Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Life to Celebrate: Phyllis Whitney, 1903-2008

Phyllis Whitney died on Friday of pneumonia. With her first book published in 1941 and her last in 1997, she bequeathed us a legacy of stories to thrill us for generations.

Sixty-six years of living a writing dream. We should all be so fortunate.

I was in my twenties, barely out of college and floundering in my teaching career, not loving it as I’d dreamed, and pondering whether I would actually stay in the field, or not. Choices? I really didn’t think I had them at that point. Newly married, trying to make my way in the world, how could I do anything different than what my four-year college degree had prepared me for? I wasn’t sure which way to turn.

I say this because it was about that time in my life when my then husband’s aunt handed me a book one afternoon. I remember it vividly. My mother-in-law had just finished reading it and was returning. The aunt took the book and pushed it toward me. “Here, you might like to read this. When you’re finished I’ll want it back.”

That book was The Stone Bull by Phyllis Whitney. I can’t remember all these years past whether it was the first of her books I’d ever read but it was the most memorable. I’m embarrassed to say that thirty-one years later, that book still sits on my shelf. I didn’t intentionally keep it, just life got on the way (divorce, etc.) and it was never returned.

I’d come across it from time to time and re-read. To me, there was something magical about that book. Perhaps it was because I could get lost in it at a time in my life when my every day was a little miserable. Fighting middle-schoolers all day long was quickly sucking the life out of me. I’m still amazed I managed to teach them for ten years. But books like, The Stone Bull, helped me escape once in a while and to push rebellious adolescents out of my head.

I’m now a writer myself. My path has been long and round-about to get here but the stories always spurred me on. Those in my head, and those of other authors, Ms. Whitney’s definitely at the top of the list. I have read many Whitney books over the years. I have her Guide to Fiction Writing on my shelf, studied it intently many years ago. I know I’ll read and re-read her books again in the future. And recently, I pitched a book to my editor stating that Murder on the Mountain was written in a Phyllis Whitney plot style, even though it was not written in first person. Funny, but when titling Murder on the Mountain, I was thinking again of The Stone Bull, even after all these years have passed, and wonder if subconsciously, that story was urging me on once more.

The book was accepted and will be released in the next year. That book was the first manuscript I’d ever completed and it has been sitting on my virtual computer shelf for a long, long time. It has gone through a number of revisions and iterations, but it will now see its day.

In her book, Guide to Fiction Writing, Ms. Whitney wrote, “Never mind the rejections, the discouragement, the voices of ridicule…Work and wait and learn, and that train will come by. If you give up, you’ll never have a chance to climb aboard.”

Thank you, Ms. Whitney, for The Stone Bull and your wise words. We writers thrive and rely on patience and persistence, although they are sometimes difficult pills to swallow. You’ve left us with not only a lengthy backlist of your titles to enjoy again and again, but a legacy of dedication to your craft that we all can learn from.

May you rest in peace and your spirit live forever in your stories.


Catherine Chernow said...

A wonderful tribute, Maddie. Very moving.

Anonymous said...

Hey Maddie! Hope life is treating you well.

Phyllis Whitney was a wonderful writer and story teller. I've enjoyed reading her work throughout my life and she will be missed.


Cassie Exline said...

What a sad, sad day to learn of the passing of Phyllis Whitney. I also enjoyed the Stone Bull many times and quite a few of her other books.

Judith Rochelle said...

I can;t believe you mentioned The Stone Bull. That is my very favorite Whitney book. I have all of them and still reread them on a regular basis. What a wonderful storyteller she was, and she brought so much pleasure to so many people. Your tribute to her is very moving. I think she has influenced the lives of everyone whio has ever read one of her books.

Maddie James said...

Thanks all for your comments. It is nice to know that I share in the love of Whitney's stories with all of you.


James Goodman said...

A very touching tribute, Maddie. You've done her a great service here.