I believe Dorothy Parker is credited with saying something to the effect that there’s nothing worse than starting a book and nothing better than finishing one. That’s referring to writing of same. Reading one is an entirely different matter. In that regard, there’s nothing like opening a cover, inhaling the scent of freshly printed pages, and diving into someone else’s world. In other words the two experiences are closely related and entirely different! But I digress.
Sins of the Fathers is done, and I’m on hiatus from writing until the next set of corrections comes back to me. Once those are installed, the manuscript will be off to my editor(s) in New York. So what am doing in the meantime? Worrying, of course. Will my editors like it? Will my readers like it? I told the story I wanted to tell. It’s J.P. Beaumont as he is now. Yes, there are murders involved, but it’s also a character study—a study of Beau’s character as he is now and as he was before, because where we start determines where we end up. Those little pieces are all connected, and they lead from one place to another, like following a flagstone path into the great unknown.
This week I’ve had reason to revisit some of my bad old days. I’m surprised at how much it hurt to remember that challenging time of loving and losing someone who was hellbent on dying of booze. I could see the train wreck coming and there was nothing—not one thing—I could do to stop it or even slow it down. In the end, all I could do was get a divorce in an effort to save myself and my kids. My husband was dead of chronic alcoholism eighteen months later. My efforts may have served to hold off the coming disaster for a while, but it wasn’t sustainable. Eventually I ran out of energy. I also ran out of hope.
I didn’t start writing about Beau until years after my divorce. I may not have been allowed in the Creative Writing program at the University of Arizona, but I was smart enough figure out that you should write what you know, and it turns out that, after eighteen years, I knew a LOT about drinking. The Beaumont books are written in the first person through a male homicide detective’s point of view. Since he couldn’t work all the time, I filled in his spare hours with something I knew well—booze. To my way of thinking, that’s all his drinking was at the time —stage business.
Then the fourth book, Taking the Fifth, came out. While doing a book signing at a B. Dalton’s in Portland, a lady came up to the table and said. “J.P. Beaumont drinks every day. He has a drink of choice. It’s starting to interfere with his work. Does J.P. Beaumont have a problem?” I must have looked at her as though she was nuts before responding, “But these are books!” Yes, they were, and Beau was only a fictional character, but over the course of that set of signings six other readers asked me the same question. By sheer numbers alone, my readers finally got my attention. Four books later, Beau was in treatment at Ironwood Ranch in Arizona.
In a a way that was entirely invisible to me at the time, Beau’s creation grew out of my own experience. And through the years, I’ve had people tell me both in person and through e-mails that reading about Beau’s struggles with alcohol helped them come to terms with their own demons. And maybe the very fact that it was invisible to the writer is part of what made it so realistic when other people read about it.
One of my best friends in Phoenix during that difficult time was a woman named Estelle Dubose. One day we went to lunch. I was so deep in the weeds by then, that I told her I couldn’t even pray about it. In her wonderful east Texas drawl she said, “I’ll tell you what. You pray for the little stuff—for you to be able to get through whatever you need to each day. I’ll pray for the big stuff. I’ll see you in your perfect place.” Almost forty years later, sitting in this wonderful home with a wonderful husband and working successfully at my “dream” job, I have to say, Estelle Dubose was a real expert when it came to praying.
But she was also pretty terrific when it came to offering life lessons. A few years later, when I was visiting her in Phoenix, she had just returned from clearing out her mother’s home back in Texas. “I was bitten by a rattlesnake,” she told me, “and it was the best thing ever.” After the incident, she was taken to the ER of a small hospital where, because someone who knew all about snake bites was visiting on a temporary basis, he was able to use Estelle’s bite as a way to train all the ER personnel. A few weeks later when a five year old kid came in to be treated for snakebite, everyone was at the top of their game. And that’s why it was “the best thing ever!”
So maybe my writing about this week’s challenging trip down memory lane will provide a spark that will help someone else. For them, too, reading this blog may be “the best thing ever.”
After a cold, snowy winter in Seattle, the sun is trying to peek out from behind the clouds. They’re predicting temperatures in the sixties a few days from now. And with a little patch of sunlight on the floor by my feet, I can see that each step in that difficult journey of my previous existence led me to where I am now. What I am now.
It turns out that all steps are necessary. No steps may be skipped.
So Endeth the daily reading.