In that old fashioned, direct salutation, Dear Reader, there are so many questions and hopes: Are you out there, Dear Reader. Are you really dear or at least gentle? Who are you? That you might even exist, Dear Reader, is astonishing! Every novel is very much like a letter to a shadowy person or perhaps a group, solemn and still, just beyond our vision. It is strange then, and often wonderful, to hear from a reader, to have the unknowable, the faceless, come into focus.
Not long ago I received not exactly a letteróbut a communication from a reader, or, more exactly, a group of readers, a missive that I pull out when I need a lift, of sorts, two pieces of paper that I've read so often the pages are soft and worn. There are several categories of readers who write Dear Author letters. There are those who are moved and want simply to express thanks. There is the reader who must point out a grammatical or factual error. There are the men, generally, hard-reading men who write from prison. And there are those who want to be published and are looking for a reader. But I have only once received a letter that is the minutes of a book club's meeting.
Dear Reader, because I was brought up to keep my mouth shut if I had unkind thoughts, I spent much of my childhood without speaking. So it was something of a shock at first that the D. Literary Society wanted to share their minutes of a book (mine), a novel that most all of the members passionately disliked. Writing a book, I've realized, is potentially like going to a dinner party in a dress that is wrong or even forgetting to wear anything at all. Here are the highlights of the minutes culled from the two pages:
"The group discussed Jane Hamilton's novel Disobedience. Dot, Willa, Elizabeth, Phill and Cortland lambasted the book. Willa said that she couldn't get through it. She wanted to read a book in which someone dies.....Elizabeth said she had read one other Hamilton novel and she didn't like it. This one was even worse. Bruce pointed out that not many writers come up with good endings anymore.....Dot presented her theory that Lincoln and Jeff Davis could have had the same father.....Warm raspberry pie (Kroger) with chocolate covered cherry ice cream (Blue Bell) was served."
Does warm raspberry pie with chocolate covered cherry ice cream sound as unnatural to you as it does me? (A friend suggested that the dessert was evidence that the whole letter was a hoax.) Still, there is something invigorating and even comforting about a group of people sitting together enjoying the particular pleasure that only lambasting offers. But beyond the heat, the camaraderie of the meeting, and the violent yoking of fruits and sugar, the person who stands out in the group is Willa, Willa wishing to read a book in which someone dies.
After I saw Adam Guettel's musical, The Light in The Piazza, and then read the novella of the same name by Elizabeth Spencer, I got to wondering about one of the main characters who does not die in the physical sense, but because of an accident she loses her potential to be her fully realized adult self. I wondered, What happens if you marry a woman, it's 1943 when the ideas of duty and divorce are quite different from today's mores, and therefore you are stuck with someone who is forever a child bride? That question was the beginning of When Madeline Was Young. It is the best, Willa, I could do this time around to write a novel in which someone dies. So, here's to Willa, and to Blue Bell chocolate covered cherry ice cream, and to the D. Literary Society, to their passions and inspiration.