Monday, November 17, 2014

Why I Write

My husband and I had had a good year and decided to go to Africa on a photographic safari. At the Mt. Kenya Safari Club we met an Englishman, who turned out to be the transport king of Uganda, running trucks between Kampala and Mombasa. The problem was there was a revolution in Uganda and the soldiers would kill you for your shoes. After telling us about his life he asked, "And what do you do?"

"We're writers," I said. 

He looked at us with horror. "But isn't that a chancy occupation?"

It is. But it's what I do. I wrote my first novel in 6th grade: 48 handwritten pages about pirates. The reviews were unanimous: "The child needs her head examined."

After graduating from Northwestern with a BS in theater (appropriate) I started writing radio plays for WBEZ, at that time it was the radio station of the Chicago Public Schools. From there I went into advertising in Chicago and then in Paris. I was doing well and making a "grande salaire," but my three-year-old was unhappy, so we moved back to New Orleans, where we "lived on air " as the French say and where I wrote an unpublishable novel. But it was there I met a screenwriter and decided to go to Hollywood and break into show business. 

We wrote two unproduceable screenplays together,before he returned to New Orleans. But I stayed, still "living on air" supporting myself and my son writing a little advertising, industrial films, and journalism. In those days, the late 70s, there were very few women working behind the camera, but I persisted and after a very few years earned enough to buy a house in Malibu. I wrote for many shows, but am best remembered for writing that icon of pop culture: "Who Done It?" the WHO SHOT J.R.? episode of Dallas.

I wrote pilots, movies of the week, feature films and even soap operas and was still getting assignments when I decided I had to stop to fulfill a life-long ambition. I wanted to write a novel imbued with my own cynical humor, a love story set in the South at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. I lived with my imaginary friends for three years until, The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc was born. 

It took a while to find a publisher, but when William Morrow/HarperCollins had the good sense to bring it out, it became a Literary Guild Selection, a Barnes and Noble Great New Writers Pick, and a National Best Seller. It engendered, "The Southern Belle's HandbookSissy LeBlanc's Rules to Live By." And after years of research, William Morrow published The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell set in 1920, the year prohibition came in, women got the vote, and the Ku Klux Klan sent salesmen to little towns all over America as a money making pyramid scheme.

The Englishman in Kenya was right. Writing is a chancy profession. But here's what I tell students: "Imagine you could scrape by as a writer - we all need to eat and pay rent. Now imagine you could make a million dollars selling real estate." If the million dollars is what you want, real estate is a good bet. But if you long to be an artist spending hours alone in a room with your imaginary friends and making a million dollars any other way seems meaningless. Then you are a writer. You must write.

Robert Graves said, "There's no money in poetry, but there's no poetry in money."

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Writing Is Easy

Everyone knows writing is easy. All you have to do is sit on your bum and wiggle your fingers.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


You can’t hold on to a dead relationship, but remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “When half-gods go /The gods arrive.” Rule #103: THE SOUTHERN BELLE'S HANDBOOK

Saturday, May 10, 2014


A lady doesn’t waste her time on bad memories. Rule #17: THE SOUTHERN BELLE'S HANDBOOK

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Letting go is the best revenge. It frees your heart for much more satisfying pursuits. Rule #100: THE SOUTHERN BELLE'S HANDBOOK

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


What men find sexy, women find uncomfortable. Rule #45: THE SOUTHERN BELLE'S HANDBOOK

Sunday, April 13, 2014

And The Dark Sacred Night

I just finished reading Julie Glass' new novel AND THE DARK SACRED NIGHT. 

Once again she dazzles us with her prose: “Behind her, from one end of the table to the other, lies a shadowy clutter of objects, Dutch still life rendered suburban: three geraniums in off-season bloom, a tumbled stack of schoolbooks, a wineglass bearing a ghostly halo of milk, two yellow pencils (one stippled with tooth marks.)” 

You know you’re in good hands with writing this fine. 

Her characters are so beautifully drawn they seem to step out of the book into your life. I especially loved Lucinda who must take care of her politician husband on his first night home from the hospital after he's been crippled by a stroke. Readers of THREE JUNES and THE WHOLE WORLD OVER will welcome back old friends and learn what has become of them.

Monday, April 07, 2014


Rule #56: When you get to be a certain age you realize that the only thing you have time for is doing exactly what you want.

A delicious list of LA’s best chocolate shops. Treat yourself. You deserve it!

(Well Fed Studio)


Monday, March 31, 2014

That Summer I Didn't Meet Ernest Hemingway -- Part Two

                       (Photo by Julio Ubiña)

It was 1959 in Pamplona, Hemingway had gone on a picnic with a girl 40 years his junior, and we were going to the bullfights. This was the summer Dominguín and his brother-in-law Ordóñez were fighting mano a mano. Hemingway would describe their rivalry in Dangerous Summer. I don’t know whether I could enjoy a bullfight now, but in those days, we were mesmerized by his accounts in The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon.

I believe I was at the bullfights when I met two tall good-looking Englishmen in their early 20s, who were part of Hemingway’s entourage. They had perfectly ordinary English names like Richard and Gerald. But Gerald insisted his name was French and we call him “Gerá.” Obviously, I preferred Richard. They’d gone to Malaga to teach English, but on a visit to a friend of “Gera’s” parents, they saw a man with a white beard climb out of the pool. They ridiculed “Santa,” until they realized the man they were sneering at was Ernest Hemingway.

“I’m going to Pamplona tomorrow.  Why don’t you boys come with me,” Ernest said and so they joined Papa’s youth entourage.

I needed a ride to Barcelona and a young American offered to give me a lift. He would leave early the next morning. And I would get a second chance to meet one of the greatest authors of the 20th century.

The Plaza del Castillo was empty in the cool at six the next morning. While I waited for my ride, Richard, who was going back to Malaga for his job at Berlitz, sat down with me and ordered a café con leche. Suddenly, Hemingway appeared, alone. Now’s my chance, I thought. His entourage is still asleep. I remember Richard standing, shaking hands, and thanking him. I sat up straight, waiting to be introduced.

I remember Hemingway asking Richard to stay and follow the bullfights with him. I remember smiling my prettiest smile. I remember the two men clasping hands. I remember Hemingway leaving.

“I was sitting right here. You didn’t introduce me!"

“Why?” Richard asked. “What did you want to say to him?”

Two years later, the same week the bulls ran in Pamplona, the world’s most admired writer, the winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature, walked out onto his porch in Ketchum, Idaho and put a bullet in his head.

There may have been a thousand people in Plaza del Castillo the summer I didn’t meet Ernest Hemingway.  Today there are tens of thousands.

Here’s a link to what the fiesta of San Fermin has become:

Monday, March 24, 2014

That Summer I Didn't Meet Ernest Hemingway -- Part One

                         (Photo: Paris Match, 1959) 

The Kennedy Presidential Library recently received a trove of photos of Ernest Hemingway’s last summer in Spain. I was in Spain that summer. We were both in Pamplona for the running of the bulls. We sat in the same plaza. We drank at the same cafe. And yet--

It was 1959 and I had just finished a glorious junior year abroad, where I woke up every morning and said to myself, “I’m still young and I’m still in Paris!”

When school let out my mother expected me to come home to our leafy Chicago suburb, but that was the last place on earth I wanted to be after the freedom of a student abroad. “I need to learn Spanish,” I wrote. There was a language school in Palma de Majorca. In those days you didn't make transatlantic flights or calls promiscuously  The dollar was strong. Spain was cheap.  My mother gave a reluctant okay.

I’m sure there were planes and trains, but what was the fun of that? Someone told me about a girl who’d just graduated from Northwestern and who was traveling in Spain. I met her and suggested we go together.

“I’m traveling with Ernest,” she said cooly. She didn’t need to say his last name. She did not invite me to join them. I assumed they would be alone. I was wrong.

I met a couple of girls at the American Express Office in Paris, who had a car and wanted someone to share the expenses. We drove down the coast of France and found a little hotel in San Sebastian. It was there we heard about the Festival of San Fermin—the fiesta Hemingway wrote about in The Sun Also Rises. The next morning I bought a copy of the book and we drove to Pamplona.

It was hot and dusty, but the Plaza del Castillo was filled with young people from all over the world. The excitement was palpable. I did something you only do when you’re young and on an adventure. I said, “I’m staying.” The girls agreed to bring my things the next day, but I didn’t even have a place to sleep, where they could drop off my suitcase.

I saw Hemingway a few tables away, but he was surrounded and I was shy. My first failed chance to meet the great writer wouldn’t happen until the next day, thanks to a student from Stanford named Robby, who had just arrived and was set on running with the bulls the next morning. These are the fighting bulls they ran through the streets to the bullring. I didn’t know much, but I did know men were gored every year.

“Why don’t you watch the bulls tomorrow and run with them the next day?”  This seemed sensible to me, but Robby was set on running the next morning at 7am.

We stayed up all night, drinking raw red Spanish wine in the darkened plaza. I didn’t have a hotel room and Robby was too gallant to leave me alone.  Around 6 am he asked me to keep his passport, tickets home, and traveler’s checks. Then he headed to the place where the runners congregated.

I went to the bullring to watch. This is what I remember. The first bunch of men loped into the ring, followed by men running faster and faster, then sprinting as the bulls came through the tunnel.  After them came another group of lopers followed by runners going faster and faster, then sprinting. I spotted Robby sprinting into the ring, saw him stop, and turn. And then I watched with horror as he ran against the crowd, back through the tunnel just as the bulls were entering.  My heart was pounding as I waited. He never returned.

I went back to our table in the plaza. The smell of café con leche and sugary churros, filled the air, but I couldn’t eat. The girls I had been traveling with must have found me there, because I had my suitcase when I left Pamplona, but I have no memory of seeing them again. I don’t remember anything except feeling sick with dread and not knowing what to do. I thought I should search the hospitals, but what hospitals and where were they? I knew no Spanish. No police were in sight.

Hemingway arrived around noon with his entourage, laughing, joking, and ordering wine and Cuba Libres. I told myself I should break in to their revelry and tell them about Robby.  Surely, they’d know what to do. But just as I was working up the courage, Robby arrived, looking pale and near tears. “I lost my passport, my ticket home, and all my traveler’s checks,” he said. “I’ve been to the police and retraced my route, but—.”

I took his passport, ticket, and traveler’s checks out of my purse and handed them to him. In the excitement of running with the bulls, he’d forgotten he’d given them to me. He stood in the square, raised his wineskin, and poured red wine over his head.

Just then Ernest Hemingway got up from his table. Robby skipped over and asked him to join us for a drink. I was close enough to hear Hemingway thank him, but say with a sparkle in his eye, “I’m going on a picnic with her.”

I thought he pointed to the girl from Northwestern, but it could have been 19-year-old Valerie Danby-Smith, the girl with the creamy complexion and wild dark hair, who became his secretary, married his son, and in 2004 wrote her memoir Running with the Bulls. Whoever she was, he seemed as excited as a teenage boy on a first date.

I would get another chance to almost meet him the next morning.