Sunday, December 28, 2014

Tributes: Mary Stewart and P.D. James

Two of my favorite novelists left us this year: Mary Stewart, age 97, and P.D. James, age 94. 
I discovered Mary Stewart during the last semester of my senior year in college. I had already signed a contract to teach Spanish in Las Vegas, Nevada and was eagerly awaiting to graduate and head west. One weekend when most of the students had gone home, I found myself bored and needing something to do. Another girl tossed me a couple of books and said, "Here, read these." I glanced at them and thought they didn't look like my type of reading. After all, I was used to reading "the classics". One looked like it might be a tawdry romance novel but the back cover blurb (at that time I didn't know what a blurb was nor had I ever read a tawdry romance novel) appeared intriguing nonetheless. So, I read My Brother Michael that weekend. And my life changed forever.
A decade or two later, I became familiar with P.D. James through the PBS series featuring her sleuth Adam Dalgleish. Then while visiting my mother and stepfather at their home on Lake Texoma, I discovered the Adam Dalgleish books. Because I had seen a few of the TV programs, the actor Roy Marsden who portrayed Dalgleish formed the fictional character in my mind. But my stepfather insisted the casting had been wrong. The actor, according to him, was nothing like the fictional character. Apparently Ms. James had similar thoughts of the casting. It didn't matter to me. I began to read the books and the actor's portrayal stayed in my mind. There are only two or three left that I haven't read and I look forward to them. Her last published novel was in 2011.
But I digress. I went to Las Vegas and discovered a world completely different from the Oklahoma small town where I grew up. My teaching load was very easy. I had four high school Spanish 1 classes and 2 study halls. And I started to read pop fiction. I bought all kinds of paperbacks but when I saw a book titled Decision at Delphi I bought it because the setting of My Brother Michael took place near Delphi. And thanks to Mary Stewart I fell in love with the books of Helen MacInnes, which lead to my love of Robert Ludlum and I could go on and on with each new favorite author. I also skipped school a lot. We were given 13 sick days that year--something unheard of in Oklahoma back then. Every time I discovered a new Mary Stewart novel, I took a sick day and stayed home to read. And because her novels of romantic suspense took place in "faraway places", I headed for Mexico soon after school was out. Mexico wasn't really a faraway place but it was different and exciting and tropical. A few years later I spent four exciting years in Puerto Rico. Spain, Portugal and England loomed in the distant future.
My first published novel, The Pig Farm, was inspired by my adventures in Puerto Rico, which also inspired me to write my first romance novel, A Caribbean Summer. And many more books followed. My short story Margarita (from The Doorbell Rang, Four Twisted Tales) was inspired by my adventures in Mexico. Would I have written these books if I hadn't read My Brother Michael? I have no idea. The irony is that not long ago I reread that book and was astonished at how low key it was and how the romance, if there was one, barely appeared. But the suspense was there and the locale was intriguing.
I hope the "magic of Mary Stewart" and the mysteries of P.D. James live on forever.