Thanks to persistence, "occasional dreams" and a "stunning revelation" at age four or five, Molly MacRae found her path as a writer and a librarian. Now she has a three-book deal with New York publisher Penguin.
It was MacRae's brother Andy that read Dr. Seuss's One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish to her, causing her to never look at stories the same again. "I'll probably never produce anything as magical as Dr. Seuss, but I've never lost the urge to try, either. Words and stories are the most powerful things I know. I love everything about stories and books. Reading them, then selling them, now connecting children with them at the library. Writing is part of that," she said.
MacRae says her goal is to write 333 good words each day. She gets up at 5:30 and writes before breakfast. "If I don't reach the goal by the time I go to work, I write during my lunch hour, and then write some more after supper, if need be. It's not much, 333 words, but working at that rate I can finish a novel in nine months and still have time to say hi to the family or clean that dratted cat pan," she said.
MacRae calls her time as a writer as "often interrupted," but her hard work has paid off with the publishing of her short stories, a book series that is already out and a new series upcoming. "I was able to be serious for a few years in the late 80s and early 90s, and again for a couple of years in the late 90s and early 00s. Now, happily, with the Penguin contract I'm in a position to be focused and serious again," MacRae said.
MacRae grew up in Barrington, Illinois, which, according to her, was more of a small town than a "bedroom community of Chicago" at the time. It was there that she wrote her first mystery stories in a high school French class. "They were in (probably terrible) French and starred François Spagatini, l'investigateur and involved things like a red canoe, an escaped circus lion, and an air mattress."
She also learned the mantras that she offers to fellow writers and lives by herself: "Read what you want to write. Write what you like to read. Revision is the key to success. Don't give up."
It was that persistence that got MacRae's career jumpstarted. "My Trouble," a short story, was published in the January 1990 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
"The excitement at receiving the acceptance letter for that story almost rivaled the excitement of our first baby being born. Notice what a good mother I am to say almost," said MacRae. "I, who can run up 54 flights of stairs without breathing hard (last year she participated in the "Hustle up the Hancock" — a vertical marathon), almost hyperventilated when that letter arrived. Hitchcock is one of the two premier mystery magazines in the world."
According to MacRae, Hitchcock receives tens of thousands of submissions each year and only publishes between 125 and 150 stories. They rejected the first three stories she sent them, but bought the fourth and seven more since. "I am incredibly fortunate. It was those stories and the relationship I've developed with the editor over the years that led to the contract with Penguin," she said.
MacRae writes what she refers to as "cozy mysteries," meaning there's no gore and little-to-no violence, which attracts a mostly female audience. "Cozy is an odd word to use when you're talking about a murder mystery. But, in fact, there wasn't a single death in seven of my Hitchcock stories. Well, except for a goldfish. And although there are murders in my first two novels, they take place off page. The same will be true for the Penguin series," she said.
Last month MacRae received a fan letter from someone in Hawaii who told her to immediately quit her day job and write more. But don't expect that to get MacRae to leave her position in the children's department at the Champaign Library.
"I love my job; besides, I need the contact with people. Who would I write about if I didn't eavesdrop on, er, interact with co-workers and patrons?" she said. "There are tremendous opportunities open to me now, and tremendous opportunities for me to blow it. I don't plan to blow it. But one has to have something keeping one's feet on the ground and one's head 'real.' My mantra, besides 'revision is the key to success,' is 'don't blow it,'" she said.
Over the years, MacRae's surroundings have helped influence her work. MacRae spent twenty years in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Upper East Tennessee, where she managed The Book Place, an independent bookstore. Her time there appears in story form in her earlier work but now it's Champaign/Urbana that she looks to for her ongoing inspiration.
"Champaign/Urbana is nice and flat, like a piece of crisp, new paper, and what's more inspiring or holds more promise than a flat, blank sheet of paper? But, seriously, having grown up in Illinois, its terrain and its tornados hold a fond place in my heart. It's not just a landscape or a set of buildings, though, that influence a writer. It's also the people. I love watching people and listening to them. Champaign/Urbana is a rich place for that. I feel very lucky to be here," she said.
For more information about Molly MacRae, see her website or visit the Champaign Library, where she will be doing one of the things that she loves most.