From left, Margaret Maron, Katy Munger, Sarah Shaber, and Lise McClendon at the 2015 Bouchercon mystery writers convention, where Margaret received the Lifetime Achievement Award.
I have started and stopped several blog posts over the past week but nothing felt right until I realized that what I really wanted to do was to write about the recent loss of Margaret Maron and what she meant to me.
For those of you unfamiliar with her work, Margaret was a North Carolina-based writer of mysteries — over 20 novels in all. She had many, many friends in the world of writing and her death is a blow to everyone who knew her. I am not the first writer who has felt the need to express what she meant to them, nor will I be the last. I think, perhaps, that finding the right words to describe how we feel is how writers process their grief. We will all have different stories to tell when we remember Margaret, of course, but I am certain that what we all share is the need to mark her passing — a tribute to the impact Margaret had on our worlds.
I keep my private life very private, no doubt a byproduct of growing up in a house full of nine people and little privacy. Because of this, few people know that Margaret occupied a very special place in my life, irrespective of us both being writers: Margaret was one of the few people left in this world who knew, and remembered, my mother and father well. She became friends with my father during his days as a book reviewer for the News & Observer (he was an enthusiastic fan of her work). She knew my mother as well, thanks to overlapping social circles and her attendance at my parents’ infamous New Year’s Eve parties, parties that can only be defended by explaining that, hey, it was the 60’s and 70’s after all. Knowing my parents went well beyond casual friendship, thanks to Margaret’s extraordinary ability to observe people and see beyond their facades. In short, she understand both the good and the not-so-good of growing up the way I did. As was the case with everyone else she met, Margaret never judged — but she did understand that some of the things I inherited from my childhood created challenges for me as an adult. Knowing this, she was willing to act as my surrogate mother when needed, even though she was not really old enough to be my mother and liked to remind me of that fact. Margaret was my own personal swing shift, someone in the middle between my age and my parents’ age, someone who knew what each generation had gone through. It meant a lot to me that she understood me in this way. Especially when, one day, after one of her readings, she told a lifelong friend of mine: “Katy is the best of her mother and father.” She was casting no aspersions on my siblings. She simply meant that, in her view, I embodied the best traits of my mother and the best traits of my father. This was far too kind an assessment of my character, mind you, but it did become my goal as I made my way through life. I will be forever grateful to her for seeing me through such generous eyes.
Perhaps because she knew from whence I came, there several times when Margaret was the tether and I was the balloon sputtering and tearing through the room as if someone had untied the knot in my neck. She was patient about this and gave me a lot of leeway in how I could act without getting “the look” from her. But, oh, when you did get that look? Trust me, it was more eloquent than any passage in her books could be.
One time, about ten years or so ago, the Durham County Library held a roast of her at the Washington Duke Inn as a way of celebrating a Triangle-wide group read of her books. I interpreted the idea of a roast in a very Don Rickles kind of way and arrived for my portion of the presentation with what I thought was a hilarious idea: keeping in mind that Margaret’s books were always squeaky clean and seldom featured anything having to do with sex (the odd statue or two aside), I thought it would be hysterical to take straightforward sentences from her books and put them together in a way that cast them in a whole new light. Trust me, when you have a dirty enough mind, you can do this to anyone. It did not take me long to put together a wildly inappropriate micro-story, which I read in a highly salacious manner, that consisted of sentences patched together from a number of her books. Some people in the audience thought it was hilarious, a few looked like they were going to beat me about my arms and legs with their pocketbooks for disrespecting Margaret, while Margaret herself sat there with absolutely no expression on her face until I was done. This terrified me. Later, I came up to her and apologized, fearing that I had offended her.
“Well, Katy,” she said, giving me the look, “It was a roast after all. But I worked very hard on those sentences and am dismayed to think they might be interpreted that way.” Then she laughed heartily at my penitent expression — much to my relief.
This ability of hers to simultaneously offer both acceptance and gentle judgment was a gift. She taught me a lot about boundaries, both in books and in life, and she certainly taught me to appreciate who other people were without the need for sugarcoating their foibles.
Margaret was also one of those rare people who are authentically themselves in every situation. This is hard to find in the writing world. After all, fiction writers specialize in pretending. But Margaret never seemed to be anyone other than who she was. I think this ability probably came from the contentment she felt about her life. She loved and appreciated her Johnston County roots, every branch of her family tree, her ability to write as an avocation and then see that writing published, and, most of all, her friends, her beloved husband Joe, their son John and his family — especially her granddaughters, who should know how very, very proud we all are of them as a result.
It was this contentment with her life that grounded Margaret's writing, gave her the ability to depict the South authentically, and made her books resonate with so many readers. It also allowed her to put her ego on the back burner and rejoice in the good fortune of other writers. She was always somewhat surprised when she won an award and I never once heard her begrudge someone else winning an award instead. She celebrated when other writers landed on a bestseller list and downplayed it when she held that same vaunted position. She understood that someone else’s success does not take away from the possibilities for your own. She considered herself lucky to have come from where she did and to have landed where she did and, to her, that truly was enough. Everything else was icing. That, alone, is a beautiful attitude that we could all learn from.
One of the things I admired most about Margaret as a writer was the integrity of her characters. She had a very clear view of who they were, where they came from, and where their moral compasses began and ended. I was fortunate to be part of a group of writers who, for many years, got together at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines for a working retreat. There, we would write all day and gather in the mornings and evenings to discuss the plot challenges we were having and to share what our characters were up to. Often, we would give each other ideas to move a book forward. We all brought different perspectives to these meetings, and sometimes one or more of us would propose that her characters behave in ways that, Margaret felt, were not quite genuine enough. Just like in real life, she had the courage to hold the line. With a gentle comment like, “That doesn’t sound like something Deborah or Sigrid would do,” she would protect their integrity without squelching whatever creativity, however misguided, the rest of us had brought to our suggestions.
That's Margaret in the middle at left, laughing during a Weymouth photo shoot.
Margaret was also a lot of fun. Each December, those of us who attended Weymouth together and who were near enough to do so, would trek out to her farm, celebrate the holidays with her and Joe, then gather greenery to take home for decorations. We would pile onto her golf cart, with Margaret at the wheel, and zoom over the acres of her beloved home, admiring the Christmas-like green and red of the fir branches and berries we stuffed into large garbage bags like burglars. And, of course, we always visited the ever-growing flock of flamingos that had found a home with Margaret and Joe. I am very proud to say that I substantially contributed to that flock when, having used at least three dozen pink plastic flamingos at the NC legislative building for some now-forgotten political protest, rather than throwing them away afterward, I loaded them up in my car, drove out to Margaret’s farm and secretly added them to her flamingo garden. I still take joy in imagining the morning she looked out the window of her office, spotted a sea of flamingos in the distance and wondered, however briefly, if a few dozen real ones had decided to stop by. Today, those flamingos have started to fade, a sign of their age — indeed, a sign of all of us aging. But I do believe, for the rest of my days, that whenever I see a flamingo, whether plastic or real, I will most certainly think of Margaret.
In short, Margaret’s impact extended far beyond her books. Yes, there is a permanent hole in the world of mysteries that will never be filled, one caused by her passing. But there is also a permanent hole in my heart, and, whether you realize it or not, a hole in the world as well.
Godspeed, Margaret, you were the best of us all — may you walk into Valhalla with the sun on your face.