I returned from Austin to find sad news. Author Phyllis A. Whitney died on Friday at the age of 104. Reading the article in The New York Times (NYT) , I felt a mixed rush of sorrow and nostalgia.
I was a voracious reader as a child. Our household was frequently in an uproar, and books provided needed stability. They offered a refuge to which I could retreat when things around me became too chaotic.
Books also helped to assuage my juvenile insecurities. I was an obsessive kid, full of fear. I decided at an early age that knowledge was the key to feeling safe, and books gave me a [false] sense of security. Tests in sixth grade revealed, at age eleven, my reading comprehension was that of a junior in high school.
My grandfather regularly sent boxes of books to my mother. Grandpa loved detective novels, and the boxes were always filled with paperbacks by Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason), Ellery Queen and Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe). By age ten, I'd started working my way through those boxes.
Mom worried Grandpa's reading material was too mature for me. She went looking for more appropriate material for a prepubescent female and began feeding me books by Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rinehart and . . . Phyllis A. Whitney.
Whitney was a fascinating woman. She was born in Japan in 1903 to American parents. Her middle name "Ayame" means "iris" in Japanese. Before age fifteen, she'd lived in China and the Phillipines in addition to Japan.
When she came to the States for the first time, she had trouble academically because she'd been educated in missionary schools overseas. Whitney was twenty years old before she graduated from high school.
After graduation, she worked in bookstores and at the Chicago Public Library. According to the NYT, it took four years for her to sell her first short story to the Chicago Daily News.
Whitney wrote over seventy novels, many of which were set in exotic locales. The NYT once called her "The Queen of the American Gothics." Her website says, "In 1975, Phyllis A. Whitney was elected President of the Mystery Writers of America. In 1988, the organization awarded her the prestigious Grand Master Award . . ."
I was moved by the last paragraph of the NYT story on her yesterday:
Ms. Whitney ascribed her success as a writer to persistence and an abiding faith in her abilities. “Never mind the rejections, the discouragement, the voices of ridicule (there can be those too),” she wrote in “Guide to Fiction Writing.” “Work and wait and learn, and that train will come by. If you give up, you’ll never have a chance to climb aboard.”