Wednesday, December 3, 2014

My First Three Authors—or RIP P.D. James

By Kay Kendall

     When I was the age of 20 through 45, I only had occasion to see live, in person, three authors of note. The first was Truman Capote, soon after In Cold Blood became a bestseller. He stepped out on the basketball court of Allen Field House at the University of Kansas, a diminutive figure in a place usually dominated by giants. 
     He smiled faintly at a crowd of a thousand people and began to read immediately from his non-fiction account of the murder of the Klutter family on a farm in western Kansas. He hypnotized the audience with his performance, despite his voice being so high-pitched that it almost squeaked. In Cold Blood went on to become today’s second highest selling true crime book of all time—behind only Helter Skelter about the Manson murders.
P.D. James, 1920-2014
          One of my majors in college was English literature so it was natural for me to be in awe of famous authors whose work I admired. While I never got closer to Mr. Capote than the length of three cars, I sat at the feet, literally, of Margaret Atwood when she read her poetry to an adoring throng of women at the University of British Columbia some four years later. Strangely, this author’s gig also occurred in a gymnasium—although much smaller in size of room and audience than Capote had had. When Atwood finished reading one poem that really captured my heart, I embarrassed myself by gasping aloud and clapping ahead of the other audience members.
         Twenty years after the Atwood encounter, I saw a notice in the Houston Chronicle stating that P.D. James would appear at a Border’s bookstore on a coming Sunday. Excitement flooded through me at this news. I’d read and enjoyed all her mysteries and decided to attend this book signing. I’d never been to one before and figured she would be an excellent choice to start with.
         That hallowed day dawned wet and gloomy. Undeterred by the rain, I drove half way across Houston (no small undertaking) to meet P.D. James and to have her sign her latest mystery, Original Sin. The ninth book in her series starring Commander Adam Dalgleish featured murder afoot in a publishing company in London.
         I arrived early at the bookstore but rather bedraggled from tramping across the parking lot in torrents of rain. Houston was experiencing what I’d learned to call its version of a monsoon. Once inside the store, I was told by staffers that Ms. James’s plane was delayed by the weather, but she was expected to appear shortly. We were encouraged to wait. A group of thirty did so.
         After an hour had passed, the throng had dwindled by half. The restless remnant was told the author would come, no matter what, but it might be a long while. I turned to a women beside me and said, in honor of the author’s British heritage, “In for a penny, in for a pound.”
         After a total of three hours, P.D. James finally arrived. By that time only five dauntless readers remained. I was second in line. She signed my book and talked pleasantly with me for several minutes. I was so thrilled I thought I might levitate.
         Looking back two decades later, I no longer recall what we talked about. I do remember how kind and gracious she was. Meeting P.D. James remains a high point in my life.
         When I read of her passing last week at the age of 94, of course I recalled my shining moments talking with her. Knopf Vintage, her longtime publisher, calls P.D. James “the everywhere adored queen of crime fiction,” and she certainly was that for me. 
          I think it is important to meet one’s heroes, to learn that they are flesh and blood like you, in order to be inspired to follow in their foot steps, in whatever small way possible. Had the august author been too tired and cranky after her travel delay to appear or to be gracious when she spoke with me, who knows if I would have gone on to write my own murder mysteries?
My generation of boomers coined the term groupie.  I realize now that term applies to me. I am a groupie of certain authors. No, not in the regular sense since I don’t want to sleep with my favorite authors. I simply want to BE them.
Have you had similar memorable encounters with authors who resonated with you? I hope you have, and if so, I'd love to hear your tales. Please share.
 Kay Kendall set her debut novel, DESOLATION ROW--AN AUSTIN STARR MYSTERY in 1968. The sequel is Rainy Day Women, will be out in 2015. Her amateur sleuth Austin Starr must prove her best friend didn't murder women’s liberation activists in Seattle and Vancouver. A fan of historical mysteries, Kay wants to do for the 1960s what novelist Jacqueline Winspear accomplishes for England in the 930s–write atmospheric mysteries that capture the spirit of the age. Kay is also an award-winning international PR executive who lives in Texas with her husband, three house rabbits, and spaniel Wills. Terribly allergic to the bunnies, she loves them anyway! Her book titles show she’s a Bob Dylan buff too. 



  1. Kay,

    What lovely stories. I attended Washington and Lee and once had the opportunity to meet Tom Wolfe (also an alum). I was star-struck. So too, when I met Frank McCourt.

    1. Those are great writers, Julia. I would still love to meet Tom Wolfe. I hope he wore his traditional garb--a white suit--when you met him.

    2. Of course. Does he ever wear anything else?

  2. I met Cokie Roberts last September. We had about 10 minutes together and she was absolutely gracious. She even posed for a photo with me. I''m still thrilled!

  3. Kay, I think it's natural for those who want to be writers to look up to published writers and want to meet them. Fortunately, most writers are quite lovely people.

  4. Ha! I was just testing to see if I could comment from a different browser, and it worked. Yay!

    I have had the great fortune to meet a number of distinguished writers in the literary world and become good friends with some of them--Sandra Cisneros, Gwendolyn Brooks, Etheridge Knight, Luis Alberto Urrea, Diane Glancy, Marjorie Agosin, Linda Hogan--and of course, tons of wonderful authors in the mystery/thriller genre. My experience has been that the bigger they are, the nicer they are, usually. Any pettiness is usually only found in authors at the very bottom of the pecking order.

  5. Pam, thank you for sharing your experience. I have a friend who works in PR who reveres Cokie Roberts. Linda, I'm so glad you can now comment by using a different browser. Yay! I believe I've written here before about the niceness of the mystery/thriller writers as a group. They are a joy, by and large.

  6. I was a Jan Burke fan and could hardly believe it when Friends of the Library sponsored her in my dinky town of Springville. I was delighted to meet her, buy her latest books and get it autographed. Ran into her again at Mayhem in the Midlands, our spouses were on a hilarious panel with other spouses including William Kent Krueger's spouse. Going home from Omaha, we sere stranded by a storm in the Omaha airport and we sat together and her hubby played his guitar.Got to see and hear Denns Lehane chatting with a few cronies in a bar also in Omaha. Probably the best of all is William Kent Krueger, love his books, met him and his wife at Mayhem in the Midlands, he and my husband tried to outdo each other in dramatic acting at a mystery dinner, and I consider him a friends. He greets me with a hug whenever I bump into him at a mystery con. Love his books.

  7. That all sounds grand, Marilyn! It makes the somewhat lonely life of an author so much nicer, to have these connections with other writers. I met William Kent Krueger and his wife briefly at last August's Killer Nashville, where he gave a DYNAMITE talk. Knocked all our socks off! For sure a nice human being to boot, as is his wife. Warms my heart to think of them. I just finished reading his ORDINARY GRACE about ten days ago. A wonderful book. Even though I would not call it a mystery, no not really but then...who cares?!