The text of my acceptance speech for the MWA Grand Master Award is here–I’ll publish some photos from that magical exciting evening in a little bit.
I went to my first Edgar dinner in 1982. I watched the icons of my reading life talking and joking, but I was painfully shy and didn’t try to introduce myself to anyone. I was seated at a table at the outermost reach of the Sheraton ballroom, and the highpoint of the meal was when a waiter slugged one of my tablemates for not relinquishing his salad plate on schedule.
I’m amazed, and grateful, to join the company of Grand Masters whose work I have long admired, but it is unsettling to realize how quickly 29 years have passed.
Many people helped me reach this point. Stuart Kaminsky, whom we mourn, mentored me as I wrote my first book. My agent, Dominick Abel, agreed to represent me all those years ago; he has never faltered in his support.
Thanks to my editor, Chris Pepe, and my publishers, Putnam, for their hard work, and their presence at the banquet. (Although the company is known as GP Putnam’s Sons, it was George Putnam’s daughter Mary who was a leading 19th century writer and feminist. It seems fitting that my novels bear the name of the woman who forced England to accept women as doctors.)
I have been fortunate in the friendship of Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Her advice as a writer, and her guidance in the business of living, have been my lodestar for many years.
Above all, I thank my husband, the distinguished physicist Courtenay Wright, who has listened to 29 years of fears and self-doubts; his steadfast support has kept the wind beneath my sails. To him and to Dorothy, this award and these remarks are equally dedicated.
The world of books has seen major changes since my first Edgar dinner. It had been hard for me to find a publisher for a woman PI in America’s heartland; now, as a result of the revolution I helped start, detectives of all stripes and locations are commonplace.
I was lucky: in 1982, there were many more publishers to approach than exist today.
We live in a world of conglomerated publishers and distributors; we writers are often told that we are not creating stories or characters, but brands, as if the chief difference between our stories and toilet paper is that you can’t upload Charmin to your iPad. At least, not yet. In such a world it is hard to remember that we are storytellers, not accountants, marketers or vending machines.
This is not a new problem. When Melville published Moby Dick in 1851, the reception by both public and critics was hostile: he had left his brand, his travelogue novels. During Melville’s life, this astonishing masterpiece sold 500 copies. In a bitter weariness, Melville wrote Hawthorne:
The silent grass-growing mood in which a [person] ought to compose – that can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me.
Melville lived through times as turbulent as ours—slavery, the Civil War, the changes wrought by industrialization. But ours is also a time that thrives on slick one-liners, and on lies, made easier to swallow because we devalue literacy.
Today, close to one in four American adults can’t read or write well enough to handle a job application, let alone read a novel.
It took a 12th-grade vocabulary for Melville to follow the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but our most recent presidential debates use the language of sixth graders. Some candidates have devolved to the pre-school level.
We writers owe a duty to our gifts. We’ve been given the gift of language, and we need to dig deep into words. We need to relish wordplay, not rely on clichés as we stumble toward the marketplace, or settle for the slick, repackaged street-talk we pick up from rap and TV.
And we owe a duty to our other gift, our stories. In the cacophony of sound that fills our broadband waves, amid the lies and shrill self-promotions, it is essential that we writers return to Melville’s silent grass-growing place and find the truths that fiction can lay bare.
Our fictions are myths, of course, not histories: they show heroes vanquishing monsters. Theseus versus the wicked Minotaur, Marlowe versus the wicked temptress, V I Warshawski versus the wicked corporation, they’re all the same story.
But these fictions tell essential truths, about our emotional lives, what we fear, what we want, what we need. Writing is a form of auto-surgery: the closer we cut to our own bones, force ourselves to emotional truth, the more authentic will our voices become.
As the poet Sappho wrote, more than 2600 years ago,
Although they are only breath
Words, which I command
What we remember from Sappho’s time, and from Melville’s, are not brand-names nor spreadsheets, but poets. For in the end, it is that word which is only breath which endures.