Over at Beatrice, I saw the posting that Will Eisner has died. Eisner is credited by many with inventing the graphic novel — or at least turning it into the form we recognize today (A Contract with God is his landmark work). Many of today’s most prominent graphic novelists cite Eisner as a major influence. At the moment, none of the major news sites have posted an obit (aside from this brief piece at E&P), but you can expect to see some soon.
Michael Crichton died Wednesday after a bout with cancer. Crichton looms large in my history of reading. While other writers introduced me to the potential of literary fiction, it was Crichton who really stoked my love of reading between the age of 12 and 15. I remember reading Sphere in the high school library during free periods as a freshman, and staying up late not wanting to put down The Andromeda Strain, Congo, and of course Jurassic Park, which was passed around my ninth grade class with the feverish excitement that one doesn’t normally associate with 14 year olds and books.The arrival of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie that summer only heightened the Jurassic Park mania. This was back when CGI special effects, now so mundane, had the ability to astonish, and I can remember sitting in a theater that was buzzing with anticipation waiting for the movie to start, and I was scarcely able to believe that the book could be brought to life. The movie lived up to the hype, and it opened the door to the stream of CGI-driven blockbusters that continue to this day.But the movie was only special in that it made real what had already jumped off the pages of Crichton’s books. Crichton’s contribution might be measured in book sales and box office receipts, but there is perhaps more value in his contribution to the collective imagination of a generation of young readers.
The last time I saw Elmore Leonard alive was in 2004 at a now-defunct New York bookstore, where Leonard had come to promote his latest novel and I had come to pay homage to a literary hero.
The novel was called Mr. Paradise. I lurked in the back of the store while a long line of fans waited to get their books autographed, maybe exchange a few words with the author. The atmosphere was more like a church than a place of business, for Leonard had developed a large, loyal, and nearly reverent following during a career that had been chugging along for more than half a century by then and kept on chugging until Tuesday, when Leonard died at 87 at his home near Detroit.
As Leonard signed books that day in New York, I noticed that he rarely looked up and he exchanged a minimum of small talk with his fans. He was well into his 70s by then, and the book-flogging drill had obviously lost its luster for him long ago. In that moment I realized my act of homage was going to be even trickier than I’d feared. I had been a fan of Leonard’s writing for years,so I didn’t doubt my sincerity. But I could see that paying homage to a writer as famous and seasoned as Leonard was a fraught transaction. It’s almost impossible not to come across as sycophantic and fawning. Or, worse, creepy.
When the last fan had gotten his book signed, I took a deep breath and stepped up to the table. Leonard gave me a look I took to be frosty. ALWAYS A STRAGGLER, it seemed to say. I held out a signed copy of my own first novel, Motor City, and said, “Mr. Leonard, my name is Bill Morris. I played football with your son Pete at Holy Name School back in the ’60s. I wanted to give you this copy of my first novel and let you know I’ve loved your writing for years.”
Leonard’s face changed. A warm smile melted the frost. He thanked me for the book, asked after my parents, who he claimed to remember, told me with evident pride that his son Pete had started publishing novels of his own, which I knew. Terrified of pressing my luck, I cut the conversation short, thanked him and left the store. Leonard’s warmth had been palpable. So had his relief that his duty was done — until next time.
The first times I saw Elmore Leonard were in the 1950s and ’60s, when we were living near each other in a Detroit suburb and I was playing football with his kid. All I knew about Pete’s dad back then was that he wasn’t like my father and most of the other fathers in the neighborhood, who boarded big shiny cars in the morning and went off to make money making cars. Mr. Leonard was different. He worked in something mysterious called advertising — then came home and wrote stories and novels. Even as a grade schooler, this struck me as impossibly romantic and exotic. It was possible for a respectable middle-class man to be a writer, an artist!
Leonard was rightly revered for his impeccable ear for spoken English, his clean prose, his insistence that the author must remain invisible, and that writing should never be writerly.
But I think his achievement went well beyond what was in his books — and in the uneven movies they inspired. Leonard won the favor of some high literary types, including Walker Percy and Martin Amis, a sign that he had accomplished something that once seemed unthinkable: he lifted genre writing out of the ghetto and made readers and critics see that fine writing cannot be bottled or diminished by labels.
Loren D. Estleman, another prolific Michigan-based author of high-quality crime and western fiction, was saddened by the news that his friend Elmore Leonard had died. “All he cared about was his work,” Estleman said by phone on Tuesday. “He was the absolute last of the ad men — the Mad Men — who went from writing ad copy to writing for the pulps and then on to the world market of writing quality novels.”
Leonard was among a handful of pioneers — Philip K. Dick, George V. Higgins, and John le Carré also come to mind — who opened the world’s eyes to something that now seems self-evident: the quality of the writing is the only thing that matters.
I’ve often wondered if Elmore Leonard read that novel I gave him back in 2004. Probably not. I don’t care. It was enough to spend a few moments in the presence of an immortal.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Yesterday it was learned that Pulitzer Prize winning author Carol Shields passed away. She was best known for the book that won her the prize, The Stone Diaries. They broadcast an old interview with her on NPR yesterday, and Shields talked about how she squeezed in an hour of writing each day between teaching and taking care of her young children and after nine months she had written The Stone Diaries. Her last book, Unless, didn’t recieve a huge amount of press, but it sold tremendously well at my bookstore and was much loved by the readers I spoke to about it. If you want to learn more about her, here is her obit in the New York Times.