Two I'll Miss

Two more authors we lost in 2013 that meant something to me.

Elmore Leonard (1925-2013)

I discovered his books when I was just out of college, broke, living with my parents, and working at a crappy magazine company. I picked up a paperback of Glitz, his breakout bestseller, and it was a revelation. I had never “heard” characters talk this way. They seemed familiar, yet wholly original. I would later read an article by Gregg Sutter, Leonard’s researcher, whose job it was to track down and interview people like the ones Leonard wanted to feature in his next book. Leonard insisted that Sutter type up interview transcripts word for word so Leonard could ape the speaking style of his subjects. That’s one aspect the year-end tributes to Leonard rarely mentioned: the almost journalistic, nonfiction reportage that went into his thrillers. Looking back, I realize that Leonard was the first author who taught me the meaning of third-person limited voice. I can’t believe I graduated as an English/journalism major, took a slew of creative writing classes in college, and didn’t know this terminology. In j-school we just said we were “writing from inside the subject’s head or POV.” I loved a lot of Leonard’s books, though I never did get around to reading them all. I was sad to hear of his passing. 

Barbara Mertz (1927-2013)

She wrote mysteries under a number of pseudonyms, the most famous being Elizabeth Peters, but I first discovered Mertz’s nonfiction writing when I was researching an aspect of ancient Egypt for a book I did this year. Professionally she was an Egyptologist, and she wrote with casual confidence of scientific findings in such a way that you felt as if you were on an archaeological dig with a fascinating, elderly aunt of yours. I picked up a number of nonfiction titles about ancient Egypt in the course of my research, but none of them made those long-dead citizens of the Nile come to life as Mertz did. I’m glad I discovered her books. I don’t know that I could have written those few critical chapters of my character’s backstory without the vision of that world which she brought to life for me. Oddly, I remember thinking, “Geez, this writer’s really good. Who is she?” I looked her up online, and checked out her website. A few weeks later I learned that she had died.