Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Phyllis and Me by Greg Herren
LUCY BURDETTE: We're delighted to welcome Greg Herren to JRW today. As readers and writers, you will appreciate what he has to say!
When I was eleven years old, my parents allowed me to join the Mystery Guild as a birthday present. They’d noticed I wasn’t really reading the mystery series for kids I’d been addicted to for the past three years, and saw this as an excellent way to transition me into reading mysteries for adults. I remember getting four three-in-ones for my penny plus shipping and handling: Ngaio Marsh, Charlotte Armstrong, Agatha Christie, and Erle Stanley Gardner. When the books arrived, the catalogue with the next month’s choices came in the box. The featured selection surprised me; I’d known Phyllis A. Whitney wrote mysteries for teens, but I hadn’t known she wrote them for adults as well. Having enjoyed her work, I went ahead and ordered the book, Listen for the Whisperer.
When it arrived, I couldn’t wait to read it. It was a Saturday, and I just climbed back into my bed with a bag of BBQ Fritos, and shut the bedroom door. I took the book with me to dinner, and went right back to bed with it after eating. I was captivated by the story of young reporter Leigh Hollins, going off to Norway to confront the birth mother she’d never known. As a kid who loved to read and was also fascinated by Hollywood, the fact that Leigh’s deceased father had been an international bestselling writer and the mother—Laura Worth—an Academy Award winning actress, made the book all the more involving for me. After refusing to marry Leigh’s father and dumping their child on him, Laura went on with her career—until the filming of The Whisperer. Fighting on the set every day with the director, Cass Alroy—Laura was the number one suspect when he was murdered. She was never charged with the crime, but she fled Hollywood and lived in Norway as a recluse ever since.
Leigh’s trip to Norway, ostensibly to do an interview with the former star for a book of actress profiles she is doing, triggers a series of events with their roots on that studio sound stage twenty years earlier, the night Cass Alroy was murdered. As Leigh struggles to come to terms with her complicated feelings for the mother who abandoned her, she also finds her own life in danger. There was also a bit of romance in there, too—enough to get the book labeled as a romantic suspense novel rather than a mystery.
I went on to read Ms. Whitney’s entire backlist—Seven Tears for Apollo, Columbella, Hunter’s Green, The Winter People—and also bought her new releases when they were released in paperback: Snowfire, The Turquoise Mask, Spindrift, The Golden Unicorn, and so on. I eventually moved on from Ms. Whitney in the 1980’s, as I discovered new women mystery writers like Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Julie Smith, and Marcia Muller. But I never forgot the hours of pleasure I found in the pages of Ms. Whitney’s books.
I wrote Ms. Whitney a fan letter after finishing The Turquoise Mask. I sent it to her in care of her publisher. I’d never written a fan letter before (or since, really), but I told her how much I enjoyed her books and that I aspired to be a writer someday.
Two weeks later, I received a typewritten personal letter from Ms. Whitney. It was three pages long, and while the first paragraph thanked me for my letter and my kind words about her own work, the rest of the letter was encouragement for me to pursue my dream, and advice about writing. I kept that letter from 1976 until it was damaged in Hurricane Katrina; I’d always intended to scan it so I could keep it forever.
It meant a lot to me as a young aspiring writer, and many times, when I got down on myself or wanted to give up, all I had to do was pull out the yellowed, much-handled letter from a very kind writer who took the time to encourage a fifteen year old she’d never met—or would ever meet.
So, thank you, Ms. Whitney, not only for the great kindness in writing me back and encouraging me to chase my dreams, but for the many hours of pleasure I got from your novels, and for writing about strong, independent women in a time when that wasn’t really the norm.
GREG HERREN is an award winning New Orleans mystery writer. His next novel, “Dead Housewives of New Orleans,” will be an ebook exclusive and will be available soon. He can be found on-line at his website; on Facebook, and on his blog.
LUCY: Thank you Greg for the wonderful post today! Reds, did you have someone in your life who inspired you and encouraged your dreams?