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When artists imagine the dead, the undead, and the deadly, they are usually trying to terrify us. Zombies, ghouls, chainsaw murderers — our first reaction to any of these fiends is to run the other way.
But death itself — Death itself — has become a different story. Death is worldly, philosophical, a subtle conversationalist. In Meet Joe Black he’s an epigrammatic Brad Pitt. In the hands of W. Somerset Maugham he tells a wry story about bumping into a servant in the Baghdad market who then fled in terror to Samara, which is where Death had been expecting to find him in the first place.
In The Letter from Death by Lillian Moats, copiously illustrated by her son David Moats, Death is fed up. “Look around you," says Death, in an open letter to everyone everwhere. “What evidence suggests that I will be a gateway to justice, that you will die and thereby find every inequity set right?
"How you crave justice. Yet, how you fear it. Or should I say, how you fear punishment and crave reward? When you think of me -- when you think past me to concoct an afterlife -- what wishful thinking, fear and guilt stoke your imaginations!"
Moats, who lives in Downers Grove, has written three earlier books, one of them a novel that ten years ago I wrote about enthusiastically in Hot Type. “If you've tumbled down the well of self-loathing and crawled back up, and out of that wrung literature, why would you hand the tale to some fat Manhattan house that wishes you were Danielle Steel?” I wondered. “Self-publication is respectable now, and exquisite books like Lillian Moats's Legacy of Shadows can make it seem the only honorable way to publish…. From first word to last, from typography to publicity, Legacy is the way Moats wants it.”
Today, self-publication doesn’t require a defense. In the eyes of amazon.com, all books are equal. In this week’s Reader I discuss a new anthology of columns by the late Chicago gay columnist Jon-Henri Damski. The friends of Damski who put the book together turned to an on-demand press, which stores the pages on computers and prints up copies as they are ordered. There is a market for Damski’s book but it is a very local market, and in another era the book might never have found a publisher. In this era, a publisher was never in doubt.
Lillian Moats looked around for a house that would publish her letter from death, but “I was almost relieved no one picked it up right away because I’ve gotten kind of addicted to the freedom” — the freedom of doing it herself. Letter is an artisanal book published under the imprint of her Three Arts Press and as carefully designed as it was written. Each of David Moats’s intricate black-and-white drawings fills its page, and there are so many of them the book is as much to be gazed at as read. Our first glimpse of Death has him, or her, at a table, smoke curling from the cigarette in one hand as the other pulls a sheet of paper from an old upright typewriter. There’s a crumpled sheet of paper on the table. The letter isn’t writing itself; Death is laboring to get this right.
“Even as a child,” says Lilliam Moats, “mortality was really vivid to me, and I’ve looked at it in so many different ways over the years and see it differently now — I see the humor in it. But after 9/11, I just found it very unfunny the way our fears of death, and our cultural tendency to not deal with those fears, were being manipulated. So I was doing a lot of reading and research, writing a lot of notes, making a lot of observations, and it seemed there was nowhere to go with it. Then it occurred to me that only the character of death would be in a position to say these things. So that’s how it came about.”
The writing took her two years. The illustrations took David Moats a year, and he was primarily responsible for the design. He did some of the work in England, where he lives and at the moment is in a graduate program of the London School of Economics.
The Indy Booksellers recognized The Letter from Death by putting it on its October Indie Next List of "inspired recommendations."
“I’ll offer this last observation,” says Death. “To me the distortion of your original longing — longing that is so beautiful in your infancy — is the one great human tragedy from which so many others flow.
“I’m talking about the simple longing to be held, to be gazed at lovingly, to be nourished and filled. It is your common beginning. Why do you disregard it as your universal touchstone?”
Lillian Moats was free not only to create but to promote her book exactly as she wanted. After the launch party, which was at Anderson's Bookshop in Downers Grove, she made no more public appearances. “I decided I didn’t want to do readings or talks for this,” she explains, “as it just felt that this isn’t really my voice, as the other books have been. Letters are meant to be read silently and privately — at a distance. I didn’t want Lillian Moats’s voice to get in the way.”