In a wildly unexpected and completely unpredictable turn of events, I fell madly in love, in Cologne. It was the sort of love that makes your heart pound. The sort of love that seeps into your arteries. The sort of love that leaves you smiling at nothing in particular.
It was May, 2006. I was happily married at the time, but that didn’t turn out to be a problem. My husband is a very reasonable man. And he has always believed in love.
Cologne is not the sort of city where you expect to fall head over heels in love. It is a beautiful city, but it doesn’t have the drama or the romance of a city like Paris or Havana. But, it was in Cologne that I fell in love. I fell in love with a church. A Catholic church. A church called St Agnes. Continue reading
It took me years to know that going to the beach had anything to do with being close to the water.
My parents only ever went to the beach when the heat became so oppressive that that staying in the small, three-room cottage we sometimes shared with another family became impossible.
My father worked double shifts in a factory and we usually set off for the beach when he came home, in the late afternoon or early evening. My mother always packed for our outings to the beach. She packed food. Usually peeled cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, cream cheese, a loaf of rye bread and oranges, with the peel already scored in quarters and, if we were lucky, some dark red cherries. She also packed two blankets and two bottles filled with tap water. I would feel giddy with excitement when I saw my mother start packing for the beach.
Going to the beach was a whole adventure. It started with a walk to the tram stop and a forty-five minute tram ride from the working class, inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia, where we lived. We boarded the tram armed with our blankets and food and drink.
I loved being on the tram. It was so predictable. You sat down, the conductor came around, you paid your fare and he handed you a brightly-colored ticket in return. It was all so normal. And so much of our life was anything but normal. Seven years earlier, both of my parents were still imprisoned in Nazi death camps. Death camps where almost everyone they loved had been murdered.
When we arrived at the beach my mother set us up in the treed, scrubby area that preceded the water. We really needed the blankets as the ground was rough and littered with twigs and broken branches. There were always other people with blankets and food already there. They were mostly Jews. The Italians and Maltese and Greeks and other migrants, who were also part of the large post-World War Two migration to Australia, must have had a different meeting place.
I felt happy as soon as I sat down on the blanket. I loved being surrounded by families. To me, it always felt like a party. It took away some of the loneliness of growing up with dead grandparents, dead aunts, and dead uncles. It took away the loneliness of growing up with cousins who would never be born. Continue reading
I love pens and pencils. I have loved them all my life. Whenever and wherever I travel, I buy pens and pencils. I am not a pen or a pencil snob. I buy them in supermarkets and street stalls as well as every sort of stationery store. I don’t need to go to a Mont Blanc store or own a limited edition Tiffany’s pen.
To tell you the truth, I don’t need to own any more pens. I have a drawer full of pens. Ballpoint pens, roller ball pens, fountain pens. I also have a drawer full or pencils. All sorts of pencils. Short pencils, long pencils, carpenter’s pencils, charcoal pencils. I even have pencils inscribed as Dixon Beginner’s. They are black and thicker than regular pencils.
Having all these pens and pencils doesn’t prevent me from wanting more pencils and pens. I covet other people’s pencils in the same way that others might covet a friend or neighbor’s house or car or husband.
My lust for pens and pencils started when I was a child. My parents and I were refugees to Australia. My parents were a rare statistic. Two Jews who were married to each other before the war and who each survived Nazi death camps.
In Australia, we lived in one room before moving to a very small cottage. I looked at the fountain pens in a news agency, a block and a half away from our small cottage, for over two years before, one day, in a moment of great need and possible recklessness, I stole one. I wasn’t caught. I guarded that fountain pen as though it was Elizabeth Taylor’s Krupp diamond.
I have written all of my books by hand. I know exactly which pens and pencils I used for each of my books. I do the actual writing with pens. For the last few years I have used a Pilot G-2 07 retractable gel ink roller ball pen. Always with black ink. I never write in any other color. In pencil, I circle and draw arrows around whatever parts of my text I want to move or change. For my latest novel, Lola Bensky, I used emerald green Criterium pencils, made in France. I bought them in a tiny, almost hole-in-the-wall, stationery store in a small, mountain town 170 miles north of Mexico City. They were so enticing and so cheap. I bought twenty-five of them.
As soon as I pick up a pencil or a pen, a sense of calm comes over me. I feel that that pen or pencil is directly connected to my core, to my heart, my lungs, my arteries. Nothing separates us. Of course I type on a computer and an iPad and a smartphone. And I take great care with my sentences on each of those devices. Too much care – who needs to search for commas or apostrophes when you’re typing with one or two fingers. And I do love keyboards. And the sounds they make. But they are not connected to me in the same way as a pen or pencil.
I was recently in Seattle. I went into a huge Rite Aid store. We don’t have supersized Rite Aid stores in my part of Manhattan. I always think I love big stores. That is until I am actually inside one. After five minutes of feeling lost and disoriented in a seemingly endless aisle, I left. I did leave with a bag of ten dark yellow, eraser-topped pencils. Paid for, of course.
I spent five or six years of my youth interviewing rock stars. I interviewed them backstage, after concerts. I interviewed them in their homes, in recording studios and in radio and television stations. I interviewed them in London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Monterey, California.
I interviewed Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, the Who, the Mamas and the Papas, Sonny and Cher and dozens of others.
It was the mid to late 1960’s. It all began because my father wanted me to be a lawyer. He thought that I would be better than Perry Mason, the lawyer played by Raymond Burr, who won his case, on television, every week.
It is very hard to rebel if, like me, you are the child of two people who were imprisoned in Nazi death camps and had almost everyone they loved in the universe murdered. My rebellion was unplanned. It seemed to come out of the blue. I was at a high school for gifted students, and I successfully botched any plans to become a better lawyer than Perry Mason by going to see Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho, twice, instead of sitting for my final year school exams.
I’m not sure what I thought I was going to do with my life when it became obvious that I had not sat for the exams and therefore failed the year. I think I wasn’t thinking. Psycho didn’t help me to think any more clearly. It just left me terrified—it was a terrifying movie.
Eventually, after months and months of watching me riding my bicycle in circles around my parents’ small back yard in order to lose weight, my mother, much to my horror, said I would have to look for a job.
My father was bitterly disappointed when, through a stroke of massive good fortune and possibly a degree of deception, I, who didn’t know how to load a sheet of paper into a typewriter, got a job as a journalist. He thought journalism wasn’t a real job. And certainly not a profession. He was even more appalled when he realized I was working for a rock music newspaper. Australia’s first rock music newspaper.
I traveled the world at a very young age for this newspaper. I interviewed rock stars in an era when you could talk to them without today’s entourage of minders, assistants, managers and public relations people present. I interviewed Mick Jagger in his apartment, Cher borrowed my false eyelashes and Janis Joplin and I discussed difficult mothers. It was, in so many ways, a much more innocent time.
A lot of people thought I had a glamorous job. Although, let me tell you that travelling with Gene Pitney or the Troggs, whose hit at the time was “Wild Thing,” and staying at boarding houses in the north of England is far removed from anyone’s notion of glamour. My father couldn’t have been less impressed or less interested in my job. For several years he harbored a small hope that I might yet end up a lawyer.
In my new novel, Lola Bensky, Lola Bensky is a nineteen-year-old rock journalist who irons her hair straight and asks a lot of questions. Mick Jagger makes her a cup of tea and Jimi Hendrix, possibly, propositions her. Lola spends her days planning diets and interviewing rock stars.
I loved being Lola Bensky. And I liked sharing initials with her. My long-term editor calls me LB. I called Lola Bensky LB in all the notes I made for the novel. It wasn’t at all confusing. I knew exactly which LB I was referring to.
Lola Bensky, which is set in 1967, is a book of fiction. But, I did, in real life, interview every one of the rock stars I wrote about in the novel. I wanted to paint as honest a portrait of the rock stars I interviewed as I could. I wanted to draw an accurate and intimate picture of this remarkable group of musicians.
When my father, who is now ninety-seven, saw the book, he was annoyed all over again. I have written sixteen books. No other book of mine has irritated him like this one. It has brought back all of his dreams of having a daughter who could stride into a courtroom brandishing her law degree, and, week after week, against all the odds, win every case.