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An Appreciation

Leslie E. Banks, author and friend

It was a cold evening just before New Year's and I was looking forward to having dinner with my friend - and favorite author - Leslie Esdaile Banks. But I was bummed, in the middle of a breakup and on the verge of tears.

When I arrived, a glass of cabernet was waiting. Leslie handed me a tissue.

"How did you know?" I sobbed.

"Girl, Jen called me whispering on the phone like she was Black Ops," Banks said. "I told her, 'Don't worry, I got this.' "

We spent the next few hours giggling, sipping wine, and tasting tapas.

That was the last time I saw my good friend.

Banks, who had lived in West Philadelphia, died Tuesday morning of adrenal cell cancer. She was only 51. She leaves a 21-year-old daughter, Helena Esdaile of Philadelphia, and a younger sister, Liza Jessie Peterson of New York.

A New York Times best-selling author of 40-plus books in numerous genres, Banks was one of the first authors to have a viral following. She built an online community numbering in the thousands through her 12-book Vampire Huntress series. Minion, the first book, was optioned for a movie.

She was writing about vampires before the Twilight movies and the HBO series True Blood. She was featured in a special before the latter's premiere.

"Leslie was a force of nature - in terms of her personality and in terms of her creativity, which knew no bounds," said Monique Patterson, Banks' editor at St. Martin's Press. "There's no one else like her."

Banks won the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention Career Achievement Award for Paranormal Fiction in 2009 and, in 2008, she was named the Essence Magazine Storyteller of the Year. Banks wrote under at least half a dozen pseudonyms, most of which were variations of her name; the vampire series was written under the name L.A. Banks. She also penned the books based on the Soul Food movie and Showtime series, and Scarface books based on the film. She was a member of the board of trustees of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Those who read Banks' romances, action thrillers, and paranormal stories about vampires, werewolves, and angels were hooked.

In all of her books, regardless of genre, she wrote about people and entities who made mistakes, but still tried to do their best. Forgiveness was important. Her voice was compassionate. Her soul was warm. And she was always good for a full-bodied, soul-stirring chuckle followed up by a Big Hug! - in person, via the Internet, or written in big cursive on the title page of her latest novel.

"Leslie was one of the realest people I've ever known," said fellow Philadelphia-based author Solomon Jones. "She was a true friend, a genuine person, and a brilliant writer."

In March 2010, Banks, fed up with soaring health-care costs, e-mailed President Obama. The White House was so touched by her words that she was invited to introduce Obama while he was campaigning for health-care reform in Philadelphia.

"I'm a divorced, single mom who's self-employed and trying to put my daughter through college," she said, full of Philly attitude. "And my health-insurance premiums are three-quarters of my mortgage payment? C'mon, now!"

Banks grew up Leslie Peterson in a West Philadelphia rowhouse at 48th Street and Osage Avenue. She graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls, and received a business degree from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and a master of fine arts in filmmaking from Temple University.

In 1991, her then-6-month-old daughter lost three fingers in a day-care accident. Banks quit her job to care for her and racked up $100,000 in medical bills.

Later that year, she began writing short fiction after reading about a writing contest. Five years later, she'd found an agent and published her first book. She never stopped writing.

I met Banks in 2006 at her West Philadelphia brownstone. She'd just finished the eighth book in her vampire legend series. Banks talked fast and her voice was infectious with the joy that comes from telling stories from the heart.

We were kindred spirits.

After that first meeting, we'd hang out every few months. There was always a lot of laughter and she'd surprise me with a book. "Let me know when that movie gets filmed," I'd say. "I want to write about it."

Shortly after our December dinner, we made plans to see each other again, soon, but they kept getting thwarted by snowstorms and her deadlines. She was always in the midst of writing so much so fast. It was as if she was racing against time.

In February, I called. She was in the hospital, but not to worry, it was just her diabetes, and her medications weren't agreeing with her, she said. She'd be out soon.

She never came home.

In late spring, she was diagnosed with late-stage adrenal cancer. Since then, her Facebook page has been flooded with well-wishes and good thoughts from readers and friends around the world. We all pleaded with the gods and angels Banks wrote about so often.

I'm pretty sure she's already started a conversation with the ancestors about this and that. And giving Big Hugs!