Hot and Smokey Summer

Some months stand out in our lives, and for me, this will be one of those months. As July comes to a close (phew!), I will say that I’m quite happy for the fresh start of August. I love warmth–hate to feel that to-the-bone chill–and usually adore the hot summer months. But the extreme drought in California has tipped that perspective in a different direction.

We have evacuated from our home twice this month due to nearby fires. After last summer, we know the adrenaline-pumping drill and had time (well, 30 minutes in one instance) to put our pets in their travel crates (first step ALWAYS), race around the house and gather up goods like computers, clothes, and toiletries while listening to the scanner for updates. For anyone who has ever been through a home evacuation due to a fire–my heart is with you. For us, it’s a mix of terror and total gratitude that we even have the time to evacuate in the first place, and a whole lot of praying to the Gods to protect our home, our neighborhood, our wild animals that surround us in the woods.

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After evacuating, we spent many long hours waiting. Gigi felt the worry.

My heart breaks into a million tiny shards when a family of deer watch me load my car in preparation to leave. I want everyone to climb in the car with us–the deer, the squirrels, the turkeys, the birds. Everyone is confused by the panicked rush, the planes sweeping and diving overhead and dropping retardant, the call of sirens. As we leave, we see neighbors packing their cars, watering their yards to help guard, and under the red glow that hovers, it makes for an eerie departure.

Thanks to the amazing work of superheroes (firefighters), we were able to return to our home both times. HOME!! When I say I want to wrap my arms around my home and hug it, I mean it in the most desperate of ways. The next morning, while filled with gratitude and exhaustion, we sat outside on the terrace as is our routine, and smiled generously as the turkeys and deer tramped by, the birds called from the trees. Everyone was HOME.

Also this month, my step grandfather–the gritty and spirited motorcycle racing legend, Doug Wilson–passed away. Well over 200 people attended his memorial–and even the local auto parts stores closed in order for the employees to attend. Amazing. I didn’t last as long as I would’ve liked–I’m a massively weepy weenie when it comes to public shows of immense pride, honor, respect, and kindness. (I don’t even need to know the person to become a puddle.)

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The Doug Wilson T-Shirt

To add some fun and delight to the mix of the month, one of my best buds Dara came for her annual visit. We trekked to the lake for lunch a couple of times, watched little baby ducks swim with their mother, and lounged, chatted, ate delicious food, and drank delicious adult beverages in the evening on the terrace. A marvelous week all around–and so good to have a best girl-pal to laugh and lounge with.

Every day this month–even when emotionally exhausted or while Dara was visiting–I spent at least a handful of hours working on the current book. I’m nearing done with it–and I have to say that it’s been such an emotionally charged month for me (I won’t even mention politics–wait I just did–but it certainly factors in), that I imagine some of that emotion seeped into the manuscript. Because my job requires me to express emotional honesty, this month has given me new boosts of soul-deep gratitude for my family, for my home, my friends, and for the incredible work of brave men and women who fight fires and keep us safe.

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Happy smiles and smokey skies
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We love our terrace–complete with puppy pool to keep us cool.

Happy (almost) August, everyone.

xo Isla

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Feet & Vagina: An Essay On Writing Honestly

I was born into a kind, caring family, raised in a small town where you couldn’t go to the grocery store without knowing at least five people. (Suzy! Jimmy! Tommy! Mary! Mr. Musacchio!) Kind social pleasantries were a way of life. And while that is all well and good (and a hell of a lot better than some of the intense awfulness that children can experience in this world), I had a drive toward emotional truth that prevented me from fully appreciating my participation in those pleasantries. I was less interested in what was being said, and more interested in what wasn’t being said.

Long before I was able to identify that drive for truth, I spent a lot of time in my imagination. And in my imagination, there was always a beat of truth in the heart of the play. My Christmas list every year read, “Dear Santa, I would like my driver’s license, please.” (Always polite.) And I was genuinely convinced that in some way, for some reason (cue imagination), I was going to be granted my driver’s license before the requisite age of 16. I never dreamed of anything that wasn’t at least slightly possible. I didn’t imagine becoming a fairy princess in a far off land with a dragon as my protector. I dreamed, instead, of rescuing a close family member of the President of the United States and being awarded with my driver’s license at the totally astute age of seven. In reality, it’s completely unlikely this would happen (and to be honest, I have a heard time even saying that), but it could happen. Sadly it did not, but this was my early training in believing wholeheartedly in my imagination. In a lot of ways, these playful scenarios were more real than the pleasant grocery store greetings.

After college, I moved to Los Angeles and began attending the (prestigious, thank you very much) acting school, Playhouse West. This was where I got my first taste of exchanging emotional truth with peers in real life—not just in my imagination. The experience was intense. Soul-squeezing, gut-wrenching intense. It required listening for whispered expressions of human truth, breathing in those whispers, then breathing back out my own honest reaction, no matter how subtle or bold. If we expressed anything less than honesty, if we slipped into “acting” or “thinking” rather than “being” and “expressing,” we were stopped in our tracks, called on the fake or contrived expression, and told to get off the stage and sit down. That training demanded such emotional truth from me that I left sobbing from my deepest, darkest places on several occasions because I was so emotionally open. And I loved it.

Later when I moved to New York, I felt a deep sense of connection to the city. Which was a bit odd to the outside viewer, I imagine, given that I grew up in such a small town, but to me, something strummed inside of me and I felt at home. I began my job at CNN and within hours of my arrival, I dove headfirst into that corporate routine of pleasant coffee room conversation: “Hi, how are you?” “Good, thanks, how are you?” “Good. Okay, see ya.” “Take care.” But there was one girl in the mix who didn’t exchange smiles in the hallway, didn’t make coffee room small talk, didn’t emote anything she didn’t intend to emote. I thought, God, this girl is kind of awful. In my head, I dubbed her Mean Girl. Then early one morning, I stepped into the elevator and there she was. The two of us rode up twenty-something floors together in silence then finally I said to her, “I like your tights,” (they featured some fun geometric pattern) and she replied with her tone as indifferent as the look on her face, “Thanks. They smell like feet and vagina.”

In that instant, I adored her. The truthful words were like candy for my spirit and we became friends. She was brave in her expression (likely without knowing it), candid, and blunt without being mean (contrary to my initial perception), or further, without caring if she was perceived as mean. There was a freedom and inherent hilarity in her expression, which I knew to be that thing I adore: emotional honesty. And, like New York itself, something resonated with me on that day, something that strummed a sense of home within me.

Stephen King said, “As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty.” How do you do this? Well, I can’t—with any confident honesty—tell you how to do this, but I can tell you how I strive for honesty in my writing. I listen. It’s something I know I’m good at. I listen, I feel, I pay attention, and then I communicate (write) what I experience. But before I’m able to do all of that, I first—and this is crucial—have to be open to that level of honesty inside of myself before I can play in the sandbox with anyone else—real or fictional. I must practice the same intense level of honesty within myself, well before I can expect to be in tune with the honesty of my work. Basically, I have to be able to call bullshit on myself before I can call bullshit on anything I create.

When I recognize those moments of honesty in my writing, I relish that they required little to no effort from the thinking mind or any sort of plotted, pre-determined reaction (which can be spotted by even a slightly discerning reader), and rather that they required me to inhale with all of my senses, then exhale my honest interpretation of the situation, the scene, the story. That is my job, and I must be able to call bullshit when necessary. (Trust me, it’s necessary.) On the flip side, I also must be able to spot truth when I see it.

Each afternoon, after wrapping up my writing for the day, I head out into nature with my puppy. As we walk—avoiding as many bugs, bears, and reptiles as possible—I spend time letting my mind catch up with whatever I’ve created that day. What interests me is not, is this new situation carrying the plot forward? Did those scenes make sense as part of the whole? That will all be answered after I finish the first draft and begin working through the second. What matters most to me is, did I pay attention to the truth? And did I express that truth? If not, it’s okay. I’ll keep going, keep writing the next day, and will go back and work with whatever strand of truth I can unravel during that second draft.

Like anything else, expressing honestly is a process, a muscle that must be recognized and exercised. It’s also my job. In order to do my job, I must make sure to remember at least this one thing: always pay attention to my character’s (and my own) feet and vagina.

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Mean (Awesome, Brave, Hilarious) Girl & Me

One Summer Night ~ On Sale Now!

The 4th (and final!) book in the One Night Collection – ONE SUMMER NIGHT – is on sale now!

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I started off writing this series as a challenge to myself: could I write a short story that was a concentrated look into one night in two people’s lives, one night that would change the course of their lives forever, and have it be believable, with living, breathing, interesting characters?

The plan was for one novella, not four. But it happened as it does… I fell in love with the characters and had to tell everyone’s story to complete the series. 🙂

Here is the best order to read them in, however, you can skip around and all will still be right in the world. Whichever book calls to you, read that one first. (Sort of like, in our household, it is always an option to eat dessert first.)

One Night Collection:

One Autumn Night

One Winter Night

One Spring Night

One Summer Night

I hope everyone enjoys the collection of short stories as much as I enjoyed writing them!

xo Isla

Villa Blue lands on bestseller list!

VILLA BLUE lands at #4 on the Amazon bestseller list! Much appreciation to all of you amazing readers. I am grateful for you from the bottom of my heart, inside and out.

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Hope everyone had a lovely weekend. I’m busy working away on the next romantic suspense, entertaining/scaring myself as I write. 🙂

xo Isla

Whirlwind of Wonderfulness

I adore interesting people and their stories (surprise, surprise). And this past weekend was a whirlwind filled with interesting people sharing interesting stories–which made me a happy camper (who needed a nap afterward).

On Friday, I left my perch in the mountains and made my way to Saratoga to pick up a wonderful friend and co-founder of Anonymous Good. She was staying with some friends and before we zoomed off, she gave me a quick tour of their compound. A true compound–gorgeous at every turn–that included a vineyard, a basketball court, and two garages filled with classic cars that I promptly began to pretend were mine (especially the snazzy little 300SL Mercedes–I think it was–from the late 50’s I’m guessing).

After zipping off, we arrived very early for our meeting at Facebook so our lovely superwoman of a host took us to lunch at the cafeteria. Great food enjoyed outside on the terrace while we chatted away about how incredible her eyebrows were (those arches!) along with awesome initiatives that are underway. (I’m sworn to secrecy!) That was followed by a meeting with several more of the amazing minds within Facebook, then a tour of the rooftop garden that was a terrific end to a great day of discussions.

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(Photos by P)

We checked into our hotel and promptly found the bar. We earned our drinks, thank you very much. Wine for me and a Long Island Iced Tea for P—hold the tequila, and swap out the triple sec for peach schnapps. More conversation in the bar, seated at the table nearest the fireplace. Glowing conversation, glowing faces, and good drinks. Sushi for dinner at a nearby spot I’d found, then we made plans for an early breakfast and went off to our rooms for sleep.

The next day—Saturday—we enjoyed breakfast and chatting with the server from India. He showed us pictures of his hometown that P, by way of “coincidence,” is slated to travel to next year. Nice guy, nice breakfast, followed by a nice drive while we talked and talked en route to the mountains.

After a quick pit stop at Casa de Fruta—for restrooms and wine purchases—we kept on and arrived back at my mountain homestead and waited a short while for our mutual friend W (who created an awesome iPhone App called Mindfulness Daily). From there we zipped off to Bass Lake then picked up our catered dinner, brought it home, and prepared for more friends to arrive for a dinner party.

So when I say we all had a good time talking, here’s what I mean by that: P spent a lot of her career being a journalist, then later served as bureau chief for a major network, and she currently produces humanitarian documentaries as well as frees slaves, serves on various non-profit boards, etc., etc. One of her many, many, many skills includes asking pointed questions that spear into the pulse of something, then oh-so-gracefully will go right for the heart. She is a SKILLED woman at getting stories out of people, to put it mildly. (And no one at the dinner party would disagree with this!)

Wine and Mexican food and fantastic stories of how couples met—all around the table. “When did you know?” etc. And let me tell you, P did not let anyone off the hook and indeed was known to throw a cloth napkin at someone if their answer was…well…shit. (As she would say.) 🙂

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(Photo on left by P, photo on right by W)

The next morning, I took P and W and my pup for a tour of Sugar Pine where I was raised. Then we ventured on to Yosemite for a quick moment to pause and breath and take pictures at the river.

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Then we ventured back home where P and W packed up and, after a series of hugs and thank-yous, headed out for the airport.

When I say it was a whirlwind of wonderfulness, I truly mean that we each were challenged to turn ourselves inside out and share, and to do so in an environment where our insides were celebrated—our stories, our interests, our lives—and no matter what we shared, it was wonderful simply to be sharing with people who have, as P put it, big hearts and big brains.

xo Isla