After several years of reading her columns and blogs, and several more of an email/Facebook/Twitter friendship, I am finally meeting Ericka Lutz. She and I share an uncanny affinity: We are Jewish feminist writer mothers of daughters; we are denizens of corresponding coastal liberal enclaves (she is Bay Area born and bred and now lives in Oakland; I'm from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and live next door in Arlington); we both dislike Paris, Christmas, narcissistic writers, and fey spirituality. This is a propitious moment, then: not only is it our chance to find out if our connection holds in real life, but Lutz is just a few weeks away from publishing her first novel, The Edge of Maybe, and I have been asked to profile her for Literary Mama.
Meeting someone in person for the first time is always fraught, especially in the Internet era, when it is too easy to feel like you know a whole person from the snippets you glimpse of them online. It is especially easy to feel that way about people who seem to disseminate their entire existence through the ether. Lutz is one of those people. She has written two columns for Literary Mama, Red Diaper Dharma and Solo, keeps two blogs, maintains two websites, and has hundreds of followers on Twitter and almost 1500 friends on Facebook.
Online, you can discover that Lutz is the granddaughter of feminist writer and icon Tillie Olsen, has published seven parenting books, numerous short stories and essays, is a well-regarded performer on Bay Area stages, and teaches writing at Berkeley's Haas School of Business. You can read about her struggles as a fourth-generation red diaper baby who strayed from the fold, not to become a Republican, but to immerse herself variously in punk rock, performance, writing, motherhood, and spirituality.
Lutz has written about having an abortion and letting her daughter drop out of school, renovating her bathroom and crate training her puppy. Three years ago, her Facebook friends and Twitter followers watched their computer screens in horror and painful sympathy as her husband, a beloved Berkeley professor, died in her arms in Madagascar after an illness of just a few hours. We then faithfully tracked her in the months that followed, as she negotiated the harrowing experience of sudden widowhood.
Recently, however, her online presence has shifted. While she still tells puppy stories, complains about doing her taxes, and shares her favorite meals, she now writes little about her 19-year-old daughter and even less about her current romantic interest, a shadowy figure referenced very occasionally on Twitter as the International Man of Mystery, or IMoM. Instead, Lutz is focused on the imminent release of her novel, organizing her writer and performer friends for a star-studded launch party, creating promo videos, and sharing interviews and reviews far and wide.
This morning, though, there is not a computer in sight, just Lutz's iPhone, on which IMoM is trying to Skype her from a mysterious faraway locale, and my Droid, which I keep close at hand in case my children try to reach me. When I arrive at Le Bateau Ivre, a Frenchish café and restaurant located in an old house on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, Lutz is sitting at a lone table on the patio. Yesterday was a perfect Bay Area day, sunny and 70, and I'd suggested that we meet somewhere we could sit outside. But I've forgotten that perfect Bay Area February days are generally preceded by slightly chilly February Bay Area mornings, and now it is one of those mornings. Still, Lutz has heeded my desire and persuaded the staff to set up one table and two chairs on the otherwise empty patio. As soon as she stands up to hug me, and we laugh and agree that in fact we have no interest in sitting outside, I know that our affinity will continue in real life.
Inside, we settle ourselves into a brick-lined room and order breakfast which Lutz promises will be mediocre and, indeed, it is -- no small irony, given the extravagant bounty of Bay Area food that pervades The Edge of Maybe. I tell her about my vacation, she tells me about IMoM, we talk about our children and parents. In person, the topics we polish to a sheen on Facebook appear in their unvarnished lumpiness. Soon, we turn to our official topic, The Edge of Maybe.
Lutz is over the moon about the publication of her first novel, with good reason. "I have been writing novels for half my life now, and not getting them published," she tells me. "I have been through every kind of wringer you can imagine. I had a novel that was on the desk of three top editors, and at the last moment the marketing department said no. I've had my heart broken. I have thought of myself as a total failure at this. I wrote a bunch of self-help parenting books because I knew they would pay me. I published short stories in literary magazines and essays in anthologies, but the holy grail of the novel felt like it would never happen."
And then it did. A friend started a publishing house and asked if she knew anyone who had a novel, she sent him her most-recent manuscript, and the rest is history.
She found out in an email, of course, but by that point Lutz had become so inured to disappointment that when she glanced at her inbox during a meeting and saw the publisher's name, she didn't even read the email. Two days later, she remembered it and thought she'd better take a look. Getting the news was every bit as stupendously fantastic as she'd dreamed it would be (my words, not hers, but I'm trying to capture the excitement with which she tells the story, even though she has obviously told it many times). "From that moment on," she says, "everything has been gravy, so I am just determined to enjoy the whole thing. If I cannot enjoy this moment, I don't deserve it, and I do deserve it."
Enjoying the moment has included insisting that the book have a matte cover (because "How many novels do you get to publish in this life? If you're very lucky, one. And I wanted it to have a matte cover."), building "my really cool book website, which I love" (check out the annotated Google map of the book's locations), creating "very fun homemade book trailers," and melting dark chocolate with almonds and dried apricots into "post-coital snacks" for people to take home after a Feast and Fiction event where she will read and cook food from the book. Lutz radiates enthusiasm and energy as she tells me she is "not doing anything I don't really want to do." This is her moment, and she is making it inimitably hers.
The Edge of Maybe is also inimitably hers, transmuting countless aspects of her own experience, from Bay Area freeways to the punk rock past to Northern California's hippie-dippy Harbin Hot Springs, into a new story. At first glance it seems as if the Glazers, the family at the novel's heart, must be doppelgangers for Lutz's own family, down to the only daughter with an exotic name and colloquial nickname -- it's impossible not to make at least a nominal parallel between Appolonia "Polly" Glazer and Lutz's Anaya, known as Annie. Even Annie, when she first read the book, wanted to know how much of it was based in truth. But when I ask Lutz about Kira Glazer, Polly's mother, it is immediately clear that The Edge of Maybe is not a roman à clef. "One way we differ," Lutz muses, "is that she's not someone who has any passion for anything creative, and she suffers because of it." Lutz has certainly suffered, but she is nothing if not passionately creative.
Adam Glazer's possible daughter from a long-ago weekend fling, Amber, whose literal arrival on the family's doorstep opens the novel, also bears no resemblance to Lutz's own life. An overweight, junk food-eating, meth-dealing mother of two, who turns out to be much smarter than her sullen silence and Kira's elitist suspicion initially suggest, Amber disrupts and transforms the Glazers' life, catalyzing Kira and Adam's fortysomething frustrations and Polly's teenage rebellion. But if Amber and Polly play important roles in the book, The Edge of Maybe is truly a novel of middle age. Kira and Adam must face what they have lost and who they have become, and move on as who they are.
Even more than vegan restaurants and yoga studios, this theme links Lutz to her novel. But if we leave Kira and Adam as they move out of crisis into hope, the author has far surpassed her characters. I tell Lutz that her life presents as a fiction-worthy arc: the years of unappreciated writing, the tragedy of her husband's death, the challenge of putting her life back together, and then the reward -- not only the publication of her novel, by a publisher that cherishes it as much as she does, but her unmitigated pleasure in her accomplishment. Rather than demurring or retreating into self-deprecation, like women tend to do, Lutz agrees. "Can we put in the Helen Reddy song? I am woman, hear me roar!" she jokes, but then she is serious: "You're catching me at a good time in life."
The gauzy visions of youthful ambition are long past, replaced by the tangible satisfactions of middle age: "I'm not going to be rich and famous as a writer. That was settled decades ago. I'm not going to be a young rising star in the literary world. Because I'm fifty-fucking-one. So it actually is a pleasure and a joy to be able to share the things I'm working on, that matter to me. That's a privilege."
"What's next?" I ask, as our morning draws to a close -- Lutz has to teach, and I have to return to my children. Expecting to hear about a new writing project, I'm surprised when she tells me she is going to start volunteering at the Oakland zoo, working with animals. But when I ask her why, she reaffirms this sense of middle-aged triumph: "Maybe this is just one of those midlife woman things. I kind of get to do whatever I want to do now."
I want to be like that, I think, as I walk Lutz to her car so we can squeeze out a few last minutes together. Lutz has almost five years and a few life steps on me: She has celebrated her fiftieth birthday, sent a daughter to college, and published a novel. I hope to do all those things in the next five years -- at least two of them are fairly inevitable -- but more than that, I want to be able to celebrate myself and my work with Lutz's sheer joy. We all should.