Writer's mystery gets 'Steamy' after taking prize


When Family Circle magazine phoned Susan James Mayer to announce she had won its annual mystery short story contest, the editor also mentioned her story would need one minor adjustment.

"My title was 'A Statement of Fact,' says the 39-year-old Ellicott City attorney. "They renamed it 'A Steamy Affair.' "

They also awarded her a $2,000 first prize plus $1,000 for publication. The story was chosen from thousands of entries -- it was ultimately selected by best-selling author Mary Higgins Clark -- and appears in the magazine's Aug. 9 issue, on sale today. Ms. Mayer writes under her maiden name, S. S. James.

She says this story marks her first stab at a mystery. She heard about the contest from her husband's legal secretary in February, headed right to her Hewlett-Packard home computer and managed to Fed-ex the winning tale to Family Circle just before the April 1 deadline.

A story of obsessive jealousy that navigates the worlds of television and exercise, "A Steamy Affair" is considerably more comic than grim. (Contest rules stipulated the plot had to rely upon at least three items on a list provided by the magazine. Clue: Ms. Mayer chose the TV talk show host, the clown and the exercise bike.)

"The judges agreed that this story 'talked' to you. They were looking for a story that got inside you as soon as you started to read it," says June Golden, spokeswoman for Family Circle.

"It's very stylish and done with wit. Another thing that made the story stand out was the twist on the end."

A native of Darlington, S.C. -- "home of the Southern 500" -- Ms. Mayer received her bachelor's degree in creative writing at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. She studied writing there with Cecil Dawkins, a protege of the late writer Flannery O'Connor, and novelist Toni Morrison.

After a few years of graduate school and teaching English to middle schoolers in South Carolina, she entered law school at Syracuse University.

She moved to Baltimore in 1983 to find work and was hired by attorney Jim Mayer, whom she subsequently married.

Before writing "A Steamy Affair," Ms. Mayer published several personal pieces in the City Paper and won second prize in a Baltimore Sun fiction contest for "The Right Confrontation," the story of a woman attempting to overcome her fear of water.

Having all but shed her legal career -- she is finishing one last appeals case -- Ms. Mayer is hard at work on a novel. It concerns three generations -- a woman, her aunt and her great-aunt -- and takes place during an August visit to a mountain house in North Carolina.

She spends most days writing until mid-afternoon at her home near the Turf Valley Country Club.

The best part of being a writer?

"It's the surprise you give yourself when you sit down with the blank page -- or the blank computer screen -- and suddenly things start appearing," she says. "The process of writing is a constant source of surprise and amazement."

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