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Phyllis A(yame) Whitney (1903-2008)

 

Prolific writer of romantic suspense, an American counterpart of Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt. Phyllis Whitney's career spanned over five decades. For the first 15 years of her life, she lived in Japan, China, and the Philippines, and then in the United States. In most of her novels, Whitney presented the reader with a new location. She also published three textbooks on writing fiction.

"The embrace was long and fervent. It was Elise who broke suddenly away, pushing her hands against his chest, running a few steps away from him. He laughed softly and came after her at once, but this time she held him off, shaking her head, joining his laughter with her own, playing her tantalizing game." (from Lost Island, 1970)

Phyllis A. Whitney was born in Yokohama, Japan, of American parents. In her name, the "A" stands for "Ayame," which is the Japanese word for "iris". Her earliest years Whitney spent in Japan, China, and the Philippines, where the family ran a hotel. After her father, Charles Joseph Whitney died in China she returned at the age of 15 to the United States with her mother, Mary Lillian Mandeville. They first lived in Berkely and then moved to San Antonio. Whitney attended schools in Texas and California. She graduated in 1924 from McKinley High School in Chicago, where she had moved after her mother had died of cancer. In 1925 she married George A. Garner, an accountant; they had one daughter. The marriage ended in divorce in 1945.

Before becoming a writer, Whitney worked in bookstores and at the Chicago Public Library. For a period, she attended a small writing club. Some of her stories appeared in the pulp magazines. "I'd had a hard time living through all the rejection slips until I could be published in the lowliest markets," she once recalled. Her first novel, A Place for Ann (1941), brought her some success, but also confidence in her abilities as a writer. Willow Hill (1947) was ahead of its time and enlarged Whitney's range of subjects: a young white girl and her high school friends dealt with the integration of a housing project in their neighborhood.

Whitney's first book of adult fiction was Red is for Murder, put of by the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company in 1943. The work, which was prompted by Whitney's fascination with the art of window dressing, sold only 3,000 copies. In the story the protagonist is an amateur sleuth, a young girl who works in a Chicago department store, where she is stalked by a killer. Later the book was reprinted as The Red Carnelian in paperback editions. It was not until the mid-1950s when Whitney began writing regularly for adults.

In 1942 Whitney took a job as children's book editor for the Chicago Sun, although in the beginning she thought that she knew nothing about book reviewing. After four years, she transferred to Philadelphia Enquirer (1947-48). She taught fiction writing for children at Northwestern University in Illinois (1945), and at New York University from 1947 to 1958. In 1950 she married Lovell F. Jahnke, a businessman; he died in 1973. With her husband she lived for decades on Staten Island, the scene of the romantic historical novel The Quicksilver Pool (1955).

As a result of her travels in different parts of the world and childhood memories in Japan and other Asian counties, exotic settings became an important element in her works. "My own springboard, from which I take off in the beginning, is usually a new setting," she once said. "I have a strong feeling toward places." (from 'Springboard to Fiction' in The Writer, October 1976) Whitney's enthusiasm for colorful historical background inspired such works as The Trembling Hills (1956), a love story set at the time of the San Francisco earthquake, and Skye Cameron (1957), set in the nineteenth-century New Orleans.

Whitney was one of the major writers, who contributed to the neo-gothic boom of the post-war decades. Thunder Heights (1960), about the nineteenth-century Hudson River Valley, continued the radition of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938). It was published by Gerald Gross at Ace Books as the first title of the "gothic" series. Like the English writers du Maurier, Mary Stewart, and Victoria Holt, Whitney wove supernatural elements into the ordinary lives of her heroines.

Gothic romance/gothic mysteries: The stories have a woman as the main character, plots are often melodramatic and contain elements of adventure, mystery, love and the supernatural. The popular genre dates from the earlier tradition of the gothic novel, beginning from Hugh Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764). In nineteenth century particularly the Brontë sisters developed the genre further in such works as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Height (both 1847). Among the modern classics of the gothic style is Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca , which has retained its popularity since its appearance in 1938. Other writers of gothic romances: Dorothy Eden, Virginia Coffman, Barbara Michaels (writing as Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters), Mary Higgins Clark, Daoma Winston.

Many of Whitney's novels for young people, especially those published by Houghton Mifflin and Westminster Press between 1941 and 1954, were written more for girls. They have often titles beginning with the word "mystery" or "secret" or include a female name, with some exceptions, such as Step to the Music (1953), The Fire and the Gold (1956), both published by Crowell. The adventures are set in different countries around the world - in Turkey (Black Amber), Norway, Japan (The Moonflower), Greece, South Africa (Blue Fire), and many places in the United States. Often the stories deal with the relationship between mothers and daughters, identity problems, and women trying to come to terms with their own past.

Whitney's protagonists are generally independent but vulnerable. "Probably the best way to start any story, long or short," Whitney had advised aspiring writers, "is to show a character with a problem doing something interesting." During the story the heroine finds her true self, family secrets are revealed, and the heroine's life is changed permanently. "Our world once more has walls of "reality" around it – yet I catch glimpses at times of something that has touched and changed me, and I know I will never again say "I don't believe." (from The Singing Stones, 1990). She never built a series featuring a character that readers could enjoy book after book, but in general her characters were well drawn, sensitive, and interesting. For some reason, her novels have not attracted the attention Hollywood film makers or television producers.

Illness and other challenges created a lengthy gap from the late 1970s in Whitney's publishing record of her novels for young adults. In 1992 she was back with Star Flight, about a woman investigating the causes of her grandmother's suicide and her own husband's death. The story was set at Chimney Rock and Lake Lure which the author visited with her daughter and her husband. At the age of 87, Whitney went up in a hot air balloon to use the experience in her novel The Singing Stones (1990). "During those quiet moments when the burner wasn't being activated, all was still and calm and utterly peaceful. Only once when the burner was on did I look up into the fabric overhead where deafening flame speared toward the top, though never touching anything. That was a bit frightening to watch, and I didn't look upward again. At least all that hot air kept us warm, as Jilly had said it would." Her 76th book, Amethyst Dreams (1997) she published at the age of 94. The story was set in the sunny, seaside paradise of North Carolina's Topsail Island, and depicts the mystery around Hallie Knight's friend Susan, who has disappeared from her home.

"During these years, even my view of death had changed and broadened. I had gradually come to a conviction that some sort of "life" went on beyond the ending we called death... I believe in the healing our minds could perform, that the love could perform..." (from The Singing Stones, 1990)

Whitney's several awards included Edgar Allan Poe best juvenile award (1961); Sequoyah Children's Book award (1963); Malice Domestic award (1989); Agatha award (1990) for lifetime achievement, and Lifetime Achievement award from Society of Midland Authors (1995). In 1975 Whitney served as president of Mystery Writers of America and was named a Grand Master by that organization in 1988. Her first textbook, Writing Juvenile Fiction, came out in 1947. It was followed by Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels (1976) and Guide to Fiction Writing (1982), which is along with Patricia Highsmith's Plotting And Writing Suspense Fiction (1966) among the most practical introductions to the craft of writing. Whitney also served on The Writer magazine's editorial board. She died from pneumonia at the age of 104, on February 8, 2008, in Faber, Va.

For further reading: Young Adult Writers, ed. by Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast (1999); Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, ed. by Aruna Vasudevan (1994); Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Vol. 25 (1989); Thirteen Mistresses of Murder by Elaine Budd (1986), Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by John M. Reilly (1985); 'Springboard to Fiction' by Phyllis A. Whitney, in The Writer 89 (1976); 'Writing the Gothic Novel' by Phyllis A. Whitney, in The Writer 80 (1967).

Selected works:

  • A Place for Ann, 1941
  • A Star for Ginny, 1942
  • Window for Julie, 1943
  • Red is for Murder, 1943 (as Red Carnelian, by Paperback Library, New York, 1966; Coronet, London, 1976)
  • The Silver Inkwell, 1945
  • Writing Juvenile Fiction, 1947
  • Ever After, 1948
  • The Mystery of the Gulls, 1949
  • Linda's Homecoming, 1950
  • The Island of Dark Woods, 1951 (UK title: The Mystery of the Strange Traveler, 1967)
  • Love Me, Love Me Not, 1952
  • Step to the Music, 1953
  • Mystery of the Black Diamonds, 1954 (UK title: Black Diamonds, 1957)
  • Long Time Coming, 1954
  • Mystery on the Isle of Skye, 1955
  • The Quicksilver Pool, 1955
  • The Trembling Hills, 1956
  • The Fire and the Gold, 1956
  • The Highest Dream, 1956
  • The Mystery of the Green Cat, 1957
  • Skye Cameron, 1957
  • Secret of the Samurai Sword, 1958
  • The Moonflower, 1958 (UK title: The Mask and the Moonflower, 1960)
  • Creole Holiday, 1959
  • The Mystery of the Haunted Pool, 1960
  • Thunder Heights, 1960
    - Camilla (suom. Lea Karvonen, 1962)
  • Secret of the Tiger's Eye, 1961
  • Blue Fire, 1961
    - Sininen liekki (suom. Riitta Kivimäki, 1963)
  • Mystery of the Golden Horn, 1962
  • Window on the Square, 1962
  • Seven Tears for Apollo, 1963
  • Mystery of the Hidden Hand, 1963
  • Secret of the Emerald Star, 1964
  • Black Amber, 1964
    - Mustat helmet (suom. Lea Karvonen, 1965)
  • The Sea Jade, 1965
    - Neitsytmatka (suom. Inkeri Hämäläinen, 1968)
  • Mystery of the Angry Idol, 1965
  • Columbella, 1966
    - Columbella (suom. Ritva Wederholm, 1967)
  • Silverhill, 1967
    - Malinda (suom. Marjatta Soinio, 1969)
  • The Secret of the Spotted Shell, 1967
  • Secret of Goblin Glen, 1968
  • Hunter's Green, 1968
  • The Winter People, 1969
    - Sydän kuin jäätä (suom. Marjatta Soinio, 1971)
  • The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost, 1969
  • Secret of the Missing Footprint, 1969
  • Lost Island, 1970
  • The Vanishing Scarecrow, 1971
  • Nobody likes Trina, 1972
  • Listen for the Whisperer, 1972
    - Kuuntele kuiskaaja (suom. Irmeli Järnefelt, 1972)
  • Snowfire, 1973
  • The Mystery of the Scowling Boy, 1973
  • The Turquoise Mask, 1974
  • Spindrift, 1975
  • Secret of Haunted Mesa, 1975
  • The Golden Unicorn, 1976
  • Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels: How to Write and Sell Fiction for Young People, 1976
  • Secret of the Stone Face, 1977
  • The Stone Bull, 1977
  • The Glass Flame, 1978
  • Domino, 1979
  • Poinciana, 1980
  • Vermilion, 1981
    - Lahjomaton kohtalo (suom. Inkeri Pitkänen, 1983)
  • Guide to Fiction Writing,1982
  • Emerald, 1983
    - Smaradgisormus (suom. Meri Utrio, 1984)
  • Rainsong, 1984
    - Koralliruusut (suom. Inkeri Pitkänen, 1987)
  • Dream of Orchids, 1985
    - Kuoleman orkidea (suom. Marjatta Soinio, 1986)
  • The Flaming Tree, 1986
    - Liekehtivä puu (suom. Pirjo Leppänen, 1988)
  • Silversword, 1987
    - Tulivuoren kukka (suom. Salme Moksunen, 1988)
  • Writing to Win: Winning Essays Submitted to the Phyllis A. Whitney Writing Contest, 1983-1987, 1988
  • Feather on the Moon, 1988
    - Korpinsulan varjo (suom. Salme Moksunen, 1989)
  • Rainbow in the Mist, 1989
    - Sateenkaari sumussa (suom. Marjatta Soinio, 1990)
  • The Singing Stones, 1990
    - Laulavat kivet (suom. Maire Moksunen, 1991)
  • A Mystery of the Golden Horn, 1990
  • Woman Without a Past, 1991
    - Nainen ilman menneisyyttä (suom. Anna-Liisa Laine, 1992)
  • The Ebony Swan, 1992
    - Koston joutsen (suom. Marja Helanen-Ahtola, 1993)
  • Star Flight, 1993
    - Tähdenlento (suom. Marja Helanen-Ahtola, 1994)
  • Daughter of the Stars, 1994
  • Amethyst Dreams, 1997


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