Ringing Out the Old Year With Hate Mail

By John Gilstrap

Looking back on 2022, I confess I’m pleased by what I see. Two books and an anthology published, and two books written for publication in 2023. New house, new puppy, new radio gig, and a calming of pandemic panic that allowed the conference circuit to open up again.

For the most part, reviewers are kind to my books, to the point that I generally look forward to opening the emails I receive through my website. When I do receive the occasional negative email, it generally deals with the presence of too many typos or grammatical errors. Truth be told, the typos annoy me, too.

Then came Boxing Day, December 26, when I found this missive in my inbox from Mary Anne X:

I liked Stealth Attack right up until chapter 17, where Gilstrap once again revealed his proTrump mentality and his anti gun control stance. If he wants his protagonists to fight real corruption, he should have Jonathan Graves take on the Oath Keepers, or the Proud Boys, or the Trump administration itself. I don’t care if Gilstrap personally supports those criminals, but he’ll lose readers and profits if he doesn’t leave politics out of his novels. I’m done with his projecting such ignorance onto his fictional heroes. There’s better stuff to read. Can’t wait to write a review.

Okaay . . .

Stealth Attack hit the stands in July, 2020, which means I wrote it in 2019. When I read the email, I was confused. I couldn’t remember anything in that book that resembled anything that Mary Anne found so offensive. Recognizing that I am getting no younger, and that my memory isn’t necessarily as acute as it used to be, I pulled the book from my shelf and re-read Chapter 17.

To set the scene, Roman Alexander, a young man who’s very close to Jonathan Grave, has been kidnapped from El Paso by members of a drug cartel and spirited back across the border for reasons as-yet unknown in the story, though evidence is pointing toward human trafficking and child prostitution. Chapter 17 sees Jonathan and his team confronting cartel monsters in a bar in Sinaloa.

Best I could tell, this must have been the offending passage. As Jonathan muses about the challenge they face:

The U.S. State Department had had a travel advisory in place against most of the northern half of Mexico for the better part of a year now. Local gun laws were so draconian that possession of even a single bullet could get you put away for most of a lifetime, so no one was able to defend themselves against the gangsters who terrorized the country. The cartels owned the cops and the politicians, who cooperated by making sure that the populace was unable to resist or defend themselves.

By the time the chapter ends, a child prostitute’s pimp has a very, very bad day.

Let me stipulate from the beginning that every reader is 100% entitled to his or her own opinion. I read every email I receive and every review I can find. I never take offense from the bad ones and I try not to let the effusive ones swell my head. If someone feels passionate enough to share their opinion, I’ve at least made an impression.

The reason I bring this email to the fore at all is the underlying meanness it carries. Mary Anne’s intent, as implied in her concluding sentence, is to harm my career. It’s not that my writing is bad, it’s that I’m a bad person for writing it. It’s reflective of the times, I suppose. Oath Keepers and Proud Boys? I have no idea where that came from.

Here’s my big concern. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve built a following that trusts me to do my best to write a thriller that thrills. The one-off review like this gets counter-balanced by lots of others, so its impact on my career as a writer is negligible (at least I hope it is). For beginning writers, however, a screed like Mary Anne’s could be devastating. It’s mean spirited. I don’t understand the mindset.

I do think it’s interesting that in referring to “Gilstrap” in the body of her email, Mary Anne clearly doesn’t realize that she’s writing to me directly. I wonder if that bit of knowledge would have affected the tone of her missive. I’ll wager $100 that she would not have spoken that way to my face (no implied threat there from me, only suspected cowardice from her).

Now for my next challenge. While I never–NEVER!!!–respond to negative reviews, I promise on my website to always respond to every email. So . . . what to do? Here’s my response:

Hi, Mary Anne.

Thanks for your note. I promise on my website that I respond to every email, and I confess that most are more pleasing to address than yours. Sorry to push you away. I wrote Stealth Attack back in 2019, so I confess that you drove me to take another look at Chapter 17. You probably won’t be surprised that I don’t see what you saw, but that’s the nature of books. Once they’re launched, readers’ impressions are all that matters.
In today’s hyper-partisan climate, I think it can be too easy to project politics into places where they don’t exist. Fiction can cut close to reality, but at the end of the day, it’s still fiction. In Jonathan Grave’s world, Tony Darmond has been president for 14 years, and I don’t even know how long Irene Rivers has been director of the FBI. I don’t report on real government corruption, but rather create corruption that gives my cast of characters a reason to do what they do.
I intend to give my readers a thrill ride that may keep them up  at night, but I never intend to anger them. In your case, I seem to have dropped the ball.
I wish you a happy New Year.
If only you could read the first two drafts of that response–the ones that felt good to write but could never be sent.
Here’s to a terrific 2023!



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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

14 thoughts on “Ringing Out the Old Year With Hate Mail

  1. Only two drafts? I’m impressed. Your response was great. I think we’ve all seen the decline of manners and common decency in the past years, and I also think it’s a passing phase. Since I’m way past retirement years, I don’t think I’ll see the return of those values, but I’m hopeful the tide is turning. Have a great year!

  2. A good lesson here. Don’t ever fire off an instant response via email or social media. Write it out hot, let it cool, reassess and revise…and give it a few more minutes of thought.

    A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger. – Prov. 15:1

  3. This is a good reminder that, in a real sense, once a novel or story is released into the world, it belongs to the reader. Our job as writers is to craft as clearly as we can the story as we imagine it, but, as your wonderful reply noted, “reader impressions are all that matters” once the book is out there.

    I echo Jim above that your response is a great lesson in how to handle this situation–don’t send your first reply, and when you do, respond thoughtful, and with care.

  4. John, I don’t know what that kind of review would’ve done to me, the author tadpole that I am, but my hat’s off to you for how you handled it.

    It never ceases to amaze me (in these crazy times) how easily some are offended. If I was offended so easily, I’d have a permanent headache and scowl on my face.

    Life’s too short.

    I have some of your books on my Kindle and they are on my TBR “pile”. Now I’m doubly anxious to get at them.

    Happy Wednesday!

  5. Some, thankfully rare, comments and/or reviews seem crafted to hurt. And for one conscientious but insecure, no-name author they are successful.
    As you say, “It’s mean spirited. I don’t understand the mindset.” I agree.
    Sorry the negative missive arrived during your holiday (better if never sent). Hope it is/was quickly forgotten.
    Congrats on all the great developments iand Happy New Year. 😊

  6. Who knows what the motivations really are?

    Is it because people feel husky when they’re separated from their source of perceived grievance by miles and miles of cable and wire? Nasty as they want to be in a nice safe place where they don’t risk a sock on the jaw? That’s one angle.

    Another angle is the urge to vandalism without consequences. When we created the internet we created the troll as well.
    I taught online for fifteen years for three colleges and the first one used unevaluated midterm student reviews as a metric for measuring instructor performance. These were reviews seen in isolation-that is, poor students would blame the instructor for their failures rather than look in the mirror and look honestly at their failures.
    And you’d get your ass chewed out by your department chairs in the bargain. Washing out too many plagiarists was my undoing.

    How’s this connect to Brother Gilstrap’s comments? Simple.

    People now are possessed with a vending machine mentality. If they don’t get exactly what they think they want when they want it right now afther they’ve dropped their coins in the slot, the tendency is, like some of the ancient Greeks, to blame the messenger.

    Negative reviews out there in public can cause real harm. But it can and does backfire. These are reasons for optimism.


  7. Perhaps if you had written, “Jonathan approached the heavily-armed cartel gunmen carefully. ‘Hey guys,’ he said, holding his empty hands out to show he was defenseless. ‘How about we sit down over some chai tea and talk this out?’ ‘We got no beef with you, gringo,’ the leader growled. ‘It’s that asshole you have in your White House. He keeps building that wall, keeping our people from coming to your country and enjoying the liberty and prosperity they don’t have here. Not only that, the guy is spreading rumors that we’re running drugs over the border! That really hurts our feelings…’ The gunman starts to tear up. Jonathan carefully stepped forward and hugged the man. ‘It’s okay,’ he said, wishing he knew how to say it in Spanish. ‘We have a saying north of the border, my friend.’ ‘Yes? What is it?’ ‘Orange bad man be gone very soon!’ A cheer rang out among the Mexicans. ‘Coronas are on us!’ the leader shouted.”

  8. I once had a conversation with Robert McKee during one of his workshops. The moment was appropriate, so I asked him for writing advice. He said, “Just write the truth.”
    However, I noticed that some readers don’t like to hear the truth if it isn’t politically correct.
    The truth is we can’t please every reader.😊

  9. Some people can’t be happy unless they’re being offended. They’re addicted to their own adrenaline, and, to get a ‘fix,’ will project their own felgercarb on everyone and everything, not realizing it comes from within. (I call it seeing others through the lens of their own Shadow.)

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