A Conversation with: Jackie Houchin
December 27, 2011
Photo-Journalist[i] and Author Supporter
I’ve followed Jackie Houchin’s website reviews, blog posts, and Facebook comments since I first met her at a Sisters in Crime event in Burbank, CA. Her smiling and encouraging face helped get me through my first panel. And since that time, Writers in Residence[ii]—a website she shared with MK Johnston, Rosemary Lord, GB Pool, Bonnie Schroeder, and Jacqueline Vick—was one of my favorites, and I now follow her reviews on Jackie Houchin’s News and Reviews.
Jackie, I know you’re a reader, writer, and photographer — which I think is a perfect mix to-do–what-you-do so well. I see you as a Renaissance woman, with wide interests—your reviews cover books, plays, musicals, places, even recently, a butcher shop! And I’ve made immediate purchases of many books you’ve spotlighted. Clearly, I “listen” to your reviews.
As you know, I live out in the desert, which I like very much—but theater events are hard to find. During my days as a “city dweller” I used to love the theater, and now, often after reading your reviews, I’ve actually wished to move back to the “big city,” just so I can experience all the wonderful plays you’ve covered! I was salivating over “A Murder is Announced” — almost drove-in. So, I’m vicariously very much interested in how you became a reviewer, and what’s going through your mind when you’re reviewing a play, or musical. My first question has two-parts. How did you become interested in writing reviews? And what are the things you look for in a live production to hang your review on?
For eighteen years I was a production photographer, shooting publicity, archival, and keepsake photos for theaters and their casts. Actors in one show would tell others about me in another show until I was shooting community and dinner theatres as well as the bigger Civic Light Operas all over Los Angeles.
I loved capturing the color and drama of theater on film. I mean, after all, the directors and lighting designers really did half my job, and the actors already knew how to pose. I just told them what I wanted and they’d come together for perfect shots. I had a ball, and I learned to love these outrageously wonderful people – stage actors and crews.
Well, ahem… I’m digressing. Reviewing? About the time photography was making a major switch from film to digital I decided I didn’t want to invest in new cameras and software etc., so I gradually shut down my “ShowPhotos” business. But, what could I do with all those contacts?
I was already writing book reviews and human interest stories for a couple local newspapers, so I approached the theatre I’d first done photography for way back in 1987 (Glendale Centre Theatre) and asked if they’d be interested in my reviewing their current show. YES! was the resounding answer; one that I kept hearing every place I asked.
I already knew a LOT about how plays and musicals came together, how the director “staged” his actors and drew the best performances out of them. I’d heard musical directors lecture on singing and projection, and watched conductors keep an orchestra in line. I knew about backstage hustle and bustle and about how sets, scrims, and sound equipment worked (or malfunctioned). Being a lover of books, I already knew what made a good story. It was just a matter of “commenting” on it all in an interesting way.
When I go to review a show, read the director’s comments in the program and anything I find there about setting, time or theme. Once it starts, I take notes. These are similar to the “blocking notes” I used to take when I watched for great photo opportunities to shoot. I’ll take down quotes that are funny or that describe the action and watch how actors portray emotions. I’ll look at the set and costumes, noting especially memorable examples, listen to soloists/duets for exceptional melody, and watch for clever or beautiful choreography.
At home I try to write my first emotions and observations right away. Then I review my notes looking for key points and grouping them together. Lastly I sit and compose that terrifying first sentence and paragraph. When that is done (sometimes 4-5 hours later) the rest of the review flows.
I consider myself a “kind” reviewer and try not to be too critical. I will mention “disappointments.” I will always alert readers to overt profanity and sexually explicit scenes because they are things I’d want to know about before buying (or I should say NOT buying) a sometimes expensive ticket.
Also if the play is based on a book, say an Agatha Christie mystery, or there have been film adaptations made, I will compare those.
Wow, you do a lot of work for your reviews. Very interesting! Online, I also enjoyed Writers in Residence. It was great “meeting” all the authors you spotlighted, and loved that you were helping other authors. Are there plans for its return, or a similar website?
Sadly, I think that blog site is now defunct. It was a great opportunity to “get our feet wet.” Jacqueline Vick was the instigator of the blog and she herded us along until she wanted to branch out for herself. Only a couple of the writers wanted to go on with blogs or websites of their own.
I’ve recently added a MY BLOG tab on my News & Reviews website, but so far I’ve not found time to write for it. I want to get a nice backlog written, so once started, I can post at least twice a week. Perhaps in the New Year….
Looking forward to your blog. On a different front, part of my “internet life” is scrolling through my Facebook posts in the morning and finding your tidbits on unusual facts, recipes, jokes, and “how to” clean this or that—those go right over me… Often, your comments have put a smile on my face when I needed it. Where do all your wonderful comments come from?
Ah-HA! You want to know my secrets! Okay. Both my husband and I subscribe to a lot of magazines, e.g., Writer Magazine, The Smithsonian, Time, National Geographic, Prevention, Country, Real Simple, Sunset, Woman’s Day, Reader’s Digest, Cooking For Two, Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Good Housekeeping, Cats, Seventeen… well, you get the picture. I peruse the in-between-the-big-article pages looking for tidbits. I add my own brand of humor and then pass them on.
I won’t tell anyone your secret! Switching topics again, I know you’ve written some children’s books for your granddaughters. I’d love to know more about that project. And since you’re such a wonderful supporter of mystery authors, do you have an adult or YA mystery waiting to come out?
Whoa, don’t I wish! But no, I fear my writing is of the “flash” variety – you know, written, in print, and then gone. Newspaper and website articles/reviews are my “genre” it seems.
I did write three long serialized stories for my granddaughters, mailing them chapters (which I also illustrated) every couple of weeks. The oldest girl finally commented that it was too hard waiting for what would happen next and wished I’d just write them all together.
I wrote the first book for her – “Molly Duncan and the Case of the Missing Kitten.” After that I wrote “Princess Ebony and the Silver Wolf” (think, Princess Bride kind of story). I “Kinko-published” these books, printing only three copies each. Sadly, I did not finish one for my third granddaughter, although I had it outlined. (She grew up too fast.)
But, to write a “real” book, and take it through the long, LONG process of rejections and finding an agent/publisher and then marketing it? All I can say is that I admire tremendously anyone who has done that, and done it again and again. YOU, for instance, Madeline.
Thanks, Jackie, but luck and generous author friends has a lot to do with hanging in there. (And being stubborn!) You’ve mentioned on your website you’re “an artist of sorts, and a horse keeper.” What kind of artist, and what’s involved in “horse keeping”? And, how do you fit it all in? Reviews, household and animal chores, car shows, Facebook, reading, SinC… Amazing!
I’ve always sketched and doodled. Then I took Art in high school. One large black & white painting of a live (nearly-nude male) model was framed and hung in my brother’s apartment for a long time. I’ve done a couple so-so portraits in oil, and a seascape that I just recently discovered packed away from 1963! I matted and framed it, and, darn if it doesn’t look pretty good!
I still sketch today (as the muse prompts) sometimes surprise myself when something comes together. I illustrated all the stories and books I wrote for my granddaughters using pen & ink and a variety of colored pencils. And when my oldest granddaughter wrote a children’s short story for her English class, she asked me to illustrate it. Wow, was THAT a challenge. I had to come up with twenty-one color drawings in about four days! I still have nightmares about not completing it for her. (She got an A.)
I also consider photography one of my artistic bents.
I’ve always loved horses and used to spend my allowance renting them to ride on weekends. I finally got a couple of my own when we moved here (a horse keeping suburb of Los Angeles). Now I simply board other people’s horses. It’s a twice-a-day, 365 day-a-year job. It was fun to have horses (and chickens) here when my granddaughters were growing up. And I’ve written several articles about them and those who ride them for the newspaper.
That last question? How do I fit it all it? Sometimes I don’t do a very good job of it. Then I get stressed out of my mind and do crazy things! (grin)
Okay, don’t blush, but I’m in awe! I still can’t envision how you do so much.
On a recent blog you mentioned you’re selling your home of many years and moving! What an adventure, and a lot of hard work. We moved in 2003, still haven’t unpacked all the boxes of “items I couldn’t live without”… Do you see moving to an area where you’ll still have “opportunities” to review? Or is there something new on the horizon that’s caught your eclectic interest?
We are still “selling” our house. Lots of lookers, but no takers as yet. It’s a tough time economically to buy horse property. I would like to eventually get away from the constant and sometimes stressful responsibility of horse keeping. And I would like to live closer to the ocean and my kids.
In my travels up and down the coast I’ve discovered a plethora of smaller local newspapers that might like a freelance writer. I think I could review theatres anywhere – they are desperate for publicity. Authors in Sisters in Crime, as well as referrals, and Mystery Scene Magazine will keep me in ARCs. But, I would like to slow down a bit and enjoy the scenery a little more.
Gads… did that sound like I’m getting old??? Sheesh!
Jackie, just read your review http://www.jackiehouchin.com , of “My Three Angels” playing at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in NoHo (North Hollywood) through January 15. Your review was wonderful—and I once again felt like taking the “big drive” into LA (I know, I know—I’m not that far away—but those freeways!)
I’ve wanted to talk with you for such a long time, but it’s taken awhile for me to make this happen. Your interests are so broad, just love that. Sure hope you’ll be continuing with your helpful hints and witticism. I love reading them. And for all us authors you’ve given, and continue to give a helping hand to, a great big “Thank you!”
[i] “I’m a photo-journalist, writing human interest stories, business profiles, event coverage, book and theater reviews, and the occasional investigative report for The Foothills Paper, a local newspaper in Tujunga, California.” http://www.jackiehouchin.com/