everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

Archive for California Living

A Pen, a Princess, and a Lot of Rock Music: Snapshot of Robin McKinley

I met Robin McKinley a million years ago when we both had long hair and wore snakeskin cowboy boots. She was into “goth” and I was into “new music,” and she was writing The Outlaws of Sherwood, although I don’t know what the manuscript was called at that time. She simply referred to it as “Robin Hood.”

She came out to Santa Monica from Maine and stayed with my rock-musician husband and me for a while. In those days, we spent a lot of time hanging out at Skyline Recording Studio way up on Old Topanga Canyon Road, and I don’t recall what records Ira was working on back then, but there were parties with Bob Dylan and sessions with Joe Cocker and concerts where Ira played with all kinds of great rock musicians. We went to clubs and showcases and wore our outlandish clothes and crazy jewelry. She was the princess of goth. And of course Ira was writing and recording his own tunes, some with Britt Bacon and Carl Sealove and a lot of other talented people. Ira had a recording studio in our small home, so he was making music all the time, and Robin and I had a great time with all of it. Everything in my closet was either black or white, and I never combined the colors. One day I bought an unconventional sweater from a catalog–completely not my style. We were walking along Main Street after breakfast one morning, and she gave me a puzzled look. “You’re OK with that?” she asked. She pointed at my sweater. “Wearing pink?”

I fell head-over-heels in love with Robin’s books when I read The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. Unlike most people back then, I read Beauty afterward.  She wrote books I could not put down, and sometimes I didn’t get my night’s work finished because I was reading something new by Robin. And in those days it was rare for me to work fewer than 80 hours a week.

Every morning Robin would go into my home office and work on the book. It was a tiny room someone had attached onto our tiny home–very dark and crowded. She explained her writing ability by telling me that she had a crack in her skull, and the words and stories came in through that crack. Since then, I have heard other people explain their brilliant writing in a similar way, but that is how she described her writing process, which was very mysterious to me. It was a mystery to me that anyone could write that well.

I don’t know how old we were, except that I am in my 50s now, so we had to have been close to thirty, but not much older than that. She had achieved highly unusual success for someone her age, and it was troubling her. She told me she felt tremendous pressure, and I don’t know what that was like for her. She had written Beauty, and it had been a wildly successful novel that knocked the socks off fantasy readers. Her second book was a Newbery Honor, and her third book won the gold. I’m sure it must have been enormously exciting to have that level of affirmation, but on the other hand, that is pretty heady for a younger person.

And how do you follow that?

Everyone (and I include myself ) was on pins and needles, waiting for Robin’s next miraculous novel to sweep us off our feet. Robin’s editor at the time was the legendary Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow, who had also been Virginia Hamilton’s editor (along with Janet Schulman and Ann Beneduce) most of Virginia’s career.

I met Robin because a new illustrator friend, Katie Thamer Treherne, had surprised me by bringing me all the finished picture-book illustrations for The Light Princess by George MacDonald, which he had published in 1864. They were intricate, gorgeous, and highly detailed, but in order to publish Katie’s art as a picture book, the original manuscript by MacDonald had to be cut. I decided to ask a “master” fantasy writer to tackle the job of cutting/editing it–not revise it or re-tell it, but edit it for length.

My first choice was Robin, and she agreed to do it. Of course she respected the writer and did a beautiful job.  I didn’t think her involvement with the project stepped on anyone’s toes, but it allowed an engaging, delightful picture book to come into existence (Harcourt) and bring that forgotten, light-hearted story back to contemporary bookshelves.

Along the way, I got to know Robin. And I state for the record that I did not understand Robin, and I never have, and I never will.  I’m not sure it matters, except I do not want to present a misconception that we were best friends. Everyone is different, every writer is different, every relationship with a writer is different, and this is no exception. Still, she is a genius, and this is a small collection of essays about my experiences with brilliant writers…and that includes the mysterious, complicated, wildly talented and unpredictable Robin. There you go.

At any rate, if you have read a few of the essays in Everything Grows with Love, you have seen that in my life, the process of publishing books is very personal. I have very personal passions for people and their individual visions, and it is usually a familial kind of thing for whatever reasons. Most of the time that works out well–meaning better books–and sometimes it backfires or goes south or drifts away into distance as is true with close relationships in the lives of most people. As well, I’m not saying this is the way editors and publishers should approach bookmaking. They should approach it however it works for them. This is what works for me. It has been at least two decades since I gave a rat’s ass how anyone else makes a book. This is how make books, and I don’t care what anybody thinks about it.

Meanwhile, back at the Robin McKinley snapshot (smile–I think Robin would like that little outburst, being the rugged individual and the maverick she undoubtedly still is)….  Robin taught me one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned about writing and publishing, and it has been invaluable these twenty-five years since. Some days she would go into my little study and come out feeling she’d written good fiction. Other days she would come out feeling she’d written terrible fiction. But what she said about it was this: At the end of the book, I can’t tell which parts were good writing days and which were bad writing days.

I always urge writers (and myself) to keep everything, no matter how bad it may seem. Because how you feel about your writing on Monday may be extremely negative, but in fact it may be the best writing you’ve ever done. I guess that’s true about a lot of things in life, right? You wake up after an argument with your sister, and the work you try to do that day feels wrong and inefficient and lousy. In fact, it may be the best work you’ve ever done. Why should it be any different with writing?

Robin kept the good and the bad and kept on writing The Outlaws of Sherwood every morning. She said it was taking her a lot longer to write this book because she felt the public’s expectations were deafening–my words, not hers.

People have told me that it is easier, emotionally, to win a Caldecott or a Newbery Medal after publishing a lot of books so you are better prepared for the celebrity and sudden fame and high expectations. I have known a zillion winners of those awards, and like their work, they are each individuals and very different.  But in Robin’s case, I think those medals were wonderful, and she so deserved them, but it may have made the rest of her career more difficult and challenging. I don’t know.

Katie Thamer Treherne, who created the paintings that led me to Robin, married a man she’d met on a pilgrimage, and they moved back to his ancient family home in Sussex, England, where she is probably now the mother of several grown children who have children of their own. Robin married the celebrated writer Peter Dickinson and moved to England with him. The last time I saw her was at a New York party given for them by her agent at the time. Robin and I stayed in touch for a little while, and the last photograph she sent me from England was a picture of herself with a tractor, in a beautiful British rose garden. She told me she was happy and very proud of the flowers in the photo. And I had to smile to see that like her own Beauty, she had become a lover of roses, and I hoped she was cherished by a prince of her own.

I think of Robin tonight and the people we were back then, and how we had no idea of what was before us. It was a unique time, kicking around those recording studios and being in publishing yet rejecting the stuffy rules of the business. We took great pleasure in drop kicking as many rules as we could out of the park.

Snap your fingers, and flash, more than twenty-five years have passed. What was once an irresponsible night on the town is rapidly becoming a ghost of a memory, and you want to catch it on your laptop before it vanishes. You gave up your cowboy boots long ago and have become a woman with a grown child, a publisher overflowing with stories, and a gardener with roses of your own.

Ah, the rose…that ancient storytelling symbol. Its entrance and its exit–and the people who cross over during that magical, transformational moment–can alter your life forever….

Only God Loves California: The View from North Truro

I wrote this in 2010, the day before my birthday, with the intention of writing a fiction blog called ONLY GOD LOVES CALIFORNIA. But I never wrote another entry. It’s time to close out that dream and move along, but I always did like the story about North Truro. It doesn’t belong with the other essays here, but I’m including it anyway–with a smile and a sigh.

Here’s a snapshot of my own life. Why not? Greetings from the land of Botox and expensive cars and very, very thin people who think Harry Potter is a movie.


February 9, 2010

In a small, weathered cottage in North Truro, a few miles from the end of Cape Cod, Mrs. Lippit chain-smokes all day while she watches TV. Her face is more wrinkled than any raisin, and when she sees me hesitate by her rusty screen door, she begins to laugh. At first I don’t know what the joke is, but then I notice that every time she hears me say the word “California,” she bursts out laughing. It is a coughing kind of laugh, as if she is about to fall out of her faded armchair. She just can’t believe my 5-year-old son and I are here from that place.

I am guessing Mrs. Lippit has been smoking non-stop since the end of World War II, when she could finally get cigarettes again. She has owned the three cottages across the street, named Dianne, Kathy, and Grace, since before the war. Like her, they are survivors, old and worn, but only a short boardwalk through the salt marsh stands between the cottages and the ocean. These cottages must be worth millions, I think, and of course they are. At least three million dollars apiece. Mrs. Lippit doesn’t seem to notice or care. The cottages, she tells me in her wheezy voice, are named after her granddaughters, who come and stay here for the month of July every summer. The paint is peeling, the kitchen is rusty, and everything smells like mildew, but we absolutely love it here. The sea breeze and the clear, cool waves of the Atlantic are mesmerizing.

Mrs. Lippit looks me over again and can’t suppress her laughter. I know the only reason she agreed to rent Grace to us was because my oldest sister lives in Yarmouthport, here on the Cape. That made me legitimate enough despite my home base. And when the old woman comes to see that my Cape Cod sister refuses to come visit my son and me–she is fed up with the Cape and has flown to San Francisco for the three weeks we are here–the old lady doesn’t comment. My son and I are strange enough, to have come here at all, and I’m guessing my unusual family fits into her picture of us.

So far we haven’t been able to adjust to East Coast time, so we stay up way after midnight and then sleep until noon. The beer-bellied neighbors staying in Kathy also find our hours hysterically funny, and every time we pass them, as they sit next to their pick-up truck in folding chairs, they squall out, “California!” and then they laugh, too.

Taking out the garbage, I see the cans are filled with empty gallon-size bottles of bourbon and gin. The other guests get loud over there late at night, but they always manage to get to the beach hours before we get up. I don’t know how they do it.

We are politely chatting with them about Bar-B-Q when old Mrs. Lippet hobbles across the two-lane highway from her cottage to our side of the street. She is waving frantically at me to get my attention, and the way she sways you can tell she probably hasn’t been out of her TV chair for months. She is ancient.

     “Your sister’s on the phone!” she yells over the sound of the ocean. “It’s an emergency! I told her you were at the beach, but she wanted me to come look!”

I grab my son’s hand, and we go sprinting across the warm tar to her screen door. My son makes a face at the overwhelming smell of cigarette smoke, but there are no other phones in the cottages, and we don’t get cell service out here.

It is my other sister, the one who lives in Minnesota, who is calling. She’s the stubborn one.  As soon as I hear her voice, I can imagine her insisting that Mrs. Lippit had better go find us. I love her for it. She has decided that she and her husband are going to drive to the Cape from Minneapolis to have a vacation with us. They are bringing their dog, Toba. Do we have enough room for them in our cottage?

I am elated. My sister and her husband have a house in Italy, so we rarely see them. I cover the phone with my hand and ask Mrs. Lippet if I can rent Dianne, the empty cottage, for a week while my sister is visiting.

“Your sister?  Why does she need a cottage when she lives on the Cape?”

“It’s my other sister. She’s driving here from Minnesota.”

Mrs. Lippet laughs so hard her lit cigarette comes flying out of her mouth.  “She’s driving here from Minnesota?” she manages to spit out. And then she is doubled up again.

“What about the cottage?” I ask anxiously.

In between fits of laughter, Mrs. Lippet snorts and nods her head yes.

She is still laughing when I hang up the phone, and we leave. My son looks at me, confused, and asks why she smokes cigarettes. Doesn’t she know she’ll get cancer?

I want to tell him it is because she is not from California, but I keep the thought to myself.

We go back to Grace to get our plastic buckets and shovels. On the way, we pass the beer bellies, their truck, their drinks, and their radio.

“You finally up now?” one of them asks. “You people from California sure do sleep late. Almost missed the entire day!”

All of them laugh.

Living in Santa Monica, I am not used to staying in a place where people don’t use keys. I have hidden my camera, an envelope with four hundred dollars in cash for emergencies, our airline tickets, my American Express card, and a pair of diamond earrings in a dented old saucepan inside a lobster pot at the bottom of the kitchen cabinet. I’m not wearing jewelry, and I only use that credit card for traveling.

My sister, her husband, and Toba are overflowing with happiness from the moment they step out of the car. Everything else disappears, including the neighbors and their comments. My sister teaches my son how to count to ten in Italian. She cooks with special olive oil they brought with them, and I swear the pasta really does taste better. My brother-in-law writes poetry and naps in the afternoon. My sister, a photographer, is snapping pictures left and right–setting us all up in a pattern on the floor, with Toba wagging her tail on top of my son. Mrs. Lippit tries to tell my sister she doesn’t allow dogs, but my sister ignores her–so unlike me!–and the old lady shakes her head and says, “Just don’t let any of the other guests know about the dog!” She goes back to her TV.

A week later, after a holiday filled with sunshine and good food, my sister and her husband drop us off at Logan Airport in Boston. It is not until we go to check in that I remember my valuables are still in the saucepan. What if the next visitors steal them? I call Mrs. Lippet, frantic.

You left your money where?” she wheezes. Then she laughs so hard I can’t even hear her talk. Finally, after a long fit of coughing, she promises to take it to the post office in five days. She’ll use some of the cash to pay for postage.

“Can’t you call FedX?” I ask anxously. “Isn’t it safer?”

“No,” she says emphatically.  “That’s way too expensive. And I’m not going into town anytime before next week. That’s the best I can do.”

Two weeks later, a little box arrives. It is uninsured, and it smells like cigarettes. In her spidery hand, the word CALIFORNIA is written in caps.

The tickets are there, and the earrings, and my credit card. But the cash is gone.

So I smile. I hope next summer my son and I will get to go to North Truro again. And if we do, I am pretty sure Mrs. Lippet will let us stay in Grace, even if we do sleep until noon. Even if we are from California.

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