I take an unusual interest in the dedications at the beginnings of novels. I don’t skip that page like most people probably do; in fact, I spend time ruminating on the circumstances that led to the dedication. Wives, children, parents—usually pretty obvious. Sometimes the author will supply an explanation, but often a cryptic “for Jane” will be all the reader has for clues. Months later I’ll be reading an interview with the author and something he says will make a connection back to that dedication. I try to guess, often with scant clues, why the author chose his/her particular dedicatee. A mystery even before the story begins. Prolific authors get to pick a lot more dedicatees, so eventually they get around to editors, agents, random acquaintances, pets. Debut authors like me, though, we have a tougher job of it. We’ve no way of knowing if our pens will dry up, our minds go dark, if we’ll ever write another book. Our first dedication has to count.
Still, I never had a doubt about my debut dedication. Later this year I’ll get to share in the collective thrill of debut authors whose first books are being released, but I don’t think I’ll ever again feel that particular sense of accomplishment I felt when I finished the last draft of the book, wrote the dedication—“for my grandfather, William Henry Pepin, Jr.”—and printed out a copy to send him in the mail. It was September 2006, two weeks after his eightieth birthday. I was a bit ashamed because I’d meant to finish my final edits and mail him the book for his birthday—but of course I took longer than I expected. I was doubly bummed because I hadn’t been able to fly up to New Hampshire for his party, not in the middle of my first semester of a PhD program. It was a surprise party with family members from all over the country, and I couldn’t make it. I did call him that day, asked him if he was surprised at the turnout. He said he was having a good time. It’s a good excuse to have a beer, he said, one of his usual droll understatements.
Despite my regrets, he got the book in the mail. He militantly guarded the manuscript so that no other members of the family could get a hold of it. My cousin Chris, in particular, would drill him for details whenever they got together to watch the Patriots and drink beers and eat popcorn. But Papa—that’s what I call him, what all us grandkids call him—he wouldn’t budge. Not a word. See, Chris didn’t always want to read the book. When we were kids I traumatized him with ghost stories, so he’d already had enough of my fiction. But then for research I borrowed some of his motorcycle books while he was serving in Iraq (that’s right, my “scardey-cat” cousin went to Iraq, something I could never do). Once Chris knew there’d be motorcycles in the book, he was sold. But still Papa wouldn’t divulge anything of what he was reading, except to say that indeed there were some motorcycles in the book.
Nor would Papa tell my grandmother much about the book—not because he wanted her to wait for the published version, but because we’d all sort of agreed that she probably shouldn’t read it at all. Ever. She can be proud of me by looking at the spine of the novel as it sits on her shelf, but she probably shouldn’t actually open it. “Your grandfather says somebody gets decapitated in the first chapter,” she told me on the phone two months ago. “Not decapitated,” I told her. “Just shot in the face.” “I don’t think I’ll be reading that any time soon,” she said.
But my grandfather was just as eager to read it as I was to let him read it. He took a couple weeks finishing it. For him, the window between opening a book and falling asleep is pretty narrow, so two weeks is pretty good. Recently, I listened to an interview with James Patterson in which he explained why he wrote such short chapters with very little detail. Patterson said he did it for the “working person” who only had five minutes to knock off a chapter or two before bedtime. Although my grandfather didn’t really start reading until after he retired, he was still exactly that working man that Patterson was aiming for. Papa loved Patterson and other no-nonsense suspense and mystery writers bent on snagging the average guy or gal as a reader: Dean Koontz, John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell.
My grandfather retired about fifteen years ago, so his awakening to reading coincided with my getting serious as a writer. I loved that he had become a reader, even if we didn’t really share a taste for the same authors. I had literary ambitions because I was in college learning how to Write with a capital W, and he was just looking for entertainment. Still, we’ve talked about fiction a lot over this past decade, and we’ve never been closer as a grandfather and grandson. That’s saying a lot—because my father wasn’t around much when I was a kid, and Papa often filled in for that absence.
Papa would read my short stories as they got published, and often he was baffled. He didn’t like the kind of “open,” character-based endings that are frequent in “literary” fiction. He’d praise the writing but shrug at my endings. But even when I was a pretentious youth scoffing at the crime genre, he and I still shared an interest in the macabre, the violent and the mysterious in fiction. Yet over the years, I’ve kept leaning closer and closer to his way of thinking. I gave James Ellory a shot and saw a genius who could write with the same depth and originality as any capital-W Writer. I gave Michael Connelly a shot and loved it, even though it fit snugly inside of genre conventions. Soon Papa and I were trading books, mostly Connelly and Leonard. He grew to love Connelly and like Leonard (who sometimes indulges in those open endings Papa didn’t like). He gave up on James Ellroy right quick, as I assumed he would.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about writing his novels toward an ideal reader, which in King’s case is his wife Tabitha. Once I realized Pyres was going to be a crime novel, I also realized that my grandfather was going to be the closest I’d get to an ideal reader. I still wanted to do some tricks with theme and character that Papa wouldn’t have much patience for, but I vowed to keep the story lean and tense, keep him interested with plenty of suspense and violence. I wanted to see if I could hold back his nap for another few minutes. I also wanted to show him that I could dedicate myself to a project this big and get it done—because he was always instrumental in my learning the value of hard work.
When Papa was a working man, he was a dental technician. He made dentures. I grew up around his dental lab, visiting often to see him in a white apron and a white face mask, with wet plaster on his hands and rows of dentures on his shelves. I saw him stooped over a Bunsen burner, melting pink wax into the shape of human gums. I’d sit and eat his root beer barrel candies or his potato sticks and I’d watch him at his delicate, exacting work, shaping a tooth with a metal pick.
He was a perfectionist at his job, and he impressed on me his Protestant work ethic. It’s gotten me through a lot of school, thousands of pages of practice writing, a couple practice novels, and finally several drafts of Pyres. Even when my grandfather retired, he never quite retired. His hand-made dentures were in demand, since they were considered better quality than the machine-made dentures that had become the norm. He worked part time in the summers when he and my grandmother weren’t down in Florida with their snowbird friends and season passes to Busch Gardens.
One afternoon several weeks after I sent the book, I called his house expecting my grandmother to answer, as she always did. But it was Papa on the phone, half-groggy from a nap, answering because my grandmother had gone out on some errands. He was getting over a bout of pneumonia and he was coughing up a storm, but he did manage to talk enough to tell me how nice I’d been to dedicate the book to him, how glad he was to read it. He didn’t elaborate or get excited or weepy. He wasn’t like that. He just thanked me. We talked a few times after that, but that’s the conversation I’ll remember best, even as he coughed his way through it.
My grandfather passed away on the evening of January 21, 2007. A Sunday night, the Patriots were playing, but he didn’t get to watch that last game. He died unconscious in a hospice house surrounded by his family, and not unexpectedly. He’d been quite sick for weeks, and it became clear that his coughing had more to do with a degenerative lung disease than pneumonia. He hadn’t smoked a cigarette since the 1950s, but he’d inhaled years and years of dust from the plaster of the dentures he made to perfection. His hard work had been his fate, and I think he probably took a kind of pride in that.
It’s been just a little over a week now, and I still can’t believe he’s gone. I doubt I’ll ever quite get over losing him—my Papa, ideal reader. Everyone in the family keeps telling me how glad they are that he got a chance to read my book and see my dedication before he died. I’m glad too, but I wish he could’ve been around to read the second and the third, and—well, God willing I’ll have a chance to write those, to finish that work I have to do. Is it sick of me to hope that some day, decades from now, I’ll die hard at work on a novel, never to be finished? The one straight-out mystery that Dickens ever wrote was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and he died—partly from exhaustion caused by his reading tours—before he could let his faithful readers know who killed Edwin. Readers have been speculating for a hundred and thirty-odd years. I like that.
After the funeral, my grandmother gave me back the manuscript I had sent to Papa. It’s here beside me now with the dedication, with my little handwritten note to him saying, “I hope you enjoy it.” The book will certainly change a bit here and there before it goes to publication, but it’ll essentially be the same book he read, with one glaring exception—one change I dread having to make, but I know I will. I’m going to have to rewrite that dedication. I’m going to have to say “In memory of my grandfather, William Henry Pepin, Jr.” And now there is no more mystery about why.
autor of Pyres (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
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