Across These Mean Wires
A Twenty-Year Retrospective
& A Long Overdue Thank-You Note
By Victoria Esposito
Genre fiction is mindless crap or else the most cutting-edge work out there. It depends who you talk to. The printed word is dead, or maybe it isn't. It depends who you talk to.
People are beginning to take the Internet for granted. Not completely, not the way we do now. Smartphones are still several years in the future, although their ancestor, the PDA, has made an appearance. But it's becoming fairly common to have home Internet access. You have to dial, and wait for the shrieking beeps, and wait for a connection. (The advantage we have in 1998, of course, is that we have no idea how primitive this whole thing is. To us, this is the most accessible information has ever been.)
If you have the patience to go through all that, then you can access -- not just websites, not just chat rooms, not just instant messaging, but listservs. There's a listserv for pretty much any subject you can think about (and for several I'd just as soon not think about). If you're into crime fiction, you're in luck; it's all there. There's the genteel cozy world of DorothyL, tightly moderated and profanity-free (does anyone else remember the kerfuffle when someone quoted a song about Hitler only having one ball?). There are the mean streets of Rara-Avis, where it's all about hard-boiled and noir. For a brief period of time, there's a listserv devoted solely to Bill Pronzini's Nameless Detective novels, although that's a relatively limited subject and the list dies a natural death.
And there are e-zines, or webzines, which we think of as the new pulps. They're cheap to publish and free to read, they're accessible to anyone who has the patience for dial-up, and they're an easy way for new writers to cut their teeth and get published. For free, granted, but published. This is surely the Brave New World -- and in that world, I found Thrilling Detective and met Kevin Smith.
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I have been a fan of crime fiction ever since I can remember. I'm pretty sure I wasn't in the double digits yet when I read Dashiell Hammett, with Raymond Chandler following a few years later. Those were the gateway drugs, with James M. Cain and Sue Grafton and Maxine O'Callaghan and Michael Collins/Dennis Lynds coming next, and a whole flood of others after them. I have literally talked about crime fiction until I saw my interlocutor's eyes glaze over. (Sorry, Mom.) So in 1998, finding that community was a Big Deal for me. Joining Rara-Avis and being able to discuss and debate the ending of The Big Sleep and Mildred Pierce...that was like coming home.
I take the world's connectivity for granted now, as we all do. But as I recall it, the Internet was this shiny new place twenty years ago, and it was a huge revelation. I learned about authors that I had never read and formed some serious addictions. I learned about Scandinavian crime fiction. And Kevin and I became friends, in real life as well as on the screen, and I started adding the occasional comment or observation or write-up for his site\. I love writing, and I loved the subject matter, and I loved being able to add to the community's knowledge. After all, you just never know when someone is going to need information on Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, or on Maxine O'Callaghan's Delilah West, or a review of Dead Again.
It must have been about 1999 when I jumped in with both feet and started editing fiction for the site. I had edited here and there before -- my high school literary magazine, a law journal -- but this was a whole new experience. Helping an author tell his or her story in the best possible way is a creative and exciting process, and I worked with some truly wonderful people. Plots With Guns was doing the same thing (Anthony Neil Smith and Victor Gischler, if you're out there drop a line!), and I believe Blue Murder was still publishing, so there was a small community of editors and publishers in addition to the writers. (I like to think that it was like the heyday of the real pulps, with authors writing madly for any venue that would publish them.) It was a lot of stuff -- at that time, I had two young daughters and was teaching writing -- and it made for some late nights, but the sense of community was marvelous.
It was around 1999 or 2000 that Jamey Dumas, who's been a dear friend of mine since high school, had the idea of publishing a 'zine (as all the cool people were calling them by then) specifically geared towards PDAs. People could read on the Web, but they could also download fiction to their PDAs and read them while commuting. Jamey had thought of a general fiction 'zine, but given that I had my fingers in the crime fiction community already, we ultimately created HandHeldCrime. He did the computer stuff, I did the editing, and so for a while I was pulling double duty at HHC and Thrilling Detective. Again, it was a lot of work, and not terribly financially rewarding, but rewarding in every other way you can imagine. I got e-mail from Dennis Lynch. I reviewed Russell James's novels and corresponded with him, and when we finally met it was like meeting an old friend. I got to interview one of my heroes, Maxine O'Callaghan. I interviewed Joe R. Lansdale the day after he got nominated for an Edgar for The Bottoms. They were good years and exciting years.
Along the way, both 'zines and family and work and life got to be too much, and Gerald So agreed to replace me as the fiction editor at Thrilling Detective. He was the perfect choice, with a laid-back demeanor and a sharp pen, and he shepherded some top-class fiction through the magazine after I left. (I cried a little, or maybe more than a little, when I saw that my name stayed on the masthead as the Fiction Editor Emeritus.)
And more "along the way" happened. Jamey and I made the difficult decision to shut down HHC. Kevin and I slipped out of touch -- until just this week. Just this week, he found me on Twitter and on Facebook, and it was as though the years between had never happened. I was touched by that, and touched by Gerald's kind words, and by the authors who were still out there and remembered working with me. So when Kevin mentioned that this is the 20th anniversary of Thrilling Detective, I asked if I could please write this.
It's hard to remember how exciting and shiny it was twenty years ago to be able to find like-minded people anywhere in the world. I take for granted that with a few strokes of the keyboard I can find a Facebook page or Twitter feed dedicated to pretty much anything I might want. I take for granted instantaneous communication with anyone, anywhere. But as I write this, I remember all too clearly what it was like twenty years ago and how much harder it was to build a community like Thrilling Detective, and how much credit should go to the people who took the time and effort to do just that. And it's doubly impressive when you realize how long twenty years is in the cyberworld. One stupid college picture will stay online forever, but 'zines and websites come and go like dandelions on the breeze. So twenty years of Thrilling Detective truly is an amazing accomplishment.
Most of the editing I do these days is at work, and most of it is of legal writing by other attorneys. But one of the things I say to those attorneys with mind-numbing regularity is, "I used to edit hard-boiled fiction, and that's where my writing style comes from. I want this writing to crackle on the page. I want fewer nouns and more active verbs and shorter sentences." So I carry the memories of those years with me-- the hard work and the excitement and knowing that I was working with people who loved what I did -- but I also carry the words I read, the red marks I wrote, and the ethos of that editing with me every single day, and I do my best to pass on what I have learned. Thank you so much for that, Kevin, and thanks in advance for the next twenty.
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Victoria Esposito is an attorney and the Advocacy Coordinator for a legal services organization. (What does that mean, you ask? It means she gets to sue the people and agencies who make poor people's lives miserable.) She's been a prosecutor, a Kelly Girl, and an instructor of writing, political science, environmental and constitutional law, and probably a few other things she's forgotten. Vicky edited fiction at The Thrilling Detective Web Site and HandHeldCrime in the late '90s-early '00s, and she still does the occasional piece of style editing on the side. However, most of her editing these days is confined to other attorneys' legal writing, and she has opinions on italics vs. underlining, fonts with serifs, and the Oxford comma. Vicky and her husband, John Butler, live in the less gentrified and more interesting part of Albany, NY, in a Victorian townhouse with slightly scary wiring. Her daughters are 20 and 25 (at this writing they are in college in Scotland and settled in Australia, respectively), but the family cats Ian and Isla are still at home.
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