(Note: this post talks about death and grief and the complicated ways we know other people.)
Last week, I found out that Catherine Heloise had died suddenly, while on vacation. As I said in the memorial post on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (where she’d been a reviewer for years), in my religious tradition, we talk about “What is remembered, lives.”
I’ll be remembering her for the rest of my life.
I never met her.
To the best of my knowledge, I never even had a direct one-on-one conversation with her.
And yet, there’s this tremendous gap in my life now that feels impossible to find words for.
Once upon a time, a while ago
I’ve been a reader at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for ages. I started sometime in my Minnesota years, which puts it between 2005 (when the site began) and mid-2011. Maybe 2007 or so. I’ve long appreciated their wide-ranging reviews in the romance genre, but also delighted in a lot of other posts – baking, knitting, commentary on the state of Romancelandia, and of course the Cover Snark posts.
Some online communities I’m extremely active in, others I read and enjoy, but don’t say much. SBTB was one of the “don’t say much”. I often felt a little uncertain of my footing among people who read more widely in the genre than I could manage. (The problem of loving a bunch of genres is that you are never as immersed in any one of them as someone who lives there full-time.)
I’m pretty sure it was the Eurovision posts where I first noticed Catherine Heloise’s name reliably. (My own personal name server is erratic and names often don’t stick until I’ve had a few memorable points of connection.) Those posts were a delight, and I’d cue up a range of videos, but also just enjoy the sheer joy of them. People sharing their love of something, whole-heartedly, has always made me perk up my ears and want to know more.
Time went along, and I began writing romances myself. My first book came out in December 2018. By early 2021, I’d built up a small but steady readership. I know perfectly well I’m writing books that are out in the edges of the genre in several ways – time period, focus, the arc of the romance. I am delighted by each and every person who also wants those things, but it’s a smaller audience in a lot of ways.
In May, Catherine Heloise mentioned my Eclipse as part of one of the regular Watcha Reading posts, saying “They are just so relaxing to read, and it’s possible that they were written to plug directly into all the happy places in my brain.”
I love all my books – and all my main characters – but Eclipse is, for a variety of reasons, particularly the book of my heart. (And while I am a librarian, not an astronomer, Thesan is perhaps closest to me of all my characters so far, though my friends have additional commentary on that topic.)
It lit up my month.
In June, Catherine Heloise posted a long-form Squee review of Eclipse, a long-form review about what she saw in it, and what she loved, and all the joy of it.
Here’s where I have to stop, and cry. Because this is about being seen.
And it’s where I have to stop and talk about reviews for a moment.
By and large, I don’t read my reviews. Reviews are for readers, and while they can (and often do) contain information of use to me as an author, they’re not for me. I go through a couple of times a year and make notes of things that help me describe what I do better, or that might help people who’d like my books find them. But not very often.
There’s more than one kind of review.
My father (who died in 1990) was a theatre professor, and he was directing a play a year, every year, sometimes more. Conversations with him were full of commentary of things he saw and read, everything from Asterix and Obelix to Doctor Who to Dorothy L. Sayers novels to Blackadder to various professional theatre productions (and we saw many of those.) My brother has been an arts critic and editor for most of my adult life.
That kind of review isn’t just about whether the reviewer enjoyed the work or why (as useful as that can be in many ways). They talk about what’s going on, internal to the work. Does it follow its own logic, what does it do well, how does it make the heart sing? This kind of review, at its best, also puts the work in a larger context, whether directly by comparison, or indirectly by articulating how it fits into the genre or style of production, or whatever other geography that might apply.
Seeing the landscape
Much of what she talks about there, those are things I’d thought about. Many of them are intentionally in the book, even. Only, I hadn’t been able to find words to explain them.
The way she articulated what that book does, what my writing does, blew me away.
She saw and named things I hoped people would notice and appreciate. She made it easy for other people to see and find those things. Writ loud, writ wide, shared with the world. And – even better, the thing you can’t expect from any review, any commentary – all her sheer joy of love of the book came through, even while she brought thoughtfulness and reflection and inspired commentary to it. She ends that review by saying:
That review? It made last year for me. It is making this year. It will make my future. All sorts of verb tense conjugations I can barely imagine.
First, her review and comments have made my writing better. They made me more sure of leaning into some kinds of subtle complexity, knowing that people saw what I was doing and liked it. It’s helped me talk (in my own head, as well as to other people) about some of how I think about plot, about story, about intimacy and coming together, and hope.
Of course, I started paying more attention to her reviews after that, reading back through what she’d shared. The most recent book I’d read because she recommended it was Susanna Allen’s A Most Unusual Duke, which predictably I also adored (also the first book in the series, which I immediately read next.)
Catherine Heloise also mentioned my books in the year-end wrapup podcast episode (there’s also a transcript at the link). She’d had a broken ankle and a lot of frustration, and I was delighted when I heard the podcast that my books had been the right company for her at that particular time.
Sometimes she’d like a Tweet I made, never commenting, just noticing and enjoying.
She mentioned – and adored – Lord Geoffrey Carillon, who comes out of my immense love of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. I was thinking of her a lot as I started writing again about Carillon in January and now February (a prequel novella in January, and a book set in 1935 that’s my current book in progress).
I can’t even count how many times in the past couple of months I wrote something, and wondered what she’d think of it. And looked forward to whatever comment she might have when the book was real in the world.
I found out about her death from a post from someone I know through entirely other circles. It was only reading that post (and the links to Catherine’s other online spaces) that I realised we’d been in almost overlapping online spaces for a long time. A mailing list here, Dreamwidth circles there, half a dozen other places where I might have got to know her much better.
When I was writing about it privately, and about this complicated feeling of grieving for someone I didn’t know nearly as well as I wish I had, who I had this very particular relationship to, I got the perfect comment from a friend of mine.
She’s also an author (more on that in a moment), and she said, “I’m so sorry you lost such a perfect reader and a potential friend.”
Yes. All of that.
What makes this perfect, what makes me be able to trust it so well, is – this particular friend? I have adored one of her books since I read it in 1994. It shaped my experience of college, my desire to walk toward the numinous, and my connections to other people, many of whom are decades-long friends now. It’s been reliably on my list of my favourite books ever since, even as others have come and gone.
First, I knew her by her writing. Then we ended up in the same Usenet community. Later, I moved to her city, and we had all the interactions you do when that happens, at local conventions and the occasional party. I moved away, but she is always a glowing light of kindness and gentleness and deep thought, one of the people I am always thrilled to see pop up somewhere.
The ways we know each other, the ways we touch each other, are so varied, especially online. But they are real and solid. Words mean things, words carry things.
And that’s why I will be remembering Catherine Heloise until the day I die. Knowing that she knew me, by my words, in all the ways I want most desperately to be known. That I was lucky enough to know her better by what she shared, as small and fragile and shattered as that feels at the moment.
Most of all, that those great gifts last and matter. That that knowing is real. And that being seen, being heard, that is where the heart and the magic live.