So, How Did You Meet Your Best Friend?

Let’s talk about this “newspaper,” pictured above. First of all, it’s not genuine, but generated to promote my novel, Cooking for Ghosts, by my very clever publicist. (Thank you, Jane.) However, what is genuine is the photo, which is of the real-life Cynthia Taylor who inspired the character of the same name in the novel. Cynthia and I only met once in person, at Piccadilly Station in London where we had a very noisy drink along with Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein, my husband, and Cynthia’s daughter, the real-life Sarita Taylor, whose name I also use for a character in the novel. It was the first and only time I’d met Alexandra in person, too.

But we are friends. All of us. Genuine friends for going on … oh, about ten years now. Like the women in COOKING FOR GHOSTS, we met on a blogging site, on which I’d started blogging upon the advice of my literary agent at the time, when she was shopping my first book, a memoir, Harlot’s Sauce. The blog was very successful. In fact, my second book, The Diva Doctrine, came about because of one post I’d written that went viral, and that was even published in More magazine Indonesia. (I still have the text in Tagalog, and it’s fun to see my words translated into such a pretty language.)

The one gift I never expected from my writing career was to meet such wonderful women, all of them unique, but all the same in one way: they uplift and support other women better than any 16-hour bra. These women are not women I would have met unless I got out of my comfort zone. That started when I moved to Greece with my Greek husband. I did it to “save my marriage.” That plan didn’t go as expected, but getting out of my comfort zone save me, instead. I discovered something not many of us have been told: women do not have to be exactly like you in order to be real friends. They don’t have to have the same religion or politics as you in order to have the same values. They don’t have to speak the same first language, have the same color skin as you in order to “get” you, and for you to “get” them.

I never set out to write the characters in The Secret Spice Cafe Trilogy as so ‘diverse.’ Their voices came to me through the women I have been lucky to meet in the last twenty-three years since I moved to Greece and started writing. I did meet a woman whose marriage had been arranged, as was Rohini’s in Cooking for Ghosts. I did meet a sexy, dynamic Cynthia. The character Jane is based on a woman who remains one of my dearest friends, the woman who was my business partner in the bookshop and book distribution company we owned in Athens, called Serafim Books. We’d name it for guardian angels, because that’s what we became for each other — our own angels. We looked out for each other, helped each other through many life crises, and still do so to this day.

And Angela is named after another friend, Angela Parks-Papadopoulos, (who really needs to write her own book someday). Angela was in the US military when she met and married her own Greek husband. Their marriage has lasted through thick and thin, I’m happy to say. Marriage to a Greek and living in Greece were the only commonalities Angela and I shared, or so people might think, at first. But when we talk, (which isn’t often enough these days) we talk about the things that matter to both of us: our families, how much good we’re doing or not in this life, and of course, books.

And as for Sarita, her doubts about herself, her fears about being “different” — who hasn’t felt that? And how many of us have felt the deep anguish of loving a sibling who is envious of us, like the charming, but heartbroken Luca in Book II of the trilogy,  Spells and Oregano? Who, like Angela, hasn’t had to re-examine and adjust her expectations when it comes to grown children?

So, when people ask me, “How did you come up with these characters?” my answer is, “How could I not?”

There’s a problem, though. Being a white writer, I have to be very careful not to be misunderstood when I write about women of different races. That’s becoming more obvious as I write about Rosemary Taylor, the voodoo (or vodou) priestess grandmother of Sarita who finally makes an in-person appearance in Book III. Those who have read Books I and II know she’s mentioned by other characters in both those books, but we only get to meet her finally in Book III. How a vodou priestess ends up on the Queen Mary in Long Beach to help exorcise a demon that’s lodged itself aboard is pure imagination on my part. But her essence, her being, is all being inspired by more women I have met. And I’m so darn lucky that I have. So, in this case, I get help, from women who have lived more of what my character, Rosemary, has lived. I won’t say I get their “permission” to write about her, but I will say I check with them on a regular basis to be sure I’m writing with clarity, respect, and as much truth in fiction as possible. I wouldn’t be able to do that — write characters with such depth — if I hadn’t put myself out there to meet women who the world says are different than I am. In some ways, we are. In other ways, ones that are most important to me, we’re not.

Want to broaden your horizons without having to travel extensively? Want to help end the hatred and fear of other human beings who seem so different from oneself? Smile at a stranger. Say hello. Start up a chat on a bus, or underground, or while waiting on the check out line at the market. Just try it. I can’t tell you how much richer my life is because I’ve done that, because I have talked to women and they have talked to me. When we discovered our commonalities, when we shared our experiences, our wishes and fears, that’s when we — collectively — became different: bolder, braver,and more daring, with our true friends to cheer us on.

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