I received the news of your passing yesterday morning in a simple text message from a friend I had been dating when I first met you. It seemed appropriate enough to hear the news from Kelly. Just as I had not seen you since that era of my life ended, it has been that long since I have seen Kelly as well.
We chatted a bit more via text about our own lives, catching up with our present-day challenges, and we ended with a mutual appreciation of the fragility of life. We shared a touch of gray for your passing as much as a touch of gratitude for the moment at hand, and then we said our goodbyes.
I wanted to spend a few lines thanking you for several things. (It’s been quite a long time, and quite frankly, I cannot remember if I ever took the time to let you know what I am about to share.)
I first met you in 1988 when I was a part-time reporter for the Calvert Independent newspaper, which shut down in January 0f 2011 after a 70-year run. Your latest book, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, was being released, and my assignment was to interview you about its upcoming launch.
Even though I was a teacher at the school your children attended, I was still scared as hell when I called your house and left a message. As a fledgling writer, I was overwhelmed by getting the chance to not only meet you, but actually interview you and ask you questions about writing and the writing life.
You returned my call later that night and left a brief message on my machine, identifying yourself as “TC” and telling me that the ball was in my court to call you back. I did so immediately, and a few days later, I arrived at your house for the interview.
You gave me a tour of your house, including your study where you did your writing. I was so impressed with the Macintosh II that you owned, with a super-sized screen unlike any I had ever seen. We settled down in another room for the interview, but before I could ask a single question, you prefaced our discussion with this:
“I will offer you the same deal that I give to anybody who interviews me (and that has been a lot of people). Ask me a question I’ve never been asked, and I will offer you a beer.”
I looked at my reporter’s notebook filled with the standard list of questions about the upcoming launch. No beer-worthy queries leaped from my pad.
As I went through my questions, you offered wonderful side-stories that allowed me to let my guard down just enough to let you know that I was working on a novel myself. You smiled, asked me a set of your own questions about my writing, and we continued our talk that ended up having little to do with Kremlin‘s release.
I left about an hour after I had arrived, and although my questions were not unique enough to get that offer for a beer, you gave me something much greater: a belief in myself as a writer.
In the years that followed, we met several times at book signings, school events, and even an impromptu meeting at the construction site for your house, where Tom (another teacher) and I drove to the land with our binoculars for some spectacular birdwatching. We never expected you to pull up, but when you did, you chatted with us for a good hour, and you told me that I was a “writer in diapers” who had a full career ahead of me. My colleague and I headed home soon thereafter. You always loved a good conversation, and I always appreciated that.
The greatest experience I remember with you, though, was at school following a talk and booksigning. Most of the guests had left, and you sought me out to ask how my writing was going, and if I was at the stage where I would be looking for an agent.
I shared with you the struggles of finding time to write, and you listened patiently while I told you how busy my life was. When I was finished, you smiled (as you always did), and shared some words of advice.
You told me that writers write. Period. We show up for work like everybody else, and we don’t make excuses. You talked about Shakespeare and others who wrote — not to be poetic or pretty, but to make a living.
At the end of our conversation, you looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Rus. Just write the damned thing.”
And I did. A few months later, you gave me the name and phone number of your agent, and I made the call. Although I ultimately ended up going the self-publishing route, talking with you and Robert Gottleib made everything real, attainable, and worthwhile.
Tom, I am deeply saddened by your passing. You always respected me as a writer and took the time to talk about the craft. I am grateful for the opportunities you gave me, and I have done my best to pass along the inspiring, no-frills encouragement to just write the damned thing to my own “writers in diapers” that I now teach.
We never really know how our impromptu meetings and words can change lives, but yours changed mine as a writer, a teacher, and an individual. I thank you for that, and I will continue to keep your words of advice close to me as I continue with my own writing.
With gratitude and sadness,