Thursday, November 13, 2008

Leaving A Legacy

Elizabeth Zelvin

What is a legacy? In its most common usage, a legacy is money and goods that we leave behind us when we die. Unless the current economy shifts radically, many of my generation (a year or two pre-boomer) may end up spending our assets to survive old age rather than passing them on to our children and grandchildren. But that’s not all the word “legacy” means. It’s also a matter of leaving something behind us, making our mark on the world, finding a way to contribute and be remembered.

For most people, it takes time, age, and experience to do something worth remembering, although that’s not necessarily true. Keats died at 24, Mozart at 35, leaving an enduring legacy of poetry and music respectively. In the popular culture, James Dean, for example, made his mark in his short life. What was James Dean’s legacy exactly? Ask a random group, and they may give multiple answers, but most or all will know who he was.

A dictum of uncertain origin (googling yielded such diverse sources as the Talmud and Jose Marti) states that if you want to leave your mark on the world, have a child, write a book, plant a tree. My son is grown and has produced his own legacy in the form of my two gorgeous granddaughters. My most successful tree “from scratch” (not counting transplants) is a beautiful 17-year-old pink dogwood in my back yard that I brought home from the nursery as a twig in a four-inch pot.

So how about that book? To get a book out in the world where it can carry us into the future, we have not only to write it, but to get it published. Then we have to decide whether to be a one-book author or add to our legacy by writing more. Does stopping at one book invalidate the author’s legacy? It depends on the book. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird gets my vote as Great American Novel of the 20th century, not because it’s my favorite (I liked it, but it’s not) but because I’ve heard it consistently cited, not only by avid readers but also by people who don’t ordinarily read fiction at all. (Do a search for it on MySpace if you don’t believe me.) Harper Lee, by the way, is said to have explained her decision to stop by asking why try to do it again when you’ve gotten it so right the first time.

Some authors are criticized for writing the same book over and over. So writers, if they care about such criticism, are under pressure to build diversity into their voice, their plots, their themes, and their characters. In some cases, it’s a matter of getting stuck at or going beyond the autobiographical novel. For example, I’d say Thomas Wolfe wrote the same novel four times over. Are his books still read? Not much, though everybody remembers that one of the all-time great editors, Maxwell Perkins, created bestsellers in their time by taking a figurative axe to Wolfe’s hundreds of pages of sloppy manuscript.

But what about books—such as mystery series—that are expected to replicate a formula from book to book? It depends. Robert B. Parker, for example, has never varied his voice: to my ear, his more recent series protagonists sound just like Spenser. And you know what will happen in a Spenser book: Spenser and Hawk will trade quips, Spenser and Susan Silverman will joke about sex, and Spenser will kill one or more bad guys without getting into any trouble with the law. Yet Parker’s books are widely read, beloved, and perennially in print. Furthermore, I think their popularity will live after him, as have the Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe books.

Authors who pass the diversity test do so in different ways. Subgenre, setting, and theme are all powerful ways to write a different book each time. Betty Webb’s hardhitting Lena Jones series has taken on enormous social issues and actually influenced legislation on present-day polygamy; her new series is lighthearted and set in a zoo. Nevada Barr sets each of her books in a different national park, but what she does with the setting goes far beyond backdrop. Blind Descent, about caving, makes claustrophobic readers cringe. Firestorm is a terrifying read for those who fear fire. And if your worst nightmare is drowning in icy water, try A Superior Death.

How do my own books measure up? My first mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, is not autobiographical, thanks to the fact that I’d been writing—and living—for many decades before it got published. The main characters will reappear in the second, Death Will Help You Leave Him. But I am determined not to write about the early stages of recovery from alcoholism over and over. Bruce hit bottom, admitted he was an alcoholic, and now he’s moving on. The second book is about a related but independent theme: addictive relationships. In the age of the Internet and disposable information, I’m not sure my books will last long enough to be a legacy. But I’m doing what I can to make my mark.


caryn said...

Good morning Liz,
I think many baby boomers will be right there with you HOPING that our money will last us through retirement-and that retirement is not forced upon us too soon! So pretty much we can scratch money as our legacy.
Good works? Maybe. But I don't think either my husband nor I have done anything so stellar in our days on earth that would leave so much as a blip in this world. And though I love my kids and our granddaughter, I'm not holding out much hope for them in that department either.
So where does that leave me? A little depressed. Maybe I need one of those George moments like in It's a Wonderful Life" about now.
When is the next book due out?
Caryn in St. Louis

Sandra Parshall said...

I'd go for the tree-planting. Better yet, donate to groups that are replacing trees in deforested areas, not only in the US but in other countries as well. Support organizations that are trying to save endangered species. A "legacy" doesn't have to have your name stamped on it. I don't care whether anyone remembers my name, but I know that anything I can do to stop the wholesale destruction of our planet will be an immensely valuable legacy for generations to come.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, I agree with you about donations--or work, such as volunteering to plant grass on dunes or clean up a road or beach--to preserve the environment and life on our planet. Caryn, thanks for asking about the new book. No pub date yet for DEATH WILL HELP YOU LEAVE HIM, but it'll be either Fall 2009 or early 2010.