Barbara Delinsky does not need me. She's had seventeen New York Times bestsellers, including her most recent novel, Family Tree, which just cracked the list at number twelve. It's her 76th book -- she thinks, but doesn't keep good track -- in a writing career that started with light romances but has evolved into highly regarded women's fiction. With 30 million books in print, Barbara Delinsky definitely does not need me.
And yet I insisted.
I was seated next to her son Jeremy at a dinner party. As he talked admiringly about his mother, the way I hope my children will someday talk about me, I felt a kindred spirit in her. He said she began writing when he and his twin brother started kindergarten. I nodded. I understood. That's my position now as a mother with her youngest in kindergarten. Twenty-five years ago, Barbara was as I am today, a stay-at-home mom trying to find her stride as a writer.
Then as the dining room grew rowdier, and my wine glass seemed to refill itself, Jeremy said something that made my breath catch. He said that he and his twin were born on December 14th, a great relief to his mother. Her own mother had died, when Barbara was just eight, on December 13th and she did not want to give birth on that date.
December 13th? The day my father died 23 years ago, when I was still a teenager? The day that comes each year like a slow stab? Suddenly I felt a connection, as real as loss, to someone I had never met.
I emailed Jeremy after the party and asked if I could interview his mother for a feature article, a profile of a writer who with diligence and grit wrote her way from stay-at-home Mom to bestselling author with staying power. I am a writer. I've published profiles. But this felt more personal, a little embarrassing. As much as I wanted to write a profile of this author I admired, I really wanted to meet the woman who shared my saddest day
Jeremy put us in touch by email. Barbara was kind and professional but also slightly rushed -- on deadline for her next novel before her massive book tour. But, yes, she would give me an interview.
We arranged to meet for lunch on a Thursday afternoon in a Turkish café in Wellesley, Massachusetts. I arrived ten minutes early and set up my little tape player, spare microcassettes, notebook, pens, sheets of questions. As I waited, I touched and rearranged things. I felt like my daughter on her first day of kindergarten, checking and rechecking her Hello Kitty pencil case.
On time to the minute, Barbara Delinsky walked in the door. I recognized her from her book jacket photos even before she whipped off her large dark glasses. She is petite with a snappy gait and luminous hazel eyes. She wore an elegant black blazer and a silver necklace that drew my gaze to its intricacies. We shook hands, held eyes in an extended greeting, then ordered at the counter where she chatted with the owner. She rhapsodized to me about the salads, told me she's a regular and after too many years of cooking for her family, now cheerfully professes her disdain for it. On the way back to our table, we ran into a woman from her book group whom Barbara introduced with the grace of a hostess who wants everyone to like each other.
Then we sat down, and Barbara talked about her career that has spanned nearly three decades but started by fluke when, at 34, she read an article in the newspaper about three women writers. She never knew a writer or wanted to be one, but as a stay-at-home mom in need of a job, she saw that article and decided to give it a try. So, while her children played around the house, Barbara scribbled out a novel on a pad of paper. At night she typed up the day's work on her college typewriter and within three months, she'd sold her first book, a romance for $2,500. She went on to say she couldn't claim the identity of writer until she'd published about seven more books.
We talked on about her long, dedicated days of writing, but how it's so different now from those early years when her three children were her job and writing was a side gig, a way to make money. Now she is able to write by her own rules and shoot for the bestseller lists. She has set up her life the way she likes it. Her time. Her space.
It's taken me years to say I am a really good writer and a really good mother," she offered, but then backtracked saying, "I shouldn't say that. I'm a really competent writer." I shook my head in disagreement. Competence, I thought, doesn't get anyone on the New York Times bestseller list, not seventeen times.
It took me until my salad was finished to ask Barbara about her mother's death and how it impacted her life as a writer. She said, "It made me very self sufficient. I realized I was the master of my own fate. And I think it was that feeling that allowed me to look at that newspaper article about women writers and say I'm going to try this."
When I drew a breath and told her that we shared December 13th, she was astounded at the connection. She asked how my father died. "Cancer," I said. We talked briefly about what it was like to lose our parents so young, and Barbara discussed her own experience as a breast cancer survivor. I'm not exactly sure what I thought would happen next. Did I think that we'd fall into each other's arms in tears of unity and understanding over our deceased parents? Not really, but maybe. Instead we sat with the moment that I had secretly been waiting for. Then we continued chatting, and I felt like I was in a movie about an alien on earth who desperately tries to find and connect with another alien from her same planet. In this case, planet December 13th. But Barbara didn't reveal herself to be an alien, just respectful, compassionate, professional. And all I could think was, Barbara Delinksky does not need me, but maybe, just maybe, by writing a really fantastic profile, I can make her need me.
After two and a half fast hours, we ended on the connection of how we both began our careers by writing out stories in longhand. I was in college and she, that young mother. Then came computers. "My first one cost 6000 dollars," she said, laughing. "It was an investment in my career. The printer was another 3000." I joked about how as college students we were always losing our papers on those old systems. That the excuse the computer ate it was actually valid back then.
I should have touched wood when I said it.
The next day I went to transcribe the interview. I got through the first tape and switched to the second. I was listening and typing when suddenly I wasn't listening anymore. I looked at the recorder, pressed rewind then play. Nothing. Fast forward and play. Nothing. I pulled out the tape. It had broken midway through Barbara's words.
I tried to fuse the ends together with sewing needle and scotch tape. I kept poking the needle into a tiny slot in the plastic, but it was like trying to do brain surgery by going in through the nostrils. I decided I would have to pop the top, tape the ends and transfer it all to another cassette. Hadn't I done this once in college when I absolutely had to hear Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody?
What happened next is a testimony to the underestimated properties of microcassette tape. The top came off with a hard plastic snap and in that same instant, the tape took off running, unspooling at my feet, onto my office floor, around my roller chair. When I tried catching it in my hands, it tangled into a brown crinkly ball. When I couldn't find the broken end, I resorted to stretching the entire thing in a half-dozen eight-foot rows across my office floor.
At some point my husband and two children came home. They stood on the threshold of my office riveted by my performance of Tapemania. I looked at my husband. "Please leave." I said. But he knew what I really meant: Leave this goddamn instant and take the kids, or I'll either divorce your ass or string you from the ceiling with this blasted microcassette tape, Honey.
Alone again, I faced the even grimmer reality of fusing the ends of the tape and re-spooling it. Three more hours. My precious writing day. Gone.
Even worse, I lost chunks of the interview, some of my favorite pieces. I listened to the whole thing, straining my ears, salvaging what I could. When I came upon whole stretches that sounded like the adults on Peanuts cartoons (wah wah wah), I felt sick.
I phoned my best friend, also a writer. "It's okay," she told me. "This author isn't waiting around for you to write the perfect article. She doesn't need you to do this the way you want to do it. That's your pressure."
My friend was right.
Having interviewed Barbara, I think what she probably needs is more writing hours before the gale force of her upcoming publicity tour. She needs magazines like O and Ladies Home Journal to feature her for the extra sales boost that will jettison her to all the bestseller lists. She needs time for her full life away from the computer.
Does she need me? No. She's doing just fine.
But does she have me? Well, yes. She has one more person applauding her -- a woman who responded to early adversity by writing her way to mind-blowing success. She has another person who admires a mother who fashioned her career around raising her children and let neither get in the way of the other. And, maybe, not least of all, Barbara Delinsky has someone else for whom December 13th is not just another day in a harried month of holiday madness. It is a day as achingly sad as it is sacred, the kind of day that would leave an eight year old or a teenager or even a bestselling author, needing people.