Roughly ten years ago, I was walking a friend’s dog along a country lane on the small island in Puget Sound where I live. He was a very well-trained hunting dog; if you told him to “heel” he did so immediately and stayed, happily, right by your side, abundant sniffable dog distractions notwithstanding.
On that day, striding many yards ahead of me, I saw a tall, slender, blond woman with two large dogs on leashes. As the distance closed between us she heard our approach, whipped around, and barked, “Get that dog on a lead!”
Two things occurred to me immediately. One, she must be British, as “lead” is a British term for leash. Two, she must be the one I have been waiting for because, after all, she’s already yelling at me! I was right on both counts. (As it turned out, her outburst was due to having been attacked by a stray dog only minutes before; she was and is a sweet and wonderful woman).
And so we met, we dated, we married, and years later we divorced…but have remained dear friends. It is a matter of mutual admiration, abiding friendship, and an affection which has changed form but not diminished. As I’ve said, we live on a small island. Inevitably, we run into each other. And it is always a joy for me, if sometimes a heart-skipping one.
I don’t know how she feels about that horribly commercialized holiday, Valentine’s Day, which rolls around this month, but she will be “my” valentine still and my heart will send her flowers. Our past contains a rich history of companionship, respect, and admiration which does not seem to have aged. It is, to me, like the diamond that was once on her ring finger: forever. And forever to be honored.
We have all loved. Many of us have loved and lost. Sometimes there is rancor. I have been lucky. Perhaps you have been, too. On this holiday, I hope all of us can wrap our hearts around that which was once precious and, truly, never really dies.
In celebration of love, I have just released my three most romantic novels as a boxed set called: Second Chances: Love Stories for Grownups. This February, may I suggest that they would make a thoughtful gift for someone you love…or have loved…or hope will find love once again.
A New Year
No matter where your loyalties or beliefs reside—left, right, or center, politically or in any other realm—I think we can agree that 2017 was a year of turmoil. Things we took as certainties became uncertain. Things we thought we understood were suddenly in question. Things we took as normal morphed, creating “new normals.” In my own life, and perhaps in yours as well, there was disappointment, loss, and pain, one coming on the heels of the last so quickly and relentlessly sometimes that it became hard to hold steady or even to know the right course.
In such times, most people will reach out to others for help, for support, for reassurance, for encouragement. However natural a response that may seem to be, I am not at all sure it is the right one. It seems to me a search for cushioning, for insulation from the experience of being in and at this moment, no matter how unsettling or painful the moment is.
My own response to pain this year has been to take it all in—in deep—and not try to shoo it away or turn to others to make it more bearable. I bring it close. I need to own it. Because if you don’t own it, you won’t truly know it, and if you don’t know it, how can you hope to surmount it?
I pull inside a sort of metaphorical cave of my own creation. And in there I try to understand that the disappointments may not entirely have been visited upon me by unseen outside forces, but perhaps also by my own unrealistic expectations. I absorb the losses because, after all, they are mine and unlikely even to be perceived, much less understood by others. I own the pain.
And I wait.
I wait because I have two choices: pound my head against the wall of things impossible to change, including my own mistakes, or be patient and prepare for the breeze that may again fill the sails, the tide that will return, quietly, to lift the vessel that is me. So the challenge of the past year is simple: What have I learned? And the challenge for this New Year is just as simple: how will I use what I have learned?
I wish you all a very happy, hopeful, and heart-expanding 2018.
My son was born on December eighteenth. This is a perfect example of very poor family planning. No thoughtful parent would do such a thing to a child, placing his birth date so close to Christmas. Then again, I’m not sure how thoughtful his mother and I were at the time.
I remember returning from the hospital to the group house where I had previously lived with my three college roommates. We all were still in school, seniors. There was snow on the ground and the apartment, in a once lovely and grand old house, was notoriously drafty. Still, they toasted me, my young wife, and our new son with—what else?—ice cold beer. After a couple of beers a thought struck me like a lightning bolt from the heavens: You will not be able to sleep late again for many years… That sobered me right up and, of course, was completely true.
So here was this tiny little infant boy—wisps of hair, wrinkly face—with a birthday just one week, exactly, before Christmas. My wife and I lived in upstate New York at the time and had always spent Christmas with our respective parents down near New York City. I called our pediatrician and asked if it was safe for the little guy to travel. The doc said, “That kid has more natural antibodies in him right now than perhaps at any other time in his life. Go for it.”
So we did. We bought a folding “port-a-crib” (no longer available, I should think), set it up in the back of our Volkswagen square-back (a kind of mini-station wagon also no longer available), tossed the kid in the crib, and rocketed down the New York State Thruway. This was before those silly child safety seats. He might have rolled around a bit back there, but he never complained. Not once. That may be because the VW’s faulty exhaust tended to filter into the passenger compartment. Hard to say.
But I have always felt guilty. All his life (so far) the poor devil has been effectively shortchanged at both his birthday AND Christmas. Too close together, presents merged, plus there is something just wrong about wrapping a birthday present in Christmas paper.
This year, though, I am atoning. For his birthday, I am giving him a gift collection from a really fine new men’s razor manufacturing company. I think it’s time he shaved.
He’s forty-eight, after all.
I confess that every time he has a new birthday these days I find it hard not to take offense. I want to give him a good old New York “dope slap” for being so disrespectful to his only father. I mean, really, how did he get so old? And what’s with this grandson thing, anyway? A grandson? Who’s in high school? That’s just wrong, too.
But in moments of calm, I confess to myself that no one could have had a sweeter son. He’s a terrific dad and a successful architect. I count myself immensely lucky every December.
Happy Birthday, Eric. You were a magical Christmas gift.
On November 6, that great book-lovers’ website, Bookbub, will have my very first novel, The Long Walk Home, on a free offer for 7 days. It’s the first in a series of three books I like to call “love stories for grownups.” The other two are Water, Stone, Heart and Seasons’ End, which will be on sale until November 13th.
But I want to tell you a story about that first book, The Long Walk Home.
First, part of the story is true. The male protagonist, American Alec Hudson, comes to England to honor his late wife’s last request that he scatter her ashes atop a mountain in North Wales. He actually walks across England carrying her urn in his backpack. It is a kind of pilgrimage, and a kind of penance. The mountain, “Cadair Idris,” is notoriously dangerous and, rising as it does directly from the Irish Sea, is regularly lashed with vicious storms. This part of the story is true. I did this for my late wife.
Second, reaching the end of his journey he finds a farmhouse bed and breakfast near the mountain’s base and, as he waits for the weather to make ascent possible, he and Fiona Edwards, his host, draw together out of a mutual sense of loss and a rekindled love neither expected to return to their lives at middle age. That part is fiction but something I hope for everyone. It is a love story, after all, but one with twists and turns that will try the faith of each of the main characters and, I hope, renew your faith in love.
Here are some reviews:
''[A] lyrical first novel about love and loss. . . North offers vivid descriptions of the Welsh countryside, capturing its local dialect, flora and fauna, and wild weather. . .if Nicholas Sparks set a novel in North Wales, it would read a lot like this!''—Publishers Weekly
''A brilliantly realized romance...'' —The Strand Book Store, NYC
If you haven’t read The Long Walk Home I hope you will take advantage of this limited free offer to do so. And if you have, here’s your chance to share it with all your other reader friends!
Thank you for your continued support.
Cooking figures into many of my novels and many readers have written to my website to ask for recipes, which is lovely. There’s only one problem: I don’t use recipes. Curiously, this also brings up a parallel discussion about writing…or at least how I write. We’ll get to that in a moment.
But first, it’s true; I do love to cook. I have been cooking for myself and others virtually every night for something going on forty years. I have a dear friend who says, “I know it’s a bad day for you if you haven’t been to the grocery store at least twice.” This is a slander; I only go once a day. But I do so every morning. If I happen to have a morning appointment and come in later, the store staff (who’ve become friends on the small island where I live) yell at me: “You’re late!” I am not making this up.
But if you saw me at the store, what you would see is a very tall man standing stock still and staring into the far distance. Maybe I’m in the meat or fish department, but I seem to be attached to the floor by something stronger than just gravity. Shoppers wheel their carts around me like I am a store fixture. This is me thinking. It can take a while. Maybe I’ve spied a nice cut of wild-caught Northwest sockeye salmon, and I’m thinking: Poached? Grilled? Do I have any more homemade basil pesto in the fridge? What else is in there and what could we do with it? I’m like a juggler tossing ingredients around in my head to see what comes together.
And this, I confess, is also how I write, though admittedly not standing like a statue while in the grocery store. I don’t use a recipe to cook and I don’t use a recipe to write my novels, by which I mean I don’t outline in advance. I’ve tried it in the past and outlines feel like a straightjacket to me. The plain fact is that I have no idea where the story will take me or who I’ll meet along the way.
Instead, I usually have three basic ingredients and I wait to see how they want to be combined to become something tasty. First, I always have in mind a setting—a specific place, a landscape, usually somewhere in rural Britain where I’ve always seemed to feel at home (despite having grown up in New York City). To me, the setting is a character. It is a place that has a story it wants to tell and it shapes the people who inhabit it. Maybe it’s the craggy mountains of North Wales, or the storm-wracked coast of southwest Cornwall, or in my latest novel, the barren waste of Bodmin Moor.
Second, I usually have one or two characters in mind who, when tossed into the pot, begin to simmer and develop as they interact. Pretty soon, other ingredients—new characters, events, surprises, show up to enrich the plot. Where do they come from? I wish I could tell you. It’s not like there’s some larder to draw from which I might say, okay, a half cup of this troubling event, a tablespoon of this new character, and so on. It just doesn’t happen that way. Years ago, I explained this process to my literary agent and he chuckled: “Look,” he said, “if you’re not surprised every day, your readers won’t be, either.” And I am indeed surprised every day. I taste what’s cooking every day by re-reading what I’ve written the day before. It might need a pinch of salt for flavor, a minced clove of garlic for sharpness, a dash of chopped thyme for depth. In this regard, I’m a slow cooker. It can take weeks, even months.
The third and final essential ingredient is some underlying theme I discover I am interested in exploring. It might be the complexities of the notion of fidelity, or the impacts of betrayal, or the cost of greed, or in one case the long-term effects of childhood abuse. Sometimes it takes a while for the theme to emerge and become established. In cooking, it’s like thinking: do I want to take these ingredients in an Italian direction? French? Asian? Moroccan? Sometimes you don’t know until you’re well underway.
In the end, I suppose, it’s about trust—trusting that the result will leave my guests—and my readers—delighted yet hungry for more. Writing, like cooking, is like a small gift I can give to others every day.