A Sad December: Tribute to Two Giants

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen further than others, but with my writing, I’ve certainly stood on the shoulders of giants. Unfortunately, two of them slipped away in December.

The first was the world famous mystery writer Sue Grafton! I discovered Grafton early in her alphabet series. I’d consumed mysteries since I got to chapter books, but after I graduated from Nancy Drew, it seemed they were all by guys–the MacDonalds, Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker, Rex Stout. When I discovered Grafton, a female writer with a spunky, female protagonist, I fell in love. I’d wait for her books to come out and buy them in hardcover.

One of many books along the way.

When I started to write mysteries, her voice guided me. I met her once at a Left Coast Crime convention, surprised by how petite and unassuming she was. We were alone together at a table in the book room.

I was so intimidated and amazed, I barely managed to speak. One of my regrets is not making more of that opportunity. I hope I managed to tell her I was a fan and read all of her books. At the time, only a few years ago it seems, she was so vibrant. It’s shocking that she’s gone.

Then, the other day in The Chronicle, I sadly noticed that Dorothy Bryant also died in December. Bryant was not as famous as Sue Grafton, but she had an equally big impact on me. While Grafton modeled the type of mystery I wanted to write, Dorothy Bryant modeled a writer’s life.

Originally Dorothy Calvetti, Bryant was born in San Francisco. Although 24 years my senior, she earned her MA in creative writing at San Francisco State, as did I, and went on to teach English, as did I.

Early in my teaching career a colleague gave me Bryant’s novel, Miss Giardino, about an embittered, spinster English teacher who ends up burning down the school.

Hopefully my colleague was not trying to tell me something!

I went on to read all of Bryant’s fiction, astounded at her range–a memoir-like book, a mystery, even a sci-fi novel. This was not a woman branded by a publishing house, but a free spirit exploring, who seemed to be thinking, “I wonder if I could do that.”

She did–quite successfully. Her first book, Ella Price’s Journal, was traditionally published by Lippincott. Little did I know back then that the subsequent works were self-published. This was long before self-publishing became common, popular and easy. Bryant was so good at the business that her science fiction novel was picked up by Random House under the title The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You.

Bryant was never Sue Grafton famous, but the vast majority of writers never will be. When I heard Bryant speak, it was not at a writers’ conference, but at an Asilomar teachers’ conference, where she had a devoted fan base. I admired the way Bryant had carved out her identify as a writer on her own terms. As the obituary noted, she “defied the ‘rules’ of life.”

While I seldom keep books anymore, and certainly haven’t hung on to my Grafton mysteries, one book remaining on my shelf is Writing a Novel, signed to me by Dorothy Bryant.

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