Books With No Socially Redeeming Value

When I started out in publishing, it was in the twin low-brow worlds of original paperbacks and “genre fiction” something that the literati looked down on and derided.  I liked to get the drop on them by saying “I write books with no socially redeeming value whatsoever—the kind of books you can find at better bus depots everywhere.” That was back in the old days, however, when bus stations still sold books.

Thirty plus years later and with nearly sixty books in print, it stands to reason that I like some of them more than others.  So far, my all time favorite would be Beaumont #21, Second Watch.  Writing that story allowed me to honor some real people in my life—one of Bisbee’s hometown heroes, Doug Davis, who died in Vietnam on August 2, 1966, and Bonnie Abney, the girl who loved him then and loves him still.  By paying tribute to them, I had the honor of meeting Michael Reagan of the Fallen Heroes Project, a man who has devoted his life to doing a labor of love—creating pencil portraits of fallen heroes for Gold Star families.  Another result of that book was meeting Stephanie Caisse whose moving book, A Corpsman’s Legacy, is a tribute to the father she never knew.  I’ve also heard from countless Vietnam Vets who found their own lives and losses reflected in Bonnie’s and Doug’s real life story woven into Beau’s fictional one.

I was sitting in my family room with a computer on my lap, a blank screen in front of me, and a need to write the next book when I realized that Beau and Doug were only a year apart in age.  That’s when the thought occurred to me that perhaps they might have met and interacted in Vietnam.  Looking back I chalk that up as a moment of divine inspiration.  I shed real tears in the course of writing Second Watch, and that alone probably explains why it’s my favorite.

Second place on my list of favorites would be Hour of the Hunter, the first book in the Walker Family series.  I seldom reread my books once they’ve been written and edited and edited and edited again, but HOTH—as we call it around here—is the exception to that rule. It’s a remarkable piece of storytelling, and if I pick it up to go looking for a single detail, I’ll inevitably end up reading the whole thing. HOTH was my tenth published book and my first hardback.  Rather than writing in first person, the story is told through multiple points of view with a flexible time line that moves back and forth over a period of seventy years.  And woven into the background of that book, and the subsequent Walker Family books as well, are the stories and legends of the Tohono O’odham people that I learned during my years as a school librarian on the reservation.

So those are my two favorites.  I also have a least favorite, and that would be Day of the Dead, Walker Family # 3.  For one thing, it’s a very dark book with some very bad people for bad guys—people who have been kidnapping, brutalizing, and murdering young women. I don’t believe I liked that story even when I was writing it, and yet I felt compelled to tell it.  And then, some time after the book came out, a young woman from Canada wrote to me asking if I knew her.  I told her I did not.  She wrote back to say that when she read Day of the Dead, she thought I was writing about what had happened to her and several other young women somewhere in Canada.  I’ve now seen that story featured on 48 Hours, I believe, but at the time I wrote the book, I hadn’t seen it, but here’s what’s important. She told me that when she read the book, she was glad the bad guys got caught—that reading the book helped her recover from what happened to her.  So although I didn’t much like the book then and still don’t, my writing it clearly helped her.

And a book that helped me recover from tragedy was one called Damage Control.  In that one, Joanna loses one of her deputies in an officer-involved shooting.  The fallen officer memorials featured in that book were drawn from my experience when my younger brother, Jim, a Bisbee area firefighter, died at age fifty of an undiagnosed heart ailment.  The whole town turned out to honor him.  His funeral service was held in the high school auditorium.  The facility holds 800 people, and it was full to the brim.  When the first cars in the funeral cortege arrived at Evergreen Cemetery, there were still cars leaving the high school parking lot more than a mile away.  As for the old couple in that book who have their “forenoon coffee” picnic and then go sailing off a cliff in a truly “Thelma and Louise” exit? That was the exit my parents wanted and one that my father’s stroke denied them.  So writing that book was, for me, a writer’s way of honoring my lost loved ones and a writer’s way of grieving for them.  If you look at the dedication in that book, you’ll see it says:  For Jim.  Enough said.

So if the author can have favorites and non favorites, it’s hardly surprising that my readers have books they like better than others. Hey, we’re all entitled to our opinions, right?

One of my recent works that has gotten a lot of reader pushback is a novella called Random Acts.  In it, Joanna Brady’s mother and stepfather, Eleanor and George, fall victim to a freeway shooter.  People wrote to me complaining about that story.  “Why did George and Eleanor have to die?” they asked me, and I didn’t have a good answer for them other than to say, “It was the story I needed to write at the time.”  After spending years being the one who delivered next of kin notifications, Joanna is suddenly put in the terrible position of being on the receiving end of one of those. And in the following books, Downfall and the upcoming Field of Bones, Joanna is still dealing with the unexpected loss of her loved ones and trying to come to grips with her new role as the “grown up in the room.”

But then, this week, I heard from someone who, I believe, is the reason for Random Acts’s bit of divine inspiration.  A woman wrote to tell me that months before she read Random Acts, her parents—“her best friends”—both perished in a motel fire while on vacation. She told me that, while she was still dealing with the shock of losing them, she read Random Acts and discovered the she wasn’t alone—that she had a friend named Joanna Brady who was walking through the same kind of experience.

When I’m out on the road, doing events, I always talk about my book of poetry, After the Fire,—another favorite, by the way.  ATF, my autobiography in poetry and prose, tells the story of my marriage to a man I loved but who died of chronic alcoholism at age 42, a year and a half after I divorced him.  It’s a story of love and loss and eventual survival. During the signings after events, almost always at least one person will appear at the signing table to tell me, with tears in his or her eyes, that my story was his or her story as well. Even though other people in the room might have heard the story before, there was that one person who needed to hear it that time out.

And so, Vicki, even though I didn’t know you at the time I was writing Random Acts, that novella was clearly meant for you.  You were the one person on the planet who needed that story.  I’m so sorry for your terrible loss, but I’m glad Joanna’s suffering a similar loss spoke to you and helped you find a way to go on.

That’s the amazing thing about being a writer.  At the time I’m telling the story, I have no idea how what I’m writing will resonate with or affect one of my readers, but I’m glad it happens.  And when people tell me about those things?  It’s what Bill likes to refer to as my “psychological income.”

The truth is, that psychological income is part of what makes my life as a storyteller incredibly rewarding.

Thank you, for that Vicki.

As for writing books with “no redeeming value?”  Maybe it ain’t necessarily so.