The Kindness of Others

A hug from the very tall Harlan Coben

Kate here, with a top secret revelation: Despite the fact that we write about the awful things that people do to one another, mystery writers are a particularly nice group of people. They’re generous. They’re friendly. They’re collegial. Some say this is because we write so much of the harshness out of our systems in the stories we tell, and there is some truth to this. Feeling frustrated? Go crash a car. Feeling frisky? Put Joe Burgess in the shower with an attractive woman. If we don’t like somebody, we can secretly turn them into a character in our book and humiliate them, kill them off, or do other horrid things to them, usually with them being, as the expression goes, “none the wiser.” At mystery conferences, the most successful authors happily rub elbows with the timidest newcomers, and you can sit around a hotel room and watch “Survivor” with people you’re in awe of, or chat in the line for ladies room with Mary Higgins Clark.

One of the ways that crime writers help one another is by offering quotes for each other’s books. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to be given quotes by many of the writers I admire. For my very first Thea Kozak mystery, Chosen for Death, I was given quotes by two well established New England mystery writers, Thomaston, Maine writer J.S. Borthwick, and Lincoln, Massachusetts writer Jane Langton. I actually met Jane  before I sold my first book, when she was working on a mystery involving local planning and zoning. I had been on the local zoning board for years, and she called up to interview me. I answered her questions and shyly told her that I was working on a mystery. She offered to read it, and when she returned it, she said something I have always carried since as a great gift. “This is a hard business,” she told me. “But don’t give up. You ARE a writer.” I was in the unpublished writers’ corner for several years, and Jane’s words were a talisman when I considered giving up.

For my second book, Death in a Funhouse Mirror, a story exploring how well we really know anyone, I got a quote from Anne Perry. At the time, I was enthralled by her William Monk and Hester Latterly series, and truly bowled over that an important author in another country would take the time to read a book by little old me and write the following: “A gripping story about people you believe in and care about. The conclusion left me shaken, but satisfied in the truth of it.” A few years later, when we both in LA trying to sell our books to the movies, I got a chance to thank her in person.

And so it went. S.J. Rozan, whose wonderful P.I. series alternates between Lydia Chin and Bill Smith as the protagonist of her books, published her first book, China Trade, at the same time that Chosen was published. Our books were reviewed together in The Washington Post. I loved China Trade, it was one of those book I wanted never to end. I was truly honored when this writer whose work I admire so much said, about my strong female protagonist, “If you like your heroines smart, brave, tough, and exuberantly aware of the possibilities of the human heart, look no further than Thea Kozak.”

I still smile when I read that. As I do when I read Laura Lippman’s comment about Thea: “I’ll follow Thea Kozak anywhere. She is simply one of the most refreshing and original heroines in mystery fiction today. And Kate Flora is the rare, graceful writer who pays close attention to how long it takes the body and the heart to heal.” Laura is not only a gracious and generous person, and a fabulous writer who has claimed her place among the “big boys,” (and for the most part, they still are boys), she goes the extra mile. After we commiserated about how my career was not taking off, and about my hopes for my new stand-alone, Steal Away, written as Katharine Clark, Laura, who was then a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, convinced a fellow reporter at the Boston Globe to interview me about my career make-over. I still have the large colored photograph from the Globe, in a frame, along with the article.

When Laura’s quote was followed by one from Janet Evanovich, I spent some time thinking about what the story would look like if Laura’s protagonist, Tess Monaghan, Janet’s Stephanie Plum, and Thea all got together in a book. Would Thea, who tends to be the responsible “big sister,” try to whip them into shape, or would they soon have her doing crazy, dangerous things?

So after nearly twenty years in this business, I have a lot to be thankful for, and a great many stories. Here’s one to prove how generous a mystery writer can be. Several years ago, I was taking an interview and interrogation course taught by a Rochester, New York police lieutenant named Albert Joseph, author of an incomparable book suggested by my local police chief, We Get Confessions. When the officer sitting next to me asked what department I was with, I confessed that I was actually not a cop but a writer. When he looked skeptical, I pulled a couple of my mysteries out of my briefcase. On the back of one was this quote from Michael Connelly: “Kate Flora does what all great writers do; she takes you inside unfamiliar territory and makes you feel right at home.” He looked at me in amazement. “You KNOW Michael Connelly?” Turns out, this guy was a huge Connelly fan. He had signed copies of most Michael Connelly books, but had one that wasn’t signed. I said I was about to go to a mystery conference, and if he’d bring me the book, I’d get Michael to sign it.

Alas…I waited until the last minute at the airport, but he got tied up at work, and didn’t arrive with the book. When I told Michael the story, he said, “Find out what book it is and let me know, and I’ll send him a copy.” So I did. And he did.

See. We’re nice. And as Tess Gerritsen noted in our recent interview with her, we try to pay back the generosity we’ve received by being generous to the new writers coming after us. There’s so much to be grateful for.


And now for a little bit of fun. Some of you have already seen this via Maine Writers and Publishers, but in case you missed it, and you’ve been having fun with Paul’s title analyzer, here’s a little website where you can type in a paragraph of your deathless prose and it will tell you what famous writer you write like. Check it out:

A few quick copy and pastes told me the following: In my last Thea, I write like Cory Doctorow. In my first Burgess, like William Gibson. In the novel I’m working on right now, like David Foster Wallace, and in the new Burgess, like Chuck Palahniuk. Go figure.

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3 Responses to The Kindness of Others

  1. Tiger says:

    I have to agree with you. My first experience of this phenomenon was with Krista Davis. I asked a question on her website, never expecting an answer, but received an email full of great advice and encouragement. So thanks to all you published writers who encourage and inspire the rest of us. Hope to pay it forward some day!

  2. Vicki Doudera says:

    Nicely said, Kate! And just so you know — you’re one of those kind, helpful authors for me!

  3. I literally would not be getting published without the kindness of a GREAT mystery author, who read my unpublished ms and put it in her own editor’s hands, so every word of this post rings true for me. I hope I can pay it forward someday.

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