New York City
You can’t be happy in this life because of what happened in your past lives.
What would you think if someone said that to you? You’d think, “It’s hopeless, why bother trying.” Right? Or would you think, “The woman telling me this is crazy and I’d better get me and all my worldly goods out of here?”
Or would you be like me and think, “A story! Everyone’s into time travel now and nobody’s doing past lives, so maybe I can ask a lot of questions and make a story from this lady’s answers.”
This last is what I thought when I first met Nora because I am a writer inside and out. There isn’t one molecule of me that isn’t geared toward, How can I use this in a story?
People are always asking me how I came to be a writer. I’d like to have an answer that would please them. I’d like to say that I was walking through a meadow full of tiny blue flowers when a beautiful woman in a silver dress appeared and bopped me on the head with her wand. She had a golden voice and said, “I am giving you the gift of writing. Go forth and write.”
Sometimes I think that people want to hear that I was “chosen,” rather like a prophet. But you know, whenever you read about prophets, they always cry to God, “Oh Lord, why me?” Sometimes I think being “chosen” isn’t a gift, it’s a curse.
At any rate, I have just told you why I became a writer. I make up stories about everything. Absolutely everything on earth. I see something, hear something, read something, and my mind starts creating a story.
Storytelling is natural to me. When people ask me how I came to be a writer, what 1 want to ask in return is, What is in your head in place of stories? What do you think about while listening to a terminally boring speech? While driving a car? While putting the sixth load of wash in the machine? To me, this is the real mystery of life. I already know what’s inside my head, but what is inside other people’s heads if not stories?
Well, anyway, now that I am a full-fledged writer (that means I need no outside job to pay the bills) I find that we writers have a little club that we’re all supposed to be loyal to. The Hippocratic oath is nothing compared to this.
Since I don’t want to lose my writing membership, I’ll say what I’m supposed to. It’s bloody hard work writing. What is that thing someone said about opening a vein and spilling your blood onto the paper? Well, it’s true. Writing is really, really hard work. By golly, I bet I sit on my fanny six to ten hours a day. I pace the floor thinking about “what happens next.” I have a publishing house that sends me flowers and money every time I turn in a book.
Now, really, does it sound like a writer suffers more than, say, a secretary? She has to be awakened by an alarm clock (I wake when I want to), get the kids and hubby off, work for a boss who never praises her, then do another shift of work when she gets home. And no one ever says, “Wow, you’re a secretary. How did you get to be one?”
I guess we all do whatever we can. If you can drive a truck, you do that. If you can hassle people without conscience, you become a lawyer. If you have stories in your head you write them down. To me being a writer isn’t any different— and not nearly as important—as most other professions. But it seems that the world doesn’t agree with me. The world at large has decided that writers are smarter, more astute, more enlightened, more whatever than other people, so they treat them with awe and reverence.
My opinion is that we should have a National Profession Lottery and every year about ten professions would be drawn from a hat, and for that year all the praise would go to the people in those professions. They should have best-seller lists, receive fan letters, have autographing parties, and have something like a publishing house to praise them and give them gifts.
See? There I go again with a story. Give me a keyboard and I can’t stop.
However, about these ten professions to be chosen, I want to make it clear that there is one “profession” that is too evil to be included in this lottery. Book reviewers. Specifically, romance book reviewers.
Maybe I should tell you right now so, if you are offended, you can stop reading this book. I write romances.
There, I’ve said it. It’s out in the open.
For all the joy of my life, there is one aspect of it that is really and truly quite awful. Shockingly awful. And that is the way the world looks at romance novels, at romance readers, and, above all, at romance writers!
Isn’t the world a weird place? I saw a man on Oprah who was admitting that he’d had sex with his daughter several times when she was a child. Nearly every actor/singer tells the world he/she has done every drug known and hurt or driven away most of the people in their lives.
And how are all these people greeted? With love, that’s how. With love and understanding and sympathy.
But here I am and what do I do? I write fanny little romantic stories about men and women who fall in love with each other. The wildest thing they do is make a baby or two. No drugs. No incest. No one boiling anyone and doing heaven only knows what else to them. I don’t even have people plotting clever ways to kill someone. I just invent stories about what we all dream about: having someone to love who loves us in return.
You’d think that the very thought of a romance writer would bring a smile to people’s lips. Ah, how nice. Love. Making love. Laughter. Kissing.
But no, the world is upside down as far as I can see, and romances and their writers are ridiculed, hissed, and generally spat upon.
And for what reasons? One of my favorites is that women who read them might get mixed up about reality and imagine a man is going to rescue them from Life. According to this theory, women are so stupid that they can’t tell a story from reality. Is anyone worried that the men who read spy thrillers are going to go after their neighbors with an automatic weapon? No, I don’t remember anyone thinking that. Nor do I remember anyone worrying about murder mysteries or science fiction. It just seems to be dumb oF women who might think some gorgeous, thoughtful, giving hunk is going to rescue them.
Honey, if any woman thought a gorgeous hunk was going to rescue her, romance novels wouldn’t be forty percent of the publishing industry.
Anyway, back to the reviewers. These smart young people graduate from college with dreams of working on some magazine of intellectual merit, and what happens to them? Some old man who no longer has stars in his eyes decides to teach the young whippersnapper a lesson about life so he gives this child the lowest job in all the industry: reviewing romance novels!
Guess who bears the brunt of the newly graduated person’s rage? Eighty grand spent on education and they are given a book to read that has a nursing mother cover (so called because of the size of the you-know-whats and the obviously about-to-be-lowered bodice [Quiz: do you think a man or a woman invented these covers?]).
Anyway, this person takes her/his rage out on me, the romance writer. The lowest creature on earth. A housewife with a bank account.
Rule number one for reviewing a romance novel: compare the book to the best book you’ve ever read. If it does not live up to Jane Austen, then use about sixty grand of your education to cut this writer down in the nastiest way possible. If, however, you should make the error of liking the book, write that “Readers of Hayden Lane should like this one.” Whatever you do, don’t stick your neck out and actually say you liked the book. If you allow anyone to think you like romances, you’ll never get promoted to reviewing the “good” books.
So, anyway, what does all this have to do with the subject of past lives? It has everything to do with it because, you see, I’m thirty-nine years old; I’m about to hit the big four-oh, and I’m trying to figure out some things about my life. Sometimes I think I’m as curious as my readers as to how I became a writer. What does make us what we are today?
All in all, the most interesting thing to analyze is people. Why does the lady down the street dress with military precision? Why does someone have a fear of knives or fire or high places? What about those people who are too afraid to leave their houses?
There is, of course, the theory that every fear in your adult life was caused by something awful that happened in your childhood, preferably something you don’t remember so that a therapist can see you hundreds of times and charge you thousands of dollars to help you remember this dreadful thing. So after therapy you’re poorer and have some more rotten memories as well.
During a bad time in my life (what can cause a woman a “bad time” except a man?) I went to a therapist. She told me that I had stories going through my head because I wanted to go to bed with my father. When I recovered my power of speech, I said in great indignation, “I did not want to go to bed with my father!”
“Oh,” she said calmly, “then you suppressed it.”
Seeing that I couldn’t win—and winning has always been important to me—I didn’t return after that visit.
But I have tried to figure out why I write and why I write what I do. You see, all writers want one thing. They want immortality. That’s why we’re so vain that we think someone else will want to read what we put down on paper. We writers hear of Mark Twain dying in poverty and feel no sympathy because ol’ Mark attained the goal. He will live forever. Our families would no doubt choose for us to be writers who make lots of money, but we writers would take eternal recognition over wealth every time.
But that’s the problem. No one comes to you, sitting on a pink cloud, a clipboard in hand, and says, “We’re giving you the gift of writing. Do you want the kind that everyone sneers at or the kind that people remember after you’re dead?” Talent is not like a used car. You can’t take it back if you don’t like it. You can’t say, “I’d like to trade in my talent for an Edith Wharton model.”
My talent happens to be in writing romantic novels, and they get laughed at and ridiculed. In any movie, if the director wants to show that a female character is stupid, he puts a romance novel into her hands
Early on, I decided that I was grateful for any talent at all. Those who can, do, and those who can’t, review. As Anthony Trollope said, “Only a blockhead writes for anything except money.” Or thereabouts. Anyway, it’s true. You can’t very well sit down at your computer and say, “I’m now going to write my way into history.” It doesn’t work that way. You don’t decide what lives on after you, other people do.
So, anyway, I still wonder how I came to write romantic novels and I look back at my life to see if I can figure out what made me such a writer. In fact, I’d like to know what made me like I am in every aspect.
Until I was seven years old, I was the happiest child on the planet. My parents and sister and I lived next door to two houses filled with cousins and aunts and uncles and a couple of sets of grandparents. It was heaven. I was the ringleader of the bunch, ordering everyone about, telling them what to do and how to do it. My creativity was truly appreciated.
Well, maybe not appreciated by everyone. There was the time I saw my grandmother twist the head off a chicken, so I told my cousin we ought to help Nana and twist the heads off all the chickens. There we were, no more than five years old, chickens tucked between our scraped knees and twisting and twisting and twisting. My grandmother came out of the house with a load of wash and there were all her chickens, their heads cocked to one side, listing drunkenly about the yard. Looking back on it and thinking of the ferocious temper of my grandmother, I don’t know how my cousin and I escaped alive.
But those wonderful years ended soon enough when my mother decided she’d had enough of her mother-in-law’s renowned temper. My mother (who could defeat any temper with her rock-hard stubbornness) on one fateful day informed my father that she had bought a piece of land and he was going to build her a house on it. In my parents’ household we all liked to pretend that my father was the one who made the rules. I think the rule he made was, Give Mama what she wants or she’ll make life hell for all of us. Whatever his thoughts, he wasn’t fool enough to say no to my mother when she had that look in her eye.
Whatever the philosophy behind it, the result was the same: We moved. In that one day I lost all those cousins and grandparents; I lost the chickens and the cows and the possum that lived in a barrel in the barn. I lost blackberry bushes that gave me chiggers and I lost apple trees to climb. In one day I went from being the champion of all, a person of prime importance, to being the child-who-must-be-keptdown.
In a matter of hours I went from having the most exciting life in the world to having a life of supreme dullness. My mother and sister were cut out of the same cloth. They were good. Good, good, good.
What is more boring than good? My mother was always saying, “Don’t eat too much chocolate. It’ll make you sick” or “I can’t look at that right now. I have too much work to do” or “Hayden, you cannot read that book now. You haven’t finished cleaning the bathroom.” On and on she went. There was a right time and a wrong time for everything. But as far as I could tell the right time for exuberance never came.
Didn’t people ever want to do something that wasn’t on the schedule? Was I the only one in the world who actually wanted to eat as much chocolate as I could hold and damn the consequences?
Looking back, I think that some people are afraid to break out of the rules. Maybe they’re afraid that if they break the rules, they’ll lose ail self-control and become something horrible—in my mother’s case that would be a woman with a dirty bathroom floor.
Whatever was behind it all, again the result was the same: I was put in a bubble of isolation and left there alone. I had to try to remember to sit up straight, walk sedately, and never, never be rambunctious. I tried, but it’s difficult to control yourself when you’re a child. I guess an awful lot of me slipped out because I heard the phrase “You know how you are” a few million times. Sometimes I got the feeling that my parents thought that if they didn’t keep me under rigid control every minute of every day that I’d lose it altogether. Maybe I’d start eating chocolate and laughing and just plain never stop. Maybe they feared not being able to reel me back in if they just let me go ahead and be myself.
Now that I’m an adult and know all about adult things (uh-huh, sure) I know that my parents were not creative and I was. If they bought something that needed assembly, they read the box and put it together in the way the manufacturer wanted them to. If I bought something, I felt that reading the instructions was cheating. And if I couldn’t put it together easily, it was quite ordinary for me to jump up and down on the box and say all the dirty words I knew—which, thankfully, weren’t many.
My punishment for box jumping or any infraction of the peace rules was to be talked to “for my own good.” Never in my life have I understood that phrase. When someone says this is “for your own good” it always, always, always means that someone is trying to make you openly acknowledge his or her superior power.
So, anyway, how did I survive these spirit killers? How did I survive being dragged to the preacher so he could talk to me because I was “different”? How did I survive hearing my mother ask my relatives if they had any idea what she could “do” with me?
I did the best I could by escaping into a land of stories.
I read incessantly. When my mother made me vacuum the bedroom I shared with my sister, she was more concerned with the length of time I spent vacuuming than with how clean the floor was after I was finished. All she ever checked was to see that the light bulbs were spotless, so I learned to clean the bulbs, then I’d get in the closet with a book, a flashlight, and the vacuum and sit down for a forty-fiveminute read. Since my mother had the ears of a bat, I had to make sure the suction was going on and off, so I sat there putting various parts of my face to the hose, sucking and reading, sucking and reading. I did learn that one must make sure the hose end is clean or one’s face gets awfully dirty, then one’s mother makes one actually clean the room. Gag!
So, anyway, I learned to get round the work, work, work, clean, clean, clean ethic of my mother’s house and make time for the books I loved so much. I read nonfiction even then. I read about heroes, about men and women who had done things and accomplished things in their lives.
There was Daniel Boone and Jackie Cochran and, oh sigh, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. There was the most magnificent queen who ever lived, Elizabeth I, and there were girls who dressed as boys and became spies. Oh, but the list was endless.
I didn’t realize it then but what I was doing was researching. Yes, that’s right, researching. Now I receive reader letters saying in awe, How do you ever do all the research necessary to write historical novels? Okay, let’s have a reality check here. This woman has written me that she has a full-time job and three children under the age of five and she wants to know how I research a romantic novel. I want to ask her how she survives each day.
I guess I’m explaining so much about my life to make you, my readers, think I’m a normal, sane person because something happened to me that isn’t normal and maybe not even sane.
You see, I fell in love with one of my fictional characters.
Up until I started writing a book titled Forever, I liked to think I was a perfectly well-adjusted person. Maybe I did have a lot of stories running through my head, but to me, the people who don’t have these stories are missing something.
Anyway, I like to think I was happy and relatively well adjusted. I was thirty-seven years old, had a great career, had friends, and best of all, I had met a wonderful man named Steven.
Steve was a dream come true: smart, funny, talented, caring. If I’d made him up he couldn’t have been better. And he adored me. He laughed at all my jokes, thought I was beautiful, smart. You name it, everything was perfect between us. There was no question that finally, at last, I wanted to get married. When he asked me to marry him, while riding in a hansom cab through Central Park, I threw my arms around his neck and said, “Yes, yes, yes!” with such enthusiasm that I embarrassed Steve.
But that night, actually, early Sunday morning, I awoke at 3 A.M. with an IDEA. That’s unusual for me. When I first started to write I was plagued with Ideas, and I was so afraid that I’d forget them when I awoke that I got out of bed and wrote all night. But after I’d written about ten books, I’d wake up with an Idea, then fall back asleep.
But that night of my marriage proposal, with my left hand weighted down by Steven’s ring, I had an IDEA. It was so big that I couldn’t relax against Steve’s warm body and go back to sleep.
So, tiptoeing, I got out of bed and went to my computer to write down my thoughts. What I was really thinking about wasn’t so much a story but a character. Well, okay, a man. A wonderful man, a man unlike any I’d ever written about before. A man who was more real to me than any other man I’d created.
In my books, I write about one family, the Tavistocks. When I first started writing, every time I finished a book I’d get depressed because I knew that I’d never again see the characters in my book. So one day I had the brilliant idea of writing four books about four brothers in one family. However, I had not taken into consideration that when I finished the series I would be quadruply depressed. When I reached this point, the only way I could figure how to recover was to write more books about the same family.
At the time I didn’t realize what I was getting into. As the number of books about this family increased, the mail brought me thousands of requests for family trees. And people kept pointing out that I’d have a man and woman with a little boy in one book and in the next book their child would be a girl. I had to buy professional genealogy software to keep up with all of my people, since within a few years I had over four hundred characters, all related to one another.
Over the years I had come to love my Tavistocks and their cousins, and they had become very real to me. So on the night of my engagement it wasn’t unusual for me to start writing about a man named Tavistock.
I named him James Tavistock, to be called Jamie, and he was a great big gorgeous sixteenth-century Scotsman running around in the Tavistock plaid, and the heroine was a modern woman of today who travels back in time to meet him.
When Steve awoke the next morning I was still at my computer, trying to get down dialogue and notes for the book. He’d never seen me like this because over the years I had learned to treat writing like a nine-to-five job. I took off weekends and holidays just like everyone else. I found that this worked better for me than the lunacy of “waiting for inspiration.” The rent I pay each month for my apartment is all the inspiration I need.
Steve was very understanding. He’s an investment banker (no, I do not allow him to handle my money; I said I was in love, not insane) and was a bit fascinated by the creative process. So he ordered his own breakfast from the delicatessen (in the real world the woman fries eggs for her man; in New York we dial the telephone for our men), and I kept typing.
After a while he got bored with hearing the keys of my computer, so he tried to get me to go out with him to see a movie or walk in the park. But I wouldn’t go. I couldn’t seem to stop writing about Jamie.
Steve said he understood, then decided to leave me to my work; he’d see me the next day.
But I didn’t see him the next day, or the next. In fact I didn’t see him for nearly two weeks. I didn’t want to see anyone; I just wanted to write about Jamie.
I read books on Scotland until the wee hours of the morning and everything gave me an idea about Jamie. I thought about him, dreamed about him. I could see his dark eyes, his dark hair. I could hear his laugh. I knew what was good about him and what was bad. He was brave and honest; his honor was such that it was a life force. He was proud to the point that it hindered him. But for all his many virtues he was also vain and at times as lazy as a cat. All he wanted was me—I mean, the heroine—to wait on him.
After two weeks I went out with Steve; I don’t know what it was, but it was as though I couldn’t really see him. It was as though I was seeing all the world through a Vaseline-coated lens. Nothing seemed real to me. All I could seem to hear and see was Jamie.
Over the next months my obsession with this man only deepened. Steve did everything he could think of to get my attention. He talked to me, pleaded with me to stop working and start paying attention to him.
“Where is the woman I fell in love with?” he asked with a smile, trying to make light of what was hurting him so much.
I couldn’t really answer him. I just wanted to get back to my computer and my research books. I don’t know what I was looking for in the books; maybe I hoped to “find” Jamie in them.
I have to say that through all of this Steve was wonderful. He really did love me. After about four months of complete inattention from me, he begged me to go with him to a counselor. By this time I was feeling guilty. No, correction, I was feeling that I should feel guilty; what I was actually feeling was that I wanted everyone on the earth to go away and leave me alone with Jamie.
For three months, Steve and I had weekly visits with a therapist, talking about my childhood. I was completely uninterested in any of it. I sat there and told them what they wanted to hear, that my mama didn’t love me and my daddy didn’t love me, et cetera. The truth was, in the back of my mind, I was thinking only of what I wanted to write about Jamie. Had I fully explored the way the sunlight played on his hair? Had I described the sound of his laughter?
Steve knew very well that I was paying no attention to any of the therapists, so, after eight months of receiving nothing from me, he told me he wanted to break our engagement. In a scene that I felt as though I were looking at from a distance, I gave him back his ring. The only thought that was in my head was, Now I can spend all my time with Jamie.
When I first told my friend and editor, Daria, about my obsession with this hero, she was thrilled. Obsessed authors write great books. The authors who fail are ones who call their editors and say, “What do you want me to write next?”
Daria was the only person on earth who wanted to hear about this man as much as I wanted to talk about him. Of course, to be honest, Daria had learned to listen to authors while line editing other people’s manuscripts, eating a bagel, and directing her assistant about covers and cover copy. Daria has one humdinger of a brain.
But then something odd happened. After about three months of my talking nonstop about this book, Daria said, “I want to see what you’ve done.”
“No!” I snapped at her request. Now this is very odd. Writers act as though they have lots of self-confidence, but we all have clay feet. We are in awe of the power of our editors, those first people who see our work. Daria always raves about the first section of a book I turn in to her. Later she may tell me it all needs to go into the trash, but not at first. It’s like, you can’t tell your best girlfriend that the guy she’s madly in love with is a creep. After she breaks up with him, you can tell her.
Anyway, I usually sent Daria my book in fifty-page clumps and started pestering her for her opinion (i.e., lavish praise) before the express service had even picked it up from my door. One book, I sent her the whole five hundred pages in ten-page segments. Wisely, Daria refuses to have a fax machine in her apartment or else all her insecure, praise-hungry authors would be faxing her their books page by page then demanding an hour’s praise for every paragraph that they hope is wittily written.
By all of this you can see how unusual it was when I didn’t want Daria to see what I had written. I told her I wanted to finish the section I was writing before I sent it to her.
The truth was, I didn’t want her—or any other woman— to set eyes on my Jamie.
Even after months, I still refused to allow Daria to see any of the book, and she began to be concerned. Some writers lie about how much they’re writing, but I knew Daria didn’t think this of me, since I write because I love it—correction, I write because I must, because I am driven to it.
Daria grew more concerned when, a month after it happened, I told her that I had broken my engagement to Steve. “You didn’t tell me this?” she asked, aghast, for we were truly friends, not just business friends. She seemed a little worried when I said that the broken engagement didn’t matter, that I hadn’t been very upset by the breakup.
Months went by and I kept writing. When I write, I keep a file named Scenes, and whenever I have an idea about possible bits of dialogue that I might be able to use in the book, I stick it in this file. Being very frugal, I almost always use every word I put into this file.
But I had written so much about Jamie that the Scenes file was over six hundred thousand bytes, over four hundred pages, and I hadn’t yet really started the book. I kept telling myself that I needed to do a bit more research or needed to know just a tiny bit more about Jamie before I could actually start writing the book itself.
I had Jamie and my heroine, who was named Caitlin, in every possible situation. I told myself I was “exploring possibilities of their characters.” Twenty-five books I had written, and I’d never before felt this need, but then I’d never before felt this way about a character I’d made up. Oh, I often felt as though I were “in love” with a hero, but it was nothing compared to what I felt about Jamie.
Months went by and still I kept writing notes for my book. Jamie was no longer a Scotsman but an Englishman in the time of Queen Elizabeth I.
Daria was more than annoyed with me as I still wouldn’t allow her to see anything I’d written. She reminded me that I was past my due date; it had no effect on me. She sent me a copy of the cover and talked to me about all the people at my publishing house who were depending on me, something that I usually cared a great deal about. But I didn’t care about anyone or anything, just Jamie.
I think it was the wedding invitation I received from Steve that made me realize that I had a “problem.” I know it was probably a bitter, hurtful thing he did, sending me that pretty, engraved invitation, letting me know that I had truly lost him, but actually it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
I realized that I had discarded a real, live, utterly wonderful man for a character I had created on paper. I realized that I had not talked to any of my friends in months and that the romance trade papers were running little gossip bits about, What ever happened to Hayden Lane?
But realization cannot stop something that’s bad. All smokers know they should quit, but that doesn’t make them able to stop the habit.
But when I was able to admit to myself that I did indeed have a problem, I decided to get help. I spent three months going to a therapist every day. That was useless. No one had even conceived of a case like mine. At first I tried to keep it from her that the man I was obsessed with was a figment of my imagination, but I have a big mouth and I’m not good at intrigue, so she soon found out. Her advice was to get out more, see people. I tried, but that didn’t work because I bored everyone to death with “Jamie says” and “Jamie likes” and “Jamie does.”
When therapy didn’t seem to be working, I started trying other methods of figuring out what was wrong with me. In New York, there’s a palm reader, a psychic, a tarot card reader, some esoteric something on every corner. I went to several of them. I guess I hoped that someone would tell me that within a week or two I’d be back to my old self. But not one of them told me anything helpful. They told me I was rich and famous and had a star in my palm that meant I was “special.” They told me the people at my work were beginning to think I was crazy and had decided to treat me as though I were nitroglycerine about to go off.
In other words, they didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. At home, I cried a lot and yearned for Jamie all the time. I didn’t just want to write about him, I wanted to feel him, touch him, talk to him. I wanted to follow his long legs down country paths; I wanted to bear his children.
I don’t know what would have happened, or how long all of this would have gone on, if I hadn’t met Nora. Like a spider sitting in the midst of her web, she had an office across from my hairdresser’s with a huge red neon sign that said ASTROLOGY. As I sat there with foil in my hair (my hair is white blonde and I get downlights to make it look more “natural”—weird, huh?) I thought, I think I’ll go have my chart done.
I say that Nora is like a spider because I soon learned that she knows even less about astrology than I do. She put the sign up to attract people. Nora really is a clairvoyant, and as soon as I sat down and asked for my chart to be done, she said, “How about a psychic reading, instead?”
I said, “Sure,” and that one word was the beginning of everything.