Taking up the pen in retirement: Writing duo weaves life experiences into award-winning mystery novel
By: Gabrielle Wilkosz
FOR THIRTY-FIVE YEARS, they’ve been together. Sitting with each other in hospitals. Laughing until their sides hurt. Through funerals and festivities, Dixie Everett and Sue Cleveland have remained “super-friends” as they say. And now, they’ve written a book.
Using the joint pen name Meredith Lee, a combination of Sue’s middle name “Meredith” and Dixie’s middle name “Lee,” the team published their first mystery novel in 2017. The story of a troubled graduate student who travels abroad, Shrouded details intrigue behind a series of murders connected with the Shroud of Turin.
While the mystery itself is shrouded, the team behind the Writers’ League of Texas finalist is anything but. Far from the caricature of the repressed, shut-in writer, Sue and Dixie are candid and open.
That’s why on a recent Tuesday at the AARP state office, Sue and Dixie were willing to sit down with AARP Texas and talk about the craft of writing as a team, what it feels like to be strong, independent and self-published at 60+, and what lies in store for their brainchild, series protagonist Crispin Leads.
ON AN UNUSUALLY CHILLY MORNING in Austin, Texas, the writers behind Meredith Lee and I sat down over coffee. Immediately noticeable is their effortless storytelling. Dixie Everett, a former journalist, orchestrates her experiences with a balance of sharp wit and gusto. She draws us in by recalling the details of a beautiful painting in Italy that brought her to tears as it reminded her of a terrorist attack that touched her earlier that week. At the sound of gunfire, a woman had grabbed Dixie and pushed her out of harm’s way. The retelling of the experience leaves an impression just as strong as her coffee, which she takes black.
Her counterpart, England-born writer Sue Cleveland is quieter, referencing more than once the contrast between Dixie and herself. Sue’s stories find themselves less thematic in plot, focusing more so on her choice of words with metaphor embedded throughout. Sue describes “faith versus fanaticism” as a touchstone of the novel and the protagonist, noting that the character is at “a delicious time in life.” Sue’s coffee, I note, is taken with cream.
Though Shrouded is the team’s debut novel, several joint writing projects belonging to Dixie and Sue have been in the works for years. It was after Dixie’s recent retirement that she and Sue zoned in on the novel’s completion and publication, the latter of which, as it turns out, has a story of its own.
REGARDING THE MYTHICAL MEREDITH LEE, Dixie and Sue are often asked why they chose to have a pen name that combines their middle names. Why not list two names on the cover of one novel?
Dixie explains, “At some point we decided to create this persona. I’ve done some writing, Sue’s done some writing, and so this way we can preserve our individual work separately from our joint work.” Dixie adds, “Meredith Lee. We just thought that was a cool name, too. It works.”
Beyond the mechanics of a joint pen name, the question begs an answer: how do these women manage to make their novelist dreams come true? For Dixie, who retired only a handful of years ago, how is it that she and her friend could take on such an incredible joint project, catching a second wind at a time of life when some let their dreams simply fizzle out?
Sue, whose family was in publishing, said it’s a matter of “seeking like minded souls.” The friends conceptualized their writing project together decades ago during what has become a now-legendary roadtrip to Granbury, which resulted in their first attempt at writing.
The project was submitted to the Chesterfield Writer’s Film Project, where the script earned finalist status.
“We didn’t even realize until years later when we had it in our resumes that it was actually a pretty big deal to be finalists in that national contest,” Dixie said. “We were such newbies at everything, but that first attempt at screenwriting actually turned out to be a big success. It was our first step into the world of screenwriting and writing as a team.”
Over the following years, Dixie and Sue continued trying different things, at one point having a script optioned by a Hollywood studio. In the end, the studio didn’t make the script into a film, but the experience contributed to how they became a partnership.
When asked if they would want Shrouded to be made into a film, the duo laughed. “Of course we would,” Dixie said. Sue nodded, looking at her friend with admiration.
SQUARING AWAY query letters and final edits, Dixie and Sue were almost ready to get Shrouded committed to a publisher and on shelves in November 2016 when news from the Hutto public library hit.
The team was shook. A mutual friend of theirs, an accomplished writer of children’s stories and other genres, had died unexpectedly in the Hutto library. A detail that further connected Dixie and Sue to the news, was this: Their friend had yet to publish her work.
News of the death worked knots into Dixie and Sue’s near-end-of-novel joys. Of her writing teammate, Sue put it this way: “The year leading up to Dixie’s 70th had been a hard one. Our friend’s passing made us think.”
Dixie recalled taking Sue aside. “I said, ‘Sue, we have to own this book. I don’t want what happened to our friend to happen to me.”’
In a 180 turn, team Meredith Lee tossed their query letters and took the plunge, deciding to go with non-traditional publishing, which would shave off approximately 3 years waiting time with a publisher. With the deviation from traditional book publishing came a slew of complications, or as Sue put it, “learning opportunities.”
Web page design, social media account set-up and other tasks befell the seniors, offering an array of problems of their own. Operative language in these dealings wasn’t streamlined, meaning terminology differed from area to area. Still, they forged on.
“I didn’t want to learn new things after a while,” admitted Sue. “But there we were. We wanted it more than anything.”
Dixie and Sue’s small independent publisher 39 Stars has recently been selected for an Ignite award for “rising star publisher.” On the way up in the elevator, the writing duo said they remarked to one another how their mothers, who died within 15 years of each other, would’ve been proud of their latest accomplishment, a publisher’s award.
“We own it,” Dixie said. “The book and the responsibilities that come with it are ours.”
LIKE THEIR PROTAGONIST, the possibilities are unlimited when it comes to what the future has in store for Sue and Dixie. Perhaps this is in part because Shrouded’s Crispin Leads has only begun her journey. The fictional heroine will be featured in a sequel to Shrouded that comes out in 2018.
Crispin’s creators have had and will continue to have stops along their own journey, including speaking engagements at the University of Texas on Jan. 25 and at the Austin Women’s Club on April 25. Local group, Sisters in Crime, also penciled in time with Sue and Dixie, where they’ve been asked to speak about their choice to self-publish.
With so much on these seniors’ plates, thinking out of the box or ‘disrupting aging’ seems to be a full-time job in and of itself. What makes it all worth it?
Dixie jumped in: “I have one more story for you about something that happened up in Stephenville, Texas,” she began.
“There’s a scene in chapter 6 where Crispin goes to a cemetery, which she often does, and she’s reflecting on a memory from her mother who taught her to look at the context surrounding where words are spoken.
“When we do readings, there’s a section Sue usually reads and there’s a section I read. Primarily because you don’t want to give away the story. It’s just a little short 2-3 paragraph read.
“After I finish my part, this guy comes bolting up to me. He said, ‘I HAD AN EPIPHANY!’ And I said, ‘Oh really?’ He said, ‘Yes, my grandmother had us put a stone to mark her grave next to her husband’s. On the front side of his gravestone, it was all this stuff, full of all his accomplishments and how he did this and that. On hers it was blank, with just the names of her grandchildren listed on the back of the stone.’ He said, ‘I never understood why she did it that way. It looked so lopsided!’”
“Then the young man said, ‘After you read that, I finally understood my grandmother. She wanted it that way because that’s what was important to her,” Dixie explained. “The children were the most important thing to her.”
Sue sat back in her chair. “Now, that’s a metaphor,” she said.