Some books almost seem to write themselves. This was not that book. 🙂
Grace came begrudgingly into the world during a time when I was wrestling with some pretty thorny issues in my own life, and even after I finally got the story onto the page, it had a tortuous journey to publication. I wanted to share the “behind the scenes” backstory with readers—this is the stuff that’s not part of the official publicity campaign. If, like me, you love the “making of” features about favorite movies and TV shows, read on for the Inside the Actor’s Studio version of the book.
I started this story a long time ago, as literally the first manuscript-length fiction I ever attempted. It was an almost entirely different story then—a Cocoon-meets-Hitch type of plot that centered around a group of senior citizens and the octogenarian matchmaker who helped them find another chance at love.
Then I put it in a drawer, as one does with one’s first attempt at a novel, because, you know, it was bad.
Fast-forward about six other manuscripts and four published novels, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters. I reimagined the story from another angle and rewrote it. Still not so great. And so I did that again—and possibly one more time after that.
But by this time my world had turned a bit upside down, and the story felt dead on the page to me…till I took all the things I was wrangling—overwhelming and unfamiliar feelings of rage and despair, how to find forgiveness for what seemed unforgivable—and funneled it into the story. This time I wrote it in about three months, my fastest novel ever (ironically)—thirteen years after I’d written the first version–and surprisingly it wound up being a story of joy and humor and redemption and hope.
But Grace still had more road to travel. This was 2015, when the book was turned in to my then-publisher and slated for an early 2018 release. But shortly before publication I pulled the book, and my agent began shopping it all over again from ground zero. We were unbelievably fortunate to find the perfect editor and publishing house for it, and I joyfully signed a two-book deal with Cindy Hwang at Berkley/Penguin.
The wheels of publishing turn slowly, though, so the book I’d begun in the early 2000s, finished in 2016, and found the right publishing home for at the end of 2018 is coming out…now.
Many years ago, early in my writing career, my friend Sarah Bird, a brilliant and multipublished author, gave me the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received. She said the only thing that separated her from her unpublished author friends was persistence. I remember thinking, “Oh, I’ve got that all day long!”
I had no idea. 🙂
But it turns out she’s right—this business, like any artistic pursuit, is built on the determination to simply persist, to follow your passion, to write (or dance or act or sing or knit) no matter what, and keep sharing your work.
So here she is, friends—a decade and a half after she first sprouted. A Little Bit of Grace was one of my hardest novels to write, but it also helped me figure out a lot of things I was struggling with (and let me virtually travel to one of my favorite settings in the world). I’m proud to finally be able to share it. I hope you love it.
The real-life Millie
My actual great-aunt Millie was feisty, full of light, and frequently hilarious. She never married and was a model of living her life as she chose, social mores be damned: flirting outrageously with the men in her assisted-living apartment complex, drinking her “evening toddy” of rum right till the end, smoking till her eightieth birthday (when she abruptly quit and never looked back), and leaving a cache of titillating surprises behind for us to discover she’d lived even freer than we imagined.
The real Millie was not imposingly tall, as the fictional one is—she was a minute little slip of a thing—she dressed like Jackie O until almost the day she died, and her secret was an epic tragic love affair in her past, but they share lovely translucent blue eyes, a similar joie de vivre, and an unapologetic, be-yourself approach to life.
Both real and fictional Millie find the magic in every day, and their relish of life spreads to those around them. I loved writing fictional Millie—not only to give the real Millie a bit of a happier ending than she got in reality (Aunt Millie never wound up with the great love of her life), but because I love the idea of getting to the late years of your life and looking back with few regrets because you actually did all the things you dreamed of doing.
I was also fortunate to connect with Michelle Stafford, key parts of whose life history and experience she generously shared with me and provided me with insight that I could never have had without her as I wrote Millie’s character. Michelle’s warmth, kindness, and ready willingness to share parts of her personal life with a total stranger still have me overcome with gratitude and awe. She is as strong and fierce and gracious a lady as I’ve ever met, and I wish everyone could spend the hours talking to her that I was privileged to enjoy.
The real-life Cypress Key
A Little Bit of Grace is set in the most fetching of tropical paradises I could evoke—sunny Cypress Key, a fictional Florida amalgam of Fort Myers, where I lived for seven years, and Pine Island, an eclectic little atoll in the gulf populated by free spirits, artists, and beach lovers like me, dotted with palm and mango trees, and with the gorgeous Gulf of Mexico on every side. Here’s a glimpse:
The real-life Matchmaker
My good friend Tammy Shaklee is a real-life matchmaker who has been profiled or quoted in O magazine, Reader’s Digest, the New York Post, Bustle, and others. The founder and CEO of H4M Matchmaking, she not only generously carved out time to let me shadow her as she interviewed clients, patiently educated me about matchmaking as a skill and career, and answered all my questions ad nauseam., but she is dripping with graciousness and genteel charm that I shoplifted a bit of to infuse into Millie’s character.
The real-life Estate Planner
I prevailed upon a friend who is an estate planner, the magnificently tall (6’1″), sylphlike Brooke Hardie—who also creates hilarious videos called “Life Is Legal” where she memorably illustrates and explains everyday legal concepts for laypeople. Brooke loves her career and generously allowed me to freely pick her brain in exchange for wine. If you ever want to find the joy and comfort that can result from planning your estate, Brooke is your woman.
The real-life Readers
When the creative well ran dry and I couldn’t think of clever enough names for Millie’s matchmaking blog and Web site, readers came through for me on social media with an avalanche of wonderful suggestions it was hard to choose from, all of which were far better than anything I came up with.