The Hidden Staircase: Cotter’s Corner, the Small Town as Character

ImagePicnic is one of my favorite movies. I find it hard to believe it was considered scandalous when it came out, so controversial that many of my friends weren’t allowed to see it.  My mother, ahead of her time in many ways, knew that if I wanted to get in trouble, there was no  amount of censorship that could prevent it.  I loved the movie for many reasons, and one of them was certainly the supportive nature of the town and the colorful characters who resided therein.  Though the town I live in now is a big small town (one hundred thousand plus on a good day), it’s the two tiny towns in which I was raised that shaped me.  It explains why I am drawn to the cozy mystery where the small town is a principal player, a character of sorts.

In Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets (I think), young Harry is told that the wand chooses the wizard.  That’s kind of the way my blog is shaped.  I often wait for “the wand” (i.e., some thought that jumps into my head) to tell me what I need to post.  Since yesterday my Facebook page was full of old friends posting pictures of relatives in military dress to celebrate Veteran’s Day, small towns and my affinity for them, “chose” me.  Small towns often get a bad rap: too gossipy, too narrow, too provincial. My experience with them though is that the gossipy can frequently be viewed as concerned. The narrow is often code for standing for principles, and the provincial is a reverence for tradition.  In Cotter’s Corner, the small town I’m writing about in my sequel to Snoop, when something bad happens to one it affects all.  Not so in cities like Chicago and Phoenix, which I know well from my children living there.  In large metropolitan areas there’s a sense of disconnect. If a murder happens in Southside Chicago and you live to the north, it may give you a slight shiver down your spine, but you move on.  Not that the Northsiders don’t care, but they are blissfully far away from the trouble. In contrast,  Cotter’s Corner residents react as many in any small town would when murder occurs.  There is no disconnect.  Instead there is deep sadness and a gnawing fear that they could be next. Rather than objectify, small town residents identify.

I recently read that there is a pull to get people back to cities and away from the straggling small towns that surround them.  Those mapping the future of our nation think that by orchestrating taxes and politics, they can encourage people away from their bigoted, backward little havens.  Nothing is more backward than that kind of thinking.  All you have to do is look at our big cities to know that it is not they who should be doing the teaching and leading.  Their factory schools and impersonal associations have negatively shaped them into a group-think mentality in which individuality is sacrificed for acceptance.  In the small towns I knew, if you asked someone what he or she thought, you got an honest answer.  The respondent didn’t first look to her left and right to make sure what she was keeping lockstep with the effete ideology she felt duty bound to support.  In Cotter’s Corner if you ask Aggie, the seventy plus, wild-haired town gossip what she thinks, stand back because you’re about to be blasted by her uncensored opinions.

ImageRemember “The Gilmore Girls”? I loved the show. Amy
Sherman-Palladino’s writing was groundbreaking and the world of Stars Hollow is the world I picture when I write my mysteries.  I don’t want to copy her characters, but I want mine to have the same originality and vitality that she was able to produce.  And in Stars Hollow people supported each other and loved their town.  It was as much a presence as its memorable residents.

ImageAs a movie Billie Letts’ Where the Heart Is didn’t do much. I don’t know why because I thought Natalie Portman was very good and Stockard Channing’s portrayal of the hard-scrabble Welcome Wagon woman was nuanced and endearing.  The town again was center stage with its odd-ducks and down-and-outers.  I watch the movie whenever it comes on because I know I’ll feel good.  It’s about people coming together to support and love each other.   Today’s media works hard to convince us that places like Stars Hollow, Cabot Cove, and Cotter’s Corner don’t exist. They insinuate those towns are products of saccharine, too-purple prose.  And maybe that’s so if you live in New York City, where people are beaten to death as people passively watch, or Washington, DC, infested with politicians who truly believe they are miles smarter than those they serve.  It is, however, true of my fictional Cotter’s Corner. And more important, it’s true of the small towns I knew and loved. It’s important people know this because maybe they won’t be so convinced that they have little to offer in the town square of big ideas.  And they just might come to realize that bigger is not always better, not by a long shot, as they used to say where I came from.

The Hidden Staircase: Inspiration

ImageA few weeks ago, Alice Munro won The Nobel Prize in Literature.  It was a huge moment for literature, for Canada, and for friendship.  The latter is true because over a decade ago, when my friends Deb and Dave Dunstone were in Canada, they bought an autographed copy of a volume of some of Munro’s short stories.  It was autographed “from one author to another.” At that time, all I had “authored” were some essays and letters-to-the-editor.  Still, that book and friendship remain an inspiration when I knuckle down to finish the sequel to Snoop. I think of Munro and the years she did the grit work of honing her craft. And I think of the Dunstones who believed long before I that I would write and sell books.

And then yesterday I heard that Fannie Flagg has a new book.  I love Fannie Flagg.  Her characters are quirky and her writing is sensitive toward and respectful of them.  Mostly the people she creates are small town hicks, but they give all small town hicks a good name. They care about their friends, family, and community and see humor in small things as they experience the agonies and joys of life. Whenever I hear or see Flagg interviewed, I like her. She’s human and so are her stories, thoroughly human and alive.  I remember reading a catty comment Rita Mae Brown made about a supposed relationship she had with Flagg and how she (Rita Mae) regretted that Flagg wasn’t ready to accept who she was. Sorry, Rita Mae, but I don’t buy it.  I think Flagg merely wants as much respect for herself as she demands for the characters in her books. She doesn’t want her private life flying around in cyberspace. I look to Flagg for inspiration because she writes about the same Cannery Row types that I know from my small town experiences. I don’t judge them. I present them for others to fall in love with–or not. But I do respect them and their privacy.

blog inspiration krauthammerI’m not a political conservative, but if I  were still teaching essays, I would be using conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer as an example of how to write a thought-provoking essay with language that is both thrilling and alive. Yes, he is on the Fox News panel, but for all those who still fall for the old saw of dismissing Fox, I will add that Krauthammer is a Washington Post columnist, a Pulitzer Prize winner and as fair as anyone I follow regarding politics. His new book Things That Matter is a compilation of his essays and I am urging all my friends left and right to read it. If it doesn’t change their minds, and that’s not my intent, it will at least solder their reasons for why they hold the political views they hold. When you read Krauthammer’s story, you’ll see why he is one of my inspirations in all ways.
blog dogs ccp As sit in my basement in front of my new computer with the big screen monitor working on the book I want to have done by the first of the year, I think of my generous cadre of fellow authors at Cozy Cat Press out of Chicago. There are about thirty of us now dedicated to the cozy mystery genre. They are hard workers, many holding down full-time jobs, and love writing. Perhaps they don’t love the actual act of writing at all times, but they are grateful for their facility with words and idea and are eager to cheer on fellow writers. In the cut throat and frighteningly diminished world of publishing, I am grateful for the spirit that publisher Patricia Rockwell has woven throughout her little company. A Cozy Cat book promises to be a respite from the frantic holiday season and the stresses and strains of everyday life. In fact, I think they make fabulous stocking stuffers.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m now going to work to add another to Cozy Cat’s “cat”alogue.

Cozies in Flyover Country

ImageThere was a time when I loved the New Yorker, but today not so much.  One of the reasons for my disenchantment with the celebrated magazine is its nose-in-the-air attitude about geographic points of interest other than the east and west coasts.  A couple of years ago, however, one of their articles pointed out the fact that the magazine exhibits an uncharacteristic ignorance about what has been not-so-kindly dubbed flyover country.  Since my home is in Michigan, I am particularly sensitive to a state with some of the nation’s greatest universities, museums, and medical facilities being so summarily dismissed.  At one time, however, I, too, was guilty of the same self-hating abandonment of my native state.  I excuse my temporary defection by saying there is a time when most everyone apologizes for where he or she came from. In fact, if you study the bios of some of our nation’s most annoying intellectual snobs, you find that most all are only a generation removed from my beloved Midwest–or Mideast as my Utah cousins insist. I love that many of the harshest critics of the Midwest are from Pittsburgh which is as close to being Midwest as you can get without crossing into Ohio but they still, like my late mother, call themselves “Easterners.” Anyway, it is this defensive feeling I have for my home state that drives my insistence that my cozy mysteries be set in it.  Both Snoop and Murder on Cinnamon Street are set in charming Michigan towns, much like the one that Hemingway spent his boyhood summers in.

ImageI am not picking on Obama in this blog.  I love this picture because it is so clearly of a young man reinventing himself once he left home.  Traveling from  his protected prep school to the vastly liberal Occidental College, he is to be forgiven for “feeling his oats.” We all do it. But what I notice is that the kids from Michigan who leave for the coasts, east and west, often  seem to eschew the land that grew them.  To these kids, the world of elite, pompous intellectuals is new and magical, even though those intellectuals, in almost incomprehensible words and images, wax ad nauseum about tolerance and acceptance.  Yet these self-serving, self-loving boors create a land where only the best-educated (read that to mean Ivy League and Stanford) are allowed to play.  To Midwestern kids, who have grown  up with the unwritten law that we are all truly equal, this new delivery system with all its affectations makes the information appear new and exciting.

ImageWhen my husband and I were first married we went east to visit his aunt in Connecticut.  I fell in love with the East Coast and with her.  For years, I was convinced that I would never be happy unless we moved there.  When someone pointed out that a great deal of New England looks like parts of the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan, I still wasn’t convinced.  It was Connecticut for me.  But work for both my husband me was in Michigan so we stayed and visited whenever we could.  Over the years/decades everything on the East Coat seemed to get dirtier and more crowded.  Michigan remained green and spacious.  Perhaps it’s a figment of getting older but I have fallen in love with the state I’ve lived in for over half a century. It’s welcoming, affordable, and big.  There’s lots to see and do and within a couple of hours both my children received excellent post-secondary educations. And though they both have had to move away to get jobs, our state’s only glitch is a lack of jobs–but we’re working on that, I observe that their visits home reinforce what a great state they came from. “I forget how beautiful and green it is,” were my son’s words a few weeks ago when he returned for the Michigan/Notre Dame football game.

ImageSo as a paean to my beloved state, I set my books in Michigan.  And I picture the town squares you can find in many of our small towns.  Oh, and there must be town gossips who let people know when marriages have exploded, drunks have been arrested, and even bludgeoned bodies have been located. I want my readers to sit on their porches and read my books with cold glasses of iced tea, in the spring and summer. In the fall and winter they will, like me, read in front of a fire next to windows looking out on tree-lined streets. Let them laugh at us here in flyover country, but let them remain where they are. The Midwest is known as a friendly part of the country to live and raise a family. We don’t want anyone to spoil that.

There WILL BE Dogs

ImageI know. I this logo is at war with the title of this Monday’s blog.  Cats are the preferred companions of sorcerers, witches, and cozy mystery writers. The problem for me is that I am a dog lover.  I have owned cats and loved cats, but my nature calls for an animal that will obey me, love me, and never, never put up its nose and walk past me.  Cats don’t need me so I wreak my revenge on them by featuring dogs, loyal and adoring.

By now I’m sure you’ve seen the videos of dogs greeting their soldiers returning from the battlefield. They whimper, whine, bleat and throw all self respect to the wind as they celebrate their returning humans.  I hope you’ve also seen the video mocking the dogs’ throwing their canine dignity to the wind.  In the spoof, the master opens the door and calls out a name.  The next shot is of a cat, yawning and nonplussed, looking in the direction of the sound and then returning to slumber.  It’s funny–and all too true.  No doubt about it, for me dogs are the ones who can  be counted on to greet me at the door and know enough to wag their tails so they will be rewarded.

In Murder on Cinnamon Street, the dog’s name is Howler and like the dog Messy in my book Snoop, Howler is a mutt who gives the main character aid and comfort.  When no one else is there for my character E Clary, Howler is. Those of you who love dogs know this to be the case.  From the time we are little, we cry into our canine companions’ necks and sob away the troubles of our world.  I tried it with a cat once with no success and more than a few scratches.

ImageI love David Rosenfelt’s mysteries for a lot of reasons: their solid writing, well-plotted suspense-filled tales, and their dogs.  Rosenfelt is a dog loving nut like I am, and his memoir of moving over twenty dogs from California to Maine (Dogtripping) shows it.  But his fans love him for it.  In his books the dog never dies and is anthropomorphized humorously and, I think, realistically.  I read a story once in which the dog died at the end, and I never forgave the author. For those of you who have a boundless urge to punish yourself, I will tell you that the book was Farley Mowat’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be. Our tenth grade English teacher  had us read a condensed  version aloud in class and paid the price for his sloth with thirty high school sophomores, boys and girls, sobbing and yelling that they hated the  book and him. If that teacher is still alive, I’m sure he remembers his worst teaching day ever.  Other than that, he was a good and popular teacher.

ImageIn Snoop (I’m showing the  back because I’ve shown the front so much) the dog—spoiler alert!–is grievously injured, but I have made a promise to myself and my readers that no dog will die so I hope that consoles you.  I won’t ever hurt a dog and think those who do should suffer humiliation and torment for the rest of their lives.  Not long ago the dog torturer Michael Vick lamented that he felt bad his kids can’t have a dog.  I feel bad that he has children because I’m convinced if you can abuse one helpless creature, human or otherwise, you are  a threat to all creatures.

I won’t hurt dogs and will feature them in all my books.  And I will even have cats, as I do in Snoop, but  I won’t favor them.  They don’t need me, and like my main characters in Snoop and Murder on Cinnamon Street, I admit to needing to be needed.

By the way, I’m sure my two dogs Chloe and Hannah would love a cat, a diversion for their owner who spends far too much time talking to them and hugging them.  But it’s their tough luck they were born to bark and not to purr. 

 

 

Weiner and Fairplay

ImageWell, here’s another sterling example of our politicians letting us down.  In this case, as in most others, political affiliation doesn’t matter because all parties are guilty of gross negligence where public trust is concerned. Besides, that’s not what I want to blog about.  In observing the Weiner dilemma (Sorry, I can’t help smiling every time I write that), I have been surprised at the spectrum of reaction.  It goes from “Hang him high,” (Sorry, everything about this story seems to hold a double entendre) to “What difference does it make? It’s his personal life.” For me, this last reaction is easiest to refute since his personal life seemed to stand at attention all over the very public Internet.  However, the diversity of  outcry resurrected a phenomenon of which I’ve long been aware: if we like the person, we’ll excuse any and all behavior. If we find the person abhorrent, we’ll skewer him or her.

I  became aware of how easy it is to forgive those we like when I was first teaching, all those years ago.  Parents of students frequently marched into school to complain about teachers their children were forced to “suffer.” The complaints, while loud, were often innocuous. None of the offenders seemed to me to be particularly offensive.  One day when a student complained to me about something a teacher had done in class,  I responded with something like, “That doesn’t seem so bad. I’ve done the same thing.” “But we like you,” the student  said.

Ah ha! We defend those we like when they do something we might hate if an “enemy” perpetrated the same act.  If you don’t agree with me, Weiner apologists, put Dick Cheney (again the entendre is obvious) in the pictures floating all over the Internet. Would the act still seem silly? Harmless? This brings me to my question: Is it fair to have a double standard? Is it safe? Does moral relativity eventually hurt a person and a country? I think it does, but know that there are many who see it another way.

President Obama, to his defenders, is a man who hasn’t been able to reach greatness because his predecessor created insurmountable obstacles.  Our Governor here in Michigan, Rick Snyder, also inherited a mess from his “golden girl” predecessor, but the people who defend Obama excoriate Snyder.  It works with the other party, too.  They support spying when its generated by their cherished Conservative wing, but hate it when the Democrat administration continues it. Those who abhor abortion frequently defend capital punishment, and vice versa.

ImageI get tired of  waffling where basic principles are concerned because it doesn’t seem fair. And I work hard to be fair. When I take a position, I always try to see  the other party’s side or see the situation through the other  person’s eyes.   I admire politicians and others who don’t jump to the ideology their “side” reveres. They are thinkers, enigmas whose reactions often surprise and inform us.  What would I do if I were Obama, a relative newcomer to the traps and travails of leadership, immediately attacked by those hoping for me to fail? What would I do if I were Governor Snyder, heading a union-bound state whose largest city is in perhaps irreparable debt? The answers are suddenly no longer easy or simple. For me, courage  is built upon being able to look at what is fair and right and doing that which is not easy or popular. And it won’t always pay big dividends.  Doing the right thing cost both Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford their shots at greatness, for now, anyway.

ImageOne of the reasons I love literature is that in

fiction we frequently find the best approaches to universal dilemmas.  This picture is from the movie version of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, the book I had autographed for my son’s IU Law School graduation. I like to think my gift had a little part in why he chose to be a criminal defense attorney.  In the book, there is a courtroom scene almost as powerful as the Atticus Finch summation in To Kill a Mockingbird.  To wind up his defense of a black man who killed white men who hideously raped and tormented his small daughter, the young lawyer Jake Brigance poses the ultimate exercise in fair play. It’s the best way I can think of to end this Monday’s blog:

Jake Tyler Brigance: [in his summation, talking about Tonya Hailey] I want to tell you a story. I’m going to ask you all to close your eyes while I tell you the story. I want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to yourselves. Go ahead. Close your eyes, please. This is a story about a little girl walking home from the grocery store one sunny afternoon. I want you to picture this little girl. Suddenly a truck races up. Two men jump out and grab her. They drag her into a nearby field and they tie her up and they rip her clothes from her body. Now they climb on. First one, then the other, raping her, shattering everything innocent and pure with a vicious thrust in a fog of drunken breath and sweat. And when they’re done, after they’ve killed her tiny womb, murdered any chance for her to have children, to have life beyond her own, they decide to use her for target practice. They start throwing full beer cans at her. They throw them so hard that it tears the flesh all the way to her bones. Then they urinate on her. Now comes the hanging. They have a rope. They tie a noose. Imagine the noose going tight around her neck and with a sudden blinding jerk she’s pulled into the air and her feet and legs go kicking. They don’t find the ground. The hanging branch isn’t strong enough. It snaps and she falls back to the earth. So they pick her up, throw her in the back of the truck and drive out to Foggy Creek Bridge. Pitch her over the edge. And she drops some thirty feet down to the creek bottom below. Can you see her? Her raped, beaten, broken body soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen, soaked in her blood, left to die. Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl. Now imagine she’s white.

 

 

Potato Chips and Mysteries

ImageMost reviews of my books are generous and positive, but one was a scorcher. In the young reviewer’s mind,my books belong to a genre that she dismisses as “potato chip” books.  For the reviewer, the cozy mystery is unimportant, even trivial. To this, I respond: guilty and duh! I doubt that anyone who picks up either Snoop or Murder on Cinnamon Street will finish the book and exclaim, “At last I have unraveled the mystery of life! Thanks to Lyla’s books, I can go forward armed with invaluable and insightful answers to complex questions.”  Though I love the genre, I will never argue that the cozy mystery rivals War and Peace or Remembrance of Things Past. What I will argue is that people who  make time for the lighter moments of life and literature are  frequently happier people.  As a psychiatrist friend wisely told me, “Lyla, all things don’t have to be dark and serious to be worthwhile.” Enjoying yourself with a fun little book is highly worthwhile.

ImageYou may not know this, but Robert Galbraith is one of the world’s best selling writers. Well, maybe not Galbraith, but the author who uses the pseudonym certainly is. The media has been abuzz with the story of how JK Rowling, in order to avoid the critical treachery of using her real name and being judged against her wildly popular and critically-acclaimed Harry Potter series,  released a mystery in the vein of noir mysteries such as those of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, titled The Cuckoo’s Calling. I’m nearly two thirds of the way through it and absolutely love it. 

ImageThe style  and voice in Rowling’s mystery are reminiscent of the authors who gave the literary world its sacred fictitious detectives Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. The Cuckoo’s Calling is a clever and compelling mystery, but until word accidentally got out that Galbraith was Rowling, it had sold a mere fifteen hundred copies, which I find oddly comforting. Would my reviewer call it a “potato chip book”? Maybe. Especially if she were reviewing Galbraith. But I contend that Dashiell Hammett (shown in the picture on the left) and Raymond Chandler gave us much more than potato chips. They gave us an entire genre of detective fiction which in its day was eschewed by reviewers devoted to more “serious” novels. Today, however, these writers and others of their ilk occupy an important place in fiction and in the hearts of those of us who cut our wannabe-detective teeth on the stories they created.

Though I can’t speak for them, I feel sure that my publisher and fellow authors at Cozy Cat Press (CCP) would agree that  readers of cozy mysteries will not find answers to life’s most complex problems in the pages of their compelling and fun books, but I think my writing colleagues would also agree that their readers will discover one important fact: reading cozy mysteries won’t hurt you, shrink your brain, reduce your deductive or inductive reasoning skills, etc. To the contrary, picking up a cozy mystery and spending a couple of hours with it will provide you with well drawn characters, a solid mystery, and even a little humor and romance. Potato chips? Perhaps. Worth your time? Most certainly. A little starch never hurt anyone. Just be careful not to eat the whole bag.  Cozy mysteries, like potato chips, are highly addictive.

 

Race and Writing

ImageNo doubt about it.  This was a tough weekend. The Zimmerman decision took most Americans somewhere. I’d followed the trial because it encompassed so many themes of my own life, and because I am a courtroom junkie. The decision didn’t surprise me, nor did the reaction to it. What did surprise was how disenfranchised I felt–so white. I was no longer the friend, the teacher, the person who has devoted a great part of her life to making others feel worthwhile. I was, to many, merely “one of them.”

ImageOne of the terms that surfaced again and again as the trial was hashed and rehashed is “white privilege.” If you’re not aware of  the descriptor, Wikipedia covers it quickly. It’s a relatively new concept that puts white people, privileged people, in the role of “oppressor.” What is dangerous to me about this is that it is, like so many other themes, created to divide rather than blend, hugely divisive. It’s also dismissive of this country’s history. The Great Depression, The Dust Bowl, and so many other periods united Americans in shared suffering and poverty. Don’t get me wrong, all things being equal, I think it’s still far more difficult to be black in America–in the world for that matter– than white, but it’s that divisive them and us that I fight every step of the way. Rush, Al, and Jesse all have become rich by having us tear into each other.

ImageI’ve talked ad nauseum about writing cozy mysteries for Cozy Cat Press and the comfort I felt growing up in a small town. In that town, though, the fifties were like most other towns: racially divided. I was part of that divide as a privileged little white girl.  Don’t get too excited, my life took a turn in early high school that veered far from privilege. Anyway, there was a “black” part of town; only in that day it was not referred to as black. And though my classes were racially mixed and kids played together in school, black children and white children parted ways after school. This next part of the story will cast my mother in a not-so-good light but remember this was before Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the eloquence and magnificence of Dr. Martin Luther King. Because the Campfire leader had to step down, she asked my mother to take her place. Long story short, I loved that my mother was the new leader and wanted all my friends to be part of the group. One of the friends was a cute, smart little girl named Pat. She was kind, creative, fun–and black. I couldn’t imagine leaving her out.  Even though I was only about eight, when I asked my mother if Pat could join, I recognized her reluctance. But I wheedled so she caved. The first few meetings went well, and after each, I walked Pat halfway  to where she lived, on the other side of town. But mothers of the other girls started to complain that there was a black girl in the group. And, worse yet according to them, “other black girls want to join.” My mother had a lot of pressure on her so she did something which she later regretted, and which put me in a terrible spot. She told me I would have to tell Pat she couldn’t be part of the group. I was young and sick to my stomach when I told trust little Pat why she could no longer be part of the group. I don’t remember what I told her, but i know it wasn’t the truth. Fast forward sixty years to the obituary of a local man a few weeks ago. He had a last name I would never forget, and In the “surviving him” section was an aunt in North Carolina. I knew immediately it was my Pat, the little girl who had  haunted me. After weeks of debating with myself about whether or not I should, I phoned Pat. After a cheery conversation, I apologized for the Campfire Girls incident.  I could actually see the smile in her voice when she said, “I don’t remember that, Lyla. I just remember that  I stopped going. I want you to know, by the way, that I have had a wonderful life.” She has. She, her children, and husband are success stories. She has traveled widely and far from the small town where we both began. We’ve communicated a couple of times and fully intend to see each other when she comes back to Michigan.

So, like Paula Deen, I have had a racist moment or two in my life. I have since then, however, worked to be fair and nurturing to all people.  Teaching made it easy because when you have students you love, and with maybe two horrifying exceptions, I have loved my students, you truly see no color. Because my husband and I made sure that our own two children went to integrated schools, they have a level of comfort with racial difference that helps absolve the guilt I still feel for that heart-piercing incident so many decades ago.

ImageNow I’m a writer. And in publishing there is the whispered theory that white people should not write about people of color, that they somehow lack the understanding or right to tackle the racial divide. This goes against everything I know and believe and also would have eliminated characters like Haper Lee’s Tom Robinson and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn who taught me more than any textbook about race and its tortured history.  One of the reviews of my little mystery Murder on Cinnamon Street said that I had created in a housekeeper named Martha a kind of “Mammy” trope. I winced because in writing about Maurice’s housekeeper, I thought I had created a wise woman whose dialect reflected her lack of education, not intelligence. In the same book, I also put a best friend who is a young black woman with massive intellect and drive. I want my characters of color to be as broad and unique as other characters I create. I seems to me it would be dishonest to do anything else.

When I was teaching Wiesel’s Night, years ago, we began to discuss racial hatred and bias, one of my white students said, “Maybe we shouldn’t be discussing this, Mrs. Fox.” What happened this past weekend reaffirmed my feelings that we should be discussing it, but we should play fair. As I told my students that day in class, “This will work if we remember two things: one, that the people in this room didn’t make the problem and two, the problem isn’t over.”