Tag Archives: writing

Why didn’t I start writing earlier?

I’ve often told the story of how I started writing fiction seriously in my forties. In a nutshell, I was going through a period of “self-unemployment” (I was self-employed as a freelance writer/communications specialist), and was in a period of transition between clients, wondering if I should continue down the same path. My sister, who knew how much I loved writing, kept telling me I should write romance novels. Finally, I listened to her. I bought some romance novels, read them, thought “I can do this,” and the rest is history (uh, learning it’s not so easy being the first step).

Why did it take me so long? Why did I pursue two music degrees instead of studying writing or something comparable?

SloaneHallFront

A book I’m very proud of.

In retrospect, it seems so obvious that I should have pursued writing fiction as a career earlier. I loved storytelling from the time I was a girl. I remember writing a play with my sister, something melodramatic, as a child. I penned short stories as a teen and young adult. The most exciting assignment for me in high school English was when the teacher asked us to write our own ending for John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, which we were in the middle of reading. My heart was on fire penning that story, something that today might be called fan fiction.

And I continued writing fan fiction before it had that title. I wrote Star Trek stories. I wrote a story based on the television show Here Come the Brides, part of a birthday “gift” for a friend (I wonder how much of a gift it was to have to read my story!). And even after I went off to college, a music conservatory, I loved writing. I still remember the praise from the conservatory English professor for a story I’d written for a class assignment.

I even wrote stories in language class. When our Italian teacher gave us an assignment to write something about Easter, I didn’t pen some dry tale using vocabulary and tenses suitable for Italian 101. I decided to write a real story of an Easter memory as a child, something with humor and poignance. The teacher loved it, laughing as she read it, even as her red pen hovered over all the mistakes I’d made. It didn’t matter. I’d written a story that touched her. I aced it.

Yet none of this pushed me toward pursuing writing fiction as a career. Neither did actually making a living as a writer. You see, at some point, I ended up working in a PR office where my writing skills were noticed and valued. I was promoted, and then when I left to stay home with my growing family, I continued as a freelance writer, eventually picking up a number of trade organizations as clients. Yet, even getting checks for my writing didn’t convince me that maybe I should give writing fiction a try professionally. Not even that.

Why not? I think a large part of my reticence to embrace this career was rooted in my middle-class upbringing. Oh, it wasn’t that being a writer would be viewed as a pipe dream in my family. After all, my parents lovingly embraced and encouraged my singing aspirations. But something in me believed that people like me, people from a working class family, with no knowledge of the classics outside of school, didn’t become novelists. That was for folks who went to places like Yale or Harvard or Princeton, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s alma mater.

Come to think of it, maybe I thought of it as a man’s career. Or, if you were a famous woman author, you still went to prestigious universities and were from a completely different social set.

I put myself down, in other words, because I thought my background too humble, too suburban, too ordinary to qualify me as a professional storyteller. Keep in mind this was also at a time when suburban life was ridiculed and demeaned, that those of us happily living in our split levels and  modern ranchers were made to feel incapable of serious thought, while hip city dwellers ruled the cultural world.

This unworthiness feeling continued even after some publishing success. Yes, I managed to get published in the romance genre, but I’d never be taken seriously as a serious writer because…well, reread the above.

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My latest – hurry, get one!

I also think I harbored the notion that because writing seemed easy to me — it always surprised me when I was complimented on my writing because it wasn’t hard for me — that easy meant it wasn’t worthwhile. Crazy, huh?

When I look back now and wonder what would have opened the door for me mentally to pursue writing fiction earlier, I think it might have been a combination of things. Maybe if I’d been exposed to working authors at some point, in career days or just going to book signings, I would have seen it was an entirely accessible opportunity for me. Maybe if I’d read more about the business of writing, the mechanics of proposal submission, for example, it would have taken some of the mystery from the process, made it more accessible. I started writing before the internet age, after all, before such information was at the tip of one’s fingers.

All I know is I’m glad I did take the leap eventually. And I’m glad to live in an age now where the things that held me back shouldn’t be stumbling blocks for other new authors.

My latest novel, Fall from Grace (Bancroft Press, September 2017), is now available for pre-order in the Kindle store! Click here to go on over and grab a copy!

 

 

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“Russian Tropics”: A short story

by Libby Sternberg

A SUDDEN SWIRLING breeze blew the sheer curtains by the veranda in a wild dance, and she had to rush to keep the wind from knocking over a delicate vase of Oriental design on a tall wooden stand by the door. Such foolishness to place it there, but Mister Jasperson liked the way the light picked up its deep hues.

She thought all this in Russian, her native tongue, as she moved the stand and its delicate contents to the corner where they’d be safe. Safe, too, from partygoers later that evening. Or perhaps not. She took the vase off its stand and moved it into a glass shelved china cabinet, carefully closing the door, just as the clock in the parlor chimed three in the afternoon. It seemed to come from far away, even though just a hallway and three walls separated them, but she closed her eyes, letting the soft gong trigger memory.

FromHereA snowy evening, dim and gray. A fire roaring to keep her boudoir warm. Her father coming in with a gift for her after he’d returned from a trip to St. Petersburg. The clock chiming, the same velvety percussion floating through the hallways as if time itself were reaching out to tap them gently on the shoulders. Warning them.

That was the last time she saw him. While she’d been still recovering from fever, her mother had bundled her up and given her to the care of her uncle Fyodor, and they’d crossed endless miles of snow-covered fields in a fast-moving sled until the snow melted and mud prevailed and, oh, she had trouble remembering it all, only the awful, gaping sense of loss and fear and hunger. Her parents, absent. Her home, in the past. Comfort and ease, gone. Even the last gift her father had given her—a silly stuffed bear—no more. They’d carried only clothes and jewelry and some other things of value. And by the time they’d reached Istanbul, her Uncle Fyodor had taken most of the valuables and used them, she now assumed, for bribes and payments to get them away from the murdering revolutionaries.

She’d seen him one night in their tiny hotel room, prying the diamonds and rubies from her small tiara, the one she’d worn to court. He’d looked up, embarrassed. His hand had shaken. “Little one, fear not. I shall buy you a new crown some day. Write your mama now.”

And write she did. Letter after letter.

 

Dear Mama,

When will you and father join us?

 

No one had ever answered.

First, it had been on to Sicily, then up to Paris, and then to London, and finally, finally, on a ship to America. At each stop, she’d thought they’d stay and begin what she’d assumed would be the long wait for her parents to find her. And each time they moved on, she would say, “But, Uncle Fyodor, how will Mama and Papa know where we’ve gone?” And he would look at her with such warmth and pity and pat her head and say something like, “They will always know where you are, little one. Their hearts will know. But go write them now just to make sure.”

 

Dear Mama,

It is so hot here in this country of Florida. So hot that I think how much I want to be on a frozen lake midwinter, and you know how much I hated the long winter. If you kiss this letter, know that your lips touch me, as I have dropped several tears on it already. When will you come?

 

And yet, here in this wild and tropical land, in 1933, she still tried to put together pieces of why they’d stayed. Her Uncle Fyodor, bless his soul, had died almost as soon as they’d stepped off the boat. He’d contracted a cough on the journey. And it was but a mere five months later that he was gone. In between gasps, he’d told her he’d intended them to land in New York but something had gone wrong and…. She asked him, on his deathbed, why hadn’t her parents come, too.

And he’d patted her hand—too tired to raise his to her head now—and said, “They loved Mother Russia, little one, and I could only travel with one of you. Your brother and sister—too small,” as if she should understand. Loved Russia more than they loved her? How was that possible?

She was fourteen when he died in early 1920. Now, she was nearing thirty. A Russian royal. Unmarried. Alone. Unloved. Lucky to be alive. Was she?

She watched storm clouds way on the horizon, gathering over the sultry water like a snowy army ready to march. More wind blew. Strange gusts that hurried, then calmed. Weather was coming. Stillness followed by churning. Stillness…then rampage.

She couldn’t help it. She waited. After all these years, she waited. Hoping they’d gone to Paris where so many Russians had settled, or New York. She wrote to refugee centers, Russian enclaves. And she still wrote to them.

“Alexia, did you put the flowers in the parlor? Mr. Jasperson said he wanted the orchids moved there.” Rose, the housekeeper, stood in the doorway, her voice carrying no judgment and yet all judgment.

She turned and smiled, almost curtseying. “I am getting them now. The wind is blowing the curtains.” She spoke in simple sentences, her words still heavily accented. Mr. Jasperson liked her accent.

“Change into a fresh uniform, too, before the guests arrive,” Rose added as she passed her. “Your black one with the white lace.”

Black silk and white lace. The finest things she owned, and they belonged not to her, but to her employer. She’d escaped one commune to live in another, she thought as she rushed to the parlor, the big “living room” on the other side of the house that covered its entire length yet was still not as large as the entry hall to their home in Chelyabinsk. But in this land of wide windows and blowing curtains, clacking shutters and blinds, it felt as large as the ocean.

When she’d lost her uncle, she’d been frozen by fear. They’d been staying in a cheap hotel, so hot it felt as if a fireplace blasted its warmth at them every moment of the day and night, and you could never move far enough away from it to cool yourself.

Uncle Fyodor had been trying to get in touch with someone ever since they’d docked. A Mr. Welch or Walsh, a friend of a friend of a friend of a cousin of a brother of an aunt…it was so confusing, the chain of acquaintances and relatives. This Mr. W owned …stores, restaurants, banks? She didn’t know. All she knew was that her one protector was fading away, and she counted every second as a cocoon against the Horrible—the moment her protector would be gone. In those awful days, she no longer mourned her family. She was consumed by the present fear of losing Uncle Fyodor.

And lose him she did. Gone on a breeze, like this one, a rushing storm coming in from the east, winds so fierce they took rooftops off, and she sat trembling, holding his hand long after its warmth had perished with him.

But this new catastrophe meant she was no longer alone in her despair. A fresh group of refugees was created by the storm—homeless, without loved ones, in mourning and sorrow. Just like her. Authorities found her and found a home for her. At first, an orphanage where she was set to work in the laundry, exhausting days, bad food, and sleepless nights. She began picking up the language then, and she married.

 

Dear Mama,

I met a man at the orphanage church. He is big and stout with red hair. He brings me special foods and always asks how I am doing. I tell him of you and father and little Pytor and Magda. And he listens so well, even when I forget and start to speak in Russian. When you get here, perhaps you can live with us…

 

Rob Saxon, a man with dreams. She did not love him, but, oh, she did love being loved by him. He protected her, made sure she was comfortable, and he only got angry when no baby appeared in the years that followed. Five years. In a small bungalow by the water’s edge where he would fish when he wasn’t using his boats for other things. Running liquor she found out after he didn’t come home one night. He’d gone down in another storm.

The storms always brought change, she thought as she moved the delicate orchids to the airy parlor. Sometimes good, sometimes bad.

***

“Alexia, we’ll have to move the bar inside. Bring the punch bowl. Jorge will get the cart.”

She nodded to the housekeeper and went on to the veranda to start bringing the crystal bowl, not yet filled with sparkling liquid, inside. Hugging it to her gray uniform, she stole another glance at the darkening sky. The army of clouds had advanced. Now it loomed large over the opening to the cove, with only the smallest strip of blue sky in hasty retreat. The wind had picked up, too. So much so that even her stiff skirt danced about her ankles as she walked.

But still, she smiled. It was exciting, was it not, to face the storm?

She moved the heavy bowl to the table in the dining room, its starched white linen cloth caught by the breeze so that the corners flapped as if waving to the room. Four at a time, she moved the glasses, too, until, at the very end of her mission, she watched as the light white cloth on the outdoor table floated away, toward the sea, caught on the wind. No one was there but her. Rose had disappeared to the kitchen; Jorge had not yet come to execute his task.

Off and away the cloth went, sailing over the lush green lawn and the roiling water, so dark and fantastic that it no longer looked real but like something from a painting. She would not tell anyone where it went, and she was confident, in the party bustle, that Rose would not miss it until much later, and then she would be embarrassed not to remember what happened to it and say nothing.

As she placed the last of the punch glasses on the indoor table, she noticed from the corner of her eye that Jorge had entered and now silently moved the bar cart inside, careful not to upset any of the bottles. She scurried to help him, but he shook his head. His manhood would be diminished by aid from a woman. Such a proud man! About her age, with language skills worse than hers. She often felt sorry for him. She suspected it was this pity that kept him from going after her. It was her weapon.

After Rob Saxon had died, she’d thought she would once again be thrown to the wolves. She’d briefly contemplated returning home. The country surely would have calmed down by then. She found a tiny community of other Russians. She started attending the Orthodox church, and she supported herself by cleaning houses. When the bungalow was sold by the bank because payments were due, she moved into a small room, not unlike the one she’d occupied with Uncle Fyodor, and she waited, hoping to meet another Rob, or find another Uncle Fyodor, or hear from her family that they were at last coming. She wrote letter after letter home, telling her mother where to find her, then telling her, no, stay where you are because I will come to you, and then going back to her original plan.

Her idea to go back to Russia was stymied by her own fears. She learned of Lenin’s death. She knew what any change of leadership meant—death, fear, violence. She could not go back now, not until things settled again, until tempers cooled. Where would mother and father have hidden? Or would they have made some bargain with the revolutionaries? Father was good at bargaining. That was the fate she’d settled on, with her strong, capable father giving up land and houses, offering to supply his guidance as the young leaders took over the new duties of governing. Surely they would have seen how valuable his talents were. Surely that would have saved them. She became ever closer to some in the little congregation, especially a woman her age, Ludmilla. Beautiful porcelain skin, dark hair, blue eyes. Cheerful and fun.

She liked Ludmilla so much that she confessed to her one day her royal background and her desire to return home for her parents. She confided her hope that her parents still lived and prospered, they with their important skills, they would surely be necessary in the new Russia.

And instead of sympathy, she received…cold shock. “You!” Ludmilla said, pointing a shaking finger at her. “You, all of you! You killed my Ivan, my Dmitri, my Sasha!” she cried, rattling off names she’d never mentioned before. Names, Alexia discovered as Ludmilla rambled on, of the girl’s brothers and father and beloved fiancé. They’d been killed by the Tsar’s soldiers in a courtyard, with nothing to defend themselves but broomsticks and shovels, Ludmilla screamed. And screamed. A wail so intense, so frightening, that Alexia knew she would act on it. Deport her, perhaps—telling American authorities she was here without proper documents? Alexia was never sure if Uncle Fyodor had handled all that correctly. Alert Russian authorities to come for her here in America? It was possible. Those murdering savages would roam to the ends of the earth to stamp out her line. And now, it was the Ludmillas of the world who controlled the guns, and she who had nothing but a broomstick.

She felt just as unsafe in her little Russian enclave as she had on the journey with Uncle Fyodor. And she knew she’d never go home.

 

Dear Mama,

How I long to hear from you. I can only imagine how difficult things must be. But you must know that I have a comfortable home here and will welcome you—all of you, even our cousins and distant aunts and uncles—once you find your way out of the country. I hope you’ve been safe and fed well, and that my brother and sister will remember me when we meet again. Please, try very hard to leave. You will love this land as much as Russia…

 

But, another storm blew in, not as fierce as previous ones, but big enough to rattle the windows of her little boardinghouse, to cause damage her landlord didn’t want to fix. So she kicked out her tenants, Alexia among them, and closed. Alexia hoped Ludmilla would assume she had perished in this latest rain.

Again, Alexia became a nomad, but this time she was grateful. No need to explain to Ludmilla why she would no longer show up at church. No need to tell anyone anything. She was safe in her anonymity.

It was at that time that she’d gone to the fortune teller. Ludmilla herself had recommended her, had claimed she’d helped her see a brighter future. Desperate for the same predictions, Alexia had visited her, as well, going into a dark closet of a room in the back of an apartment near the fish stalls. The place had reeked of rotting fish, and she’d nearly been sick. The woman had looked at her palms, had tsked and hemmed and hawed and finally said:

“You were born in storm. Storms will guide you. Love will find you in a storm.”

But the next wind blew her here. She’d cleaned the Jasperson estate for the weeks leading up to the storm because their regular maid had gone off to marry. Mr. Jasperson, Rose had informed her, was unsure whether to bring someone on full-time or to keep using her on an as-needed basis.

But Alexia, buffeted by so many winds by now that she was strong and bold, had told Rose that if Mr. Jasperson wanted to hire her, he had better do it soon because she had two other offers she was considering. Within the day, she’d gotten the job.

Of course, by then Mr. Jasperson had noticed her. He’d commented more than once on how pretty she was—her blond hair like wheat, he’d said, her figure like a sculpture, her bearing like royalty. He’d encouraged her to go swimming from the dock and had even paid for a swimsuit. He’d watched her, she knew. Puffing on a cigar, hand in his blue linen jacket pocket, clear brown eyes staring from a pale face framed by light brown hair now beginning to thin. He was nearly twenty years her senior, never married—rumors flew as to why that was so—a tycoon who’d made his money in “this and that.” As far as she could tell, he’d dabbled in anything that would make him money, from selling fine art to investing in films to opening hotels and running factories. Rose said most of his money had come from a factory selling kitchen gadgets, things you needed no matter what, Rose said, even when money was tight.

Mr. Jasperson was nicer than Rob, sweeter. He smiled more, for one. He loved to laugh. And he could sing. When he had friends over, he would often be at the piano while one of his guests played, and he would sing beautiful songs in foreign languages—Italian mostly, she recognized. And she knew they were opera arias, even if she didn’t know the names of the pieces or the operas themselves.

Once he sang in Russian—an awful accent, many mispronunciations—and she’d tried very hard not to giggle as she’d gone in and out of the room serving this and taking away that. He’d noticed. And afterward, after all the guests had gone, after Rose was abed and Jorge to his own home, he’d sat on the veranda in the sultry night and reached for her hand.

“You are of the Romanov family, are you not?” he’d whispered into the air, blowing smoke toward the sea. “Perhaps a distant relative?”

But she had learned when to speak and when not. So she’d said nothing. She’d thought of Ludmilla and wondered if word had carried here through some invisible communication, the telephone perhaps, or a wire, or even strangers delivering flowers and food.

He’d looked up at her, his eyes shining in the torchlight surrounding the patio. “You’re trembling. Don’t be afraid, Alexia. We’re both refugees, you and I. I can take care of you. Dear girl, marry me.” He’d been very merry that night, but in a forced way, drinking heavily, which was not his habit. Had someone broken his heart?

She’d remained still. And again, no words passed her lips. By this time in her life, she’d determined she wanted to marry again—but this time, for love. She didn’t care about material things as long as she was comfortable, as long as fear didn’t lurk by her door. She wanted love, the warm, embracing sunshine of it, everything that had been ripped from her when her uncle had ripped her from her bed to escape.

So she said nothing to this man, wondering what she should do. She pondered running away. But then she thought: he wants you, Alexia, so give yourself to him. You’ve done it before with a man you didn’t love. And then you can still wait for the man who will marry you and you will love. The one who will come with the storm.

On another warm night—the nights in Florida were always so warm, so snug and hot, sometimes unbearably so—she’d been bold. She’d slipped into his bed, under cool satin sheets, and she’d waited for him, waited to give herself to him.

When he’d come in and seen her, in the shadows, not turning a single light on, when he’d seen her in the blue moonlight, he’d inhaled sharply and said, in a shaking voice: “You think this is what I want?”

And he’d made love to her, but it had been a task, an act not of love for her as much as gentle pity. She’d seen on his eyelashes the crystal drops of tears when she’d left his bed, and she’d been red-faced with embarrassment for weeks after until he finally put her mind at ease.

“Come, sit,” he had said after breakfast out there on that veranda, with warm, silky breezes coating the air with the salty taste of the ocean. She’d looked to and fro, and he’d assured her Rose was in the kitchen and wouldn’t disturb them.

“It saddened me to get crossways with you,” he’d begun, looking into her eyes with such concern she feared he’d cry again. “I didn’t mean for you to think that I expected…favors. So I will offer the proposal again along with this promise. If you agree to marry me, Alexia, I will accept that alone as your gift to me, along with any kindness and simple affection you can muster. I do not expect physical devotion but I would expect discretion. Don’t answer me now. And whatever your answer, your secret and employment are safe.”

That had been one year ago. And since then, she’d dusted and swum and lived in comfort in this house, in a small room off the kitchen. She’d done her job, she’d enjoyed his parties, his food, and she’d wondered how long she’d have to wait until a love came along, a love blown in by a storm. Would this be the one?

She’d wished she had someone to talk to about Mr. Jasperson, but she was afraid to confide in Rose and certainly wouldn’t divulge anything to Jorge, and she’d stopped going to church. She lived her quiet comfortable life, happy to feel secure on this raft floating in time, each second to the next, wondering… She had written to her mother, of course.

 

Dear Mama,

A very sweet man has asked for my hand in marriage. But I’ve not accepted, waiting now to hear from you. I do not think I love him. I do not know. I wait for a sign. If you came and met him, perhaps you could tell me what to do…

 

The pace picked up as the party time neared. Caterers arrived to work under Rose’s direction with the food, and a barman came to mix and serve drinks. A pianist sat at the baby grand and started playing. Alexia recognized him not as a hired help but as a friend of Mr. Jasperson’s, a man who was often about, sometimes staying over. She smiled at him, and he smiled back.

But as she moved silver trays of caviar and cheeses and fruits and cakes to this table or that, as she followed Rose’s instructions to turn on this light or turn off that one, as she tied back curtains and closed shutters, the storm built.

Sunset was now hidden behind the swarming clouds, and rain began to pelt the house and grounds as if someone were deliberately attacking them with barrels of water. The phone rang again and again, and finally, after only a half dozen guests had arrived, Mr. Jasperson himself came into the parlor, dressed in such a dapper way, as always, in pure white linen, a little wrinkled from the damp, but smelling clean and bright, a soft blue shirt and matching handkerchief in his pocket. He looked around and said to no one in particular, “I’m afraid this is it for the duration, darlings. Everyone else is too cowardly to strike out.”

That seemed to make things merrier, however. And once his announcement was out of the way, the pianist struck up a rousing tune, all banging and fast syncopations, and a couple danced.

She remembered to change into her good uniform, and was pleased to see him smile at her when she reentered the parlor in black and lace, a fresh cap pinned to her hair. Someone wondered if they should turn on a radio to hear weather reports, but Mr. Jasperson said there was no point to that since they weren’t about to escape the weather, were they?

With so few to tend to, he insisted that the servants indulge themselves, as well, so Rose and Alexia and Jorge, as well as the catering and bar staff, all joined in a champagne toast to the “twilight” and were told to eat their fill.

It was near midnight when the mood changed from frivolity to apprehension. So fast was the transition that she realized it had only been a veneer of jollity that had coated the night prior to this moment, with the looming fear just below. The lights went out, and then there was a deafening crash and glass splintering. They all ran to the veranda to see that a chaise longue had been thrown by the wind into a window. But if this weren’t foreboding enough, they also saw that one of Mr. Jasperson’s neighbors had lost his roof—or part of it. The section facing the ocean had peeled away, and slate pieces were blowing round and round in a vortex overhead, as if called upward by an unseen wizard’s hands.

Mr. Jasperson hurried through the wind and rain to the neighbors’ place before anyone could stop him, and a few moments later, he returned, drenched and rumpled but with the elderly couple who lived next door under his wing.

“This place is a bit sturdier,” he said in explanation to the surrounding crowd.

And Alexia wondered: Do I love him after all, this hero?

The party was over, or at least the devil-may-care part of it. They still rallied as one, but this time with boards and nails, sealing up windows to keep shattering glass away, and Rose was told to fetch candles and kerosene lamps for the parlor. Once Rose and Alexia had a comfortable glow going, Mr. Jasperson proceeded with more announcements.

“No one is going home until this passes,” he said calmly. “And we’ll all huddle together here, in this room. Food is plentiful. Drink in abundance. And my library is available to all,” he said, gesturing to the many bookcases surrounding the walls. His voice almost demanded calm, and she knew everyone took some measure of comfort from it. He’d changed into a dry jacket and still looked every bit as stunning as he usually did. Alexia’s admiration grew.

His friend sat at the piano again, this time playing softer, sweeter melodies aiming to soothe, Alexia thought. Others relaxed on couches and chairs. Some read, some dozed. But a fretful unease settled on them, and it reminded her of the times on her journey when she’d wondered when it would be over. Even if it were a horrible ending, an ending seemed preferable to the waiting.

As she watched Mr. Jasperson, Alexia realized two things: she’d never uttered his first name, and she loved him. He was so strong, so gentle, so capable and honest and good. And he’d asked to marry her. How foolish she’d been to demur! She could hardly wait to give him her answer now, but he never seemed to be alone. Her heart was bursting with the realization, and she wanted desperately to share it with him, the object of her attention. The fortune teller had been right: the storm had blown in her love.

***

About three in the morning, when the clock tolled its gentle score once again, she thought she finally had her chance. Most were sleeping. The winds seemed to be abating. The night watch would soon give way to the hope of daybreak.

Alexia awoke from a light slumber, shaking free of a shawl someone had placed on her shoulders as she’d slouched in a chair in the far corner. Perhaps he had put it there, looking out for her as he’d always done. She rose on rabbit-quiet feet and glided through the room of sleeping souls, searching, letting her eyes adjust to the dim light of one kerosene lantern in the middle of the table.

She didn’t see him, but she heard him, humming, in the next room. The veranda! Of course, he would be there, facing the storm boldly, fearlessly, a centurion guarding his charges.

She hurried to the door, and yes, he was there. He was still now, hands in his pockets, staring at the churning sea and buffeting rain. Her heart pounded as she started to take one last step, a ballet dancer ready to leap to center stage, to take her place in the spotlight, where she’d always belonged.

But then…another guest intruded, coming from a chair, languorously rising, like the dawn itself. She recognized him. His pianist friend, a bit younger, and sadder, a man who’d always seemed to her to be stealing some of Mr. Jasperson’s cheer, warming himself by it. And he crossed to him, placing his hand on his arm.

“Paul,” he said – Paul! That was his name! Paul Jasperson. She’d heard him called that, of course, but she’d never said it. She mouthed it in the night air. Paul. “I can’t delay. My train leaves in the morning. At least, I assume it’s still a go.”

“I know.” Mr. Jasperson—Paul—straightened, as if this were a blow. And she realized this party had been a going-away fete for the guest, his friend.

“I…wish….” Paul said, and his voice was so slow and mournful, each word its own universe, that Alexia felt a catch in her throat, as if she were saying the words.

I… wish. They were filled with all the longing she herself had always felt, the hope and fear and body-twisting ache of yearning for love and home. I wish, Mama, that you would write back. I wish you could be here with me to share this wondrous land, to see what I have seen, to hear and taste…

“I wish you didn’t have to go,” he said, and swallowed.

Yes, oh, yes, how she hadn’t wanted to go. She’d wished she could have stayed with her family. She’d wished the world in its storms didn’t rupture and break and shatter things. That tenderness was valued, that even enemies could stand in awe of it and leave it be, a thing as delicate and beautiful as the orchids Mr. Jasperson loved.

And then, to Alexia’s astonishment, the two men embraced, and she felt, hidden just beyond the sheer curtains, envious, wishing it was her enjoying that moment of purest affection, of strength and…passion.

“What will you do?” the man asked Paul.

He shrugged. “Live.”

The other man laughed bitterly. “Is it living to be without me?” When Paul didn’t answer, he went on, his words cutting her. “Like that little Russian princess, you mean? Pretending? For God’s sake, Paul, we might not be able to live in the open, but we can live together.”

At that, Paul’s head turned, and she could see his eyes shine in the light. After a pause, he said. “Don’t make fun of her. She still thinks…she’ll find them.”

“Good god, man. You still waste postage on her letters?”

“Every single one,” Paul responded.

“Letters to the void.”

“Maybe.” He paused again. “I like to think of them as prayers. I can’t and won’t stand in their way.”

Eternity passed.

Dear Mama, she saw herself writing, I thought you were still alive. I thought…this man loved me, body and soul. Oh, Mama…

Her fist flew to her mouth to choke the sob that gathered there. Who knew this secret she’d cherished? Who’d given it away? Who’d betrayed her, embarrassed her, humiliated her?

She swayed with the acceptance of this truth, the breath knocked from her chest.

She stayed until they left the veranda, leaning against the wall, sliding slowly down until she crouched, as if hiding.

She was hiding. She’d been hiding all these years, first from the Bolsheviks, then from the Ludmillas, and always from the truth.

She swallowed a thousand tears. She lived a thousand lives. She wondered how her family had died and hoped it had been quick. She thought of Paul knowing…and knowing she’d refused to believe they were gone, and how he’d protected her from that. Prayers, he’d said. What had she prayed for in those letters?

And then she crept outside and lay on one of the chaise longues herself, as still as she had been when uncle Fyodor was dying, living in each second so as to forestall the worse thing yet to come in the next second, floating once more on that barque between unknowables, exhausted from the effort not to see what was ahead.

The air calmed. The day began to break, a thin pink ribbon of a saving battalion of light come to rescue them from the armies of the dark, raging night.

Her eyelids fluttered, she dozed again and then woke in full sunlight.

Mr. Jasperson stood by her chair.

They’ve all gone home,” he said to her. And he offered her his hand.

You and I are refugees, he’d said.

She looked into his eyes as she stood.

She was of royal lineage. They often married with no love.

And maybe this was a different form of love, after all. His heart and body would never belong to her. Great pity for him swamped her, and she wanted to protect him with the gentle sweetness he’d shown to her. They could cling to each other, refugees, on their raft of pure tenderness. Perhaps that had been her prayer, to find a fellow exile like him.

Yes, she said to him in Russian, I will marry you. I will keep your secret if you keep mine.

He understood…something…he smiled, whispered her name, and kissed her hand.

About this story: This is the final story in a three-tale book, From Here, available on Amazon, written under the name Elizabeth Malin. I was inspired to write this story after reading of where some Russian royalty ended up when escaping the revolution. I was surprised that some landed in Florida. That lit the spark for me as Alexia came to life in my mind.

Libby Sternberg’s book of sin and redemption, Fall from Grace, will be released by Bancroft Press September 2017.

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A Lesson from Project Runway

project runwayMost novelists are not best sellers. Most labor for years selling some books to publishers but not all,  making modest advances and little or no royalties. And when they see not-so-good books becoming popular, the authors of which  making tons of money and acting as if sheer talent and not a bit of good fortune got them to the pinnacle, well, it’s hard not to take up residence in the Bitter and Envious Bed-and-Breakfast. It’s awfully hard not to snark at those success stories, wondering why on earth someone who could barely string sentences together or structure a compelling story made it so big when your own works are just as good, if not better.

But this past week, if you’re a Project Runway fan, you had a look at how unattractive bitterness can be.  For those who don’t know, Project Runway is a show airing on Lifetime where amateur and semi-professional fashion designers compete for a chance to show a line of clothing at New York’s fashion week (along with some other prizes). This is its 13th season, and we’re down to just six designers.

One of the designers, Korina, has done some good work. She’s even won a challenge. This week, when she designed an outfit using every fabric and notion known to mankind from ancient times to the present, she ended up in the bottom with Char, a charming woman from Detroit, whose body of work so far has been inconsistent, good one week, appalling the next. In fact, Char was eliminated one week, but “saved” and returned to the show through a special dispensation gimmick the show started using a year ago.

Korina clearly didn’t think she should have to be considered even in the same league with Char. She snarked on the runway during the final judging, and she continued to snark while working on a new dress, an assignment given to Char and Korina so they could try to redeem themselves after their awful runway showings. Char won–she deserved it–with a sleek, floating blue dress. Korina lost–with a poorly constructed Mondrian-design sheath.

And when a weeping Korina went back to tell the other contestants she’d lost, she couldn’t resist jabbing at Char, mentioning how she’d been eliminated previously. (Translation: You were never as good as me, yet I had to compete against you, and I lost!)

Here’s a good write-up of the Korina Krack-Up.

But the sad truth of this episode is: Korina was right…to a degree. As mentioned, Char has been an inconsistent designer, with some really bad pieces coming down the runway at various times–bad in design and bad in construction. I remember one monstrosity in particular that appeared as if it had been sewn in fifteen minutes using fabric scraps…while she was blindfolded.

Nonetheless, Korina herself wasn’t brilliant. She, too, sent some real dogs down the runway — she designed a green evening dress that looked as if a beginning teen sewer had chosen the wrong fabric, the wrong color and the wrong Simplicity pattern for her first garment.

Korina was lucky, though, not to be eliminated earlier for some of her flops. She was lucky– just as Char was lucky to be brought back on the show after her elimination. They both have some skill. They both have some talent. They both have exercised poor judgement occasionally. And…they both experienced both good and bad luck.

Korina’s bad luck came this past week. I suspect Char’s will come soon enough.

Authors not in the best-selling ranks probably all have their Korina moments. (And if they’re smart, they keep them to themselves.) You look at author so-and-so selling big, and you think: Really? She made it with her book, but I’m struggling to find an audience or publisher for mine?

She got lucky. You didn’t — this time. There’s no point in dwelling on her good luck and your bad luck. Things can change. And, if you love what you’re doing, telling stories, you’ll keep doing it, no matter how unlucky or lucky you might be.

So, word — don’t be Korina. It’s my new motto.

 

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Fruitcake, balls and tornadoes

Like Ahab hunting Moby Dick, I’ve been on an obsessive search–to find those big, fat, shiny ornaments you hang on deciduous trees outside. Finally, I hit the target. I mean Target, the store. That’s where I found them. And I’ve hung them outside as my own clenched-fist protest against the winter sky–its shortening days and longer nights:

christmas 2012 big ornaments

Speaking of things Christmasy, let’s take a break from making fruitcake jokes to actually make…fruitcake. Or, rather, fruitcake bar cookies. Believe it or not, until I was in my twenties, I’d never tasted fruitcake. But after I married, I discovered that my mother-in-law not only liked it, she made batches of it every Christmas, all soaked in apple brandy, to send as gifts to friends and relatives. Her recipe was very good–a dark, dense cake filled with candied citron, orange peel, cherries and nuts and raisins, too. When she lived in Maryland, she’d go to Lexington market to find these candied treasures.

She is gone now, and I can’t recreate her fruitcake success. Her recipe was for many cakes–I tried one year to make only one loaf by doing lots of math (long division, even!) with the recipe. Me + lots of math = not-so-good-fruitcake.

Not to worry — she also left us a recipe for fruitcake bar cookies, a lighter batter but still moist and sweet. So if you happen to be among the few, the happy few, who enjoy fruitcake, here’s the recipe:

EDITH STERNBERG’S FRUITCAKE BARS

Cream together:

  • 1/2 cup butter (one stick)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbsns milk

Sift:

  • 1 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tspn cinnamon
  • (dash of nutmeg if desired)

Mix dry and wet ingredients. Batter is VERY thick.

Add: 1/2 cup raisins, 1/4 cup candied cherries, 1/4 cup candied orange peel, 1/4 cup pineapple — whatever candied fruits you like and, really, as many of them as you like.

Spread with spoon (or your clean fingers!) in a greased 9 x 13 pan and bake at 350 for 1/2 hour. Cool and cut into bars.

Fruitcake cookie

Fruitcake cookie

I saved the recipe in my new recipe book. The one I made. Yes, I did.

Finally, a note about a previous post…

I wrote about my recent trip to Kansas where I met long-time writer pals for the very first time after corresponding with them for more than ten years. In looking through my photos of that trip, I came across this one, from the Kansas City Airport:

ks tornado shelter sign

Hmm….I guess they have tornadoes out there sometimes. Would make a great setting for a fantasy tale….

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A twelve-year writer’s journey

About a dozen years ago, I made two amazing friends. We met on the internet through Romance Writers of America. RWA had set up some email discussion groups that proved to be a trove of information, shared by the writers on the groups– on what editors were looking for, how to format manuscripts, contests open to unpublished authors, conferences that were coming up, general encouragement for those of us still struggling to get our books into print and cheerleading for those who got “the call” from agent and/or editor.

Out of the multitude of voices on those lists, two writers and I seemed to click. We started emailing each other privately, off the various lists. It was pure happenstance that of the three of us, two lived in Kansas. (I lived in Vermont at the time, then eventually moved to Pennsylvania.) A spine-tingling discovery, however, was this: when sharing our various addresses, Writer A learned that Writer B was living in a house Writer A had lived in years ago! If any of us had written that into a story, we envisioned an editor red-penciling it with a note: “Too coincidental and not necessary to advance the story. Change.”

Together, we went through the nail-biting waits to hear back from agents and editors, the celebrations when agents offered representation and contracts appeared. Writer B sold first, to a Penguin imprint, Writer A not long after to another Penguin imprint. And, although I’d sold a YA mystery to a small press, I didn’t join my friends in Big Publisher Land until a year or so after them, when I, too, got a call,  from Harlequin offering a contract on a “chick lit” novel.

After we’d all sold, our conversations turned to other topics, but our worries didn’t end. We discussed book marketing, we anguished over the nail-biting wait for sales numbers and reviews, we commiserated when agents and editors were sometimes unresponsive, and we analyzed why some writers were realizing great success and how we could try to emulate them. Or not.

While our correspondence began focused on writing and the publishing business, it moved on to more personal news–deaths in our families, serious illness, our hopes and fears for our children (two of us have kids), job changes, divorce and remarriage for one in the group, a move to another state for me, and the deployment of two sons among us to Afghanistan at roughly the same time. We never stopped talking about writing, but it seemed to consume less and less of our friendly chatter, with more and more attention spent on what really mattered in our lives–our families.

Writers A and B were able to meet during this time, of course, both being in the Sunflower State. But I, hundreds of miles away, never got to see these wonderful women face-to-face. I did talk to them on the phone occasionally–usually conversations when the publishing business was throwing challenges our way. I remember very well being on the phone with Writer B anguishing over whether to drop a prestigious agent whom I believed wasn’t really representing my best interests when said agent interrupted the call for our ultimate break-up talk.

We’ve laughed, too, until we’ve cried, usually over the lunacy we sometimes observe in the book business, getting into ever-more-ridiculous Round Robin emails with each other filled with fantastical scenarios about…well, I won’t tell. 🙂

As much as I wanted to meet them, a big obstacle stood in my way. I’m excruciatingly afraid of flying, a fear I developed later in life for no reason I can figure. It’s such a painful experience that my husband drove us all the way from PA to Mississippi last year to attend our son’s graduation from pilot training at a U.S. Air Force base rather than ask me to get on a plane myself. We enjoyed that journey, but I didn’t want to put him through that kind of long drive again.

But then, our Air Force son got posted to….Kansas. Wichita, to be exact. And he and his wife invited us out for Thanksgiving. My husband started mulling our route, being careful to include a stop to see my writer friends. But I just couldn’t make him give up so much time on the road behind the wheel, simply because I couldn’t bring myself to fly.

The solution: better living through chemistry! I asked a doctor about my problem, and she suggested Valium. It helped tremendously, allowing me to control my nerves.

So, last week, we flew to Kansas City, and at long last–after twelve years of sharing stories with each other (real stories and fictional stories), we finally met! My writer friends and me! They are, from left to right, below: me, Jerri Corgiat and Karen Brichoux. Look them up on Amazon to see what wonderful writers they are.

Me, Jerri Corgiat, Karen Brichoux
Together at last!

I thought the meeting would feel strange, but it felt as if we’d been getting together regularly all these years. Maybe that’s a testament to their writer voices–“hearing” them through their notes for so long, it was as if I’d been seeing them all along. It’s an evening I will treasure, along with the rest of a phenomenal holiday, seeing the wonderful state of Kansas and being lovingly hosted by my son and daughter-in-law in their cozy Wichita home.

I can’t say enough, in fact, about how exciting and fantastic this trip was, from start to finish. Since I focus on many writerly things here, I won’t go into detail about the Wichita visit, but it will be a gilded memory for me–seeing my son and daughter-in-law so happy, and enjoying their company.

Now that this trip is finished, I look forward to future ones–and seeing my friends more often.

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