Bestselling author Susan Donovan had a successful career, great kids, health, and a lovely little house -- until she got bitch-slapped by a rare infection that should have killed her. After three months in Shock Trauma, twenty surgeries, and the amputation of her left leg above the knee, she has had to learn to love her life and herself again. It hasn't been easy, but it has been interesting.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.