I went to New York last week for the Edgar banquet, where the Mystery Writers of America did me the honor of naming me a Grand Master. It felt strange to join Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Rex Stout and Agatha Christie’s company, as if I were both old enough and distinguished enough for the honor. In my previous post, I included the remarks I gave on accepting this honor, but I also wanted to post a few pictures. I’m afraid I’m in most of the pix because I was getting people to take pictures of me with friends, but I hope some more wide ranging pictures will show up soon that I can add here.
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The text of my acceptance speech for the MWA Grand Master Award is here–I’ll publish some photos from that magical exciting evening in a little bit.
I went to my first Edgar dinner in 1982. I watched the icons of my reading life talking and joking, but I was painfully shy and didn’t try to introduce myself to anyone. I was seated at a table at the outermost reach of the Sheraton ballroom, and the highpoint of the meal was when a waiter slugged one of my tablemates for not relinquishing his salad plate on schedule.
I’m amazed, and grateful, to join the company of Grand Masters whose work I have long admired, but it is unsettling to realize how quickly 29 years have passed.
Many people helped me reach this point. Stuart Kaminsky, whom we mourn, mentored me as I wrote my first book. My agent, Dominick Abel, agreed to represent me all those years ago; he has never faltered in his support.
Thanks to my editor, Chris Pepe, and my publishers, Putnam, for their hard work, and their presence at the banquet. (Although the company is known as GP Putnam’s Sons, it was George Putnam’s daughter Mary who was a leading 19th century writer and feminist. It seems fitting that my novels bear the name of the woman who forced England to accept women as doctors.)
I have been fortunate in the friendship of Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Her advice as a writer, and her guidance in the business of living, have been my lodestar for many years.
Above all, I thank my husband, the distinguished physicist Courtenay Wright, who has listened to 29 years of fears and self-doubts; his steadfast support has kept the wind beneath my sails. To him and to Dorothy, this award and these remarks are equally dedicated.
The world of books has seen major changes since my first Edgar dinner. It had been hard for me to find a publisher for a woman PI in America’s heartland; now, as a result of the revolution I helped start, detectives of all stripes and locations are commonplace.
I was lucky: in 1982, there were many more publishers to approach than exist today.
We live in a world of conglomerated publishers and distributors; we writers are often told that we are not creating stories or characters, but brands, as if the chief difference between our stories and toilet paper is that you can’t upload Charmin to your iPad. At least, not yet. In such a world it is hard to remember that we are storytellers, not accountants, marketers or vending machines.
This is not a new problem. When Melville published Moby Dick in 1851, the reception by both public and critics was hostile: he had left his brand, his travelogue novels. During Melville’s life, this astonishing masterpiece sold 500 copies. In a bitter weariness, Melville wrote Hawthorne:
The silent grass-growing mood in which a [person] ought to compose – that can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me.
Melville lived through times as turbulent as ours—slavery, the Civil War, the changes wrought by industrialization. But ours is also a time that thrives on slick one-liners, and on lies, made easier to swallow because we devalue literacy.
Today, close to one in four American adults can’t read or write well enough to handle a job application, let alone read a novel.
It took a 12th-grade vocabulary for Melville to follow the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but our most recent presidential debates use the language of sixth graders. Some candidates have devolved to the pre-school level.
We writers owe a duty to our gifts. We’ve been given the gift of language, and we need to dig deep into words. We need to relish wordplay, not rely on clichés as we stumble toward the marketplace, or settle for the slick, repackaged street-talk we pick up from rap and TV.
And we owe a duty to our other gift, our stories. In the cacophony of sound that fills our broadband waves, amid the lies and shrill self-promotions, it is essential that we writers return to Melville’s silent grass-growing place and find the truths that fiction can lay bare.
Our fictions are myths, of course, not histories: they show heroes vanquishing monsters. Theseus versus the wicked Minotaur, Marlowe versus the wicked temptress, V I Warshawski versus the wicked corporation, they’re all the same story.
But these fictions tell essential truths, about our emotional lives, what we fear, what we want, what we need. Writing is a form of auto-surgery: the closer we cut to our own bones, force ourselves to emotional truth, the more authentic will our voices become.
As the poet Sappho wrote, more than 2600 years ago,
Although they are only breath
Words, which I command
What we remember from Sappho’s time, and from Melville’s, are not brand-names nor spreadsheets, but poets. For in the end, it is that word which is only breath which endures.
I just came from seeing Black Watch, a play about the famed Scottish regiment put on by the National Theatre of Scotland. The play is about the deployment of the regiment to the so-called Triangle of Death during the early years of the endless war in Iraq. It’s about why young men join armies, about the history of the Black Watch regiment, and about what it’s like to serve in a war where the opponent’s main weapons are suicide bombers and IED’s. Much of it was thought-provoking, and it was certainly well-acted.
My caveat was with the dialogue, which lacked shades of color, both in volume–almost all was shouted–and in content. The dialogue was probably meant to mimic barracks dialogue, but most sentences were so heavily laden with “fuck” and “cunt” that the tone of the piece became monochromatic.
I was wondering on the way home about writing dialogue. My own view is that authentic recorded speech may not get you to the heart of your characters. To show the inner mind of a teenage boy who is choosing between being a miner or a soldier (a choice the play presents) requires more subtle language than “fucking cunt fucking came to the fucking bar”. That may be what the boy says, but it doesn’t show us what he thinks.
What do you think? Do you convey emotion with literally recorded speech? Can you convey authentic character with imagined speech?
I’m just back from a great trip overseas, touring in the UK for Body Work. I did a few posts on Facebook along the way but I’ll try to share a few highpoints here.
Also in Hyde Park is a large human-made pond, the Serpentine, filled with all manner of water birds. People come down to feed the birds, and dogs frolic nearby in the shrubs and lawns round-about.
Maddy circled the pond without a lead. She eyed the bread put out for the ducks but on Kerry’s command abandoned it, and never once tried to jump into the Serpentine. I realized that if Callie and I lived in London, we would spend all our time in Magistrate’s Courts, paying fines for jumping in among the birds.
Other dogs: a working dog in Glasgow that stood up and took applause any time Denise Mina or I roused a laugh. An old man walking along the river in Carlisle, with his dog frolicking around him. I followed as long as I could, thinking the scene looked straight out of the opening of Mill on the Floss. A lost dog in Toulouse, trembling with fear because it couldn’t see its mistress. I handed her over to the park maintenance crew, who found her address screwed into a cylinder around her neck and promised to take her home.
Events Natasha Cooper helped me launch Body Work at Waterstones Piccadilly and Denise Mina did the same favor at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Both women were as interesting and generous in person as they are in print and the audiences responded warmly to the warmth they could feel on the stage.
Two sisters in their eighties attended the Glasgow event. During the Q & A, one commented that the acknowledgements in my books are so long she couldn’t understand why mine is the only name on the jacket cover. However, she stood in line, very erect despite a cane, and bought a book for her baby sister’s 80th birthday.
Bookwitch came to the Mitchell event, and took some lovely photos; thanks to her I can let you see Denise and me in all our glory.
From there we went to Peebles for the Borders book festival, where Alistair Moffat did a Q & A. On his first trip to Chicago, Mr. Moffat was put into Cook County Jail overnight until his wife posted $500 cash for a fender-bender. Myself, I think they were shaken down–I never heard of anyone being locked up in County for a fender-bender. Even so, he generously likes Chicago. And was the most thoughtful interviewer I’ve encountered since the late great Studs.
We finished in the south at the Sandhurst library, where a great audience included a 14-year-old Emily Miles, who kindly helped me out of my windbreaker when the zipper stuck, and found my passport and wallet on the library office floor. I was a tired and lucky writer to have her on board.
Reading on the Road Nancy Pickard’s Scent of Rain and Lightning. Nancy writes elegiacally about the landscape of the Great Plains as she tells a gripping story. Emma Donoghue’s The Room; disturbing, hard to drain the troubling images out of the brain. Edith Pearlman‘s Binocular Vision. These are short stories, exquisite, haunting, satisfying. I started the Tiger’s Wife (not to be confused with the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) and the Uses and Abuses of Literature. As we grapple with a nation where a quarter of adults can’t read and most people don’t read books, this is a thoughtful look at what literature does and doesn’t do in our lives.
The weather couldn’t have been more glorious for the whole trip. Flowers bloomed, grass was green, trees were in leaf. It was a terrible shock to return to Chicago, where it’s all still brown and cold. In fact, when we landed and the pilot announced that the local temperature was 26 F I wanted to curl up in my seat while the cleaners prepped the plane and return to London. But I climbed off, and now, after going through a 2 1/2 week pile up of mail, dust and laundry, will return obediently to work.