On How I Almost Met Pat Conroy And Why He’s Rocking My World

 

Note: my dear friend Marybeth Whalen and I both wrote about our near-misses in meeting Pat Conroy recently for She Reads. Make sure you take a moment to read hers as well because it’s very moving. I’ve posted mine below, with a short addition on how his writing has both inspired me and made me want to quit altogether–as the best writing always does.

Conroy 1

Some authors are so revered that their names are whispered at literary events like an incantation. Authors who earn an “esque” after their names. Patchett-esque. Conroy-esque. Authors whose style is so unique, so mesmerizing that others emulate them for decades. The Kings and Queens of publishing as it were.

And I will never forget the day I first saw the reigning King and Queen of publishing in the flesh for the first time, or the regret I’ve held since that day. In October of 2014 I was invited to attend the Southern Festival of the Book here in Nashville. My debut novel had been published a few months earlier and it was the last event I was scheduled to attend. If I’m being totally honest, I was exhausted and wilted and tired of talking about myself and my book. So as I sat in the green room, waiting for my panel, I was a little subdued. And then heard THE GASP. When I looked up, Ann Patchett and Pat Conroy stood in the door, and fifty or so authors sat open-mouthed staring at them.

Here’s what you need to understand about me: if I am in awe of you, I will avoid you at all costs. I will not make eye contact or ask for your autograph. My absurd brain believes that the best way to show respect is to be the one person in a room not genuflecting. I will give you one less hand to shake. One less gushing compliment to deflect. I will leave you alone because I assume that you’re tired of the lines. This is unreasonable and I have no idea why I do it but it’s my default setting.

So I sat there, watching fifty authors rise to their feet and form two lines, and I settled deeper into my chair. A very flawed plan considering that within minutes I was the only person sitting. And three feet away, directly to my left, was Pat Conroy. But I dug in, determined.

The simple truth is that I froze. And it was awkward. And embarrassing. And obvious. I find myself in green rooms like that on occasion and at the time I thought I’d have another chance. I would rally and do better next time. But you know how this story ends and that second chance never came. If I could have done it all over again I would have gotten to my feet and shaken his hand. I would have told him what an honor it was to meet him. How staggered I am by his talent. I would have allowed myself to be in awe. He would have forgotten me instantly but I would have treasured the memory.

A memory that I never made because I’m an idiot.

Shake your hero’s hand. Give that gushing compliment. Send the email. Write the letter. Tell them that story in the signing line about how their novel changed your life or made you want to be a writer or helped you forgive your dad. They’ll understand. They do this because they know words are powerful and they want to hear that they have touched your life. Don’t be like me. Be a fan girl.

So when I woke on March 4th and learned of Pat Conroy’s passing I was devastated. But I instantly knew how to make amends. I decided to read through his entire body of work this year as penance for my stupidity. I already owned THE PRINCE OF TIDES but I bought each of his other books on my book tour this spring and I am currently  immersing myself in Pat Conroy’s south. I’ve lived here for much of the last twenty years but I can honestly say I’ve never really understood it until now.

Thank you for that, Mr. Conroy. It has been an unexpected gift. And I’m sorry that I don’t have the sense God gave a rock. I hope we get the chance to laugh about that one day on the other side of eternity.

 

conroy 2

Update.

I’m several months into my Pat Conroy marathon and exposing myself to all this brilliance has had an unintended side effect: I want to quit writing entirely. This happens to me sometimes when I read someone so brilliant, so fluid, that I despair of ever making such beautiful words or such a compelling story. It happened to me when I read PEACE LIKE A RIVER. It happened to me when I read THE THIRTEENTH TALE and THE KITE RUNNER and OUTLANDER. Clearly I haven’t quit yet. But I have been challenged and inspired and overwhelmed. And sometimes I think a writer needs to be perpetually adrift in those emotions to produce their best work. Or at least I do.

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I didn’t read THE PRINCE OF TIDES until this year. It was beautiful from the first word, but when I read this passage I quite literally gasped–on a plane while sitting squished between two somber businessmen, no less. And then I read it again four times because I knew that no matter how long I live I will never write a piece of dialogue so utterly perfect:

In a mental hospital in New York I visited Savannah after her second suicide attempt. I leaned down to kiss her on both cheeks, European style. Then, staring into her exhausted eyes, I asked her the series of questions I always asked when we met after a long separation.

“What was your family life like, Savannah? I asked, pretending I was conducting an interview.

“Hiroshima,” she whispered.

“And what has life been like since you left the warm, abiding bosom of your nurturing, close-knit family?”

“Nagasaki,” she said, a bitter smile on her face.

“You’re a poet, Savannah,” I said, watching her. “Compare your family to a ship.”

“The Titanic.”

“Name the poem, Savannah, you wrote in honor of your family.”

” ‘The History of Auschwitz.’ ” And we both laughed

“Now here’s the important question,” I said, leaning down and whispering softly in her ear. “Whom do you love more than anyone in the world?”

Savannah’s head lifted from the pillow and her blue eyes blazed with conviction as she said between cracked, pale lips, “I love my brother, Tom Wingo. My twin. And whom does my brother love more than anyone else in the world?”

I said, holding her hand, “I love Tom the best too.”

“Don’t answer wrong again, wise-ass,” she said weakly.

I looked into her eyes and held her head with my hands, and with my voice breaking and tears rolling down my cheeks, I almost broke apart as I gasped, “I love my sister, the great Savannah Wingo from Colleton, South Carolina.”

“Hold me tight, Tom. Hold me tight.”

Such were the passwords of our lives.

So, you see now how I am ruined. A hopeless sad-sack of an author stumbling along in the footsteps of a giant. But I’m so happy to be here. So happy that I get to try and fail and try again. My job is a strange one. I take nothing and I turn it into something and then I go back again and again and try to make it lovely. Maybe my work will never be as lovely as Conroy’s but I like to think he would be pleased that I am. And I like to think that if I’d shaken his hand that day he would have told me not to quit, to keep writing, because really, there’s nothing else I can do. I am unemployable otherwise.

 

Continue Reading · Comments { 2 }

From My Kitchen To Yours: Summer Strawberry Salad

Summer Strawberry Salad

It is worth noting up front that I am not a food blogger. Nor am I chef. I am, in fact a novelist (you can read more about my books here). That said, I’m also a darn good cook. And in an effort to organize and preserve my recipes I’ve decided to record them here. I’ll begin with a family favorite, Summer Strawberry Salad, simply because I made it for The Texan (my husband) and The Wild Rumpus (our four sons) tonight. Not a lettuce leaf was left–always a good sign in a house with five men.

Summer Strawberry Salad:

1 head romaine lettuce, torn into small pieces (you can also ad whatever greens you have lying around–I included two cups of spinach tonight because it was about to go bad)

2 cups sliced strawberries

1 cub cubed mozzarella

1 cup candied pecans

Dressing:

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 red wine vinegar

a little less than 1/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon paprika

**serve with grilled chicken and crusty bread

A friend told me once that we only get 18 summers with our kids. So in an effort to embrace the summer right in front of me I’ve decided to turn off social media until August and have fun with my family. Part of that means spending more time with my kids in the kitchen. My 13-year-old served as sous chef for this particular meal. If I’ve learned anything in all my years of parenting it’s that boys are more than happy to help in the kitchen if you hand them a weapon. He chopped and we talked and fun was had by all.

And there you have it. No rocket science, just happy eaters. Enjoy and have a delicious summer!

Bonus: my summer reading suggestion is FLIGHT OF DREAMS (a novel about the last, doomed flight of the Hindenburg) by yours truly. The New York Times had nice things to say about it, as did People Magazine. This salad isn’t featured in the book but there were a number of mouth-watering meals served on board that will spark your imagination.

Continue Reading · Comments { 0 }

For The Audiobook Lovers Among Us

When Random House told me they’d hired award-winning narrator John Lee to read FLIGHT OF DREAMS for audio I was thrilled. And of course I immediately went online and listened to samples from his numerous audiobooks. Mostly I was thankful he had the time to do mine. His voice is spectacular and he’s a genius with accents so it’s no surprise that he knocked it out of the park. Happy author all the way around. I could listen to him say “The American” all day long.

And then on Tuesday my editor sent me the link to this YouTube video of John Lee discussing FLIGHT OF DREAMS. I can’t explain why this meant so much to me but it did. My level of elation is silly and unreasonable but I don’t really care. It was hugely encouraging to me that he actually liked the book.

So there you have it. I am ridiculous. But John Lee is pretty darn amazing.

Continue Reading · Comments { 0 }

Introducing: The Maybach 12

IMG_2141

Today is the publication day for my  new novel, FLIGHT OF DREAMS, and my friends at Doubleday Books have partnered with Gaelan Ennis from Gone the Whiskey, to recreate the Maybach 12, a famous cocktail served aboard the Hindenburg. Even though the original recipe was lost in the disaster, Gaelan was able to put his creative spin on the drink so we can once again enjoy this piece of history.

Tonight I hope to toast this new book with my husband and I hope you’ll join me. Right now I’m thinking about those who died on the Hindenburg and I’m hoping that we come to know their names and their stories a little better because of this book. The original dedication for the novel reads, “To those who love. To those who lose. And to those who stand in the flames so others can pass safely through.” I changed it in the end to honor specific people who mean the world to me (my husband, a friend, and my grandmother) but that first dedication seems very apt today. This novel would not exist without the men and women on board that last ill-fated flight. And I hope I’ve honored their memory well.

Th Maybach 12, as written about in FLIGHT OF DREAMS:

Leonhard leaves her then and goes in search of the bar on B-deck and its famous cocktail, the recipe for which is known only to the bar steward, a secret that is guarded more closely than the Hindenburg itself…Leonhard joins them at the window carrying three frosted glasses containing ice chips and a murky citrine liquid. The look he gives Gertrud is a mixture of astonishment and respect. He hands one of the glasses to the colonel. “You will join us for dinner? Unless my wife has revealed too much of her impetuous nature?”

Gertrud takes a tiny sip of the Maybach 12 and can almost feel her hair blow back. The drink is everything, all at once, and she has an immediate appreciation for its reputation. She can taste the Kirsch and the Benedictine in equal parts, along with a good dry gin, and something else she can’t identify. “He means I’m an acquired taste.”

“On the contrary, Liebchen,” Leonhard says. “It didn’t take me long at all. One kiss, if I recall correctly.”

And the recipe courtesy of mixologist Gaelan Ennis (who I hope to meet one day):

THE MAYBACH 12
3 drops Saline Solution*
1tsp Dolin Blanc Vermouth
3/4oz Maybach Batch**
3/4oz Edelster Aventinus
1 1/2oz Bol’s Genever
In a mixing glass, stir cocktail over cracked ice until it has reached the desired temperature and dilution. In a chilled AP Coupe, express the oils from one lemon twist, then discard the lemon twist. Strain cocktail into glass. Garnish with a Brandied Cherry dropped into the center of the glass. Serve.
*The saline solution mix that I use is 1tbsp of salt, diluted into 4oz of water.
** The Maybach batch is a 1-2-3 mixture of Simple Syrup, Luxardo Maraschino, and Kirschwasser. Meaning, while you would batch 1oz Simple, 2oz Luxardo, 3oz Kirschwasser, you would only be using 3/4oz of that total mix.
A slightly simplified version of the recipe was printed by Doubleday on these coasters. Let me know if you’d like a few for your book club!
IMG_2143 (2)
Continue Reading · Comments { 5 }

Flight of Dreams to be Published in Australia and New Zealand

 

One of the most surprising things about this new novel has been the interest from foreign publishers. So far it has sold in Germany, Israel, Spain, and Australia/New Zealand. While many of these countries will be publishing FLIGHT OF DREAMS in the coming years, Australia/New Zealand will be releasing it shortly after the US publication. And because firsts are always fun, I wanted to share this, my first foreign cover, with you. It’s very different than the US cover but I love it in entirely different ways.

Thanks for letting me celebrate!

A.
flight_of_dreams_COVER

Continue Reading · Comments { 2 }

A New Year and a New Book

IMG_1941

Continue Reading · Comments { 0 }

You Must Read This

My biggest reading surprise in recent years came in the form of Diane Setterfield’s gothic masterpiece, The Thirteenth Tale. Though published in 2008 to great acclaim, I somehow missed this book until my family took a 1,500 mile road trip in 2011. I packed five novels in the hope that one of them would be good. I never made it past the first. And I’m not entirely sure if I spoke to my husband at all during that trip. I was consumed.

In her novel Diane Setterfield introduces us to Vida Winter, a prolific, reclusive author who chooses to finally tell her life story to a young biographer by the name of Margaret Lea. Unfortunately, Vida has given a different version of her story to every writer she’s ever spoken to. Interviewing her has become a rite of passage for young journalists, an errand failed before it’s begun. Margaret does not trust her, but she is fascinated by her. And for good reason. Vida Winter is one of the most memorable literary characters, and certainly the strongest female character I have ever read. She is terrifying in the way that only the fiercely intelligent can be. Unforgiving. Perceptive. Relentless. Yet she also possesses a tender form of insight that gives her an immediate humanity. Not likeable. No, Vida Winter could never be likeable. But she is immensely compelling. And she has finally met her match in the young, quiet, shrewd Margaret Lea. A lover of books and stories and writers, Margaret is the only person that Vida has ever invited into her world, and the only person capable of ferreting out the dark, twisted truth of Vida’s past. Although, as Vida says early on, “A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth.” Lucky for us, The Thirteenth Tale is both.

Vida is a writer’s writer. And Margaret exudes what it truly means to be a reader as she picks through the bones of Vida’s narrative searching for the hidden but still-beating heart. These two women understand each other. And they speak the language of books in a way that the rest of us immediately recognize. One morning, early in what is to become a great friendship, Vida tells Margaret what it’s like to write the novels for which she has become so famous. But really she is simply voicing the thoughts every reader has had at some point:

“I have eavesdropped with impunity on the lives of people who do not exist. I have peeped shamelessly into hearts and bathroom closets. I have leaned over shoulders to follow the movements of quills as they write love letters, wills and confessions. I have watched as lovers love, murderers murder and children play their make-believe. Prisons and brothels have opened their doors to me; galleons and camel trains have transported me across sea and sand; centuries and continents have fallen away at my bidding. I have spied upon the misdeeds of the mighty and witnessed the nobility of the meek. I have bent so low over sleepers in their beds that they might have felt my breath on their faces. I have seen their dreams.”

This is what we do as Vida tells her story. We bend low and soak it all in. The Thirteenth Tale is everything I love in a novel: dark, unsettling, mysterious, captivating. And in it Diane Setterfield has mastered the art of restraint. No word, no scene, no character is wasted. Nothing is extraneous or out of place. And as the story unfolds, and we learn the truth of who Vida Winter really is, we are left startled. Amazed. And in awe of this author who can tell a story within a story, all the while blurring the lines between reader and character, between writer and participant. Diane Setterfield has given us a story for the ages.

I read old novels,” Vida says toward the end. “The reason is simple: I prefer proper endings. Marriages and deaths, noble sacrifices and miraculous restorations, tragic separations and unhoped-for reunions, great falls and dreams fulfilled; these, in my view, constitute an ending worth the wait. They should come after adventures, perils, dangers and dilemmas, and wind everything up nice and neatly. Endings like this are to be found more commonly in old novels than new ones, so I read old novels.”

Though published not so long ago, Diane Setterfield has written an old novel. The proper sort. The kind that stays in libraries and on bookshelves for generations.

 

Continue Reading · Comments { 2 }

Case Closed: the True Story of a Happy Ending

I’ve posted this essay in various places but never with pictures of the real Sally Lou Ritz. Many thanks to Bert Weist for sending the photos and granting permission to publish them here.

IMG_0227

Sally Lou Ritz at the height of her dancing career, circa 1930’s

Hello, I’d like to find out where you did your research for your book about Judge Crater? You see, the showgirl depicted in your book was actually my grandmother . . . .

So began an email that I received on May 16, 2014. There are certain moments that writers do not forget. Your first good review. Your first bad review. Finally holding the book you’ve labored over in your hands. But I am convinced there is nothing that will send you into total body failure so fast as receiving an email from someone who shouldn’t exist. Because that showgirl I wrote about, the one I’d researched and brought to life on the pages of my novel? The one whose granddaughter had just written me? I truly believed she had died in the fall of 1930. She shouldn’t have lived long enough to have children, much less grandchildren. But that email turned all my personal theories inside out.

IMG_0226

Ritzi and her dancing partner, Dario

My first introduction to Sally Lou Ritz (I would later find out her last name was Ritzi—the nickname I used for her in my novel) came ten years ago while reading an article about a missing New York State Supreme Court Judge. Though we’ve largely forgotten him, Joseph Crater was nothing short of legend for almost fifty years. He’d only been on the court four months when he got into a cab on August 6th, 1930, and vanished. His disappearance became the biggest missing person’s case of the twentieth century, thanks in no small part to his connections with Tammany Hall, infamous gangsters, and rumors of judicial corruption. It didn’t take long to discover that there were three interesting women in Judge Crater’s life: his jaded, socialite wife Stella; a devoted maid who was in their apartment in the days surrounding his disappearance; and a showgirl named Sally Lou Ritz, long suspected to be Crater’s lover. A wife. A maid. And a mistress. What if all three of them knew what happened to him but chose not to tell? Now I had a story.

IMG_0221

Ritzi circa 1930’s

But the difficulty in writing about historic figures is that you must treat them with respect. Their legacies and their families and their memories must be honored. Despite the fact that they felt like characters to me, they were real people. And there could be men and women wandering around the planet that knew and loved them. I don’t believe that writers must always paint their characters in a positive light—especially when history supports a gritty version of events—but I do believe they should be treated with dignity. And I was determined to be mindful of that responsibility.

IMG_0224

Ritzi, 1937 featured in a Maxwell House Coffee Ad

Yet here’s the truth: in this particular situation I felt as though I’d gotten off easy. Joseph and Stella Crater never had children. The maid, known only as Amedia Christian (I changed her name for the novel) makes one appearance in one newspaper article and no one knows for sure if that was even her real name. And the showgirl vanished shortly after Judge Crater. She’s been listed as a missing person for the last eighty-four years. I stayed with the facts that could be verified. But beyond that, my imagination had room to play. Joseph Crater’s disappearance is still unsolved. No one knows what became of him. So I used these three women to tell a version of events that could have happened. And I was very pleased with how it turned out.

And then came that email in May.

IMG_0218

Ritzi in California after her dancing career ended

Ritzi’s granddaughter went on to tell me that her grandmother had left New York City in fall of 1930. That she had changed her name. Married. Had a child. She had gone on with her life and never once mentioned that she was with Joseph Crater on the night that he disappeared. Or that she had been in any way connected to one of the most notorious missing persons cases in history. Her children and grandchildren knew her simply as a beautiful, talented, charming woman who shied away from personal questions. She died in 2000 after living a full, happy life.

It’s ironic, that.

IMG_0217

Ritzi in California

Even though I sincerely believed that Ritzi had not made it out of New York City alive, I wrote her a different ending. A happy one. I gave her a family. A new name. I wanted those things for her. And I was brought to tears by the knowledge that she actually got them.

I spent several weeks this summer communicating with various members of Ritzi’s family. I’d gotten many things right. Her real name for instance: Sarah (she went by Sally). Some things I’d gotten wrong. She fled to California, not Iowa as I’d imagined. But the thing that humbled me most was that her son, granddaughter, and great-grandson had a few more answers than they did before. Much of what I wrote about her was total fiction. But I was able to point Ritzi’s family to the historical record of her time as a dancer on Broadway, to her connection with Judge Crater, and to testimony she’d given police about his disappearance.

Questions were answered. (For them and for me.) Gaps were filled. And a legacy was discovered. To me that is a better ending than anything I could have written.

IMG_0216

Ritzi in midlife, California

Continue Reading · Comments { 4 }

For The Love Of A Dog

Maggie 4

“If you tell me this is a boy I’m going to cry,” I told the technician that day. It was August 2008 and I was five months pregnant and the results of this sonogram were rather crucial to my mental health. “It’s not your fault. And I’ll be okay. But we already have three boys and we’re really hoping for a girl. So if it’s another boy I need to get my crying done now so I’m not doing it in the delivery room.”

I’ve wondered since if she remembers that day as clearly as I do. How she put that warm jelly on my swollen stomach, set the monitor against my skin, and immediately declared, “Penis!” True to my word I burst into tears.

I was still crying an hour later as my husband drove me home. We’d left the doctor’s office with three grainy black and white pictures of our son and the number of a good urologist.

I’d like to blame my emotional breakdown on hormones but the truth is that a part of me needed to grieve. This would be our last child. I would never have a daughter. I’d collected pretty names and pink clothes for years and now I would never get to use them. My world would always be filled with Legos and camouflage and that wet-puppy smell unique to little boys.

My husband was rather less emotional about the whole thing. “Don’t cry,” he said, patting my arm, “It’s not your fault.”

I snapped.

“My fault? My fault? This is your fault! You have no X chromosomes. You did this to me. And I’m getting a dog. And it’s going to be a girl dog. And I’m going to give her a girly name!” It was the only solution I could think of and everything I said after that came through sobs and gurgles and this high-pitched keening that I’ve never been able to reproduce. From what I remember he stopped talking to me after that. You can’t blame the man. He was terrified. By the time we got home I’d gone through an entire box of tissue.

The next morning I was calmer and quieter and he brought me coffee as he always does. He hugged me. He kissed me. He told me he loved me and that he was rather glad to be a father of all sons. It was a relief, he said, not to have a wedding to pay for. And then he added, “If you really want to get a dog we can get a dog.”

My poor husband. I looked at him like he’d grown another head. “That’s a terrible idea. I’m pregnant! Why on earth would we get a dog?” I believe I may have actually wagged a finger at him. And then I said words he’s never let me forget. “If we are supposed to have a dog, God will drop one on our doorstep.”

Now that I think about it that was the first and only time I’ve ever thrown down a gauntlet. And no wonder. Two hours later I went out to check the mail and found a black lab puppy on our doorstep. This is the part that people often find hardest to believe when I tell this story. But I swear it is true, point for point. At the time we lived in Texas, in a neighborhood tucked between two major thoroughfares, and for reasons I’ve never fully understood, people often abandoned animals at the end of our street. It was not uncommon to see some poor stray wandering around until someone took pity on it or called animal control. On that particular day, the puppy had followed the mailman around until getting tired and collapsing at our door.

“We have a dog.” I told my husband over the phone five minutes later. “But it’s a BOY!”

Maggie 3

Perhaps he felt safe, with the phone between us as a buffer, because he laughed at me. I still remember that laugh. Part delight, part disbelief, and no small amount of triumph. We had a dog. The boys loved it immediately. And by the time he got home from work they were all romping happily in the back yard.

“You,” he said, after inspecting the puppy, “are not well versed in canine genitalia. It’s a girl.”

We’ve had Maggie for six years now. If we’re very lucky we’ll have another six years with her. She completes this wild, motley family of ours, and if I didn’t know better I would swear she’s part human. Maggie barks at us if we yell at the kids. She dances with my husband every evening when he comes home from work. She sleeps with one of his boots every night and she sits at my feet during the day while I write. Remember that fourth son of ours? He started Kindergarten in August. On his first day she sat at the door and waited until he got home. She didn’t eat. She didn’t move. But the moment he was through the door she went to his room and brought him his teddy bear. I think of them as belonging to each other. A dog and her boy. Sometimes it feels as though we got them on the same day, so linked are those memories.

I didn’t get a daughter. I wouldn’t change that now, not for anything. But I did get these boys and the unexpected, divine gift of a dog I don’t deserve.

photo (18)

Continue Reading · Comments { 3 }

In Which We Have A Paperback Cover

The paperback version of THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS will release from Anchor Books on October 7th, 2014.

Behold the clever…

New Blue WMM Cover

I know, right?

Continue Reading · Comments { 1 }