I can't remember a time when I didn't write. Or, at the very least, tell stories. Family legend has it that a two year old Barbara told stories about a mythical place called The Stadium Bar, a tavern up in the Bronx run by Mickey, my favorite stuffed dog, and beloved of the New York Yankees. Which is fairly unremarkable until you realize I grew up in a Brooklyn Dodgers family and could recite the batting lineup before I could walk. (Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese . . . )
Oh yeah. I'm a born and bred New Yorker but you probably already figured that out. From Queens, one of the outer boroughs, a genuine Bridge and Tunnel kind of girl, even though we weren't called that when I was growing up, who married a Yankee-loving boy from the Bronx and did the unthinkable: moved across the Hudson to New Jersey. (Once a Bridge and Tunnel girl, always a Bridge and Tunnel girl.)
The thing is, writing was as natural as breathing. Life wasn't real until I wrote about it. I began my first diary when I was six and it is a rollicking adventure: "Sister Grace Winifred let me erase the blackboard. What fun!" And no, I wasn't being either cynical or ironic. Sadly, I meant every word.
I wrote about my life. I wrote about make believe lives. I wrote the obligatory last-two-people-left-on-the-planet post-nuclear stories every Baby Boomer claimed as his or her own special territory. I published my first story in Katy Keene Comic Books when I was nine years old and that first taste of the writing life was addictive. I was definitely hooked. I wrote for comic books. I published Letters to the Editor in 'Teen Magazine and Ingenue. I won contests. I dreamed about a life where I'd see my name on the cover of a book but as I grew older I came to believe less and less in its probability. You needed to know somebody, I was told. The publishing world was a closed shop. You needed connections, a patron, or failing that a fascinating life.
Hey, I was a kid from Queens. I wouldn't have known fascinating if it bit me in the--well, you get the picture.
But the need to write, that burning hunger to be read by people who weren't related to me, wouldn't go away. By my late twenties, I was selling op ed pieces to newspapers like The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Denver Post and non-fiction articles to magazines like Seventeen and Woman's World. Fiction, however, remained an unobtainable goal.
It wasn't until a kindly editor pointed out to me that all of my fiction shared one thing in common that I finally saw myself clearly. "Your subtext is always men, women, and love," he pointed out. "Maybe that's the direction you should be heading in."
Talk about not being able to see the forest for the trees.
This was around 1979. I began to poke around with writing a novel but a little roadblock called cancer brought me up short in January 1980. You want to know the truth? It might have been the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned one of those life lessons that usually take you forty or fifty years to fully understand: Life is short! Life is precious! Don't waste a second of it.
And I didn't. Two years later I sold my first book to Harlequin and my life changed forever. I sent in my manuscript on Thursday February 21, 1982 and four days later the telephone rang and I heard the amazing words, "We want to buy your book."
How I wish you could have seen me. I was standing by the kitchen door of our North Babylon house, the picture of cool sophistication, as I listened to Vivian Stephens explain the terms of the deal to me. You would have thought I'd sold a first book every single day of my life. Yes, I said. Sounds wonderful. Thank you so much for calling. I look forward to our association. That cool sophistication hung on until I hung up the phone, took a deep breath, then promptly threw up on my shoes.
I was thirty-one years old, unagented, unschooled, unfamiliar with anything to do with the business of publishing. To put it mildly, I was in shock. My husband was working in Manhattan at the time (and finishing up his degree at night) so it would be hours until I could break the news to him. This was too exciting to waste on a phone call. I wanted to see his face when I told him that my dream had finally come true -- and came with a $6000 advance!
He pulled into the driveway at midnight. I was waiting in the doorway, holding a bottle of champagne and two glasses. I didn't have to say a word. He knew right away and the look of joy and pride in his eyes warms me now, years later, long after the advance faded into memory.
A lot has happened to me in the years since that first sale. I've learned that this is a difficult and demanding business (it takes a tough writer to write a tender book) and that I am happiest when I am most ignorant. I've also learned that a good friend, a writer and pal who truly understands, is worth her weight in good reviews and royalty checks. I'm lucky enough to have three who know all there is to know and love me anyway.
I'm older now but strangely enough not any wiser. Writing is tougher than it used to be but the love I feel for the process (when it's going well, that is) is indescribable. I'm actually living my childhood dream. It simply doesn't get any better than that.
And that, as of 9 p.m. on August 16, 2006 is who I am.Barbara Bretton