A special thanks to readers!
Writing is a partnership between writer and reader. Each brings their past along for the ride. I had a touching experience this weekend that reminded me once again that good things happen when we pay due respect and attention to each other.
I received an email from a reader who is a lover of mysteries and had been enjoying one of my books until he reached a graphic, heart-wrenching murder scene involving children. At this point he threw the book in the garbage and in the email chastised me for the gratuitous, sensationalist, and largely irrelevant scene.
Writers love to receive emails from readers, and although most of them are laudatory, even the critical ones can be very helpful in honing our craft. When we write, we know what we are intending to say, but it is readers who tell us what we actually said. When I receive a critical email I generally thank the reader for their observation but don’t attempt to explain “but what I really meant was…” Words have to stand on their own, and if a reader misses the author’s intent, it is the author’s fault for not communicating it effectively. This is a difficult and humbling but crucial lesson for authors to learn.
In this case, however, I decided to try to explain. Perhaps it was the image of that particular book in the garbage, perhaps it was the obvious distress of the reader. Perhaps it was the fact that 20 children had just been massacred two days before. Or perhaps it was that the reader’s accusation cut too close to the bone for me as a child psychologist.
So I wrote back about the difficulty I had in writing the scene, which was actually based on true events that had haunted me as a psychologist for years. I wrote about its purpose in explaining my detective’s character and his relationship to another major character and also its connection to the overall theme of PTSD in the book.
This prompted him to write about his own experiences and to examine why he had reacted as he did to the scene. I do think it was the worst possible weekend to read that scene, but that too is context that an author can’t control. After an exchange of emails, he took the book out of the garbage and plans to finish it. I don’t know whether he will enjoy it (if enjoy is the right word for a gritty, gut-wrenching book) but I felt much better. The gap between our perceptions had been bridged, we both understood a little better what we had both brought to that scene and how it influenced its meaning for us.
Writing mysteries has its risks. We write about strong emotions and events – rage, terror, despair, human brutality – which can touch readers in powerful, unexpected ways as they relate it to their own experience. I don’t want to shy away from this, because it is why I write. Not simply to entertain but to share an emotional journey. But it’s humbling to be reminded that once my words are out there, the journey the reader takes with them is his alone.
Most of the time, we never know how our words are taken. For this opportunity, and for his willingness to share, I would like to thank this reader, and all the readers who take the time to write us authors with their thoughts. You are our mirrors, you tell us what we have said, and without you we are just tossing meaningless words into the wind.
Merry Christmas, Happy Whatever, and may the new year bring peace, joy and all good things.
Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green novels which have won back to back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, explores love in all its complications. The ninth, The Whisper of Legends is due in April. And, her Rapid Read from Orca, The Fall Guy, was launched last year.