Hero Worship

by J.T. Ellison

I’ve mentioned this story before, and I’m sure it won’t be the last
time I talk about it, but I had another one of those "MOMENTS" this week, and thought we could talk about what it means to have a hero.

My reemergence into the world of fiction was
something of an accident, one that began with picking up a Labrador
retriever and blowing out my back.

The subsequent year of post-surgery recovery meant long hours of sheer boredom, lots of hard work, and a new love affair with the written word. I’ve always been a reader. I tried my hand at writing in school and was discouraged, or lazy, or maybe a bit of both. Writing, you see, is actually hard work. I think I took the easy way out when I listened to my stupid professor. She was right in one way — not that I’d never be published, but that I wasn’t ready to be a professional writer. Not then. Going off to grad school in a different discipline gave me a wonderful perspective on the world, and a husband, for which I am eternally grateful.

But I always felt something was missing, that I wasn’t in the right place. I had glamorous jobs, rubbing elbows with the people who were changing the world, and none of them were at all satisfying. Nothing fit. Granted, I was too much of an idealist to succeed in politics, but I was drifting. When we moved to Tennessee and I couldn’t land a job right away, then my back blew, there was a sneaking sense of relief. I could start over. Reinvent, in a new town, with new friends, and exorcise all my old, lingering dissatisfactions with my world.

I can safely say that despite the pain and suffering (I couldn’t bend at the waist for 6 months) I don’t regret that surgery in the slightest (or the damn dog I picked up that caused the rupture), because if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be on the path I am today. Surgery meant downtime, which meant reading. I’d always felt vaguely guilty before — reading was my first love, but if I wasn’t "doing" something . . . Now, I had no choice but to lay in the bed and read. Crime fiction was my go to, and I devoured everything I could get my hands on — and what the library had to offer.

And I found John Sandford.

And with his books, I had a resurgence of my desire to write. And more than that, he gave me the courage to shoot for a completely new career in my early thirties.

I decided to try again. I had a character — a female Lucas Davenport of sorts, and I gave it a whirl. It didn’t work so well, so I sat down with MIND PREY and literally took it apart — deconstructed the first six chapters or so and saw some light at the end of the tunnel. So not only did this man inspire me, he TAUGHT me too, and that’s no small thing.

And I became a writer. It really was that simple, or that hard, however you’d like to look at it. Inspiration, hard work, add water and voila — a career is born. I think it’s seems easy in retrospect. This actually was my MO — throw myself into something wholeheartedly, research and learn and try. But before, I always, always lost interest. With writing, I find myself a ridiculous workaholic, putting in stupid hours because I love what I do. It’s huge, finding what you’re meant to be. Some people find it through their children. Some find it through philanthropic ventures. And some of us find it in writing.

My MOMENT? I met John Sandford this week. And yes, the hallelujah chorus sang a verse. John_sandford_davis_kidd_nashville_

Sandford was charming, and vulnerable, and such a consummate professional that I again felt that
overwhelming "Why do I do anything on the computer but write?" feeling. To top off his talk, I actually met him, shook his hand, told him he was my inspiration, (and made a little joke — I didn’t know whether to thank him or not, considering I’m doing two books a year…)  and thankfully he’d actually been prepped and knew who I was. He even gave me a compliment, which made me float. I went home trembling. I don’t get fired up like that very often, but I was literally vibrating with excitement at meeting him and finding him to be such an incredibly nice guy.

I’ve had two weeks of this nirvana. I was in New York for a bit of Edgar fun. I saw my dear Lee Child, met my new crush Arthur Phillips, had a lovely conversation with Michael Chabon, and spent good twenty minutes talking with Nelson Demille and his lovely wife. I mean, come on, already. This is ridiculous dream stuff, isn’t it? I’ve now met all of my major literary heroes save one, and she (Karin Slaughter) is coming to Nashville in a few months. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with my favorite authors, interact, express my appreciation for their work, even meet their editors, the men and women behind the men and women. I’ve had the opportunity to see good friends again at these events, make new ones, and in general, reaffirm my path. Heady stuff, I tell you.

But I felt truly blessed to tell the man who is the reason I’m here today that he had a profound influence on me. It was one of the coolest moments I’ve had thus far, in a long line of exceptionally cool moments.

Here’s the thing. You don’t have to be a writer to meet your literary heroes. As readers, we can meet them. We can write to them (see Pari’s excellent column on that here.) We can interact in a whole new way because of the websites and message boards. I know I’m not the only one who gets excited about meeting authors. I’d love to see more people participate in our community.

We’ve had a record week at Murderati, full of highs and lows, from Toni’s wonderful post on Mother’s Day to our sad news about Ken’s departure, from Zoe’s word play to Rob’s poignant tribute to his dad.  You, the reader, have made this worthwhile for all of us.

So… today’s question, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Who is your literary hero? And did you ever have a chance to meet him or her?

With a big hat tip to Dan Hale for today’s column — Dan and I were talking about meeting heroes, and he introduced me to one of mine in New York… so thanks, Dan!

Wine of the Week: 2006 Finca Vieja Tempranillio — La Mancha, Spain. Plummy, easy-going and very young.

P.S. I’m leading a reading group discussion about ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS at Shelfari’s Suspense and Thriller group. Please come by and join in the fun – these reader opinions fascinate me!

19 thoughts on “Hero Worship

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I never got a chance to meet the great Ira Levin before he died but we had a correspondence I will always treasure. The day he sent me a quote for THE HARROWING l screamed – so loud that Michael ran in from outside thinking I was being murdered (I’m not a screamer).

    The thing that kills me is when an idol READS your book, and loves it. It’s just miraculous – more huge than getting an agent or getting published… that feeling that you’ve returned even a fraction of the pleasure that that idol has given you. I’ve had the same experience with Ken Bruen and F. Paul Wilson and Ramsey Campbell – it’s just life-altering.

    Reply
  2. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Lovely post, J.T..

    I have so many literary heroes that you’d think the abundance would cheapen the lot. And I’m fortunate to have met quite a few of them.

    Of those I haven’t met: Orson Scott Card — he’s a marvelous storyteller; Terry Pratchett — what a sense of humor; Alice Hoffman — yeah, yeah, I know; Margaret Atwood — I came close a couple of weeks ago; Ruth Rendell — just wow.

    Thanks for reminding me to be grateful on this beautiful Friday morn.

    Reply
  3. R.J. Mangahas

    One of my favorite writers is Dennis Lehane. My girlfriend knows this. Last year I had three eye surgeries. What I didn’t know is that she sent a letter to Dennis Lehane telling him what was going on with me.

    Several weeks later, she said that she had something for me. It turned out that it was a letter that Dennis Lehane had written to me. I was absolutely ecstatic. Not only had my girlfriend sent a letter off to one of my favorite writers, who took the time to answer. The letter is tucked safely away in my signed copy of A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR, but believe me, that letter is much more valuable to me.

    To top that off, I actually got to meet him when he was at a Borders in Boston when GONE BABY GONE was first released. Certainly one of my highlights in the past year.

    Reply
  4. Tammy Cravit

    I too have many literary heroes, but the one perhaps most responsible for my love affair with the mystery is Sue Grafton.

    Several years ago, I had the opportunity not just to meet, but to interview, her (for my local newspaper, because the events in “Q is for Quarry” were based loosely on a real unsolved murder that happened near here 35 years ago). What a grand experience that was! Despite the fact that I caught her less than a week before she was to leave for vacation, she made time to talk with me and was far more gracious, charming, and generous with her time than I had any right to expect.

    Sue also gave me an important research lesson during that interview. I asked her, purely out of my own curiosity, how she gets so many different people to talk to her. When I remarked, offhandedly, “I imagine that’s somewhat easier for you, of course, being a best-selling author that everyone knows,” she looked at me sideways and grinned. “That may be so,” she replied, “but, on the other hand, you got me to talk to you.” After that, I got a lot less timid about asking people to help me, which is a good thing.

    My now-autographed copy of “Q is for Quarry” holds an honored place on my bookshelf, and I have a photo of Sue and I hanging above my monitor, for inspiration.

    Reply
  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    You know what, Tammy? She’s one of mine, too. I’ve not yet met her, but if I did, I’d thank her for the tone of her books . . . the ability to include humor without being labeled: “Funny.”

    Reply
  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Warning about Shelfari – I joined this morning but had no idea that when I joined it would AUTOMATICALLY mine my AOL address book and send out invites to my entire mailing list. I didn’t opt in to do that (and wouldn’t have) so there’s obviously some way you have to opt out NOT to do that. I’ve heard from several people already this morning saying that the same thing happened to them.

    My sincere apologies to anyone who got an unsolicited e mail from the site because of me.

    It looks like it could be a useful site for genre fiction, but good grief – that kind of insidious marketing is not much better than deliberately spreading a virus.

    Reply
  7. Louise Ure

    Alex, I got not one, but five, Shelfari invites from you today. I must score big in your address book.

    And JT, great post about heroes. So many come to mind, but I never met the one at the top of that heap: Barbara Kingsolver. Perhaps some day.

    Reply
  8. JT Ellison

    Alex, you’re not the first to do that. No big deal. Though I remember getting one of those invitations from someone in my address book, and it was a soft-core porn site. Whoops!!! At least books aren’t offensive.

    Louise — Barbara Kingsolver — I have the POISONWOOD BIBLE on my TBR list. After all the ‘Rati recommendations, I felt I had to read it. Soon!

    Tammy, what a great story! And a great lesson — sometimes you just need to go for it. The worst that can happen — someone says no.

    RJ, what a wonderful story. Your girlfriend sounds like a true sweetheart, and I hope your eyes are all better now. Yikes, I can’t imagine what that must have been like.

    Pari, I love that you’ve got so many influences. It’s what makes your stories so unique and fun.

    And back to Alex — nail on head. When I got my first blurb from one of my icons, dogs in three counties heard the scream.

    Reply
  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, God, Louise. I am SO SORRY. I think this would be a good time for me to take a cue from John Sanford (see above) and from now on only use my computer to write.

    What a nightmare.

    Reply
  10. toni mcgee causey

    Great post, JT, and how amazing a couple of weeks you had! I think my head would have spun clean off from the excitement.

    I got to speak on a panel with Earnest Gaines a couple of months ago. He is the loveliest man, truly an inspiration, and when I read him in college, it was the first time it occurred to me that there might be a possibility that someone from the deep south, from my area of the woods, so to speak, could be published. It was the first time I didn’t think of publishing as “New Yorkers writing about New York.” That was immediately followed by a huge crush on Eudora Welty’s works, and Zora Neal Hurston… and then James Lee Burke. My blog (electric mist) has been an homage to Burke for years. (I have old archives from a few years on another site where the first incarnation of that blog exists.)

    Nowadays, I think if I had to have an articulate conversation with Robert Crais or Dennis LeHane, I’d probably fall over dead. Or be that weird lady who babbled a lot.

    Reply
  11. JT Ellison

    Toni, that’s exactly how I feel. And I’m always aware that I talk too much when I’m nervous, but that doesn’t seem to stop me babbling to people I’ve just met, famous or not : )

    Reply
  12. Tom Barclay

    I used to do a whole lot of writer, actor, musician and artist interviews when I was in radio. With notable exceptions it’s not hard to get people to talk about their work and about themselves. The thrill wears off, and there’s a journalistic responsibility to keep yourself out of the way and think about what your listeners or readers want to know.

    Though I’m no longer in broadcasting or journalism, it’s still pretty much how I feel about meeting people of accomplishment.

    But if I’d ever had to interview Ursula K. LeGuin . . . I’d have had a hard time finding my tongue, let alone my voice.

    Reply
  13. JT Ellison

    Tom, there is definitely an element of “getting used to it.” I remember when I first started working in D.C., and I’d run into the people on the news, congressmen, and the like, and I’d get all excited. Strom Thurmond left me speechless. Now, granted, it was because I was sitting on his lap…

    After a few years in the mix, it took a lot to get me excited about seeing someone.

    I have several LeGuins to read. Ack. I am SO behind!

    Reply
  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I still get completely star struck and jittery every time I talk to Neil Gaiman. Not just an idol, but a freakin’ gorgeous idol with a freakin’ British accent.

    Lethal, I tell you…

    Reply
  15. Catherine

    It would be wonderful to think I could hold it together enough to come off looking even slightly coherent around any writer hero. I think all my time spent as a shy child would just come rushing back.

    When JT mentioned that she was seeing John Sandford my text driven response was squeeee, WOW. Very adult.lol.

    Sadly in person the most I would be striving for would be a dignified blush, and quiet hello, with that internal blather going…hold it together..hold it together. Intelligent discourse, perhaps not.

    I think other authors that would bring a similar reaction would be Robert Crais, and Charlaine Harris.

    So glad JT that you’re living your dream.

    Reply
  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Great post! I will always remember my very first US convention, Sleuthfest, and being put on the same panel as one of my all-time literary heroes, Robert B Parker. I even managed to make him laugh.

    And meeting Lee Child for the first time was a huge buzz. He’s just one of the nicest guys out there.

    Not to mention Ken Bruen. Speaking of email glitches, one nearly kiboshed the lovely blurb Ken did for SECOND SHOT. I emailed, timidly, asking if he’d still care to take a look at the typescript, and for whatever reason it didn’t get through, so we both thought the other had changed their mind about the whole thing. Am I glad I plucked up my courage to send him another mail, or what!

    And having met Jeff Deaver at LCC in Bristol, he then came to Harrogate, which is filled with the Brit Gliterati, most of whom were studiously ignoring me. He greeted me in the bar like an old friend and then tried to introduce me to my agent, which was just so lovely of him.

    I’m aware we shouldn’t intertwine the writer with the work too closely, but there has been the odd occasion when I’ve met an author who I worshipped, and I don’t know, maybe I just caught them on a bad day. At the time I happened to be in the middle of reading one of their books, but after that, I put it down halfway through and haven’t felt the slightest impluse to pick it up again.

    And, sorry Alex, I had two invites from Shelfari today, too. No blame attached to you in any way, but it’s bad of the site to do this without your knowledge or permission.

    Reply
  17. Fran

    I meet youse guys alla time, and you know what? I’m still jazzed and jittery! I know, I really do KNOW, you’re real people and human and all that, but WOW! Still!

    When I met Carolyn Hart at LCC, I almost burst into tears.

    So I’m obviously in my dream job, and thank you ALL for writing such wonderful books!

    Reply
  18. Chuck

    Great week JT! You and I haven’t discussed this, but I began writing while laid up myself. Nice little coincidence, huh? (The story of my accident is one I will tell you later. Think parachutes.)

    So happy you met Mr. Sandford. Just remember, for some of us, conversing with you is just as heady.

    Reply

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