Wednesday, April 4, 2012

On Dealing With Reviews

Some writers say they never read reviews of their books. Quite simply, since there is a significant amount of ego within most artists in any field -- actors, singers, painters, dancers, etc -- that I have met, I find it difficult to believe that those writers who say that they have no interest in accolades of their work. The thing is we get reviews from very strange places, which brings me to an interesting little story of one of my best.

When my novel, Lowcountry Boil, came out I was a little nervous. Not because of the quality of the work, writers I greatly respect -- Pat Conroy, Steve Berry, les Standiford, Carolyn Hart and others -- had already given me great compliments, which I read and re-read many, many times, savoring each positive comment. What made me nervous was that it was loosely based on an actual event in Beaufort, South Carolina, a nine hundred million dollar marijuana conspiracy. What interested me was not the drug story, but the fact that it was run by many of the town's most significant professional citizens, some of whom went to jail and are now back practicing their professions. It also included shrimpers, boat captains, environmental law officers, contractors and others.

I didn't receive threats or derogatory remarks when the book came out, but I was never quite sure that there were not some people waiting for the proper situation to seek some retribution, even though the characters were totally fictional, which no one believed. Quite a few people in town bragged about how much they knew about the conspiracy or that they could identify each character in the book. Even Pat Conroy said I wrote "faction not fiction". The fact that I hadn't received midnight calls or messages in my mail box constructed with letters cut out of newspapers did not remove all of my apprehension.

A few months after the book's release, I was having dinner at an eclectic "shotgun" bar on Saint Helena Island. On "hamburger night" the crowd was as eclectic as the bar itself. They had the best hamburgers and spread of food one can imagine. Lawyers, doctors, shrimpers, laborers and retired people from some of the area's most exclusive communities and all for $6.95. The bar is in a remote area of the island and has a small parking lot, bordered by a wooded area.

I had gotten there late and had to park in the back next to the woods. it was not a lit parking area. Very dark. As I was walking to my car, I was nervous. Would have been even if I hadn't written a book. Suddenly out of the woods came two men who could have been cast in James Dickey's "Deliverance", beards, baseball cap and big loads of dip under their lower lip. I noticed all this. I'm a writer, which at that point I wished I weren't. Needless to say, I became more tense, but the car was only a few feet ahead. Suddenly I heard a voice. Now you must read this with a southern accent with a mouth full of dip...

"Carl?" the voice said. I won't say what my bodily functions threatened at that moment.

"Yes," I answered tentatively, eyeing the distance to the car. The two men moved forward. Close. I could smell the Copenhagen.
"You wrote that book, Lowcountry Boil, didn't you?" one said, his face inches from mine. I tried to think of what Sam Larkin, the leading character in the book would have done, but nothing came to mind.

"Yes," I said, my panic beginning to grow.

The man brought his face even closer. I think it was the Copenhagen. "Well, let me tell you somethin', son, that's the finest book I ever read and you can look at me and tell I ain't the book-readin' type." He shook my hand with his own calloused one.

"That's right," the other man said.

"Thank you," I said and they moved on.

As I drove home, I realized I had been given one of the greatest reviews I would ever receive. If I could write something that appealed to Pat Conroy and the "gentlemen" I met in the parking lot, I had covered a wide spectrum of opinion. I patted myself on the back and smiled all the way to my front door. It had been a great night.