Remembering Sandra West Prowell
I found out today that one of my very first writing friends, and at one time my closest, is gone.
Sandra West Prowell and I started writing in the ’80s and both lived in Billings, Montana. We shared a lot of firsts together. We met at a writers group in town and our friendship grew like a western wildfire. The two of us co-founded a statewide writers group, Montana Authors Coalition, in 1989, well before either of us had sold a book. (Kinda ballsy, eh? That was Sandra.) We ended up getting published at the same house, Walker & Company, and shared an editor there. She published her first mystery, By Evil Means, to great critical acclaim in 1993. The New York Times called her “an assured storyteller with a fascinating subject,” about The Killing of Monday Brown. She was a warm, supportive, outgoing friend who offered ‘you-can-do-it’ cheerleading to me during those early years when neither of us knew whether we’d ever be published.
I learned confidence from Sandra. One of her favorite phrases, as she urged me to get on AOL or buy a fax machine, was “Fake it til you make it!” She showed me there was power in positive thinking, gave me passionate advice, made me get out and meet writers. She took me and a small posse of other Billings writers to my first Bouchercon (the world mystery conference) in Omaha. We roamed through that conference, awed by writers we’d only heard about, bought silly bumper stickers and had buttons made that read, “Michael S* is harassing me!” Michael, our editor, had already bought my first book by then (The Bluejay Shaman).
Sandra’s books were nominated for many awards, the Dilys, a booksellers award, the Shamus, a private eye novel award, and the Hammett Award from the International Association of Crime Writers. Three books were published in the Phoebe Siegel series from Walker. Her voice was strong, funny, and unique. A fourth book, to be called ‘An Accepted Sorrow,’ was due out in 2000 or 2001 but wasn’t released. In an online interview in 2000 with CNN Book Chat she also discussed her stand-alone thriller, ‘Lap of God.’ We, her Montana writing friends, heard so much about this project. She was so excited about it, describing it as “about the rise of the Neo Nazis and the far right in Montana.” We all were excited. Like many of her projects it had come to her of apiece, in a flash of inspiration. We all looked forward to it.
Neither of these books became published reality. Something happened– I don’t know what. Sandra started retreating from her writer friends. In conversation with her daughter today I found we apparently weren’t alone. At one time I talked to Sandra every day. Then, as ‘Lap of God’ didn’t go well (I am only guessing here) she cut us all out of her life. She had been so full of life and warmth and sharing, our den mother, our mother hen, until suddenly she wasn’t. Her daughter said we weren’t alone; writing was a taboo topic there too. Many manuscripts were discovered by the family in the home though, so there is always a possibility we will get to read another Sandra West Prowell novel one day. Wouldn’t that be grand?
The news I heard today from Sandra’s daughter made me very sad. Sandra has been gone since August 2015, over a year. She passed away just weeks after her husband Bruce. She left no will and her affairs are in disarray. Her daughter and I agreed that we need to get our own affairs in order. Let’s do it. Our heirs will thank us for it.
I’m sorry I haven’t kept up with Sandra these past years, although not for lack of trying. Every so often someone would send me a ‘Where Is She Now?’ email or letter and I would pass it on to the only contact number I had. For a long time after we no longer talked I bitterly missed her throaty laugh, her friendly voice, her inclusive love. Then, as we must, I accepted it. I knew it wasn’t personal. She was dealing with something she couldn’t share with us. It must have been very difficult emotionally, whatever it was. That too tears me up. Being a writer is fraught with stress: insecurity, loneliness, rejection, bankruptcy both emotionally and financially, depression, the black, blank page. We all suffer but knowing that she suffered so much she apparently gave up writing and never spoke of it even to those she loved most is rough news. The last time I saw her was in 2001 at a funeral of a fellow Billings writer, Terry Johnston.
Sandra West Prowell was born in Helena, Montana. While her bio is not available online, and no obituary was published, she told me once that she lived in Bakersfield for a few years as a teen. A wild teen, she implied with a mischievous smile. (I lived in Bakersfield once myself and wondered who thought it was an improvement.) At any rate she returned to her state, a fourth-generation Montanan who lived and breathed the Big Sky state and its people. She had many Native American friends and helped connect me with some when I was writing my first mystery. She loved astrology and did charts for many people. She loved animals of all kinds, adopting abused and neglected birds including a half-bald toucan and a red-headed parrot named Phoebe Siegel. She once had a pet raccoon, she told me, until he started biting people. Her daughter told me she still had many birds when she passed away, as well as five dogs. And she loved writing, for awhile.
Sandra died August 29, 2015. She was 71. Good rest, my friend.