With Gratitude: Margaret Maron & Paul D. Marks

As 2020 tipped into 2021, I found myself feeling particularly full of gratitude. In part, this feeling came simply from having made it through a tough year—New Year’s a milestone in some way, even if nothing really changes on January 1—but my gratefulness took many forms: for family and friends, for health, for security and stability in many areas of our life, and for having flexible schedules, even if demands from various directions seemed to be pushing and warping the ForceFlex of those schedules. And even though 2020 had been a particularly unproductive writing year, I felt grateful for the good success I have enjoyed and for the great great fortune of my writing community, their friendship and support, people I’d missed greatly as festivals and conferences had been cancelled or pushed online.

This in mind, that first week of January I considered starting a series of posts expressing my thankfulness each week for some specific person in my own writing community—and my mind immediately began conjuring up so many people I could spotlight that I expected to be able take such a series through the whole year.

Then—to be perfectly frank—I decided against it, purely because of how much the schedule was already feeling under pressure (ForceFlex tearing at the seams). In the midst of juggling commitments already in place in various direction, I was already struggling to find even a small bit of time to write anything for myself. Did I really need to add another essay, even a short one, to the to-do list each week? Time seemed, ultimately, too short, and I put the idea aside.

Over the last couple of weeks, however, the deaths of first Margaret Maron and then Paul D. Marks drove home in a more heartbreaking way the idea of time being too short.

Even briefly brainstorming my gratitude series, there was no question about the first person I planned to spotlight. Margaret Maron was my very first friend in the mystery community, and my longest as well, with a friendship that stretches back before I ever had a mystery published myself, and I still treasure the memory of her handwritten letter to me, congratulating me on the first story for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Margaret’s work set a standard—and a high bar—for all of us in the mystery community and for North Carolina literature as well. (Margaret and I were both native North Carolinians, which was another bond between us; and honestly, I think I’ve learned as much about my own state—its history, its politics, its changes—from her books as from having grown up there.) And while I value so much the support she showed my work, Margaret was generous to many, many aspiring and emerging writers, for example moderating for many years the Best First Novel panel at each year’s Malice Domestic—celebrating each new year’s debut authors at the start of their careers.

My first encounters with Margaret were the result of two articles I did on her work in the early 1990s: an article for The Armchair Detective focused primarily on Bloody Kin and her Deborah Knott novels and an interview for the North Carolina Literary Review. For the latter, Margaret invited me to come to her home—gracious always—and we talked about both Deborah Knott and the earlier Sigrid Harald novels, her beginnings as a writer, her thoughts about the mystery genre and about the importance of place, both to novels and to people. These were just the first of many articles I wrote about Margaret and her work over many years—including a big feature in Mystery Scene on the publication of her final Deborah Knott novel, Long Upon the Land. And when Margaret was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, I felt honored that she recommended me to write the commemorative essay. (You can read an abridged version of that essay here.)

At Malice Domestic each year and often at Bouchercon too, Margaret frequently included me in small get-togethers with her and her husband Joe, with Dorothy Cannell and her husband Julian, with Parnell Hall and Dan Stashower and others. Each time, I felt like a child being invited to the adults’ table, and in many ways still feel unworthy of having been included. But Margaret was a gracious host, and generous in other ways too, eager to tell a writer when they’d written something special—and eager to tell others too.

These are only a few small reflections, I recognize. Many specific anecdotes to share, many small details I’m not included. But that generosity and support—I’ll always remember and appreciate.

Paul D. Marks was also high on the list when I was thinking through my gratitude series. My friendship with Paul began in a different way—each of us contributors to the group blog Criminal Minds, me stepping in to take up an every-other-Friday post and Paul simply the fellow that handled the Fridays I didn’t. But from those alternating Fridays, a friendship was born. I read and respected Paul’s thoughtful and extensive posts, whether he was writing about film noir or the Beatles or the books he loved or the history of his much-loved Los Angeles (a world away from my own upbringing). And I appreciated in turn his attention to my own posts—with each of us emailing the other week to week to chat about something he’d just written or something I’d posted. That correspondence grew beyond “Fun post today!” to sharing reflections on our writing—what we were writing or not writing, wanted to write or had just finished writing, and acceptances or publications too, always a cause for celebration. And reflections on more personal things too—our pasts, our families. Long emails frequently, and with each one, a friendship was strengthened. There were so many times when a word of encouragement from him helped lift me up, and I hope that I sometimes gave the same in return his way.

By the time I finally got together with Paul and his wife Amy in person, it felt less like a first meeting than old friends getting together, and I cherished those all-too-brief get-togethers at Bouchercon. I also cherished the news of Paul’s many successes, both his novels and his short stories—maybe especially those: when his story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” placed first in EQMM‘s annual readers poll, when his story “Windward” was included in the Best American Mystery Stories anthology, and when that same story won the Macavity Award for Best Short Story. I was there when the Macavity was announced and presented, and I can picture Paul even now walking across the room toward the stage, picture myself clapping wildly for him.

In my mind, I’m still clapping now.

My last email exchange with Paul was in mid-February, with Amy typing his reply. Writing to him then, I’ll admit I’d assumed he was doing better, and I was sorry to hear about more set-backs and concerns. Sorrier later to hear the sad news that he’d passed.

It’s a cliché, of course: tell the people you love that you love them before it’s too late.

A small post here, too little, too late, for a couple of writers I dearly loved.

(I think I’ll be doing this gratitude posts more regularly now.)

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