My Dinner with Russ

So I went to dinner one Wednesday last August at Russ Parson’s house because he’s my cousin and I adore him, and because I was in LA and that’s where he lives. And also because he’s married to one of the best women I know; there is nobody in the world better to laugh with than Kathy Parsons. And also because his gorgeous daughter, Sarah, had just graduated from college, so she should get jewelry, which I needed to hand deliver so I could also hug. And also because Russ is the other writer in the family (How To Read A French Fry, great book, you should read it) and we can talk publishing, except we never do. Mostly with the Parsons, you just laugh a lot.

It was my turn to buy dinner because the last time we’d been together it had been Russ’s birthday and we were in New York and they took to me to Per Se where we had a seventeen-course meal that lasted six hours and will always be one of the best memories of my life, both for the food and for the company, plus Thomas Keller showed us around the kitchens and it was amazing, so I definitely owed them. But Russ is one of the great foodies of our time—the guy has James Beard medals strung around his kitchen like Christmas lights—so when I said, “Let me take you out to dinner,” and he said, “No, come here, I’ll cook,” I did not argue. Nor did I argue with the champagne he poured as soon as we got there so we could toast the fact that we were all together again, and then Sarah’s graduation, and then the finished Don’t Look Down, and then his deadline extension, and then the sunset, and then I forget what else, but we toasted it. And we sat around the big table in his backyard and ate–my God, we ate–goat cheese and peppers, pasta tossed with fresh tomatoes, gorgeous glistening fresh cucumber with cracked pepper, thick grilled steaks with garlic butter, and amazing homemade peach-almond ice cream, all under trees strung with tiny white lights. And while I am a snarky, cynical bitch, I have to tell you, there is nothing better than eating great food in a beautiful garden with wonderful people you love while the sun sets. And laughing. After a lot of good champagne.

And of course we talked about food. Well, sort of. Russ said the original artichoke was some kind of weapon. Bob said, “Did you ever wonder who first looked at a squid and said, ‘I could eat that’?” (Russ said, “Squid is good if it’s fresh and well-prepared,” but Russ never met a food he wouldn’t defend.) Sarah said that she’d met one of the survivors from that Alive! plane crash when she was in Brazil.

And then we started talking about Brazilian waxes.

This is probably where I should mention that my critique partner, the lovely Valerie Taylor, got me a Brazilian wax for Christmas last year. I opened up the envelope, and it was a gift certificate for our local spa for, yep, one Brazilian wax. I looked at her and said, “Thank you so much. WHY?” And she said, “Because I want to know what it’s like. You go find out and tell me.” So now it’s Christmas again and I still have this certificate because even if the technician buys me a drink and tells me I have nice eyes, I am not letting anybody do that to me. Probably.

So we’re talking about it—well, Kathy and Sarah and I are talking about it, Russ has his hands over his ears and is saying “Lalalalalalalalala” which shows you can have a lot of James Beard medals and be internationally famous and still be immature, and Bob is saying, “I don’t want to know what that is” which shows you can be a former Green Beret and know how to kill people with your little finger and still be a wuss—and Kathy says, “Who the hell thought that up anyway?”

And I realize it’s the Squid Question. At some point, somebody said, “You know what would be a good idea?” and then ran with it. And whether it remained squid or became calamari depended on what he did with it, but the point is, he ran with it.

Which leads me to my own life because, as my daughter once put it, “Mom, it’s always all about you.” Some of my Squid Questions have been unmitigated disasters—going platinum in college is not a good memory, and there was that time I dove into cold surf and had an asthma attack that almost killed me, and I definitely shouldn’t have shown my tattoo to my therapist—but I can’t honestly say I regret any of them. If nothing else, they made me smarter. (Haven’t see me as a platinum blonde lately, have you? And one of my tattoos is the Chinese symbol that means “to risk” which I did on impulse along with the one I’d come for, and it only occurred to me later that the flash at Mother’s Tattoos probably wasn’t done by anybody who actually reads Chinese, and that for all I know that symbol means “This Space For Rent” or “Skanky Ho.” Which is all part of the risk, so the symbol still works. But I digress.) And some were necessary disasters, like getting married at twenty-one which was really stupid, but if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have Mollie now, so it was a good thing. And then there are those that were brilliant. Quitting my teaching job when I was neck-deep in debt to go back to grad school and write romance novels was a dumb plan that turned out smart. Buying the ugliest house I’d ever seen because it was on the most beautiful land I’d ever seen is working out well. Collaborating with a writer of violent military thrillers was a terrible career move except that it resulted in the one of the best books I’ve ever done and you should see the one we’re working on now, as our agent says, “This is a riot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (That’s a direct quote from her e-mail. Well, she’s our agent so she has to love us, but trust me, she’d tell us if she hated it.)

So I’m thinking Russ is right (well, Russ is usually right) and that the point isn’t that squid is intrinsically bad, that it’s that you take the risk and then concentrate on the execution and voila! calamari. So I think maybe it’s a good idea to periodically say “yes” to the Squid Questions with great enthusiasm and no regrets, even while all those about you are saying, “Are you out of your mind?” And that maybe I should go for that Brazilian wax. Not now, of course, but maybe some day.

And I should definitely always have dinner with the Parsons because those people know food and laughter and love.

And squid.

Trudy and the Woman With A Lot On Her Mind

I’ve figured out why that Twelve Days of Trudy process didn’t work: I need steeping time.

I’ve tried to describe my process to people and I usually get the same reaction that I did from Bob the first time he heard me explain it: “That’s daft.” The best I can come up with is that I know who the heroine and hero are, and I sort of write in their world for awhile, doing snatches of dialogue, sometimes whole scenes, getting a feel for the place. And then when I’ve got about 50, 000 words (on a 100K book), I take the scenes and put them in order and see what I’ve got and try to figure out who the antagonist is and what the goal is, and I move them around and I think. I think about what it means and what they want and why I had to write it and it’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the box.

And while I’m doing that, I tell myself the story over and over and over: “This is a story about Trudy who . . .” and at some point it gels. It’s difficult to explain, but the story just starts to get thick. Gelling isn’t quite the word because there’s a point when it turns a deeper color, like a great tea does when it’s steeped long enough. Or like cookies do when they’ve baked long enough that they crunch when you bite into them, but they’re still moist and warm. And there’s a click aspect to it, too, when the pieces suddenly lock into place and it’s just Right. Yes, I know, I’m mixing metaphors, it’s an intangible. But I really know the story’s there when it starts to glow in my mind, the whole thing turns golden in my brain and all of a sudden, I’ve got a world that makes sense and people I care about.

The problem is getting to that point. And I can’t outline to it. I have to listen to the voices talking in my head and write a lot of stuff and then play with it in my brain to get to the click, the gel, the gold. This is why Bob screams, although he’s doing his best to adapt, bless his linear little heart.

But it’s not what you’d call an efficient process. And for somebody like Bob or Terry Brooks who outlines in detail first, it’s a nightmare (I know this because they’ve told me). So I really tried writing to an outline with Trudy—well, you saw me try—and it just didn’t work. I ended up with 14,000 pretty good words, but the story didn’t make sense to me. So I’ve spent the past month walking around thinking about those words, those people, trying to figure out exactly what it was that was important about them, about what they mean and how they fit together and why the Thing In My Brain made me write them.

And now for a brief autobiographical note: Everybody collects something and I collect Mexican folk art. Yes, I also collected Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper and Walking Ware while I was writing Fast Women, but that ended when the book ended. I also had a boatload of snow globes from Bet Me which all went to friends when I was done except for the vintage Mickey and Minnie globe that started it all. That’s different, that’s research, this folk art is just for me. But “Mexican Folk Art” is a pretty wide field, so I focus on three things: alebrijes (wooden animals), antique nichos of the Virgin of Aquila, and low fire terra cotta sculptures of women by Josefina Aguilar. My favorite Aguilars are in her vendor series, six-inch figurines of women with long skirts holding wares in their arms with something sitting on their heads. I’m bananas for these things, so I’ve made it a rule that I can only buy one when I’m so insane for it, that I can’t stop myself. (You can get these on eBay, usually for around $25.) To me, every one of them is a Woman With A Lot On Her Mind, and each one has a story, and I’m pretty sure I see a different aspect of myself in each one. Which brings us back to writing Trudy.

The Josefina Mindful Woman that I keep in my office is there because it nails my creative process. She has a peacock and a cat in her arms—my hero and heroine—and they’re colorful and darling and curled comfortably against her, completely in her control. And then there’s the thing on her head. It’s this insane, wild, screaming monster, tentacles flying in all directions, and it’s colorful and moving and completely disorganized and it’s pretty much what the story in my head feels like before Golden Time. Well, here, see for yourself:

One of the things I like best about this figure, and there’s a lot there to love, is the expression on the woman’s face. She has this screaming thing on her head, but she’s not worried. She knows that if she just lets it be up there, eventually it will calm down and pull itself together and become a thing of order and reason without losing any of its color and energy. She’s not happy but she’s patient, and she doesn’t have her foot on its neck, she’s letting it scream. That’s my process right there, cuddling my weird-ass heroine and hero while the story explodes in my brain as it tries to work itself out. And my goal is to be as patient as this Aguilar Mindful Women during that process, to stop beating myself up because my head is exploding.

But the good news is, the Hot Toy explosion is over and Trudy is crunchy and golden. I can tell you the story now. I have it sorted out. The structure makes sense. I love it.

Of course, my head is going to explode again with Agnes and Mare and Charlotte and Zelda (fingers crossed for Zelda) and now I’m thinking about Petal, but that’s okay because looking at this Mindful Woman figure, I’ve realized something else. There’s a real beauty in that hot, disorganized chaos, that’s where the energy comes from, that’s why the story is crunchy, because the story starts out as a monster I can’t control and makes me learn it and love it before I can finish writing it.

So I’m not inefficient at all. I’m a Woman With A Lot On My Mind.

And depending on what my goddess of an editor, St. Jenderlin, says next week, Trudy is done.

Random Sunday

I love Sundays which is strange because I’m self-employed so it’s not like my weekends are any different from my weekdays. But Sundays just feel so deliciously random.

The new girl groups “One Kiss Can Lead To Another” boxed set in the pink hatbox is the best boxed set ever. It has the great “I’d Much Rather Be With The Girls Than Be With You” by the equally great Donna Lynn. Nadine Goodnight would go bananas for the whole set. “Yes, I’d much rather be with the girls than with boys like you.”

I dyed my hair too dark for my age and it looks incongruous with my rapidly falling face, but I like it that way. It’s got a very Johnny Cash vibe to it. I’d rather be Roseanne, but I’ll take Johnny.

Victoria’s Secret’s XLs are now 18-20 instead of 12-14. Who says we’re not making progress.

Hi. I’m Jenny Crusie and I’m a Christmas Tree Addict. There are three in the kitchen alone.

I’m having an insane urge to paint furniture, possibly because Maxine Brown is singing “Oh, No, Not My Baby,” that great hymn to love and denial. “Well, you might have had a last minute fling, but I am sure it didn’t mean a thing . . .” Poor clueless Maxine, but an excellent song to paint furniture to.

I like shopping in airports. There’s nothing else to do with my time and depending on the airport you can get some very nice stuff.

Sudoku is the only kind of puzzle I can quit in the middle of without guilt. Because when one of those suckers goes wrong, there’s no saving it.

Earl-Jean’s version of “I’m Into Something Good” is better than the Beach Boys. Blasphemy, but true.

I have never wanted diamond rings, but when my mother gave me my grandmother’s art deco wedding set, I coveted them. I handed them on to my daughter, but I’d have married somebody to get those rings.

I wish J. Jill would discover bright happy colors. I like their stuff, but the colors always make me want to kill myself.

I watch NCIS because I get to look at Mark Harmon for an hour. They could just film him walking around for an hour and I’d still watch it. Pauley Perrette and the boat in the basement are icing on the cake, but Harmon is the cake.

Bob and I went to Arizona for dinner. We flew in Friday afternoon, spoke at a sales conference dinner, and then flew home Saturday. We have to stop meeting like that. Although since he got a suite and I didn’t, he’s going to be happy for days. Possibly worth the trip for that alone.

The Four Pennies are singing, “When The Boy’s Happy, The Girl’s Happy, Too.” Or at least The Girl’s Happy when she’s dragging around somebody muttering “I got a suite” instead of “We’re all doomed.”

This afternoon, I’m cleaning off the pool table. It’s in the studio so it’s just way too handy for putting stuff on, but I want to play pool.

I bought a blue beehive-shaped teapot from Sur la Table and it makes me happy whenever I look at it. The hot tea is just a bonus.

I probably shouldn’t have shown my therapist my tattoo. I don’t think she was ready for it.

I love the three-foot statue of Betty Boop in my kitchen more than I love my stove. If I had to give up one, it wouldn’t be Betty.

Bob and I are going to be hitting over forty cities next year for conferences and book tours. They’re going to fly us to major cities and then we’re going to drive to everything nearby which is SO much better than flying everywhere except that means Bob and I are trapped in a car together.

My iTunes just blipped over to Martina McBride’s “Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road.” I must have it set on random play accidentally. Either that or it’s reading my subconscious. No, really, I LOVE driving with Bob.

The last movie I saw in a theater was “About A Boy.” I have to get out more.

I don’t get how people live without seasons. Yes, I’m freezing my butt off now (never live in the north in a house that’s all windows) but no seasons? Inconceivable.

Jen’s reading Trudy over the weekend so I’m going to get her editing notes early this next week. Bob made me take out a bunch of the “bastards,” and Meg thinks there’s too much Christmas music, but I personally think Trudy rocks.

I also think the rest of today is a Go To Hell day. I’m going to paint furniture and watch Madagascar and March of the Penguins (it’s a penguin kind of day) and make this raspberry brownie mix I’ve had in the pantry for awhile. And then I’ll probably do Charlotte’s proposal because the Girls in the Basement are saying it’s time.

Shelly Fabares is singing “Johnny Angel.” I saw her debut that song on the Donna Reed Show which means I’m old, but it also means that it has to go into Charlotte’s book because since her last name is Reed and she’s a home ec teacher, her nickname is “Donna.” Serendipity. Or iTunes reading my mind again.

Gotta love Sundays and blue teapots and Girl Group music. And my subconscious. “Cause I’d much rather be with the Girls . . .”

No, there was no message here. There’ll be an organized entry along next week some time. Today, it’s just Random Sunday.