

Somehow he missed the smell of murder, but Professor Allen didn’t.

Academic Body

Review of Academic Body

The story opens in the icy rain en route to the Dean’s Reception. Paul Godwin’s stunning wife Lenore, a Broadway star, has just arrived from New York, hopefully to stay. A weak heart forced Paul, a former director, into teaching drama. Now he must woo Lenore from the bright lights.

Paul’s plans go south when the Dean accuses him of dallying with a female student and says he can produce evidence. Paul knows he’s innocent, but agrees to a meeting.

Before they can meet, however, someone does in the Dean with a blunt object. Paul becomes a suspect and so do his colleagues, since the slimy murder victim kept real and fabricated blackmail material on all of them.

Paul turns detective to clear his name. He and Lenore team up, just like the old days, to map suspects like they would actors in a play.

But everyone has a motive, from the philandering French instructor to the radical Sociology professor to the Dean’s spinster secretary (who’s not so uptight after all). The secrets and surprises keep piling up.

Academic Body features a quirky, memorable cast in the tradition of Agatha Christie. If you’re a classic movie fan who enjoyed The Thin Man, you’ll love the repartee of Paul and Lenore Godwin. The twisty plot and claustrophobic atmosphere kept me turning pages and wondering whodunnit.

I also think it’s brilliant that someone from the “publish or perish” milieu published a mystery where an academic villain perishes!

Shirley S. Allen: Beyond Publish or Perish by Debra Eve |
Professor Emerita Shirley S. Allen

Q&A With Professor Allen

Professor Allen has retired from teaching, but I think she still deserves her honorific. She raised her three children before becoming a professor of English and published Academic Body at age 89 (she turned 91 last May)!

She received a B.A. from Carleton College and a Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College. Her scholarly publications include a history of Shakespearean performances during California’s Gold Rush and the definitive text on 19th-century actor-manager Samuel Phelps.

You’ve got some heavy academic credentials, Professor Allen. What inspired you to write fiction at this stage?

I began writing Academic Body 20 years ago, not long after I had reluctantly retired from teaching at the University of Connecticut. My husband had retired and we had moved to California, close to my sister and her family. She had lured me with the suggestion that we write mysteries together.

How long did you work on Academic Body?

My sister had changed her mind about writing, but I had already written the first chapter and was eager to work out the plot, so I kept going until I finished the first draft, but I put it aside because a cousin bequeathed to me the family Bibles, letters, house deeds, photos, and genealogy.

I plunged into the papers and found the facts so fascinating that I began writing a much more important novel on the life of my great-grandmother, which took a lot of research.

That book, Roxanna Britton, was published by Criterion Press in 2001, the year I moved from San Diego to the Bay Area. In my new home, I recovered Academic Body and began a revision, which was published by Mostly Murder Press in 2010.

With the advent of ebooks, both books are getting new life in digital form. The e-book of Academic Body was released by Mark Williams international Digital Publishing in June of 2012, and Roxanna Britton was republished.

If you could invite any five literary personages from any time period to dinner, who would they be and why?

My choices probably come more from admiration of their work, not for their performance at dinner parties.

  •  William Shakespeare because of his wit, wonderful metaphors, and understanding of human beings.
  •  L. Frank Baum because he gave girls a sense of self and showed us how strong we could be in an age when we were seen and not heard.
  • Charles Dickens because he awoke me to the hard lives of the poor and the orphaned.
  • Anthony Trollope for portraying the workings of the human mind in making decisions.
  • Virginia Woolf for giving women a voice in a man’s world.

What can you tell late-blooming writers with families and day jobs about keeping the faith?

My advice is to do what you have to do for your family and your job, but keep your manuscript accessible. (Click to tweet this!)

Just reading what you have written may be the most important thing to do at some moments. Think of your project as a precious resource that will help you face the empty nest or minor setbacks in other areas in the future.

What wonderful advice! Thank you, Shirley S. Allen, for visiting Later Bloomer and inspiring us all. (Appreciation also goes to author Anne R. Allen for bringing her mom to my attention.)

Academic Body is available in paper from Mainly Murder Press and for Kindle at Amazon US and Amazon UK. Roxanna Britton: A Biographical Novel was just released for Kindle at Amazon US and Amazon UK.

(Update: I am so sorry to report that Shirley S. Allen passed away on December 1, 2013 at the age of 92. She was born in the Roaring ’20s and finished Academic Body at age 89. What a life!)

Artwork: Still Life with Skull by Paul Cezanne (1898)

22 Responses

  1. Anne R. Allen
    | Reply

    Thanks so much for hosting my mom here, and giving her such a great review. Her biographical novel, Roxanna Britton is a page-turner too–and especially moving because it’s based on our real ancestor, who pioneered the wildest parts of the Old West as a widowed mother, and managed to thrive.

    This blog is so beautifully designed. A very nice showcase for my mother’s work.

    • Debra Eve

      I’m so impressed with your mom’s achievements, Anne, and it was such a pleasure to review her work. Roxanna Britton sounds exciting and it will definitely go on my TBR list!

    • florence fois

      Good grief, Anne … I forgot that you had featured your mom, Shirley, on your blog … or I saw her on Facebook. What a wonderful family tradition … mother and daughter writing and doing such a darn good job of it too !!

    • Debra Eve

      Anne featured Shirley’s Kindle story on her blog (Academic Body spent some time on the bestseller list). Obviously, I jumped all over her back story 🙂

  2. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    Thanks for sharing Prof. Allen’s inspiring story! I love how she never forgot the novel she’d always wanted to write, but put family first.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Jennette. That’s what I love about her story too! And look what’s she’s doing now…

  3. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra … Thanks so much for introducing us to Shirely. Shirley, I loved your determination and the sound of this book sounds so perfect. Who more than academics could kill to protect their reputation or to get tenure??

    What is the most evident in all of Debra’s posts, is that “it’s never too late” to realize your dreams 🙂

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Florence! Shirley’s my new shero. I totally want to be her when I grow up!

  4. Pat O'Dea Rosen
    | Reply

    Wow, Debra, you and Professor Allen gave me such a boost with this post. Professor, congrats on publishing ACADEMIC BODY at 89. I don’t think I’m the only reader who now looks forward to a long second (or third) career.

    • Debra Eve

      Third career for me too, Pat! To paraphrase Frank McCourt, I have no desire for a one-act life. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. coleen patrick
    | Reply

    Great advice–and oh so inspiring! 🙂

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Coleen. So inspiring that Shirley and Anne are both such great writers. Anne didn’t start until age 55, so it runs in the family!

  6. K.B. Owen
    | Reply

    Wow, Debra. Love this! I feel as if she’s my older twin: lit. Ph.D., fascination with mysteries, and she even graduated from a Seven Sisters college that I researched and used as part of my setting for my historical mystery series (1890s Hartford, fictitious women’s college).

    Fab post. Thanks so much for the interview!

    • Debra Eve

      How cool, Kathy. This stuff is so up my alley and I can’t wait for your mystery to come out!

  7. K.B. Owen
    | Reply

    P.S. – I got my master’s at UConn, where I also became fascinated with Hartford. That’s why I set my college there! 😀

    • Debra Eve

      What a great coincidence! Professor Allen has a bit of regret in her statement about retiring from UConn so it must be a wonderful place.

  8. Chris Edgar
    | Reply

    Definitely an inspirational tale — I hope I’m still creatively inspired when I’m in my 80s and have people around me I can collaborate with (which has become the most important part of what I do).

    • Debra Eve

      I agree, Chris. I think the fact that Shirley and her daughter Anne are both authors contributes much to their success! Thanks.

  9. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    Debra, that was such an inspiring post! Ms. Allen’s late launch into novel writing and publishing gives me hope for the future. And I love biographical novels, so I can’t wait to read Roxanna Britton. Thank you Debra for sharing Anne Allen’s mother with us. That was really cool! 🙂

    • Debra Eve

      You’re welcome, Karen. It was great serendipity finding Professor Allen through Anne and I look forward to reading Roxanna Britton too!

  10. Sandra Pawula
    | Reply

    It’s so inspiring to see someone finish at book at 89! That gives me so much hope for my own future, and a way to encourage others.

    • @DebraEve

      Thanks, Sandra. I was so sorry to hear from Shirley’s daughter that she passed away last December. She remains one of my role models.

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