Tuesday, July 03, 2018

The Story Behind the Story: “Low Down Dirty Vote,” edited by Mysti Berry

(Editor’s note: This is the 78th installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s contribution comes from San Francisco resident Mysti Berry, who works as a technical writer for a cloud-based software company. Her first short story, “Johnny Depp Kick Line of Doom,” appeared in the June 2016 edition of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Her first novel, about missing casino millions and murder, is making the rounds of agent’s offices, and she is about to start work on her second novel, a crime story set during Hawaii’s Hilo Massacre of 1938. Berry is the editor of the brand-new Low Down Dirty Vote: A Crime Fiction Anthology, about which she writes below.)

This book was born in a diner somewhere in Northern California. My husband and I had been talking about how I should probably spend less time ranting on Twitter, and it got me to thinking. When I was a child, voting seemed to be such a simple thing. If you were born in the United States, or naturalized here (and at 8 years old, I wasn’t really sure what that meant), then you got to vote in every election.

Of course it was never that simple for people of color in this country. Worse still, ever since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down provisions of the Voting Rights Act a few years ago, politicians have been undoing much of the good that Act required of us. Between gerrymandering and the spread of repressive voter-identification laws, by early 2017 voting no longer felt simple, it felt dangerously partisan. And my ranting on Twitter wasn’t moving the needle at all.

In the diner that late-summer day in 2017, I pushed my diet soda glass around in its condensation puddle, feeling sad and frustrated about the overall tarnish that seemed to have crept over one of my favorite civic duties. And in that moment a title came to me, unbidden: Low Down Dirty Vote. It didn’t take long for me to figure out what to do with that title. I’d create an anthology of crime stories by my favorite writers, on the theme of fighting voter suppression. Fund-raising felt like a much better use of my time than spouting off on Twitter.

I chose crime fiction for four reasons—three perfectly good ones, and the real reason. The perfectly good reasons are simple. First, the title was ideal for a crime-fiction collection. Second, I write and love to read mystery and suspense stories. And third, I am lucky enough to be acquainted with some generous, talented crime writers. But the real reason I decided the anthology should focus on crime stories is this: the voting process in the United States has lately become a slow-motion crime scene, and I want to do something about that.

As usual, my biggest problem was confidence. The expression of ego required to believe that my stories will interest the world has never felt natural to me. In order to complete this project, could I now double down in the ego department? Could I corral a fistful of talented crime-fiction writers to contribute? Could I beg, borrow, or plead my way into their busy writing schedules? Would storytelling imaginations be inspired by a theme as odd as fighting voter suppression? My husband pointed out that the worst-case scenario was just that people would say “no,” so I decided to give my idea a try. Maybe the universe would teach me to leave the charity anthologies up to the professionals.

But my writer friends did not say no, not many of them. After my first few queries, I knew the signs that preceded a “yes”: a sudden intake of breath, eyes staring into the distance as their creativity rose to the fore, and a quick “yes! And I know just what I want to write!” Apparently this idea of mine wasn’t entirely crackers. Those writers who didn’t have any room in their schedules at least gave me great advice and encouragement. As it turns out, the crime-writing community is not only generous, but a huge fan of democracy.

In addition to direct requests to the authors, I opened the submission process to anyone else who was interested, and a few of the writers in this collection came to me via the Internet. I paid all of the contributors, because I didn’t want them to have to work for free. Ironically, though, most of the writers have donated their fees to a charity that helps fight voter suppression. One author even asked to be paid for her work in books, so she could share them.

The publishing schedule for Low Down Dirty Vote, my first book to reach print, was aggressive. I’ve spent most of my professional life as a software technical writer, so I knew I could physically produce a book in a short period of time. My writers were given just 90 days to produce a story, and I had 90 days to massage all of their submissions into an organized volume. Now, nearly 180 days later, everything is in place, and I am just waiting for a foreword from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) before hitting the “publish” button for print and e-book formats. The Scrivener software made it possible for me to submit professional-quality PDFs to the printer and to e-book outlets.

The writers whose work is featured in this book helped me so much. Whether it was Ray Daniel patiently beta-testing the writer contracts, David Hagerty doing double-duty as digital-marketing maestro, Kris Calvin finding a contact at the ACLU to produce our foreword, Catriona McPherson calming my nerves over writing this book’s preface, or all them finding typos in the advance reader copies and performing other acts of publishing kindness—just know, I couldn’t have done it without them!

(Left) Editor Mysti Berry

The quality of these stories was the biggest surprise to me, though it shouldn’t have been, considering the talents of the authors involved. The passion each contributor brought to his or her take on the theme radiates from the pages. Their work reminded me of something the actor Tom Hanks once said—that doing voice-over work is harder than acting, because you have to do everything you usually do with your whole body using only your voice. He described that effort as standing on your toes for 12 hours a day, stretching, reaching for the perfect performance. As I read the stories I received for the first time, I felt each writer stretching up on their toes. Some of these tales experiment with voice, others with point of view. Some have even stretched the very form of storytelling to its logical limits. Now that the day has come to share these collected yarns, I hope readers will feel as enriched as I have felt.

As you read them, you may notice that no one mentions Democrats, Republicans, or any particular political party. The stories revolve around people fighting for their constitutional right to vote. The book is political, but it is not partisan. Great stories don’t generally spring from dogma. The variety of literary takes on the subject of voter suppression was the second surprise to me. Characters run the gamut, as do settings—from 19th-century Wyoming to late 20th-century Edinburgh. There’s a spectrum of sub-genres here, too, from noir to humor and several stops in between.

The miracle of the title popping into my head still puzzles me. I am almost never in possession of a good title for my own projects—I have a tin ear for them. However, this book’s title is strong and just popped into my consciousness without invitation. It captures the dilemmas we face today, and the sense of humor we can apply to fixing what’s so broken. Perhaps this title was on its way to the imaginations of Dave Eggers or Laurie R. King, but it got lost and dropped into my head by accident? However it happened, I’m grateful.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of women earning the right to vote in the United Kingdom, and the stories contained in this anthology illustrate the struggles of women and men of all races to claim and preserve their voting rights. I’m glad we can celebrate with our friends across the pond on this important anniversary.

By the way, 100 percent of the proceeds from Low Down Dirty Vote will be donated to the ACLU Foundation to help fight voter suppression, starting with a $5,000 advance to the ACLU against sales of this book. With America’s mid-term elections fast approaching on November 6, I hope the stories in this anthology will encourage others to make their voices heard (beyond Twitter) in support of our right to vote.

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