Writing novels gets to be a habit. Back in the 1990s, when I was living in Key West, I was writing one a year. The rhythm just felt right, brisk but not frenetic, and besides, I liked playing against the stereotype of Key West as a lazy place full of do-nothing knuckleheads.
But if habits are stubborn, they are also fragile; my novel-writing habit got disrupted right around the year 2000. By then a number of things had changed. I’d moved to California and gotten briefly and tangentially involved in the movie business. Studying the West Coast locals, I struggled with the question of what sort of story could be set in my adopted state and ring true; in my view, story and place are inseparable. Meanwhile, the publishing industry was shrinking and growing far less civil; the fiction market was in the tank. As a pragmatist who likes good wine, I segued—somewhat by design, somewhat by chance—into a sort of shadow career as a ghostwriter.
The impulse to write novels didn’t go away; it just lay there like a sleeping dog, twitching or whimpering or farting now and then. Life events rolled by, nudging me toward becoming a slightly more serious person. My parents passed away. Some of my friends (though not me, of course) started seeming a little on the middle-aged side. I gained a different perspective on the struggles of young people to define who they are and to decide whom to trust. And I’d lived in California long enough to know that I didn’t want to write the kind of book that smug, transplanted Easterners had too often written about the Golden State; I didn’t want to write one more facile satire about shallow, muscled people on the beach or one more grim dystopia about a Pacific Babylon. If I ever got around to writing a California novel, I wanted it to be a real story about real characters, and to have something to say about things like love, loss, family and forgiveness.
I also wanted it to be funny. Not gag-driven, knee-slap kind of funny, but the smile funny that happens when human nature is revealed in spite of itself.
Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that part of this yet-to-be-written novel should be set in some version of the Afterlife. To me, this was less of a stretch than it might seem at first glance. I’d always been obsessed with the idea of second chances; what if the second chance failed to present itself in this lifetime? Wouldn’t it be comforting to imagine that it still might happen later? And isn’t there some universal yearning to believe that the dead people we have loved are not entirely and utterly gone, but still with us in some way? And shouldn’t it be possible to acknowledge and explore this yearning without getting all syrupy and woo-woo about it?
These questions simmered for some months and then one morning I started writing. The result is The Angels’ Share, the first novel I have written under my own name in a dozen years. It’s a love story, sort of. Actually, it’s three love stories that intertwine and shuttle back and forth between Santa Barbara and a wry, spare version of Beyond. One of the characters is a winemaker; the title comes from an expression that winemakers use to describe the part of their vintage that is lost to evaporation through pores in the barrels. The hopeful suggestion is that—like much seemingly futile human effort—the lost wine doesn’t really go to waste. Its vapors ascend for the enjoyment of the angels.
The angels, in turn, repay the debt by coming to the aid of the flawed and muddling mortals still struggling toward dignity and love and trust on Earth. But here’s the twist in my imagined version: The so-called angels are far from perfect beings and they’re still struggling, too. Therein lies the comedy and, I hope, the compassion. The Beyond is not some dull and settled place beyond the reach of regret and guilt, grudges and ambivalence. Rather, it’s a forum in which people get one more shot at getting things right, where they can finally tell the truth because the truth no longer hurts.
But enough philosophizing. How do things turn out for our three pairs of lovers? For that you’ll have to read the book, and I very much hope you will.