I don’t belong here.
Everywhere I go, there’s a little devil on my shoulder that says: you don’t belong here. It’s been there for as long as I can remember. It is gentle but firm. It says, you don’t quite fit in. Or, you’re not really welcome. At work it says: you’re not smart enough, how did you get this job? At the gym it says: you’re not man enough, and everyone is staring at you. At a party: you’re not cool enough, and what the hell are you wearing? At the beach: you look like a pale piece of spaghetti in swimming trunks. At family gatherings, who let you in?
I’m actually thinking it wouldn’t be a bad idea to expressly stipulate in my will and testament that the phrase “I don’t belong here” be inscribed on my tombstone. The feeling is such an integral part of who I am that I can’t help but think it’s embedded in my genetic profile — innate and codified in every living cell in my body.
I know that sounds a little crazy, but I do have proof: my mother.
My mother, Blaize Clement, was the well-loved author of the popular Dixie Hemingway Mystery Series published by St. Martin’s/Minotaur. Her first full-length mystery, Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter, appeared in bookstores in January of 2005. It was an instant favorite among readers and critics alike. Every year there followed another installment in the series, with more and more loyal readers, more rave reviews, and more glowing letters from fans. Everywhere Blaize went, she impressed people with her confidence and poise, but only her best friends knew that there was a side of her that felt like a perpetual outsider, always observing from a distance, never quite fitting in. It was this funny mix of characteristics that I think made her a keen observer of life and an excellent writer. She died of cancer in July of 2011, so we’ll never know to what literary heights she might have flown had she been given more time, but I’m pretty sure that no matter what, she would always have felt like the odd man out. Like a pretender. Like she didn’t belong.
Which brings me to here and now. Shortly before my mother passed away, her friend and editor at St. Martin’s Press, Marcia Markland, called with a question: would I be interested in continuing the Dixie Hemingway mysteries? I was mortified. My mother was ecstatic. Dixie lives on. Now, a little more than a year later, here I am with an agent, a publishing contract, and a new book out in July of 2013, writing about what it’s been like to step blindly into the world of mystery-writing and pick up where my mother left off. It’s been an amazing, humbling, and life-changing ride, but do you see how I might feel like I don’t belong here?
People most often want to know if it’s been hard to recreate my mother’s voice and style. Usually I say it’s been as easy as pie, but in all honesty that’s only partly true. I hear my mother’s voice all day long. I hear the cadence of her conversation, her mild southern accent, her slightly irreverent humor, her stubbornness, her wit, her laugh. She poured herself into her books and, most notably, into the character of Dixie Hemingway, and since the books are written entirely from Dixie’s point of view all I have to do is transcribe that voice down on paper and my work is mostly done. The difficulty has been that I feel like a trespasser in the world my mother created, a cat-burglar in the House of Dixie, snooping about and touching things that aren’t mine. I know how fiercely and passionately my mother loved Dixie and her family of characters, but I also know that I can’t do them justice if I don’t make them fully mine.
Last month, I was lucky enough to attend Bouchercon, the annual conference for fans, authors, agents, booksellers and publishers of mystery fiction. For most of the first day, I beat a straight path through the hallways. I brooked the crowds with purpose. I walked from ballroom to conference room and back again without lingering too long, lest anyone think I didn’t know what I was doing. I even wore my black-framed nerd glasses so I’d look like a real writer. Turns out, I was wasting my time. I can’t imagine a more generous and supportive group of people. Everyone I met went out of their way to make me feel welcome, from writers to fans, bloggers to bookstore owners, and publicists to librarians. I made friends I’m sure I’ll have for the rest of my life. And whenever I worked up enough courage to admit that I felt like I didn’t quite fit in, I always got the same response: “Oh yeah. Me too.”
John Clement spends his time between New York City and Sarasota, Florida. The next book in the Dixie Hemingway Series, The Cat Sitter's Cradle, will be out in July, 2013.