Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
The Wizard of Seattle
Bantam Books, 1993
By Kay Hooper
Once a Thief
Bantam Books, 2002
By Kay Hooper
“What is your favorite book?” is a question people ask often. It’s not unreasonable; I own a bookstore, I write, and I write about books a lot. Given the rising profile of North Carolina’s literary community—Wilmington, specifically—I think people expect me to say something terribly hip or pretentious, or name what’s currently on the NY Times Bestseller list—or, maybe, something obscurely literary. But the truth of the matter is, I think it is a lot harder to write interesting genre fiction than many people realize. Frankly, for me, the proof is in the pudding: Writers have to sell their work. That is the test for success.
In the last year I discovered Kay Hooper of Rutherford County, NC, and she fascinates me. She moved to North Carolina when her father was stationed here by the Air Force. She is very proud (and frequently mentions it in her promotional literature) that she graduated from Isothermal Community College. She sold her first book in 1980—a regency romance titled “Lady Thief.” Sixty books and countless New York Times Bestseller hits later, she is still working and writing in North Carolina.
Kay Hooper writes in several genres: mystery suspense, romance, paranormal, etc. Out of curiosity, I picked up “Once a Thief” and “The Wizard of Seattle” to get a sense of her work. The first is a mystery/suspense novel about a jewel thief; the second is a modern paranormal romance.
“Once a Thief” follows the trap laid to catch a notorious jewel thief known as Quinn. The set up is standard: The most desirable collection of jewels in the world, which are rare exhibited, are put on display to lure the world’s most famous, elusive and unstoppable jewel thief, Quinn. There are, of course, complications; another group of thieves are on the prowl making life difficult not only for museum staff across San Francisco but for Quinn, who keeps finding his work infringed upon. Additional complications arise with the museum director is tasked with displaying the collection. She is brilliant, beautiful, stubborn, and resourceful. Pitted against an adversary who is her equal in intelligence and resilience, sparks must fly when they find themselves captured together for a night.
Hooper is gifted at characterization and plotting. She builds characters that are so deep, flawed and believable that when she puts them in ever-increasing hot water, their reactions are completely believable. But readers shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking this is monostream story—the web of characters spread across San Francisco with surprising twists and turns, subplots, double crossings, and an ending that knocked my socks off.
“The Wizard of Seattle,” though billed as a paranormal romance, employs the same craft and technique. Tracing a story that starts eons ago and comes to the fore in modern-day Seattle, two wizards share hearth and home. In this world their relationship and choices violate many taboos, which serve to draw them closer and (in the way peculiar to humans) even a wedge forcing them apart.
Everything about the setup should seem so hokey, except Hooper creates characters so vibrant with life that I couldn’t help but empathize with them. They are filled with foibles and failings in spite of having best intentions. Their world is so palpable and real that the magical elements are but trappings of storytelling and not the essential nature of the situation. I was stressed out and worried about these people 40 pages into the book. Who among us has not risked destroying everything they love to believe the actions would save what we might destroy? That Gordian knot is the crux of the human romantic-relationship struggle. Hooper makes the inner worlds of her characters plainly manifest into their actions in ways that, though they involve supernatural elements, are recognizable as our own pitfalls.
Though “genre” writing tends to get looked down upon by our literary elite, many classics began life as such. Dickens’ work appeared serialized in popular newspapers; Jane Austen, George Elliot and the Brontës all wrote what would now be considered variations on the romance novel. But their books continue to capture the human imagination and express part of the human experience that is accessible, I think, mainly because of the form the story takes. We need to recognize ourselves on the page because that is how we find context for our own experiences.
Hooper’s mastery of craft and strength at continually deploying her skills for characterization and plotting are mesmerizing. That she has grasped a larger concept of story and can apply it across genres to continue to reach readers over again is a real testimony to her strength and skill. Just as important is finding our own needs and experiences reflected upon the page.