Monday, March 23, 2015

All books can matter. All of them.

A woman wrote to me recently, asking for a favor for her dying father. She told me that he’s a fan of my books but is unlikely to be around by the time the next one comes out, in June of this year. Her father, Michael, is dying of liver cancer, and she hoped I might be able to get him an early, pre-release copy of the book.

For those who don’t know, publishers do print advanced review copies (ARCs), which are not fully edited but look pretty much like the finished version. They are not usually handed out to readers, for obvious reasons, but as you can imagine I was deeply touched by this request, and immediately asked my publisher to send me an  ARC so I could sign it and send it to him. And a few days after mailing it off, I received messages of thanks from Michael himself, his son, and two of his daughters, just for doing this small thing. Oh and this photo.

(Michael, his daughter Sarah, and his grand-daughter Scout with an ARC of The Reluctant Matador.)

What they didn’t know, couldn’t know, is that my own father was taken by cancer not so long ago. He died just a few months before my first book was published and so he never got to see it in print, hold it in his hands. As result, I strongly disapprove of cancer, never more so than when it separates parents from children and, in our shared circumstance, readers from authors. This, then, was a small favor for me but a huge honor. And it set me thinking about the way our books impact people in ways we can’t possibly know. I write mystery novels, a series with an old-fashioned hero who operates in London, Barcelona, and Paris. I don’t pretend to tackle important issues with the books, I just try to tell a good tale and bring a few characters to life to entertain my readers. And every week I hear from a reader or two, kind people who take the time and trouble to write to me, either to say nice things or to ask questions about the books. But I’ve never had a request like the one from Michael Harmuth’s daughter.

You may know that there is forever a rumble in the world of books, as authors and readers (but usually authors) take positions on the relative merits of literary fiction versus genre fiction (which would include crime, romance, sci-fi, horror, western, erotica, etc.). I don’t plan to rehash those debates here—they aren’t hard to find elsewhere—but the basic argument is that literary fiction tackles important ideas with beautiful and moving language whereas genre fiction is more about what happens, about entertainment.

My own view is that there is no real distinction, just a large palette of a thousand colors that includes all writers, styles, and subjects. Within my own genre, crime fiction, we have Tana French, Jamie Mason, Laura Lippman, and a host of others writing novels that are literary in tone and style, and are still crime novels. They spatter blood over those literary v. genre distinctions and stuff them into body bags. I recently saw, and endorse, the opinion that Pride and Prejudice is a romance and Lonesome Dove is a western. That The Time Traveler’s Wife is science fiction and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is horror. And isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird a crime novel?

But here’s the thing. Even if someone more articulate is able to make a case for a line between literary and genre fiction, the truth is that I’m happy to have pitched my tent where it now sits, in the genre camp. And I know with certainty that my novels have had the kind of impact on at least one person that any artist or writer could hope for. A kind, funny, decent man wants to read just one more of them before he makes his way on to his next adventure.

And there’s one more thing I can, and will, do for my new friend and his family. He has in his hands book five in the series, The Reluctant Matador, which is set in Barcelona. Most of the novels are set in Paris, so I know Michael has enjoyed his visits there with my characters. The next in the series will again be in the City of Light—and Michael will be there, too. With his blessing, Michael Harmuth will be a character in my next book, maybe plotting mischief or perhaps providing clues to the good guys. Either way, the next novel in the series will be as important to him and his family as the others because every time they pick it up, Michael’s children will be able to read about, and picture, their father on the streets of Paris, as alive in their minds as he is today, and having a damn good time with a few of the literary characters who have meant something to him.

As a writer, I don’t set out to change the world or impart large truths. But I’m more aware now that our books, all of them, have the power to bring a little light into the lives of strangers, to give them something to look forward to, and maybe hold on to. And, in at least one instance, a chance to live on in a way that may be different, but a way that means something to him and to me.

(Michael has his own blog, where he’s talked about his “journey with cancer.” He calls it “Incurableme,” which tells you a lot about his strength and sense of humor).