by Hugh Gilmore
Back in March I reported that a recent Neilsen BookScan showed that the richest authors of the past ten years all wrote schlock (my opinion, not Neilsen’s). I reacted with a column titled “Writers alert: Another reminder that you can’t have it all.” (March 26). I said that the odds are against honest writers making real money. “The only serious money being made today in the world of movies and fiction, even in memoirs, is made by defending dishonest fantasies.”
I advised beginning writers, “You should write your honest book in an honest fashion. But you should write it because you need to tell your story. And because you believe your story should be told. And most of all, because you love to write.”
The earth did not shake. I heard nothing back, neither good nor bad, after publishing that piece. Most people probably wrapped fish with it, recycled it, or used it for puppy training. One copy, however, lay waiting on a table at Northwest Physical Therapy in Flourtown, where 78-year-old Pierre E. Richards, of Wyndmoor, picked it up to read on an exercise bike. When he got home he emailed me:
“I read your article recently about not expecting authors of “literary” fiction to get rich but to go ahead and write anyway. Good advice, but I have already been doing that for years. I was a trust company manager and Certified Financial Planner, but I should have been doing something else because my checkbook is usually out of balance. So when I retired, I returned to my English major roots and began writing books. What else are we English majors good for?
“The first book was something called ‘The Trustee’s Guide.’ I published it through the Connecticut Bar Association after dealing with two other publishers. Publishing taught me not to deal with editors and publishers, whom I found to be too bossy for my tastes.
After that I wrote a memoir about my dead Chinese wife called “Remember Me and Love Me,” which I self-published just to have one copy for myself.
Then I wrote two more books, novels based loosely on my relationships with the two most important women in my life. I didn’t try to publish either of these because (1) I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feeling, and (2) I didn’t want to be sued by a reader who clapped his hand to his head and said, ‘That’s me!’
“Now I am writing something called “Hanging Out With the Rhine Maidens,” which is about how Wagner’s librettos for the Ring Cycle operas evolved from possible historical events which became legends and eventually were turned into epics over the centuries. When the hero accidentally conjures up Welgunde, Woglinde and Floshilde, they are old and worn out, but they take him back in time through dreams and encounters with history that help him see how the epics gradually took shape.
“I’m asked why I don’t try to publish. The answers, in addition to the two reasons given above, are (1) at best I would be in the middle of the C-list of published authors, so why add to the glut? And (2) my enjoyment is in putting a book together, not adding up royalties or answering fan mail. It is like doing a crossword puzzle or a jigsaw puzzle, where the accomplishment lies in finishing it. You don’t need an onlooker leaning over your shoulder and saying, ‘Good choice!’ every few minutes.”
I had to read Mr. Pierre’s email three times. Was he serious? Was he a crank? He had such amazing subject matter and he felt compelled to write about it, but he didn’t care if his writing got published. No, wait: he actually did not WANT them published. Could that be true? He said he wanted to write the truth as he saw it, but he didn’t want to hurt anyone. And he didn’t want to get sued if he wasn’t clever enough to disguise the personae in his books.
I was busy, so I was tempted to just send him a thank you note for the email and let it go at that. But his tone had captivated me. Too many questions had been aroused. His “dead” wife? His “dead Chinese” wife. Who was she? How did they meet? Had he ever been married before? What about the two books he’d mentioned – were they commercially available? The book about his wife – why had he had only one copy printed? What did it say? Where was it available? And who were the other loves of his life?
I wrote back and told him that his letter had touched and impressed me. He seemed like such an extreme example of what I’d described in that March 26 column – a person who genuinely writes for psychic, emotional, spiritual and intellectual pleasure. (Relief?)
Mr. Richards wrote back, saying he appreciated my interest.
“Remember Me and Love Me,” is a memoir about my Chinese wife who became mentally ill and took her own life in 2002. Its availability was unintentional. I published it through Xlibris just to have one copy for myself, and later found it is still available for sale.
The other books stay in my computer, but if you want a sample, here is a chapter from “Made For Each Other.” The title is ironic. The two main characters deserved each other – in the worst sense of the phrase. I’d prefer that you don’t share this, as some of the names belong to real people, although most of them are dead by now.
I read the 10,000-word chapter he sent me. The excerpt was amazingly good. Witty, sophisticated, sexy, keenly observed, interesting and honest. Great characters, two of them trickily beginning to interact in ways that just might wind up ruining them both. And that’s how I became a fan of the unpublished, unknown and possibly unknowable writer who already had what sounded like a great pen name: Pierre E. Richards.
We began corresponding. Some of what follows next week might knock your socks off. Till then.