By Louise Ure
I’m just back from the Murder in the Grove writers’ weekend in Boise. It was a beautifully organized workshop and much credit goes to T. L. Cooper, Joanne Pence and their team for such a smooth running and intimate session. I spent a lot of my off time catching up with old friends Chris Grabenstein, David Morrell and D. P. Lyle, and learning more about new friends like Betty Webb, Ken Kuhlken, Michael Sherer and Charles Benoit.
But the most striking moment came during the Awards Ceremony, when Guest of Honor J.A. Jance took the microphone.
But first, let me tell you a little bit about my affair with J. A. Jance.
Ours has been a long love affair, albeit one-sided. I started reading her J.P. Beaumont series in 1985 and came to think of Beau’s Belltown Terrace apartment and his lunch dates at the Doghouse as part of my day. I evaluated potential spouses based on whether or not they had the good sense to order Beau’s Makers Mark instead of a lesser brand of bourbon.
The more I learned about Beaumont’s creator, the more I fell in love with her. She was an Arizonan like me, and a graduate of the University of Arizona. Also like me, she’d been advised to have no lofty ambitions. In Ms. Jance’s case it was being denied admittance to the U of A’s Creative Writing Program “because men are writers, not women.” In my case it was the high school guidance counselor who pooh-poohed any of my suggestions and said she thought I’d “do quite well in retail.”
When I moved to Seattle in the late 80’s, I carried four J.P. Beaumont novels with me and reread them, replacing his footsteps with my own to learn about my new hometown. In subsequent years, I came to know Jance’s other series characters, Joanna Brady and Ali Reynolds, and added them to my family tree.
I sent Ms. Jance the electronic equivalent of mash letters. She – wisely — did not reply.
So, back to the Murder in the Grove weekend.
Jance had made herself available for all kinds of presentations – panel discussions, keynote speeches and bookstore signing events. She’d already told us about growing up an ungainly female, six feet tall. About being denied the Creative Writing Program and the despair of her 18-year marriage to an alcoholic who she finally decided to divorce on the day he attended their child’s softball game and had to crawl from the bleachers back to the car in his drunkenness. About surviving as a single mother after his death from chronic alcoholism at the age of forty-two.
She was asked to speak again at the Awards Luncheon on Saturday.
And this time, she didn’t speak. She approached the microphone and then sang – a cappella – all the verses to Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen.”
I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
and high school girls with clear skinned smiles
who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth
And those of us with ravaged faces
lacking in the social graces
desperately remained at home
inventing lovers on the phone
who called to say – come dance with me
and murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems at seventeen
A brown-eyed girl in hand me downs
whose name I never could pronounce
said – Pity please the ones who serve
They only get what they deserve
The rich relationed hometown queen
marries into what she needs
with a guarantee of company
and haven for the elderly
Remember those who win the game
lose the love they sought to gain
in debentures of quality
and dubious integrity
Their small-town eyes will gape at you
in dull surprise when payment due
exceeds accounts received at seventeen
To those of us who knew the pain
of valentines that never came
and those whose names were never called
when choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
when dreams were all they gave for free
to ugly duckling girls like me
We all play the game, and when we dare
we cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting other lives unknown
that call and say – Come dance with me
and murmur vague obscenities
at ugly girls like me, at seventeen
Her voice was lovely and clear. She didn’t hurry the song, she sang it with all the pathos and heartache the writer had intended. The room was hushed.
When she was done she looked straight out at the audience and said “Thank you for making my dreams come true.” Then she sat down.
I joined in the standing ovation, but somewhere deep inside I quailed.
This woman, this writer I had come to admire so much, had laid herself bare in front of us. Telling us her most secret fears and disappointments. She showed us the door into not just her writing, but her soul.
Is that what you ask of us, dear readers?
Or is it enough to talk about where our ideas come from … to share the names of other writers we admire … to talk about our daily writing schedules?
I know I’ve written of very personal things here at Murderati. The death of my father. My mother’s slide into Alzheimers. The last three days of my brother’s life. It is supremely egocentric of me to think that you would even be interested in those things. And yet … why would you care about my daily ritual of a crossword puzzle before I can begin the workday either? Or where the protagonist’s name in the most recent book came from?
I still have my Secret Shames. Things I haven’t blogged about yet and don’t know if I will. I’ll put them in my fiction instead, where I won’t have to lay claim to them. Where you won’t think less of me for it, because you won’t know it’s true.
But I doubt that I will ever have the courage of J.A. Jance to talk in public about my childhood disgraces or those people I felt had ruined my life.
How do you other writers feel about soul-baring in public? And how do you readers react to it? Does it help you come to know us, or is this closer than you’d like to be?
PS: Credit for the Smoking Skeleton Mystery Writer photo at the top of the column goes to Jude Greber, who brought me back this fine talisman (taliswoman?) from a recent trip to Mexico.