The City of Big Shoulders

Cloud_Gate_2That’s one of Chicago’s nicknames. Isn’t it great? For many years now, I’ve wanted to go to Chicago based on this name alone, and on Tuesday, Princess Daughter and I are doing just that. We’ll have a few days of sightseeing in the city proper before I go to the Chicago North Romance Writers conference.

I’ll tell you a secret…I always get a little anxious before a conference, though I’ve gone to quite a few now. I’ve given between six and ten keynote addresses, and I’ll be giving one Saturday night. But that’s not what makes me nervous. It’s that walk from my hotel room to the meeting rooms or lobby. The walk where I wonder if people will like me. If I look okay. If I’ll be helpful and memorable. If I’ll fall on the way up to the microphone. If I’ll spill something down my front (those last two things being definite possibilities).

jillandkristanAt my very first writers conference, I didn’t know anyone. I made exactly one friend, but she’s a friend with staying power, I’m happy to say. At my next conference, I was afraid to say the words, “I’m published” because I didn’t feel like I could put myself in the same category as the real authors (some of whom are my friends now). The first time I went to a big book show, I emailed Jill Shalvis and told her I was hiding in my room because I was afraid to go down to the bar where the other writers were. I think this is when we really started to become friends, because she wrote back and said, “Ha! I’d be doing the exact same thing.”

But over the years, I’ve learned to do something—to act like the person I hope to be. I want to be outgoing and friendly and down-to-earth…I think I genuinely am those things, but when faced with a hotel full of people I’ve not yet met, it can be a little scary.

Once upon a time, when I was brand-spanking new at one of these conferences, I sat down at a table and, reminding myself to be outgoing and cheerful, introduced myself to the woman next to me. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Kristan Higgins, and my first book just came out.”

“Hi,” she said. “I just love your purse.” (It had a silkscreened picture of Clark Gable on it.) “I’m Linda Miller.”

cowboyAs in, Linda Lael Miller. The number one New York Times bestselling author, who proceeded to tell me that she spent her first advance fixing a crack in her windshield. We both love horses (and cowboys). She urged me to visit Washington State. That weekend, Linda was being honored with the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award that weekend. We talked for a good hour, LLM and I.

“Thank you for being so nice to me,” I said when I was leaving. “I was scared I wouldn’t have anyone to talk to.”

“Oh, honey,” she said. “I felt exactly the same way.” That wasn’t true, I imagine, but heck, it was awfully nice of her to say.

So I guess the moral of the story, if there is one, is pretend you have big shoulders, and you just might find you do. The old fake it till you make it. It beats hiding in a hotel room.

And thanks, Linda Lael Miller. I’ll never forget how a big-time author had time to talk to a newbie.

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Dearest Son and I share a love of storytelling. When he was seven, he wrote his first book: The Secrets of Zorth. DS used to tell me a story in the car when he was tiny…it was a horror story featuring a villain named Dinkadakadore, an old woman who was also a man and was in jail for biting people. I still get the willies thinking about it. He still writes, but he’s more private about it, which I completely understand.

Tony-Stark-tony-stark-25778334-1799-745We usually love the same movies—Iron Man, The Secret Life of Walter Middy, Napoleon Dynamite. We talk about why Tony Stark is the coolest Avenger, and why we’re bored by perfect heroes. He tolerates my crush on Robert Downey Jr. and was pleased when I fell for Tom Hiddleston, who has always been his favorite bad-guy as Loki.

And we both love the medium of TV. Not a lot of writers admit they love TV. I do. Because we are old-fashioned, our kids aren’t allowed to watch TV on a school night, but I broke walkingdeadthis year and let Dearest Son watch The Walking Dead with me on Sunday nights. After all, he’s an honor student. He still says he loves me. He has been known to tolerate a kiss in public. So I let him, and we bonded over our horror and shock and irritation with various elements of the show. I would occasionally post one of his comments as a tweet, and he’d be quite pleased if people retweeted it. These days, I’m watching Lost, which he watched last summer, and we have some great conversations about the characters.

UnknownTo be honest, I generally don’t love zombies. I don’t like adventure shows. But I do like hearing my teenage son talk to me about moral choices and plot twists, foreshadowing and character arc. And I’ll admit. I like sitting next to him on the couch, when occasionally, if a scary moment is coming up and he knows I’m going to be scared, he’ll put his hand on my knee and tell me it will be okay. My little guy, looking out for me.

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Getting the call

NYTThanks to you, my wonderful, faithful, excellent readers, WAITING ON YOU hit the New York Times and USA TODAY bestseller lists.

Sometimes people have asked me what that’s like, so I figured I’d share.

My editor called me Wednesday afternoon to tell me the great news. One of my very best friends in the world was visiting; we only get to see each other every year or so, and she’d brought her three kids, who’ve known mine since birth. So Catherine and I were drinking coffee, my editor called. “Hey, Kristan, it’s Susan! I have great news about WAITING ON YOU!”

DSCN4960Right at that moment, I happened to glance out the window. The five kids were carrying a deer skeleton into our yard. “Oh…uh, that’s great,” I told my editor. “Uh, is everyone there happy?” I was thinking What the sweet heck have they got now?

“Everyone’s thrilled,” she said. “Congratulations! It’s been so great working with you on this book.” (My editor is extraordinarily nice.)

“Yeah. Um…” Oh, Lord, they’re touching it. Is that a…spinal cord? Where’s the Purell? Snap out of it, Higgins, your editor is on the phone! “Well, tell everyone there thank you so much. I’m really happy.”

Then my son burst in, thrilled with the find and eager for this momentous occasion to be photographed (the deer carcass, not boring old mother being on the Times list).

So my friend congratulated me, and we took pictures of the kids and then sent them with their discovery to my mom’s house across the way.

McIrish had to work that night, so he gave me a smooch, told me I’d done a great job with the lists (though in reality, it was you, dear readers, who did and are doing a great job).

wineAnd so, the kids stuffed from snacking all afternoon with their friends, and my friend and her kids on the way back, I poured myself a glass of wine and ate leftover Brussels sprouts (my favorite!) and mashed potatoes. Thought of how proud my father would be, had he lived to see me become an author. Raised my glass to him. Then watched Lost on Netflix. Went to bed around 10:30. So it was kind of an ordinary night, all told.

But the surreal thrill that so many of you like my books…that’s quite extraordinary, and that’s something I’ll never take for granted, and I thank you with all my heart.

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pop-popThis is my Pop-Pop, Kyle Higgins. He was one of the most wonderful men in the whole wide world, gang. I kid you not. He was my dad’s stepfather, something I didn’t know until I was 10 years old…my father called him “Dad” or “Pop,” and Kyle always called my father his son.

He adopted my father when he and my grandmother got married. My dad was eleven at the time, and changed his name to Higgins. Pop-Pop sent my father to boarding school—to his own alma mater, in fact—and to college.

When my dad was 19, Pop-Pop introduced him to a cute girl who worked with him at Saks Fifth Avenue, where my grandfather was a salesman. My father said, “Dad, I don’t need your help finding girls.” This was very true; my dad was wicked handsome.

abc3fea07cc0d870dc9198e4cbd689c2But Pop-Pop insisted, and when my father finally appeared, unshaven and looking like a young Elvis Presley, and Pop-Pop dragged him into the men’s room and made him shave and tuck in his shirt before he would introduce him to the girl he called Krissy…short for Kristan, her last name. My parents went to see Ben-Hur that Friday night, and the next day, Mom went shopping for a wedding dress. They got engaged on Christmas Eve and married when they were 21. Pop-Pop knew what he was doing.

What I remember most about my grandfather is that he always smiled. Smiley Kylie, we called him. I was quite thrilled to have the same initials as he did. He called me Cricket and was always good for a piggy back ride or an extra dessert. He had a convertible, and he let us sit in the garage and push the button so the roof of the car would up and down, up and down. Sometimes he’d take us for a ride in it, and buy us an ice cream cone.

Baby-RaccoonsHe had a way with animals; he tamed a raccoon and named it Bandit, and when she had kits, she brought those babies down from the big tree and put them all in a row by the back steps so Pop-Pop could see them. Squirrels would take peanuts from his hands, and dogs and cats loved him.

Kyle served in the South Pacific in World War II as a decoder of some kind. He never spoke about that. I didn’t even know it till after his death.

He had a heart attack when I was 18. I was about to leave to be a nanny in Maine for the summer, and I drove to the hospital to see him. He was on the mend, but he had an oxygen mask over his mouth and was having trouble speaking. He kept gesturing to the nurse until she gave him a notebook and pen. “My granddaughter,” he wrote in wobbly letters, and he underlined the words.

He died the next week.

brushOn my bureau, I have Pop-Pop’s silver hair brush, engraved with his initials. I hope he knows how grateful I am to have had him, this perfect grandfather, a man who never raised his voice, who loved his son and his son’s children’s without reservation, who snuggled and told stories and talked to the animals.

We should all be so lucky.

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On the lam

birdThis week, I exhibited one of my greatest life skills: dodging the dentist. Don’t judge me. I don’t have a lot of fears in life—I love heights, don’t mind spiders, think snakes are beautiful. I’m not a nervous flyer. I like meeting new people and think small spaces are cozy. In fact, I can only think of two things I’m really scared of—hummingbirds, and the dentist.

Because I like having teeth, however, especially strong, healthy teeth that excel at chewing things, I floss every day. I brush thoroughly. And yes, I get my teeth cleaned. But here’s how it goes:

Liz from Dr. C.’s office: “Hi, Kristan! It’s Liz from Dr. C.’s office. I’m really sorry, I know you hate this time of year, but—”

steve-martin-dental-drillI hang up.

She calls back. I let the machine get it.

Around her fourth or fifth attempt, she usually gets one of my faithless children. Phone messages are not a particular strength of theirs. Nor is lying.

Faithless Child: “Mommy? Phone’s for you.”

Me: “Who is it?”

Faithless Child: “I don’t know.” They then hand the phone to me, and I once again hear the cheerful voice of Liz.

“Got you!” she says.

“Damn. Fine. I’ll do it. But I hate it, and I resent you being so good at your job.”

Liz: “I know. You’re—” (there’s a small snort)— “very brave.”

So we make an appointment. Which I then cancel.

This year, just to change it up a bit, I had McIrish cancel it. To my credit, I had a cold and didn’t relish the thought of Dr. C. stuffing tools, his hands and the occasional tennis ball in my mouth whilst I tried to breathe. (I may be wrong about the tennis ball, but that’s what it feels like, and I usually have my eyes shut tight.)

Body-and-Mind-Dentistry-treatment-detailsLiz, who’s as persistent as a Saint Bernard sniffing out avalanche victims, calls back, and eventually, worn down by her relentless niceness, I go in. Grumbling. Clenched. I have my iPod on high, they give me nitrous oxide, I try to picture myself in a happy place, and nothing works.

Dr. C. extols the benefits of valium. I don’t answer, because I’m pretending he’s not there (though once, I bit him. He was asking for it, let me assure you). They give me the fastest dental hygienist in the East. I leave fingernail marks in the armrests. I swear, when I leave, sweaty and shiny-toothed, they all go out for a drink.

Patient of the year, I am not.

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Cooking disasters I have known

kitchenOne of my favorite scenes in WAITING ON YOU is when Colleen cooks dinner for her first love. She wants to impress him, of course, and she thinks—as I do—that if you can read, you can cook. Also, she doesn’t want to give her twin brother, who is a chef, the satisfaction of acknowledging that what he does takes talent. The result of Colleen’s culinary endeavor is…well, let’s say it’s not exactly what she had in mind.

Which brings us to my own cooking disasters, and the cooking disasters of some of my loved ones.

2010-06-09-disaster_chickenRoast Chicken: You’re supposed to thaw the chicken. (Where is that in the instructions, huh?) Also, they hide a little package of internal organs inside the chicken. Who knew? My smoke detector, that’s who.

Pot Roast, Mother-in-Law’s recipe: I don’t know if this was deliberate or not, but I’ve never had food poisoning before or since. Was it perhaps a warning to me that I’d better produce some grandchildren, or otherwise I was just taking up space? Maybe.

beefstewBeef stew, Mom’s recipe: Braise some poor quality beef. Add half a can of Budweiser. Drink the other half. Toss in some carrots. Serve to children. Go out to dinner with husband.

Pancakes, McIrish’s Version. Let’s just say that one of the few things I make better than McIrish are pancakes, and this is intolerable to the lad. So he decided to one-up me in the pancake division. Except he used powdered sugar instead of flour. Ha! Take that, McIrish! I’m still the winner!

Jelly Roll, Auntie’s recipe: You know how you roll the cake in a dishcloth? You’re supposed to take the dishcloth out before you put it in the oven. Live and learn.

oedipus[1]Chicken Burritos: Once you slice those jalapenos, don’t rub your eyes. Trust me on this.

Don’t forget that a portion of preorders and first week sales of WAITING ON YOU will benefit Fisher House Foundation, which provides a home away from home for military families while a loved one is in the hospital. AND…my publisher will match my donation. How wonderful is that?

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Where We Live

houseOne of the things I love to think about when writing a book is where my characters live. Not just their town—which is also fun—but their house or apartment. In WAITING ON YOU, Colleen shares a two-family Victorian with her twin brother, Connor. She has the upstairs apartment. There’s a little deck in the back, and when she’s out there, she can see the backyards of the people who live on the next street, including her best friend’s house.

livingroomColleen’s apartment is cheerful and cluttered and colorful. It’s filled with pictures of her family and friends—her little sister and her dog, her brother, her best friend on her wedding day. There are scented candles and cozy throws. I pictured it as never quite picked up. I’m quite sure her closet bursts with clothes, and her makeup basket is filled with every product known to mankind, because Colleen is that kind of woman. (I am too, for the record).

kitchenColleen’s kitchen doesn’t see much cooking action, except for one notable scene. She owns a restaurant, after all…why cook at home when your twin is a chef?

One of my favorite parts of Colleen’s house is the laundry shoot that goes from her apartment to Connor’s. The twins yell at each other through it, and Colleen drops a wet towel on her brother’s head. Someday, we’ll probably see Connor’s apartment in more detail. : )

lucaskitchenIn contrast, Lucas’s place is sleek and immaculate and stylish and…a little sterile. A typical single man’s place in the city. Upscale but lacking that hominess, which of course says a lot. Most important is his desk, where he spends a lot of time working. A couple of photos of his nieces, and that’s it for personal touches. Still, it’s top-notch and quite beautiful.

bungalowRecently, I said to Princess Daughter that I had a fantasy. That someday, I’d live in a house because of the house itself. A cute Arts & Crafts bungalow, maybe, or a tiny Victorian. Maybe a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie style house. “You should, Mommy,” she said. “We could live there together.” Sweet, especially considering her advanced age of eighteen. Because already she knows, it’s family that makes a home.

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In love with love

hitchThe movie Hitch is one of my all-time favorites. I also loved Clueless. And Emma, book and movie version. So I guess it’s not a surprise that I wanted to write a matchmaking heroine who feels that she herself is a little above the fray.

Colleen O’Rourke, the heroine of Waiting On You, is an expert on all things male. She’s the town flirt, determinedly single, and, as the back cover says, in love with love…except when it comes to herself. Now this was never me, gang. I wanted to get married and have kids ever since I could remember. But Colleen and I do have something in common, and that’s our desire to see the world happily paired up.

Colleen is quite good at this. Me…not so much. But far, far worse is…(insert music from Jaws)…my mother.

gypsyOh, yes. Despite the fact that Mom practically spits on people (me included) who suggest she could possibly date, she hates a vacuum. The woman fancies herself very good at matchmaking. She refers to her “gypsy instincts,” which she uses to guess baby genders, World Series victories and basically anything good that ever happened to anyone. “I had a feeling that would happen,” she says smugly after someone wins a prize, gets a job, finds love.

But honestly, Mom has had zero luck as a matchmaker. One time, she met a woman on the train platform at 125th Street in Harlem, and within seconds, she knew, she just knew, this woman would be perfect for my beloved and very handsome brother-in-law. Barry was game. He called the woman. Met her. Found out that she was 15 years his senior and desperate for children, as the clock was not only ticking but now screaming. Barry left the date pale and sweaty and much, much more informed on fertility issues than he had been an hour before.

Mom fixed up her niece with a guy who came into my cousin’s house, took off his socks and shoes and put his feet on her lap. “They smell gross, don’t they?” he asked. It took some time before my cousin spoke to Mom again.

stevenThere was the time Mom met a guy at a bar and decided he would be perfect for her friend. Turned out her friend didn’t want to date a guy who was…you know…connected. To the Mob.

Another time, Mom fixed up her baby brother with her friend’s daughter. The woman entertained my uncle by speaking pig Latin all night. Shockingly, the relationship didn’t progress.

When I told my mom I was writing this blog, we wheezed with laughter. “Thankless boors,” she said. “All of them are still single and miserable, by the way.” Except the niece. And the friend. My brother-in-law and uncle are still single, but very happy, for the record. Maybe we can call Colleen in for a consultation.

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Wanna bet?

Tina-Fey-giving-herself-high-fiveOne day last year, McIrish and I, Princess Daughter and Dearest Son went to the grocery store together. Just on whim, I said to Princess, “I’ll give you a hundred bucks if you do a cartwheel right now.” Because I knew she wouldn’t. First of all, it would be a physical activity, and she tries to avoid those at all costs. Secondly, she was in a dignified mood, stoically tolerating her provincial family.

Much to my shock and awe, she did one immediately. “I win!” she crowed, then cantered off to lord her newfound wealth over her brother. He immediately ran back to me. “I’ll do a cartwheel, too,” he offered, but I was now broke and wiser.

brideofSo for the past year, he’s been bugging me to offer him a dare like Princess’s cartwheel. When we were in St. John recently, we saw a wedding party. “I’ll give you a hundred bucks to go up to that bride and tell her how beautiful she is,” I said.

“No way,” he said. “But I’ll do a cartwheel.”

“Please,” I answered. “That’s so last year. I’ll up it to $500 if you go up to the bride, say what I just told you and add that you can only hope to be so lucky as her groom someday.”

He groaned and stomped back to the ferry. (For the record, I knew he would never take that bet, so my bank account didn’t even blink.)

Then, Friday night, the four of us were out for the dreaded/beloved Family Fun Night, getting ice cream before our movie. “I’ll give you a hundred bucks,” I said, “if you tell that cute girl behind the counter that you have the best and most beautiful sister in the whole world.”

“Don’t,” Princess hissed. “Don’t embarrass me! Don’t say it!”

So now, not only was there the challenge of talking to a very cute teenage girl roughly his own age, but the added death threats emenating from his sister.

“I’m not going to make this offer again,” I said.

He went up to the counter.

“Can I help you?” asked Cute Teenage Girl.

ilove“Like my sister,” he said with a grand sweep of his arm to indicate Princess, “who is not only the best sister, but the most beautiful sister in the world, I’ll have a chocolate milkshake.”

“Aw!” said the girl.

I high-fived my son. Princess muttered darkly and sucked on her straw, glaring at her brother with the Slitty Eyes of Death.

“Why do you torture the kids like this?” McIrish asked.

“Because it’s fun,” I answered.

And it is. It really is.

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Dear Mom

So my mom walked over to my house today. As usual, she was both happy and harried. It’s her resting state. “My car won’t start,” she said. “Can I borrow yours?”

“Sure,” I said.

social grooming“Grammy, you have burrs in your hair,” the Princess pointed out, removing them one by one, like a little gorilla picking fleas off an elder.

“I know,” Mom said. I think she was enjoying the social grooming.

“How did you get burrs in your hair, Mom?” I asked. I know her well enough not to ask why she hadn’t combed them out—as I said, harried and happy. She was no doubt on an urgent mission and hadn’t yet had time to address the fauna in her hair.

She gave me a tolerant look. “I was walking because my car wouldn’t start. I just told you that.”

BULGARIA-WEATHER-SNOW-20120130-134010I pictured it, her Subaru broken down somewhere, my beloved 70-something year old mom, wandering through the wilderness, lost, struggling through the snow in her bright blue coat, fending off coyotes. “Poor Mom! Where did you break down?”

“I didn’t. I just told you, the car won’t start.”

“So where is it?”

She gave me a puzzled look. “It’s in the garage, dummy.”

Her garage is attached to her house.

“I don’t understand,” I said, because I’m the logical one in this relationship. “Where did you pick up the burrs?”

“I had to go around the front of the house because I forgot to open the garage door, and there’s a bush that overhangs the walk, and it had burrs on it and I had to fight my way through it.”

“Why didn’t you walk around the bush?” I asked.

She paused. It was clear this option hadn’t occurred to her. “Are you going to blog about this?” she asked.

“Can I?”

Mommy-and-daughter“You never asked before.”

“I’m asking now.”

She laughed. “Sure,” she said. “Go ahead.”

Because Mom is nothing if not a good sport. Love you, Mom!

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