Monday, April 23, 2012

Confession — What The Reader Wants, The Reader Gets. Maybe. Maybe Not.

Occasionally people who read my books email me. And I welcome them. I encourage them. I once received a note from a resident of Louisiana who said he knew I had at least spent some time in New Orleans to research my book Glass Chameleon because I didn’t once use the phrase “Sacre Bleu.”  Another said that his mother had finished all of the Shanahans and if I didn’t write another one soon, he’d have to enroll her in a 12-step program. Many of the Shanahan readers write to me about the places in Indianapolis I’ve mentioned, sometimes correcting something I got wrong and occasionally telling me they know the exact house on Pennsylvania Avenue where the murder occurred.

Those who have read the San Francisco mysteries enjoy the local references as well — especially those who have visited the city often or who lived here and moved away. The places are real.  Last week’s post about oldest five San Francisco restaurants was inspired by a reader, a San Francisco native now living in Vancouver, who told me how much she missed the city. She reminded me of the Black Cat I had mentioned in one of my books. She also talked about restaurants she remembered from the 1950s. She mentioned two German restaurants Shadows, on Telegraph Hill, no longer there and Shroeder’s,* which still exists. She recommended I find a copy of a book published in the 1940s — Where to Sin in San Francisco. I’ll start looking.  I could have used it as a reference for Death in North Beach, which is a little more nostalgic than most of my mysteries set in San Francisco.  The city has always had a wonderfully bad reputation.

Another reader started sending me emails as she started the Shanahan series, telling me what she thought of the last one she read and which book was next on her list.  I always replied. This continued through the early Shanahans. Her last email said she was about to read an out-of-series book (and out of print) of mine called Eclipse of the Heart.  I never heard from her again.

Eclipse of the Heart is mystery about a closeted gay male, a celebrated San Francisco chef, who preferred to live life at a comfortable distance from it. During a trip to Mexico, he was forced to engage in real life by a series of unavoidable events and the unexpected friendship of a young, street-wise hustler.  Gay characters have appeared in many of the Shanahans, including The Stone Veil, the first one. But in Eclipse, the gay character was the central figure, the protagonist.  The book was the best-reviewed book I’ve ever written, but clearly very different from the Deets Shanahan series.

I wondered about the abrupt end of emails from my loyal reader. Perhaps she simply didn’t enjoy the story and thought quietly moving on was the kind thing to do. I suppose I could have emailed her, asked her why? Did the story offend her?  Bore her? If she simply couldn’t relate to Eclipse, she could have returned to the Shanahan series. Nickel-Plated Soul was certainly written in the spirit of the early books, the ones she liked.  But asking her what happened seemed intrusive. I’ve heard of readers stalking authors, but authors stalking readers? Unseemly. It’s entirely possible she left me for someone else a little more exciting. Maybe she found Robert Parker and it is taking her a considerable amount of time to read her way through his 70 or so Spenser novels before she returns to my measly ten.

In the end though, this relatively small event in my life caused an inordinate amount of speculation. And, as one thing leads to another, I wondered if this out-of-series, and quite different book affected overall sales of future Shanahan series in general. Being slightly paranoid is probably a positive characteristic for crime writers. Did I betray my readers’ trust or, at minimum, his or her expectations?

I sensed something similar happening after Good to the Last Kiss was published, this after a particularly long run and seemingly revived interest in new Shanahans.  Kiss was met with near dead silence, or so it seemed to me. It too was different, especially in tone.  A tougher book with an ending that didn’t tie everything up in a neat bow.

The reason I bring this up is that the rights to Eclipse of the Heart reverted to me several years ago and the novel was originally published in the pre-ebook era.  I am thinking about putting it out there again, perhaps as an e-book.  Of course, I ask myself, “Will I ever learn?”  Will I spoil any momentum that might develop with the reissues of the early Shanahans? Will this simply further confuse the marketplace about what to expect from this writer?  Should I write more Shanahans or more books similar to the Shanahans? Or should I simply write what I want to write and let nature take its course? This has to be a question many series writers face from time to time, especially those whose series books are better known than mine in the first place.

Recently, my brother proposed a plot for a future mystery during our usual Sunday morning conversation. I told him that it wasn’t a subject that I would take on. Why not, he asked. It didn’t interest me, I said insensitively.  You don’t think it’s an important subject? He wanted to know.  It’s a very important subject, I told him.  But I already know how I feel about it.

I’d never thought about why I write except in the very general sense that I enjoy writing. It’s what I’ve done all my life in one capacity or another. In the last few years, I have been fortunate enough to be able to scrape by doing fiction. But why do I enjoy writing mysteries?  I enjoy it because writing allows me to explore questions that I am curious about or that are unsettled in my mind. It is a form of discovery.  For example, the book I’m engaged in now is, on the surface, about solving murders in a nursing home. Who did it and why, of course.  But it is also about the question: Can someone live too long? I didn’t have an answer when I began the story. I really hadn’t framed the question.  But it was buzzing about in what’s left of my brain.

In the end, I’m not sure that this is a subject the masses would find interesting. It’s not good-looking young vampires or erotically adventurous housewives.  There’s no gimmick.  The protagonist isn’t endowed with special powers or burdened with anything, except advancing age. I didn’t discuss the idea with a focus group.  I’m not examining trends in mysteries and thrillers. The first draft is done and it falls short of the standard length publishers want, yet far too long to be a short story.  But that’s how it turned out. The mental exercise prompted by my brother’s proposal and my flippant answer, allowed me to answer the question about whether I write for money or to satisfy my curiosity.

I discovered that my primary goal isn’t to earn a lot of money,** a goal I continue to not only meet with nearly unprecedented success, but also engage in without an ounce of noble purpose.  Other than my proclivity to put ordinary folks in circumstances that forces them (and me) to come to terms with ethical issues, I’m not trying to change any minds.  Not really.  Just think.  Many of us — and I’m slightly too old to be an official “boomer” — have faced or will face the dilemma of aging parents or others important to us who no longer recognize us or know how to exist in the world.  Two final “ors.”  Some of those we love, as they age, seem to be entirely absent or actually suffering mentally as well as physically.  Is that a subject worth exploring?  It is for me.  And I suspect it is for quite a few of us.

*Shroeder’s was established in 1893, making it one of the city’s oldest surviving restaurants, certainly the oldest German restaurant in the city. **As a matter of principle, I’m not against earning a lot of money.


Fran Johns said...

But you put your finger on the answer to it all in that last paragraph: it's your gift for putting ordinary folks (Deets is just one!) in situations where they face ethical challenges that keep us reading to see what they'll do. I think that's what readers want -- whether it's in mysteries or essays or gay romance, even if some, like your dropped correspondent, won't switch from one "genre" to another. Write on.

Teri said...

You are, and always will be, my favorite boomer--honorary or otherwise. And you can take that to the bank!

Ronald Tierney said...

Fran and Teri...Encouragement from two highly talented writers (and you don't know each other) is especially heartening.