by Kathleen Ernst
Last week I got my first hate letter, from a reader who so disliked Old World Murder that she felt compelled to track me down and tell me so. Angry Reader criticized my “agenda” which, she said, included racism, feminism, and recycling. She concluded by saying that the only thing she liked was the cover, and that she’d never again buy another book of mine. Ever.
The plot of Old World Murder does celebrate women’s history, and protagonist Chloe does makes a negative comment about someone who is a racist. So yes, I guess you can tar me with those brushes.
The recycling thing was a bit more bewildering. Perplexed, I returned to the manuscript, and found this line: “When Chloe spotted a recycling bin on one of the landings, she stopped long enough to discard the photocopies she’d made for her intern.” That was it.
I always respond to letters and email from readers. In this case I wanted to say something along the lines of “I’m sorry you were disappointed. No one book is a good fit for every reader, and I hope the next one you try is much more to your liking,” and leave it at that. Since I suspect this reader’s ire had to do with issues a whole lot bigger than one mystery novel, though, I broke my own rule and hit the delete key.
The next day I got another email with Old World Murder in the subject line. I will admit that for 2 seconds I wondered if Angry Reader had asked a friend to hit me with another blast. This letter, though, was from a reader who loved the book. She loved the story. She loved the writing. She wants to spend more time with the characters.
She concluded with this: “Old World Murder was a reminder to me that stories are powerful and they make us better, ordinary people live extraordinary lives, and everyone who lives is a part of history.”
I write stories to entertain, but I do focus on things that matter to me—things I am passionate about. In this case, Nice Reader didn’t just like my book (which would have been plenty!), she understood what I was hoping to do. And she took the time to tell me so. Since I couldn’t reach through cyberspace and give her a hug, I sent a response that I can only hope means as much to her as her note did to me.
These two letters reminded me that when we choose to put our work out there, we can’t predict where it will land. When we choose to become professional writers, we have to accept the whole notion of public censure or approval. All I know to do is roll with the negatives, and take time to celebrate every upbeat moment you can.
PS – On the day this post goes live, I’ll be in the middle of a week spent as a volunteer docent, living in and providing tours of an old lighthouse on an island in Lake Michigan. I promise to respond to all communications—well, almost all—as soon as I return.