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The Birth of The Mona Lisa Sisters

Ten years ago, I was managing Safety and Security for Palm, Inc. A few months later, Hewlett-Packard acquired Palm in what is often referred to as a disastrous acquisition. Not long after, H-P began the layoffs. I got a weekly list of those to be laid off the following week. When the notice came for my team, I gave them the week off to start on a job hunt. A few weeks later, I learned I would be terminated the following Monday. I cleaned out my office but hung around in case there were any problems.

Then began my introduction to how rampant age-discrimination had become. After three months, it was so obvious; I started a spreadsheet. I recorded 140 applications after that. Often, I could swear the hiring company had used my resume as the requirements for the position. My mistake was being honest. I included that I was a Vietnam War Veteran. Any H/R person in the world would spot that and know I was at least sixty years old. I got one interview. I walked in, business suit, tie, and white hair. The two people I talked with were wide-eyed twenty-somethings. They were polite in their T-Shirts, torn pants, and sandals . . .for about five minutes. Then, “Thank you for coming in, George. Have a good day.”

Early 2012, I saw that the local senior center was offering a writing class. I figured it might help with a new resume—wrong. It was a fiction writing class. I was learning creative writing, and I loved it. After a month or so, the instructor passed out random pictures to each student. The assignment: “Study the image, taken fifteen minutes, and describe the scene.”

I took one look at my picture, two girls looking up at the Mona Lisa, and ignored the assignment. In those fifteen minutes, I knew I would write a novel. I had notes on paper, the story in my mind, and the title. And it all came together to form the genesis for The Mona Lisa Sisters.

That began an eight-year journey.

I enrolled at Las Positas College and took writing classes. Unlike my earlier college years, it was no longer drudgery. I earned straight As. The assignments lead to multiple revisions of my novel.

In a class taught by Karin Spirn, I read about a fantastic instructor at UC Berkeley who did not have a doctorate. Instead, he held an MFA. In another class, I was introduced to the work of Native American poet Joy Harjo. She was recently appointed to a third term as the U.S. Poet Laureate. I began following her on social media. I saw that Harjo was a guest lecturer at the Institute of American Indian Arts, MFA Program. An enrolled descendant of the Karuk Tribe of California, I called IAIA and applied. Five days later, I received an acceptance notice for the Low-Residency MFA Program. IAIA, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

For the next two years, my manuscript was my thesis paper, The Mona Lisa Sisters. I rewrote, revised, and learned. My mentors were terrific and have, over time, become much more to me. One area that I got dinged on was when I brought my characters to the dinner table. The settings often lacked enough detail to draw the reader into the scene. Ismet “Izzy” Prcic, roared “People don’t go to dinner and leave. They eat. What the “F” are they eating—saying?”

Mona Lisa is set in the early 1890s. So, I had much research to do before bringing food to the table. I did it—overdid it—added several thousand words.  Izzy, “I don’t need to know every single effen thing they ate and how it was prepared.” I subtracted words to please him.

Each addition or subtraction required rewrites.

The program required a great deal more than working on my manuscript. I attended lectures, readings, workshops, and read and wrote critical reviews of over forty books. Two authors I had held extreme distaste for became favorites—Albert Camus and Joyce Carol Oates. Most of those forty books are full of underlining, highlighting, and writing in the margins. My mentors and I collaborated on the selection of books. Native Americans wrote at least half our choices. I was introduced to the work of such great authors as,

  • Debra Magpie Earling (Bitterroot Salish) – Perma Red
  • Louise Erdrich (Chippewa) – The Round House
  • David Treuer (Ojibwe) – Little
  • Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) – Ceremony

I met many who shared their world and writing. I met Joy Harjo and chatted over cafeteria dinner. Tommy Orange, There There, was a contemporary, as was Angela Trudell Vasquez. Angie is the Poet Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin.

When I faced the challenge of my thesis/manuscript, one of the questions came from another, fantastic teacher and author, Pam Houston. Her first question had to do with the scenes set in . . .  the dining room. I shouldn’t have, but I laughed. I know Izzy put her up to it.

This year, I finished the twenty-third revision of The Mona Lisa Sisters. Agent queries had been returned with polite rejections.  I sat back, told the manuscript, “I’m starting to hate you. I’m finished.”

I reached out to Paula Chinick of Russian Hill Press and told her I was done and wanted her to publish the bloody thing. She agreed. I figured my work was done—wrong.

The cover design took months. Getting back-cover reviews became urgent. I was stuck until I recalled a talk where a young author mentioned he sent out requests to known authors and asked them to read and write reviews. “What have I got to lose?” I asked myself and sent out four requests. Three agreed to write reviews. I even had one person, out of the blue, offer to write one.

I used two. Ramona Ausubel wrote one. I love her novel No One is Here Except All of Us. The other, by playwright, editor, and UCLA instructor Victoria Zackheim. I also used a Kirkus review.

Violet (Vi) Moore came on board as the editor. She forced me to pick up the manuscript and read it line by line and make corrections before she would touch it. I’m glad she did. Over two months, we made more corrections and changes than I will ever admit.

Then the galleys came, and Paula made me do it all over again. The editor is usually done by then, but Vi called me and ordered me to reread it. I know we missed at least one typo. One of my readers sent me a note informing me of it.

Paula, Vi, and the cover design team were all very reasonable in the charges to bring the project to fruition.

Amazon released The Mona Lisa Sisters on August 14, 2020. A little over eight years after the instructor handed me a picture of two young girls looking at the Mona Lisa.

I met and have become friends with so many fine people as the result of my diving into the world of fiction writing. I have been and will ever be blessed for having started the journey when I couldn’t find a job.