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2020 Interview with Beth Wasson

How do you say thank you to Sisters in Crime Executive Director, Beth Wasson, who has quietly served SinC for twenty-eight years, especially when a pandemic cancels all your plans? Thank heavens SinC National Past President, Hank Phillippi Ryan, raised her hand and said let me know how I can help. I met Hank before her first book was published (long before I was published) when I became a member of the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime. I’ve watched her upward trajectory with amazement from first book to multi-award winning author. Hank hasn’t changed a bit, always gracious, always willing to help. Today she’s interviewing Beth Wasson to preserve a bit of our institutional history.

Sherry Harris, SinC Immediate Past President

 

The Interview

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I’m trying to remember the first time I met Beth, and I will confess to you, I can’t. I wondered: why don’t I remember that? Such a life-changing and extraordinary person, the queen of herding cats, with her quiet authority and infinite institutional knowledge. With her grace, and iron fist in velvet glove, and her uncanny ability to make everything work.
Then I realized, that’s the magic of Beth. Everything she touches turns to fabulous, whether it’s shepherding a new national president or organizing a massive event or engaging with each of us, one on one, the ultimate hostess on the outside and executive on the inside. When newbie—me setting foot in my first board meeting, absolutely terrified and completely clueless and intimidated, she was like my fairy godsister, calm and reassuring and infinitely knowledgeable. She always felt like the angel on my shoulder, pointing me in the right direction, and gently filling in all my blanks.

What a joy to be able to chat with her.

May I reveal that she was reluctant to do this? Because—she’s Beth, and she has always felt it’s not about her, but about the organization. But today, darling Beth, it is all about you.

HANK: Beth, where did you first hear about Sisters in Crime? What happened?

Beth Wasson headshotBETH: I first heard of Sisters in Crime from my neighbor and friend, Mary Lou Wright. Mary Lou, along with a friend, opened The Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, KS the late 1980s. I was still deep into my career of retail management with Dillard's. My daughter Liz was three years old and we spent my occasional day off at The Raven Bookstore and playing. I wanted more days like that with my daughter, and I started thinking about working from home for two or three non-profits or small businesses. I left my job not because I had a job with Sisters in Crime but to be home with my family. I had to work it out and being unemployed forced me to think of ways to work from home and in Lawrence, Kansas, I had not made any plans.

Meanwhile, Mary Lou had been asked to serve on the Board of Directors of Sisters in Crime. She would tell me about how this feminist organization was forming, to combat discrimination against women, and Mary Lou mentioned that SinC needed to hire a part-time administrator. Soon after, Mary Lou called and asked if I would be interested in working for SinC ten hours a month for $300.

HANK: And you said yes, right? Because how could you resist?

BETH: [Laughing!] But before I could be hired, Nancy Pickard (SinC’s first elected president) and Sue Dunlap, current president, needed to interview me. Both were coming to Lawrence for a book signing at The Raven Bookstore probably in the spring of 1991. Mary Lou had indicated that I might get to visit with them while they were in town. Liz and I were in the backyard playing and up the alley came Nancy, Sue, and Mary Lou. They were on their morning walk or maybe they were coming to my back door but we had our interview in the alley. After meeting Nancy and Sue I knew I wanted the job. What interesting, nice women dedicated to improving the world.

It was a few months before I stated work under Carolyn Hart, president of SinC 1991-1992.

HANK: SO hilarious! Your interview in the alley! We should put up a statue there in your honor. So were you a mystery fan back then? Did you know who Nancy Pickard was?


BETH: I was a book fan. I grew up in a book family. I also loved libraries and worked in the library both in junior high and high school. I did know who Nancy Pickard was at the time. She is a Kansan and the first book I read of Nancy's was Bum Steer published in 1989. She wrote about the same rolling hills where my husband grew up, the Flint Hills.

HANK: Such a small world.

BETH: Yes, it’s interesting to think Nancy and I lived 45 minutes apart and Sara Paretsky was a Lawrence High School and Kansas University student three blocks to south of me for high school and three blocks north for college. But the closeness of purpose and commitment came while my daughter was a Kansas University student. She was an activist, writing for the University Daily Kansas newspaper on feminist issues. Liz then became president of The Council on the Status of Women at KU in 2006. But about 40 years before that? Sara Paretsky formed this important campus organization and served as president!

HANK: Amazing. Truly. Do you remember what you were thinking in that life-changing interview? Not that you knew it was life changing at the time…

BETH: I know I was thinking that it was a nice opportunity to work with interesting women and good books.

HANK: That’s an understatement—and little did you know! So when it started, what were your responsibilities? Do you remember how many members there were? Would you have predicted the organization would have lasted—and thrived—for all these years?

BETH: I was hired to work 10 hours a month. I was to gather all the data that existed on the 600 members and create a database. Most of the data was with Gavin in Fairfax, VA who in the early years worked with Sharyn McCrumb to produce a newsletter and a “books in print” piece for SinC members. Renewal reminders were also part of my job. In the early years, all renewals were folded, stamped, and addressed in our home. It became a family effort and I could not have done it without Paul and Liz.

HANK: That’s adorable. What good sports! But that had to change, right, as the membership grew? (I hope!)

BETH: Luckily for Paul and Liz! By around 2005 SinC could afford to have a printer/mailer prepare the renewals. At this point the organization had over 2,000 members.


HANK: Wow. So much growth.

BETH: In so many ways. This was also the time that Sisters in Crime celebrated its 20th Anniversary. Under Libby Hellmann and Rochelle Krich's leadership SinC hired a PR firm for national publicity, partnered with a large national bookstore chain, and created press packets and a new branded look.

HANK: That must have been quite a moment, from folding and stuffing at home with your family to working with a team of professionals.

BETH: At this point I had experienced Sisters in Crime and knew it would last. The organization had a soul. I attribute SinC's success to the selfless and creative women who have served as president of the organization always staying true to the founding mother's vision. From Sara Paretsky to Lori Rader-Day the work has been done yet there is still more to do. And, I'm certain it will be done by generations to come.

HANK: Yes, so agree. When I look at the list of presidents, it’s incredibly heartwarming, and such a legacy. But it’s been a process! And you have been at the core of every moment of it. What are some of the changes and innovations Sisters has had that you’re most proud of?

BETH: There is one single most important event in SinC’s history. SinC had the energy to be successful but not the money. President Annette Meyers was the leader who secured SinC’s future by providing a steady stream of money into the organization.

In the mid 1990s Annette created the opportunity for SinC to become members of the Authors Coalition of America. The ACA didn’t make it easy because there was an assumption that SinC did not have 500 published authors as members which was a requirement. To prove our worthiness Annette needed to ask for help from the president of the Authors Guild. He was able to convince the ACA that we should be given a chance to prove ourselves. We were given only 30 days and we did it!

HANK: Another triumph of survival! So speaking of history. Each national president of Sisters in Crime gets a year-long custodianship of a puffy white stuffed seal, and adds the token of her city to Sealine’s necklace! I just realized I have never asked you how that all involved. What’s the story of the precious seal?


BETH:
Early on, it was an act of defiance. Susan Dunlap, president 1990-1991, purchased the furry, white stuffed seal. We were trying to say that we were not going to be corporate, and we were not going to act corporate. Corporate is cold and uncaring, the very opposite of what we had in mind. We were forming an organization to address issues of female mystery writers—and we cared a lot! The first mission statement included “to combat discrimination.”

Marcia Talley named [the seal] Sealine. It was our own way to show our innovation, and humor, and outspokenness. And she's thirty years old now, can you believe it?

HANK: Whose idea was it to add the key chains for each president? The ones Sealine now wears like a necklace.

BETH: Kate Grilley, who lived in St. Croix, started the tradition with the keychains.

HANK: And I had so much fun looking at them—like signposts for our history. Okay, Beth, tell us one funny story about Sisters in Crime. Did people ever think we were nuns? Or criminals? Or criminal nuns?

BETH: All the time! And most questions were funny. The sad side was hearing from women in prison who were looking for someone to tell their story. It was the most difficult when they called.

HANK: And this is why we rely on you—no one could predict that such calls would come, and you are always so gracious and kind. I know you can't pick one, but what are a couple of your fondest memories or moments?

BETH: I do remember having Margaret Maron and Eve Sandstrom for brunch right after Margaret won the Edgar and Agatha for Bootlegger’s Daughter. My mother provided the quiche and provided the screened-in porch. They enjoyed meeting my daughter and encouraged her through college and law school.

HANK: So when you look at the list of the national presidents, what do you think? I mean—through storms and sunshine, you presided over all of that!

BETH: It is overwhelming to look at the list of national presidents. I see intense belief in the mission of the organization from all of them.

I also think about their families which I came to know—and we can’t forget their books! The Sisters in Crime “office” is filled with the books of past presidents. Not to mention bookcases in the living room and other parts of the house. I do have quite a collection.

The books in my office tell a story. It’s a story of talented women who worked to support and elevate women crime writers so the world could hear their stories and we all could be proud of this grassroots organization that formed in the 1980s. Everyone really cared for each other.

Coming up on 35 years… Sisters in Crime has been a part of my life for close to 28 of those years and I thank everyone for their friendship over the years.

HANK: Oh, Beth, we are in tears. We are all endlessly grateful, and we will miss you every single moment of every day. And darling Beth, we all thank you with every word we have—and hey, we have a lot of them! We know you won’t be front and center anymore, but may we all come over for brunch like Margaret and Eve did? It’s a tradition, right?


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