I first met Judith Merkle Riley in a bookstore. I was searching for a new book to read and I came across novel, The Oracle Glass, set in 17th century France. Within days of purchasing that book, I’d rushed out to buy her other novels and she had a fan for life. Imagine my delight when years later, in 2004, I learned that Judith was going to be the guest of honor at the Historical Novel Society’s first US Conference in Salt Lake City.
I was planning to attend the conference to promote my independently published novel; I’d spent the last ten years in the trenches seeking a publisher, without a bite from a commercial house, and I was excited to attend a conference dedicated to celebrating the readers and writers and of the genre I love, though I must admit I felt awkward even calling myself an author.
Then I met Judith. A tall woman with a ready smile dressed in flowing black, she had been wandering the lobby of the hotel, and I finally got up the guts to approach her. I told her how much I loved her work and how delighted I was to meet her; I sounded like a star-struck teenager yet within minutes we were talking about books, writing, history, the fact that we both love Spain (Judith danced flamenco, among her many other talents) and soon it was as if we had known each other forever.
She had that effect on people, an innate ability to make others feel at ease. There wasn’t an ounce of the prima donna in Judith, no bombastic grandeur or self-importance, though she was an internationally bestselling author. Judith cared deeply about writers and writing; she was passionate about research and history, but she always seemed a bit flummoxed by her success. She found it fascinating, and amusing, that she was regarded with such esteem. After all, she’d kept her teaching job, raised her kids, been through a divorce; she'd endured the triumphs and travails of everyone else. Though I think she secretly loved being told how much a reader liked her work, her pleasure derived from a genuine appreciation for the fact that her words had touched others, that someone had actually cared enough to read and like her book.
Over the course of that heady conference weekend, Judith and I became friends. We hung out together at dinner, giggled over drinks one night with the equally gracious and divinely funny Rosalind Miles, and not once did Judith ever treat me as anyone other than a fellow writer. She bought a copy of my self-published book; and on the shared ride we took to the airport, she mentioned she had started reading it and wanted to give me a referral to her literary agency for the book I’d been pitching to editors at the conference. Would I give her a few sample chapters? That book was The Last Queen and Judith’s enthusiastic referral got me my agent, Jennifer Weltz at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, who eventually sold my work at auction to Ballantine Books.
No one was more thrilled for me than Judith. In the following years, we spoke often on the phone and she always wanted to hear about what was happening in my career, even as she embarked on her own valiant, often arduous struggle against an insidious illness. Once when I went to visit her at her home, she showed me the organic wheat grass she was growing and I learned that beyond that keen mind and delicious wit, which make her novels such original paeans to the resiliency and foibles of women who are swept up in extraordinary circumstances, Judith was in fact a multi-faceted and extraordinary woman herself, whose passion for life and spirit for adventure and discovery refused to be quenched.
When I last spoke to her, Judith's illness had taken a frightening turn for the worse. We had talked often of the challenges she faced, but never once, in all that time, did I ever hear her utter a single complaint. She expressed to me her gratitude for the ability to re-evaluate her priorities and embrace her life, for the many friends she’d made and the love she had received. If she knew she would never write another book, she made no mention of it. She spoke as if time would always be on her side. In a way, it is.
Though she’'ll be greatly missed by all of us who had the privilege to know her, Judith Merkle Riley lives on in her wonderful novels, all of which reflect her unique humor, her unending passion, and her grand and generous heart.