Friday, December 11, 2009

What Family Brought to a Writer Son ...

My parents, Lee and Mary Gericke, instilled a great love of the written word.

By Shane Gericke

I grew up with enormous expectations of myself. Mostly because my parents' expectations for me were sky-high. I was born in the 1950s, in a rural town of 300. I was the first-born, and the only son. My dad was a police officer, mom a homemaker. Their expectations for my life were never overt, but rather bubbled constantly in a deep, unending undercurrent: you will do well ... you will succeed ... you will make us proud ...

I heard the message and became an Eagle Scout. Won a bunch of high school and college awards. Edited the student newspaper. Became a sportswriter for the town weekly at 16, then won a job straight out of college at a good daily newspaper. Married a wonderful gal. (Which is what we called women in rural America back then: gals.) Bought a house in a swell suburb. Mowed the yard and raked the leaves. Joined the Chicago Sun-Times at age 26, almost unheard-of because I was so young. Headed the reporters' union, and despite that got promoted a couple of times. I was a star, destined for greatness.

But I quit anyway.

To become a crime novelist.

Because it seemed a helluva lot of fun.

Mom said, "I never thought any of my children would be unemployed."


I did care enormously about what my family would think of my books, because at the time I mistook that for what they thought about me. (More on that in a bit.) Newspaper journalism was easy to show them--no swearing, no graphic violence, no nudie pix. Why wouldn't they be proud?

But the novels, well, those were a different kettle of fish. I have a dark streak in my writing that surprises even me at times. My violence can be heavy and mean: cutting a baby out of a mother while she's still alive; murdering prisoners in the electric chair, eyeballs popping, skin steaming like poached chicken. Rape. Dismemberment. The whole nine yards. I also like sex and love, because it leavens the darkness with hope and humanity.

In other words, stuff that wouldn't appear in Reader's Digest. I approached my first launch with not a little trepidation, wondering what they'd think.

Mom and dad were fine with the violence, but disliked the sex. My in-laws were the same way. Something about that generation, I suppose; they like sex just fine but seeing it in print embarasses them. They didn't mind the cussing as long as it wasn't overdone. In other words, they were America: We Americans are fine with blood and guts, get all squeamish about sex and cussin'. Go figure.

My sisters, Marianne and Diana, and most of our friends and relatives had what I thought was a wonderful reaction: They couldn't believe it was me. As Diana said when the debut, BLOWN AWAY, came out: "No way my sweet wonderful big bro can write this kind of stuff!!!"

Which didn't mean they didn't like it; they did, all of it, the sex and violence and swearing and other tasty treats of modern crime fiction. They just couldn't square what they were reading with how they pictured me all those years. They were expecting cozies, and I gave them serial killers. Another reason why it's sometimes tough for readers to know the authors personally, I suppose--it colors their perception of the stories the writers tell.

Now, about those expectations from my folks I lived with all these years. I'm glad they instilled in me such a fierce sense of pride in doing well. It's gotten me far in life. But I also used to confuse what they thought about what I did with what they thought about me. That wasn't the case, and it wasn't until I got older that I realized it. My family gave me a great sense of fair play, justice, and love of the written word. They filled me with curiosity and a fascination with the world around us. And they're cool enough that I could actually be a serial killer and they'd love me anyway. Not that they wouldn't hate that I killed people; they would. (As would I.) But they wouldn't confuse it with hating me as their son and brother.

Which is why, ultimately, I'm so glad I abandoned the "yer a helluva guy" steeplechase to write crime novels:

It let me learn about myself.

Shane Gericke is the national bestselling author of TORN APART (July 2010, Kensington Books), CUT TO THE BONE and BLOWN APART, the latter named Best First Mystery by RT Book Reviews. His works have been translated into Chinese, German, Turkish and Slavic. He's the chairman of the international book festival ThrillerFest, and you can visit him at


Jen Forbus said...

I understand that feeling so very well. I think ultimately my expecations for myself became higher than my parents' expecations for me, but I thought it was want they wanted...silly.

"Newspaper journalism was easy to show them--no swearing, no graphic violence, no nudie pix." - Uhm, is there something coming in the new book we should know about, Shane??? ;)

Kelli Stanley said...

Beautiful post, dearest Shane. :)

We are a driven generation -- and damn proud of it. :)


Shane Gericke said...

A wee dram o'violence and a skosh of swearing, Jen. No nudie pix, though--sadly, the paper used in PBOs would muddy pix beyond recognition. But there is a fun sex romp, kinda, sorta.

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, Kel. We ARE a driven generation, and for the most part it's great. It can take a toll, though, on relationships and health, if one does not stop for red lights occasionally.

Unknown said...

Great column Shane! Lots of (most?) American men struggle with the difference between what they are and what they do for a living, so you are WAY ahead of the curve :)

Not so say that women are free of this confusion, but seem to be less haunted by it. Anecdotal evidence-wise, anyway.

P.S. In California's central valley, "gal," "garsh" and other midwestern words are alive and well!!!!

Jeannie Holmes said...

(Let's try this again...)

Great post, Shane! Your parents sound a lot like mine. I think my mom is still waiting for me to find "a real job." Like my previous jobs in hospitals and funeral homes were fantastic or something. ;)

Rebecca Cantrell said...

For a group of folks who write about murder and mayhem, boy do we sound well balanced!

Your parents sound wonderful!

Thanks for the sweet post, Shane!

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, Mysti. My dad grew up in CA (San Bernardino) and he still says "garsh" and "worsh," so maybe that's where he picked it up.

As for the self-identity thing, it's still tough sometimes not to consider what I do as who I am. But I'm much better at it than in my 20s and 30s. So maybe age does mature you. Or, you lose brain cells, I'm not sure which :-)

Shane Gericke said...

Aw, Rebecca, you're sweet to say so. Yep, my parents are all right, and a fascinating mix of personalities, as all the best people are.

Dad always looked the part of Tough Cop--which he was, a police sergeant for 30 years after fighting his way through Korea--yet he really was an artist. His drawings from high school and early college are breathtakingly cool. But as so many men did growing up in the 1940s, he put away sensitive things in order to make a living and function as a guy was supposed to.

Mom didn't even finish second grade--a long story I'll tell you someday--but is more learned than a lot of people I know, and it's entirely self-taught.

They liked their three kids and liked to do stuff with us when not working or doing housework, so our family system was quite strong. I like to think I inherited the best of them both. My dark part, well, that's just me :-)

Shane Gericke said...

Yeah, Jeannie, don't you love that "real job" stuff? To my parents' generation, if you don't get a paycheck w/benefits with regularity, it can't be for real. They sought the security of "real jobs," and in postwar America, they could get it--pensions, benefits, the whole works. Now, of course, there's no such thing as a "real job"--i.e., safe and secure--and it worries them because they don't want their kids to be hurt economically.

I wonder if future generations will look back at our time on Earth as "safe and secure," or if their work and careers will be even more whacked-out than they are now? Hope not!

Mike Dennis said...

Great post, Shane. I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, too. My mother read to me, endlessly, night after night when I was very small, transporting me to all those faraway places with the strange names, and instilling in me the love of the written word. I can never thank her enough.

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, Mike, I appreciate your reading my ditty and taking the time to comment.

My folks read to us when they weren't working or otherwise doing stuff, and the habit rubbed off on me and my sisters. (Plus my grandmothers painted, sang and told stories that ended differently each time, adding to the mind-expanding mix.) Like you, those readings inspired visions of far-away places and the people who lived there. It also inspired me to sit in my tiny little clothes closet for hours at a time, the only illumination a flashlight hanging by a string from the hanger rod, to read all kinds of comic books, newspapers, Hardy Boys and Tom Swift novels, and the Sears catalog, which had all those great female underwear pages to study for, you know, clues to solving crimes. Course, Rebecca would claim I was 35 at the time. But I wasn't! Just 7 or 8! I swear!

Kelli Stanley said...

Right, Shane. Uh-huh. ;) I've got some vintage Sear's catalogs you can pour through, if you like the old style corsets ... ;)

My parents read to me, too--poetry in particular--and I remember memorizing the House that Jack Built, but haven't been able to recall who ate what and spilled this and found that in a long, long time. :)

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Shane - this was a wonderful post. I think your parents sound wonderful, and it's heartwarming to hear you talk about them with such love. They raised a lovely son.

I've just spent the afternoon shopping with my mom who's 83. I'm the one sitting on the bench resting my feet while she goes back to "just one more store . . . "

Shane Gericke said...

Thank you, Kaye. Yes, they are lovely. And if you're still going shopping with your mom at age 83--her age, not yours!!!--then she must be something special too.

Shane Gericke said...

Plus, they're BOTH taller than me, and I'm six feet. I didn't much cross them as a lil' shaver just because of that :-)

Michael Wiley said...

A great post, Shane.

And (because what better place to say it than on the Criminal Minds blog), RIP, Kirkus Reviews.

Joshua Corin said...

Really terrific post, Shane. My heart strings were duly tugged - and they do not tug with ease.

And don't feel alone - my father is still waiting for me to someday become a lawyer.

Michael Wiley said...

My dad's still waiting for me to become a geologist. But his expectations for me never were so high . . . .

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, Joshua and Michael, I appreciate the nice thoughts. I'd admit to tugging my own heartstrings a bit writing this--mom and dad ARE getting up there--but Kel and the other gals would snicker and point and make fun ...

Aren't you glad we didn't become lawyers, geologists and burnt-out-from-too-many-years journalists? When we can work our hearts out for no money in the fabulous world of Printed Entertainment!!!

And Michael, definitely, RIP Kirkus Reviews. I hardly knew ye.

Michael Wiley said...

I see that Kirkus has a December 15 review of Kelli's book. So Kelli's making it in just under the gun. I'm able to read only the very beginning of the review online (since I'm not a subscriber) and it's all descriptive, not evaluative. I hope that the rest of the review guns for the book rather than against it as is so often the Kirkus way. If the review is anything but glowing, I'll drop my "RIP."

Kelli Stanley said...

Snicker over sentiment? Never!! :) I'm the sap who watches It's a Wonderful Life every year and bawls my head off. :)

I LOVE you guys--and one reason's because you're sweethearts AND rough n' tough. ;)


Kelli Stanley said...

Mike, you're a doll. Thank you! :)

I got a heads up from my publicist a few days ago--the Kirkus review is actually very positive for Kirkus (though not completely positive, because that wouldn't be typically Kirkus, would it?) ;)

Here's the closing part:

"For fans of Hammett and Chandler, she’ll hit the sweet spot."

I'll settle for being mentioned with Hammett and Chandler any day of the week. :)

Ah, review time. Also known as how-to-get-an-ulcer in two months ... ;)


Michael Wiley said...

Ha -- you must've gotten the same Kirkus reviewer who wrote in a lukewarm review of my first book that I "speak pretty fluent Chandler." Hitting "the sweet spot" sure is better, though. Congratulations on the positive review, Kelli.

Shane Gericke said...

Hammett AND Chandler. I'm insanely jealous, Kel. But it's totally true! Way to go in the last sunset for Kirkus.

Shane Gericke said...

Sadly, I never got a Kirkus review for either book. But I did get a letter from a reader once saying I use too many exclamation points!!!!!!!! (Emphasis his.) So I got that going for me. Which is nice.