A Piece of the Puzzle

Two weeks ago I sent the manuscript for The A-List to New York.  It was a book I had struggled with for months.  As a result, I had rewritten and re-polished the beginning so much that by the time it went to New York, my editors decided to send it directly to production.  In almost sixty books, that’s only the second time that’s happened.  As a result, instead of doing editorial letter changes, I’m sitting here with some time on my hands, waiting for copy-editing to arrive.

So what did I do—go on vacation?  Nope, Bill is still recovering from surgery.  Did I go shopping?  Nope, there’s nothing I need or want—well wait, I did go out and splurge on a Krispy Kreme, but that was a one-time-only extravaganza.  No, what I did instead was go to work on the next Beaumont book.  I’ve given my editor a tentative title, but she’s not said yea or nay, so I’m not posting it here.

But here’s the thing.  Starting to write this book was fun.  I’m already 15,000 words to the good.  It only took a few sentences to get back into step with Beau.  It you’re one of those fortunate people who is still friends with someone who has known you since you were knee high to a toad stool, you know the drill.  You meet up after months or years, and in minutes it’s as though you’ve never been apart.  You talk about things that are happening in your lives right now and things that happened long ago, and you both know where all those bodies are buried.

That’s the kind of conversation J.P. Beaumont and I are having right now.  Because this story features a few characters from one of the earliest Beau books, we’re both examining that time in his life with the benefit of hindsight and more than a little regret.  The character he is right now grew out of all the things that have happened to him in the intervening years.  And isn’t that where we all are?  Whether we’re fictional or not, we are who and what we are due to what happened to us in the past.

So this morning, while I was getting my steps, I was thinking about what I was going to put in the blog, and I was thinking about the people who have written to me over the years, telling me that Beau’s struggle with alcohol helped them in their own journeys.  Because sometimes that happens. You pick up a book.  You’re reading along, minding your own business, when suddenly, WHAP! Something hits you upside the head, and you unlock a piece of your own history.

Growing up, I was a perpetual outsider.  There was a four year gap between me and my next older sibling and another four year gap between me and the next younger one.  That made me too young to play with the older kids and too old to play with the younger ones.  I often said that, in a family of seven, I was an only child. That outsider situation occurred in the rest of the world as well.  I always attributed it to my being too tall and wearing glasses. Since I wasn’t one of the in-crowd anywhere, I retreated into the world of books—fiction especially—and that history of reading eventually led me to writing.

My reading “WHAP” moment occurred when I was supposed to be writing the second Joanna Brady book was struggling to figure out exactly who Joanna Brady was and what made her tick.  Not having any immediate answer to that question gave me a terrible case of writer’s block.  The only possible antidote was, of course, to read someone else’s book.

While doing a signing at Seattle’s University Bookstore, someone presented me with a copy of Richard Shelton’s Going Back to Bisbee.  He’s now a retired professor of Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, but that book was a memoir of his early years as well as his first teaching gig which happened to be in the Bisbee School District.  Although he was there while I was in both elementary and high school, we never crossed paths back then.  Instead, we met for the first time when I was working as a clerk in the English Department at the U of A.

In reading the book, I encountered his mentioning how “segregated” Bisbee was in terms of job status.  He said that as a teacher, he was expected to interact and socialize with the white collar members of the community—the doctors, the lawyers, the mining executives.  The only time he encountered brown collar workers—the parents of most of his students—was at PTA or school related events.  And that’s when the light went off in my head.

When we first moved to Bisbee, my dad went to work underground as a miner.  Later he worked as a truck driver.  Eventually, he and a friend created a construction company and started a cement mixing business that, as far as I know, is still in operation today.  After all that, however, he turned over a new leaf and ventured into the life insurance business from which he retired some thirty years later.  It was in the insurance business that he switched over completely from brown collar to white—with a tie thrown into the bargain.  He was encouraged to join the local Kiwanis Club, something he participated in long after he retired.

Suddenly I understood that my outsider status had nothing to do with my being tall or wearing glasses.  The other kids had no idea where I fit in the social scheme of things.  My dad had started out as one thing and had morphed into the other, and that left his kids standing on the outside looking in.

And that’s what happened to Joanna, too.  Her father started out as a miner and then joined the sheriff’s department where he eventually ended up running the joint.

No wonder Joanna’s such a contradiction!  And as soon as I figured that out, I was able to write the next book and the ones after that with no problem!

But reading Going back to Bisbee, not only took me back to my hometown, it also accomplished something essential. It unlocked a piece of my own history that I hadn’t been able to sort out on my own, and I’m guessing those readers who’ve seen their own struggles with booze reflected in Beau’s fictional background shared a similar experience.

Sometimes the missing pieces to the puzzles of our lives can be found in books—both in reading them and in writing them.

16 thoughts on “A Piece of the Puzzle

  1. Love all your books and have read abd will read everyone. You are a wonderful writer. Keep it up!
    Lynn Warner. Bloomington Il

  2. I read Going Back to Bisbee a while ago but will re-read it based on your comments and see it with a fresh eye – thanks!

  3. Reading can be that accelerant one needs to ‘get on with their life’.
    Looking forward to another journey with Beau here in Seattle with the growth and the changes and issues that accompany ‘growth’.
    What a beautiful autumn we’ve been having for your 10,000 steps.

  4. Meeting old friends and renewing memories is a healthy thing in our lives. It keeps us healthy mentally. You have been away from Beau for awhile I bet it was like greeting an old friend. When we returned to our hometown after being away for 25 years it was hard to start the process of reconnecting. I have NEVER been shy but I found myself Hesitant in trying to find old friends. Some say getting older makes us wiser I think we just see our mistakes faster. I am glad you two reconnected now write a beautiful story about the most imperfect wonder man I have ever gotten to read about. Have a great week read you again on Friday with our coffee of course…Jan

  5. Love you and your books, too! I never fit in any place during my school years, because of too may moves. By the time I graduated I had been in nine different schools, so believe me, I know what being on the outside and looking in canoe like!!

  6. Love you and your books, too! I never fit in any place during my school years, because of too may moves. By the time I graduated I had been in nine different schools, so believe me, I know what being on the outside and looking in can BE like!! KEEP WRITING THOSE GOOD READS!

  7. Love you and your books, too! I never fit in any place during my school years, because of too may moves. By the time I graduated I had been in nine different schools, so believe me, I know what being on the outside and looking in can BE like!! KEEP WRITING THOSE GOOD READS!

  8. As always, thank you for your insight. I have come home to Bisbee recently and am much happier for it. Love Beau and Joanna, not to mention your other characters. Please keep on writing as long as you can. You are wonderful!

  9. Wonderful observations! This “outsider looking in” has been my experience too. This hits the nail on the head for me.

  10. Thank you for all your books and your insight. I felt uncomfortable growing up as well—tall, gangly with glasses and a very difficult long last name. I was a bit of a Tom-boy and didn’t fit in with a lot of girls. I really love your Beau books and Joanna, too. Looking forward to your next Beau book. Thanks so very much for writing them.

  11. I grew up on a farm in Central Iowa where almost everyone in school was a farmer’s kid. Our teachers were looked upon as something special — like the ministers of the three churches. Reading was my escape. My Mom let us read anything except movie magazines which we peeked at at the beauty parlor. I grew up thinking every book was true. No one could publish a book with lies in it.

    Thank goodness I had things to read and did not have to detassle corn or walk beans. Beau is my favorite, too,

  12. J.A., I always enjoy your books and can’t wait to read the next one. Beaumont has always been one of my favorite characters so I’m looking forward to reading it, whenever he makes his appearance.

  13. I can well relate. My dad was a construction engineer, later a civil engineer as labeled by a certificate. Most of our friends were skilled worker, pipefitters, welders, and other skills one might find on the early phases of a chemical plant. In later year the company when union as in hired union workers but their employees were supervision so our old friends mostly became superintendents while my dad’s job did not change. The non-salaried workers were no longer in our social circle and did not follow the jobs with us any more. The new superintendents had risen above my dads level so they were no longer in our social circle. We moved from 1 to 3 times a year so usually had few local kids as friends. I always managed to find on good friend only to have to leave but books stayed with mean. I think that is why to this day, I still revisit those old friends, rereading childhood favorites as well as favorites I discovered in my later years.

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