Sunday, October 7, 2007


(Originally posted 10/02/07)

Okay, let’s have a show of hands. How many here grew up thinking you must have been adopted in your cradle because there was no way in this world that you belonged with this group of people? Never mind that they insisted you were the spitting image of your mama and that you had your granddaddy’s blue eyes and your granny’s straight hair. Surely they had stolen you from the gypsies. How was it possible that you had been born into a nice prosaic family who didn’t daydream, who didn’t laugh at wordplay, who would listen impatiently when you tried to explain why a line of poetry could move you to tears and then tell you to get out there and grass the corn or start shelling those beans? Somewhere your real family were surely sitting in swings and wondering why you didn’t bring your book out and spread a quilt under the trees and spend the day reading. Right?

Ruth amid the alien corn.

Okay, maybe that’s a small exaggeration. (I am, after all, a fiction writer.) My parents did insist on my taking a full share of the daily chores; but in fairness, they loved to read, too, and didn’t complain too much when I said, "Just one more page and then I’ll do the dishes/sweep the porches/feed the chickens, etc."

But if any of my friends and fellow classmates read or wrote for pleasure, they never mentioned it. After a while, I quit talking about it because I didn’t want to seem too weird. I learned to fit in. I was even part of the in-group, such as it was, but it never felt real. I fell in love with my husband because he was the first guy I ever dated who could talk about books and music instead of cars and sports. How sexy to hear a man speak eloquently of Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe, Shakespeare! He didn’t laugh when I said I wanted to write and he was as elated as I when that first short story sold.

But I still had vague longings for more people like me. I can remember hitting thirty and thinking, "I now have all the friends I’ll ever have." And they were good, kind, loving people, but . . .

Always that but.

Eventually, I stuck my foot into MWA and, hey! Here were a couple of people and....yes! Sisters in Crime! Malice Domestic! Bouchercon! And suddenly there they were—my tribe—in their multicolored gypsy wagons, their flashing wit, their inclusive laughter. Speaking the common language that sounded so incomprehensible to those not of the blood.

Most writers work in solitude, but all of the writers I know also have at least one good writing friend nearby with whom they can go have lunch and bitch and moan about publishers, reviewers and tiring promotional trips. Email lets us keep in touch with a farther-flung circle of close writer friends whom we may not see more than once a year. They’re the ones with whom we exchange cartoons and pertinent YouTube videos and indignant "Did you see this????" when a publisher tries to steal all rights in perpetuity. We exchange recipes and cold remedies and cheer when PW gives a good review, and impugn the ancestry of the reviewer who wrote a nasty one. We stretch our publicity tours so we can spend a night or two in each other’s homes. We bounce ideas off them, hash out plot problems in hour-long phone calls, and read their short stories to see if they work.

Over the years, these friends truly do become much closer than the families into which we were born.

Dorothy Cannell, who’s closer to me than my own sister, and I gave a presentation at St. Hilda’s (Oxford) this past summer. Late that afternoon, I was sitting in the Senior Common Room, having a delightful chat with Colin Dexter, when P.D. James entered. "You must excuse me," he murmured as a blissful smile spread over his face. He almost bounded across the room to her and they embraced and then sat down next to each other, clasping hands. You could see the years of friendship that underlay their easy talk and spontaneous laughter. Two members of the same tribe.

If you want a further example of tribal members finding each other, consider the Rock Bottom Remainders, a pick-up band composed of such writers as Amy Tan, Roy Blount, Jr., Stephen King, Scott Turow, Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry. ( They make the best-seller lists with predictable regularity, but which do you think gives them more pleasure?

I know that if I had the choice of being # 5 on the NY Times Best Seller List or playing a banjo with the Rock Bottom Remainders, I’d sign up for banjo lessons tomorrow. Wouldn’t you?

(Margaret Maron lives in eastern NC. She has written two mystery series, one set against the NY art scene, the other about a district court judge in NC. She is currently running late on her 27th book.)
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Todd Sentell said...

Great essay. I got tell you ... one of my best friends is certainy a member of the tribe: he's the chief. My publisher. Attentive. He nudges you gently, persistently, all with the goal to produce good writing and the joy it brings him, you, and our beloved readers!

Sassy Sistah said...

I'm loving this blog - and of course - I LOVE Margaret Maron (and her books!) - a fellow eastern North Carolinian! Thank you for a terrific essay, Margaret!

One small suggestion for your consideration - would it be possible to link the books or the websites of the authors to their posts? It would make it so easy to click over and either read more about them or just - order a book!

Cathy Pickens said...

Talk about being a member of a tribe! One of the (many) reasons I dreamed of being a writer was so my books would eventually be remaindered and I could have a (distant, dreamed-of) shot at singing with the Rock Bottom Remainders. As it's turned out, I have now been remaindered, I have actually worked on a project with someone who played with them once, and I know--really know--someone else who has the same dream! Who knew, Margaret? Maybe we need to start a down-home Southern band equivalent?