Friday, September 5, 2008

Heartbreak Hotel

Jeff Sherratt lives in Newport Beach, California with his wife of forty years, Judy. For most of his adult life Jeff had been in business for himself. He owned companies that made and sold food related products. After selling his business, Jeff devoted his time to writing mysteries, which soon became a full time career. His latest Jimmy O’Brien mystery novel, The Brimstone Murders was released in February of 2008 by Echelon Press. He is a member of Sisters in Crime, an organization combating discrimination against women in the mystery field, and the professional association, Mystery Writers of America. Jeff is currently working on the next book in the Jimmy O’Brien series.

I got out of prison last Wednesday at noon.

No, I hadn't been in the slammer because I’d been convicted of a criminal offense, unless you consider writing a mystery book a crime. I went to the California Institution for Men, Chino, CA to give a talk to the inmates.

It was the most uplifting experience of my writing career. The prison library, where they held the event, only had room for fifty people. And apparently a lot more than fifty men had wanted to attend. So, prior to my arrival the staff held a writing contest. Everyone who wanted to be included had to write an essay explaining why he wanted to hear me speak. The staff judged the essays. The top fifty writers were allowed to attend.

Briefly, the audience was attentive, eager, and enthusiastic. We laughed and joked and talked about writing, publishing, and even about promotion, “It’ll be tough for you lifers in the room to hit the local Barnes & Noble for a book signing, if you do get your book published. But write it anyway. You’ll be creating your own world where you make the rules.” They liked that remark.

The prison authorities had scheduled my talk to last an hour, but after two and a half hours we were still going strong. I gave away about a dozen books, signed to the winners of the essay contest and the staff. The library is now going to stock The Brimstone Murders, and all my future books.

At the conclusion, the inmates stepped outside for a moment and each one wrote a little note to me on a flyer and signed it, thanking me for giving them my time.

Here are a few of the fifty comments that these “hardcore” criminals wrote. I purposely did not include their names.

“Thank you so much for your time. I will publish a book.”

“I completely enjoyed your lecture. Thank you for your sage advice and compelling experiences. I’m confident that I will put it to great use. See you on the circuit."

“Thanks, Jeff. You are a blessing . . . God speed you in your writing. . .”

“Mr. Sherratt, It was an honor and pleasure to take part in your lecture. I will remember this throughout my life, and I will use what I heard to succeed. Thank you.”

I became a little nervous prior to the talk when several people on the prison staff explained how much the inmates were looking forward to the lecture. I kept thinking, as I walked through the yard with Betty, the librarian, my ability at giving lectures leaves a lot to be desired. Was I going to add another disappointment to their already troubled lives? Maybe, the staff should’ve asked Joe Konrath to give the talk. He’d wow them.

But within five minutes I knew I had connected with the men. I could see it in their faces and in their eyes. They wanted to learn about writing. They wanted to better themselves and they’d give me one hundred percent of their attention.

I highly encourage other authors to call the nearest prison library and let the staff know you'd be willing to spend a little time, talking to inmates about all things writing. You'll leave there a better person than when you first walked through those iron gates.

Jeff Sherratt

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