- Written by Megan Joyce Megan Joyce
Publishing technology has changed significantly since Sherry Knowlton’s childhood, when she cranked out a school newsletter on a mimeograph machine in the principal’s office.
But Knowlton is still fascinated by the process of putting ink on paper—especially now that the words printed are her own.
Knowlton, who graduated from Dickinson College in 1968, embarked on what has become a successful novelist career after retiring from fulltime work in 2009.
“Like most authors, my interest in writing grew from my love of reading,” Knowlton said. “As a small child, my mother and father read me stories. As soon as I learned to read on my own, I spent hours with my nose in a book, as my mother would say.
“I’d sneak books to bed at night and read under the covers by flashlight,” she said. “I bicycled to the town library at least once a week to get a new stack of books.”
Elementary-school writing awards followed, as did that experience of printing the school newsletter on the mimeograph—and she later edited her high school newsletter and yearbook.
Knowlton cites a range of authors among her influences, including Ernest Hemingway, John D. MacDonald, John Grisham, Tracy Chevalier, and Jane Austen.
“I’ve probably read Pride and Prejudice 10 times. I’m a total sucker for Mr. Darcy and the triumph of romance,” she said.
Knowlton’s series of suspense novels follows Alexa Williams, a young lawyer living in South-Central Pennsylvania “who keeps stumbling into dangerous situations,” Knowlton said. “Each book tells a unique, contemporary story with a historical subplot.”
Her two first novels in the Alexa Williams series, Dead of Autumn and Dead of Summer, were published by Sunbury Press in September 2015 and July 2016, respectively. The next in the mystery series, Dead of Spring, is slated for release in early 2017.
“The options for publishing vary widely these days, ranging from the traditional, big New York publishing houses to smaller, independent presses to self-publishing,” Knowlton said.
The idea for Knowlton’s first book, Dead of Autumn, came from her knowledge of two Central Pennsylvanian historical crimes: the 1993 murder of a young Russian woman found dead in the forest near Carlisle, and the Depression-era “Babes in the Woods” case, where three girls were found dead in the forest near Pine Grove Furnace State Park.
Knowlton’s love of creative writing remained a neglected avocation while in the throes of her career. She spent more than 20 years working for the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare (now the Department of Human Services) before becoming deputy secretary for medical assistance programs.
“Before writing these books, I’d never done any novel-length fiction … Although I’ve always wanted to tackle a novel, all my earlier attempts fell to the wayside due to the time pressures of career and family,” Knowlton said.
After her tenure with the Department of Human Services, Knowlton moved to executive-level jobs in the health insurance industry, culminating in her roles as senior vice president and general manager of a national health insurer.
In general, travel has expanded my horizons by exposing me to new experiences, new cultures, and different ways of life.
When that company downsized, Knowlton had the opportunity to take early retirement in 2009 and began her own part-time healthcare consulting company.
“When I began to work as a consultant, I decided that it was ‘now or never’ to begin work on that novel I’d always wanted to write,” Knowlton said. “Working part-time and setting my own schedule gave me the freedom to spend a considerable amount of time writing.”
Knowlton still consults occasionally but has scaled back significantly to focus on her novels, which are available online from Amazon.com and IndieBound and at Barnes & Noble and Sunbury Press.
Much of Knowlton’s career included professional writing, such as writing regulations and policy, proposals, speeches, and policy statements. To write a suspense novel, however, Knowlton relies on several forms of research, both online and in person.
In addition to scouring books and documents and visiting sites featured in her books, Knowlton has cultivated relationships with a wide range of professionals, including contacts in law enforcement and the legal system for her crime-related research.
“I’ve spoken to farmers for information on crop cycles; physicians for information on gunshot wounds; state regulators for background on things as disparate as adoption and hydraulic fracturing,” Knowlton said. “I’ve found that people are remarkably generous in sharing their expertise with me.”
Knowlton and her husband are avid travelers, starting with their post-college sojourn around the United States in their self-described “hippie van” and their stop at the infamous Woodstock music festival in 1969.
More recently, the Knowltons have broadened their journeys beyond the U.S. to places such as the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, Africa, South America, and Indonesia.
“In general, travel has expanded my horizons by exposing me to new experiences, new cultures, and different ways of life,” Knowlton said. “Being out of your element and pushing the limits of your comfort zone can teach you powerful lessons.”
Her travels have also afforded Knowlton a rich source of settings for her novels, enabling her to comfortably place her protagonist in exotic locales, like the Golden Triangle region of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos, and on African safaris.
Less familiar, and therefore more challenging, to Knowlton has been adjusting to her role as the public face of her writing and as a crucial cog in its marketing machine. These days, authors—especially new ones—must play an active part in publicizing their work.
“Before Dead of Autumn was released, I hadn’t fully appreciated all the effort that authors need to put into promoting their books,” she said. “That effort includes doing events, often maintaining a blog or newsletter, and more.
“Although I struggled with that unfamiliar aspect at first, I now have a knowledgeable publicity team that makes the process much smoother.”
This year alone, Knowlton has done a number of book-related events, including appearing on a panel in New York City at the International Thriller Writers’ ThrillerFest conference.
Having successfully established a burgeoning “second career” post-retirement, Knowlton now makes a point of reading books from up-and-coming authors to help pull them up into the spotlight, working specifically with International Thriller Writer’s Debut Author initiative.
“As a fairly new author myself, I know how hard it is to break through and connect with an audience of readers,” she said.
Despite her newfound appreciation for the business side of publishing, at heart Knowlton’s drive stems from the transportive, simple joy of the written word, from recalling the nostalgic comfort of huddling nose-deep in a novel smuggled under the bedcovers.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve liked to lose myself in a world of make-believe—whether I was reading a book or writing a story of my own.”
For more on Sherry Knowlton and her novels, visit www.sherryknowlton.com.