Monday, August 11, 2014

I'm (so not) Ready For My Close Up - Episode One

Writing Retreat, 2012 

. . . And the day came that a cameraman and sound guy followed me into the bathroom so they could document how I brushed my teeth while standing on my prosthetic leg. Why, you ask? It’s a long story. Let me tell you all about it.
I started working as a newspaper reporter just out of grad school, and followed that career path for about a decade. Back then, newsrooms were cavernous spaces bustling with ringing phones, clacking keyboards, screeching police scanners, shouting editors, and reporters incessantly on the phone. It was that way at every newspaper I ever worked for, from the smallest daily to one of the behemoths of American Journalism. And I loved it. The commotion energized me.
So imagine how jarring it was when I switched to fiction writing and found myself sitting in the near silence of a home office. I remained there, hour after hour, alone save for a few of my closest personal friends (and yes, I’m referring to my personal computer and my personal demons.) It was hard for me to adjust. Honestly, after fourteen years I’m still adjusting.
     Spending so much time locked up in a room made it easy to become eccentric. What saved me from going completely cuckoo was that at the end of every workday I had to make re-entry into the world of family life. I would immediately transition to fixing dinner, fetching one kid from baseball and the other from ballet, and taking the dog for x-rays because he may have swallowed portions of a houseguest’s 36-C underwire bra. But still, I spent so much time alone that I often forgot I was part of a multi-billion-dollar global publishing industry full of writers much like myself.
Celeste and Me, 2011
     Luckily, I write romance, and when I joined Romance Writers of America, I became part of a huge, well-organized, and diverse community of authors. We meet up regularly at conferences. We give workshops together and sit shoulder-to-shoulder for group book signings. We prop each other up in bad times and celebrate together in good. (Also, we drink a lot and laugh so hard our jaws and bellies ache.) Through this organization, many writers build lifelong friendships. I count myself very fortunate to have dozens of writer buddies from all over the world. Then, at the 2004 RWA National Conference in Dallas, I met my creative soul mate.
There was something about Celeste Bradley’s writing that I loved. Her romance novels were set in Regency England, which has never really been my cup of tea (pun intended.) But she wrote such funny, sexy, and action-packed stories that I couldn’t resist. So by the time I met her at a cocktail party hosted by our mutual literary agent, I was already a fan. Besides, our worlds overlapped so much that I couldn’t have avoided her if I wanted to. In addition to being represented by the same agent, we started our careers about the same time, were contracted with same publishing house, and even had the same editor.
So that night in Dallas I was doing my usual social butterfly routine, chatting up a bunch of writers with my vodka and cranberry in hand, when I saw Celeste sitting near a window talking quietly with one other author. Celeste was a tall woman, with volumes of thick, dark hair that fell down her back. She seemed so poised – calm and self-contained. In other words, the opposite of Susan Donovan, who was short, loud, and goofy.
If this is starting to sound like a love-at-first-sight/opposites-attract opening scene from one of my novels, I guess there’s a reason for it. I walked over to Celeste and introduced myself. We began talking. We clicked. We made each other laugh. And I thought to myself, “what a dignified lady she is.” Flash forward to the next year, at the RWA National Convention 2005 in Reno. Along with a few other middle-aged-mom-type romance authors, we spent a rather surreal night on the town. Much of it is still a blur, but I know it involved karaoke and random cowboys who insisted on stripping for us when they found out we were attending a romance writer convention. This was followed by a group excursion to a . . . well . . . if you must know, we went to a BDSM-themed novelty shop.
I think the field trip left me scarred for life, and must be at least partly to blame for why, many years later, I failed to enjoy the infamous  Fifty Shades of Grey as much as others did. I guess I had this image burned into my memory: Celeste Bradley bringing an assortment of handcuffs, whips, and chains to the cash register – along with various and sundry latex novelties – to calmly ask for clarification on their uses. No, Celeste didn’t really buy all that stuff. And yes, the clerk hated us with every fiber of his being. But I remember looking at Celeste up there at the counter and thinking to myself, “This chick is going to be one of my best friends.
As fun as that was, Celeste and I lost touch for a few years. Later we would discover that we had simultaneously been going through the divorce-and-starting-over phase, and had both pulled away from the social aspect of romance writing. But we met up again in 2009, when the annual conference was in Washington D.C. I remember I just walked up to her and told her I had this feeling we were supposed to write a book together, and a had this idea for a novel simultaneously set in historical London and modern-day Boston.
Yeah, I know. I would have called hotel security, too. But Celeste looked at me serenely, smiled, and said, “Let’s do it.” Looking back, it was fate. Pure and simple.
Celeste, Denver 2010

The next year, Celeste and I participated in a romance reader event in Denver, and we started brainstorming on the book that would eventually be titled A Courtesan’s Guide to Getting Your Man, and later re-released as Unbound. It was shocking how fast and easily our ideas meshed. It was as if our brains shared the same operating platform. Basically, we spoke each other’s language. We ended up plotting the entire 125,000-word novel in a couple days. We were still taping notecards to the wall five minutes before I had to rush off the airport for my flight home. We went back to our respective towns and began writing. A couple months later, we met in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and hammered out the whole thing, piecing scenes together, writing transitions, drinking potent coffee and staying up till all hours. Again, we worked right up until I had to race to the Albuquerque airport. We hit the “send” button to our editor and shot out the door.
I believe Courtesan/Unbound is one of the best things I’ve ever written. I know Celeste feels that way, too. I’m so proud of what we did with that story. So when our publisher asked for a follow-up, we signed on the dotted line. Of course we did! Celeste and I were on top of our careers. Life in general was very good. The following May, Celeste and her sister, Cindy, traveled with me to Spain to celebrate my 50th birthday, and we returned home just before Courtesan was published. A couple months later Celeste and I went to New York for yet another conference. I was up for an award.  We knew there was no limit to what we could do together as a writing team. Nothing was going to stop us now. 
So when a documentary filmmaker named Laurie Kahn asked Celeste and I do an on-camera interview for her project Love Between the Covers, we answered with an enthusiastic “absolutely!”
It was a fun interview. We joined Laurie in her hotel suite, which had been turned into a film studio, and met Dan (the sound guy) and Joe (the cameraman) for the first time. We had so much fun in that interview. Celeste and I laughed and chatted about our lives and the adventure of writing – together and as individuals. It’s all recorded for posterity, and watching it is a bittersweet experience for me. I don’t want to be too maudlin here, but I look at myself in that clip and I see how happy I am. I look so healthy. So sure of myself. In other words, so completely clueless about the darkness about to put an end to everything – my happiness, my health, my faith in the wide-open possibilities of my life.
Sorry Laurie, but here’s the honest-to-God truth: If I had known that fun little interview would open the door for a film crew to document my deeply personal struggle with illness and recovery, I probably would have declined the offer to take part in the film.
Happy, Healthy, Hopeful -- and Unsuspecting. Summer 2011
Laurie called me many months later, in April 2012, to see if she could catch up with me. Of course, she had no idea what I had been through. I hadn’t made a public announcement about it, and it would be another year and a half before I started this blog. Laurie was devastated to hear the news but planted a seed in my head:  maybe one day I would be willing to talk on camera about it.
Sure, I said. Maybe. One day. I’d keep in touch.
Whoo, baby! I would end up doing more than talking. I would end up welcoming the crew into my home, my physical therapy sessions, my family, and my annual writing retreat vacation with Celeste. That’s how Joe and Dan ended up in the bathroom with me.

But don’t change that channel! I’ll be back with another episode soon.

1 comment:

Monique said...

My grandmother always said, wash your face and put on lip gloss. Then face the world. So you have to put yours on before you brush your teeth! Like I said before...."You are here for a reason...someday you will know why" (Do you sing happy birthday while you brush your teeth?) Nana made us do that too, so we would brush long enough. Anyway, while you have them there, the least they can do is clean the sink for You! LOL