Hello Laura! How are you?
All over the place! I’m currently beginning testing to qualify as a liver transplant recipient due to my rare auto-immune bile duct / liver disease (PSC) which has made my liver a big cirrhotic mess akin to that of Bukowski or Hemingway. My days are marked by huge ups and downs as the pendulum swings between hope and despair, energy and fatigue. I constantly have to fight the medical system to keep the ball moving and it is frustrating and exhausting, especially as I get sicker. Thank God I have my creative projects, my friends, and my family. They save me.
I just published my third book two days ago, entitled MY GRAPE VILLAGE. It’s the sequel to my first book, MY GRAPE ESCAPE about how I ran away from a legal career in London to the vineyards of France. MY GRAPE VILLAGE took me eleven months to write and publish, and finishing a creative project like this gives me such satisfaction, not to mention an emotional high that lasts a long time.
What are you working on these days?
Two months ago I published PHILOSOPHY OF PRESCHOOLERS (on Amazon.com, like all my books), which is not, actually, for preschoolers at all but for adults who need a break from being grown-up. It’s like a variety chocolate box of hilarious conversations with preschoolers that hopefully make readers take life a little less seriously.
I am feverishly working with my graphic designer and formatter to get the paperback version of MY GRAPE VILLAGE out in the next two weeks. I will be presenting (liver permitting!) a workshop on self-publishing and am also a keynote speaker at the wonderful SIWC writers’ conference in two weeks so I need to prepare that too. In the meantime I have begun writing my next two books: 1) a paranormal romance I started over ten years ago (during the decade when I never finished a single story I started), and b) MY GRAPE YEAR, the prequel to MY GRAPE ESCAPE.
I also just did my second painting workshop put on by my friend Laura Harris in Metchosin, which was pure soul medicine. Thanks to her, I always have several abstract or floral paintings on the go now in my garage. I have started making a lot of driftwood / beach glass mobiles from stuff I beachcomb down at McNeil Bay near my house. When I’m having a bad day, I go beachcombing for an hour or so and it always reboots my spirit.
You spend half your time in France, what is it that you do there?
We lived in Burgundy, France, for five years, from 2004-2009. During those years we built up a network of four vacation rentals in the vineyards (as well as a 13th century wine cellar). Since then we have gone back every summer to our home in my husband’s village. This was the first summer that I couldn’t go back because my liver / bile ducts were too dodgy to travel. I missed it so much. When we’re there we hang out with friends and family (there are always tons of kids around), have long, very late meals on our deck which overlooks the village and the valley, drink lots of delicious local wine (sadly, not for me anymore), visit chateaux from time to time, go the market, linger in cafés, buy daily baguettes, croissants, and pain au chocolats from our friend who is also the best baker on the planet. Our life there is unabashedly built around maximizing pleasure.
When we met you spoke about the decision to self publish your first book, My Grape Escape, can you tell me what influenced that decision?
As far as deciding to self-publish, it was a choice of honesty more than anything else for me. I pitched MY GRAPE ESCAPE to several agents at SIWC two years ago. I had five full manuscript requests but most of the agents said that while they loved the story they wanted me to cut out the parts about my struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. They felt that it would be out of place in a memoir about France. This just didn’t sit well with me. I also felt that this opinion was condescending to the many readers of the memoir travel genre – I felt they could hack the truth.
Also, I donate 10% of my royalties of all my books to an association, PSC Partners, that does amazing advocacy and research for my underfunded liver disease. My built-in “give back” mechanism fit better with self-publishing than traditional publishing. So far self-publishing has been wonderful to me, although I am a firm believer that there is ample room for both traditional and self-publishing in the industry –I’m just thrilled that writers have so many more options now than they did ten years ago.
How often today, do you deal with anxiety?
I would say daily, although it’s much improved by my twenty-minute-a-day meditation practice and a Cipralex tablet. Yes I will unashamedly take that pharmaceutical crutch, thank you very much! As a friend who struggles with depression said to me once, “I just need a little serotonin supplement every day.”
Right now I am of course waiting to hear what people think of MY GRAPE VILLAGE. Do they hate it? Is it terrible? Of course those thoughts run through my head, especially in the days after releasing a book to the world. But even if everyone mocked me for my lamentable writing, I would still be glad that I embarked on a creative project, enjoyed working on it, and finished it. I always come back to that.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face? How have you faced it?
Without a doubt this health crisis I am living right now. Uncertainty has always triggered my anxiety (um…can you say recovering control freak?) and I have literally been swimming in a sea of uncertainty since I was diagnosed in May 2012. This experience so effectively and completely targets my mental Achilles heel that I feel an onus to learn from it.
I’ve faced this challenge by divesting myself and my life of anything inauthentic, whether it be people or how I spend my time or the projects I spend my energy on.
What are you grateful for?
I’m thankful for my amazing family, my girlfriends, the PSC community, and last but not least, my writing. Writing has been one of my main lifelines. The day after I was diagnosed I woke up feeling as though I had a lead blanket of despair over me. I could barely get out of bed. I staggered downstairs and without knowing really what I was doing, plunked myself down in front of my laptop. There was a little pad of post-its beside my computer mouse. I tore one off and scribbled on it “FUCK YOU. I’M NOT DEAD YET!” and stuck it to my computer keyboard.
I’m not sure if I was addressing the universe or my disease or fate but in any case I opened up a new Word document and started writing MY GRAPE ESCAPE. Every time I felt like giving up (often) I would go back to my computer, read that post-it, and keep writing. Creating something, I discovered, was a powerful life-affirming act. It was my way of giving the middle finger to my disease and choosing life, again and again.
What feels unfair?
When I see all the healthy people around me sometimes I get really bitter that I have been dealt this set of cards. There is nothing pretty in this emotion – it is jealousy and anger and a bit of hate all swirled together – but there it is. I am trying to practice accepting it, not judging it, and letting it pass.
Can you remember a time you felt discouraged, how did you keep going?
I feel discouraged on a regular basis, especially when dealing with my health and the medical system! There have been days I have spent curled up in a fetal position, sobbing. At times the burden feels that heavy. But I have begun to trust that my second wind, grace, or whatever you want to call it will kick in eventually. So far it always has.
I feel discouraged on a regular basis with my writing (here’s a newsflash – the huge majority of writers do) – that it sucks, that I have so much work still to do before finishing my current book, that no-one will buy it…
I remind myself that even if everyone hated my writing and even if I never earned a cent from it I would still want and need to write. That makes the decision quite simple. Writing is simply who I am and how I interact with the world.
What does having “True Grit” mean to you?
It means finding that paradoxical balance between defiance and acceptance. There is a Winston Churchill quote that goes, “When you’re going through Hell, keep going.” That to me is True Grit. There is always a treasure on the other side.
Also, to me true grit is trying to make something beautiful out of our suffering, or at least using it to connect with others to let them know that they are not alone in their suffering. There is a quote from Victor Hugo that I love, “Whatever causes night in our souls can leave stars.” I believe that.
What are you afraid of?
Not much. I used to be plagued by so many weird and random fears before– flying in airplanes, elevators, walking in the dark, going crazy…all of those simply vanished the moment I was diagnosed, or as I said to a friend once, “when shit got real.”
I often go to our cabin on Shawnigan Lake to get writing done. During the winter it can be very isolated up there. A friend asked me recently if I wasn’t terrified being alone. The thought honestly never crosses my mind.
My main remaining fear now is death, especially dying while my children still need me. I have had to sit through many brutal doctors’ appointments during which the specialists outline for me the many ways my disease could kill me leading up to, during, or after a liver transplant. This fear continues to be responsible for numerous long, dark nights of the soul. Those are not necessarily all bad, I’m realizing more and more, even though they are wretched. They take me places that lead to life-changing discoveries.
That’s the ironic thing about facing death; there is no better crash course in learning how to live.
What makes you smile?
My daughters. Getting an email or message from a reader saying my book(s) made them smile, laugh, or think. Consignment stores. My husband’s French accent. Good coffee. Crystals. Frye boots. Dark chocolate. Mermaids. Star Wars geek stuff (the original Star Wars trilogy, of course). My girlfriends. The ocean. Finding a huge chunk of turquoise beach glass…
How do you try to embrace life today?
Walking with friends, writing, painting, daydreaming, contemplating the ocean, and spending time with Franck and our girls. Feeling gratitude for the fact that even if my liver is limping along, I can still get up and do these things. Every day I am around to parent my girls, create something, and enjoy the small pleasures of an ordinary day is pretty much a good day.
What are some fears you had years ago that seems insignificant now?
Facing my PSC made my previous fear over being a failed writer disappear. I can fight it all I want, but I have made peace with the fact that, for better or for worse, I am a writer. I need to write like I need to breathe.
For ten years I wrote but was incapable of finishing anything. When you finish something, then people can judge you, right? Now, even though I love to hear that I have been able to communicate something with my writing, deep down I don’t care about people’s judgments. “Done is better than perfect” is my new motto.
I discovered there is something far scarier than failing as a
writer. It is the thought of dying with my words still inside me.
Who inspires you?
I have so many inspiring people around me. There’s my husband Franck who has taken up trail running with passion and is training for a 50 mile race (unthinkable for me). He loves it when it is rainy and muddy and brutal. I find that sort of gritty pleasure in difficulty inspiring. It makes me appreciate finding myself lost and stuck in the middle of a manuscript, wanting to abandon the whole mess, but hanging on and persisting anyway.
There are my two sisters Suzanne and Jayne who are doing great things in downtown Victoria from a real estate perspective to make the city more intriguing and livable for Victorians. They have such creative vision, as well as the ability to execute projects like Fort Common, the Fort and Blanshard food hub, etc. with intelligence and style.
My girlfriends are doing incredible things. Pam Lewis has the gift of bringing amazing people together and getting to the heart of the matter, my friend Lara Tomaszewska recently started an art consulting company, Openwork, and my pal Daisy created the much beloved Root Cellar with her husband Adam. I admire my dear friend Andrea for being such a committed and amazing mother, Nicole Smith who has created the gorgeous company Flytographer, Laura Harris who is an ongoing inspiration in her commitment to living a creative life, you Sara with your raw, beautiful photography…I feel like there is a synchronicity in the universe right now. I am having so many inspiring people jettisoned in my path.
Also, I have had people tell me they would like to be evaluated to give me part of their liver if I get to that stage in the transplant process. This always moves me to tears. I find myself robbed of words because I am so inspired by their generosity and selflessness. I am convinced that amazing people are doing amazing things around us all the time. Heros are not that hard to find.
What have you learned about yourself as you’ve matured?
As far as learning about myself, I’ve so often in the past pushed myself to be social and outgoing, especially in work situations, but what I’ve learned about myself is that at my core I am an introvert. Sitting through meetings with people and having to interact all day long with them is unbelievably depleting for me. I need a lot of time alone to daydream, create, and be in my own head.
What is something that people don’t know about you?
During University I worked as a Custom’s officer in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Part of the training was learning how to unload and secure pretty much any type of firearm that exists. Pass me a mother-of-pearl berretta, a Magnum 357, or an Uzi and I can unload it and secure it for you in record time.
The first moment I met each of my three daughters – those seconds are forever engraved on my heart.
Also, the morning after Franck and I first met and got together I went to his house in Villers-la-Faye with a group of friends so we could all go out for a café. I was only eighteen and so unsure of how to act. Would he ignore me? Pretend like we hadn’t spent most of the previous evening making out on the dance floor of the local discothèque? I had been with so many guys who loved playing those kind of mind games. Even though I had already pretty much fallen in love with Franck in an unbelievable coup de foudre I convinced myself to act aloof and like nothing had happened between us – I had my pride, after all.
My friend Sandrine and I walked into his parents courtyard. Franck was standing by the kitchen door talking to our friends and smoking a cigarette. My face flamed red with embarrassment. He came over, murmured bonjour and laid an unequivocal kiss on my lips before wrapping his arm firmly around my shoulder. No mind games, no uncertainty…that was one of the most romantic moments in my life.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who is feeling afraid or discouraged, what would you tell them?
That it is not human nature to feel happy and confident all the time. Fear, despair, envy…all of those things are part of our journeys. Accept those feelings as something that is normal and even try to love them. At the same time, you do not need to let them dictate your actions. Practice feeling and accepting fear and despair yet not allowing them to inform your decisions. Every time you do this, you practice an essential mental muscle.
A quote or mantra that keeps you going?
“Never, never, never give up.” Again Winston Churchill. It appeals to my very strong and wide stubborn streak, and the pleasure I take in tenacity.
What do you miss most about France?
My French friends. I love how in France you will ask a girlfriend at school pick-up how she is doing. Whereas in Canada most people would answer “Oh great! Wonderful!” my French friends would be more apt to say something like “Mon Dieu. Everything is horrible! I just had a fight with my mother-in-law that was so bad I felt like slitting my throat!” Or something to that effect. Their honesty is refreshing.
Also, long lazy summer evenings eating out on our deck that overlooks the village rooftops and vineyards beyond. All the amazing local wine our friends make and serve. The gooey, stinky, runny unpasteurized cheese. Fresh baguettes from our baker. The call of the coo-coo birds and the hum of the crickets. Going to our Saturday morning market with my wicker market basket. Sitting at our favorite café in Beaune sipping an espresso and watching the world go by, greeting friends as they pass and generally catching up on living entirely in the moment…Burgundy has a way of replenishing my soul like no other place, except maybe the beach here in Victoria. I need them both. I think that is one of my big motivators in writing my memoirs about France – they allow me to relive all those life-changing years in Burgundy.
Can you recommend a good wine?
Eh oui! That would have to be a Volnay or Pommard Premier Cru from our friend’s Marc-Olivier’s Domaine in the stunning village of Volnay (Domaine Buffet). Especially Le Clos e la Rougeotte that takes its cherry flavor from the ancient, gnarled, cheery tree that grows amongst those rows of grape vines. Sublime.