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My Writing Journey #1: From a Dark Place (Escape to New Zealand)

Have you ever had something wonderful come out of something terrible? Have you ever come out of a dark place and into the light? I’d like to tell you about how that happened to me.

At the time of writing this, I’ve just finished book #35, and I’ve written seven series. That’s totally a surprise to me, since I wrote my first book just to see if I could. That was JUST THIS ONCE: Escape to New Zealand, Book 1 (which started out being called RESCUE ME; I think I did myself a favor there with the renaming, don’t you?) I’m going to talk a bit today about where my new career started, with New Zealand and the rugby romance that is still my bestseller.

 

Out of the Darkness

This book didn’t feel like it came from me. It felt like it came from New Zealand. When I started writing JUST THIS ONCE in 2011, I’d been living in Auckland, New Zealand, for almost a year (for hubby’s work), after living in Brisbane, Australia for another year. At the time I made the decision to go with him, I was turning 50 and coming off the hardest year of my life, including a couple months of very scary clinical depression after an awful life event. So when hubby got sent abroad this time, I went with him. I was still working myself as well, doing the job I’d had for about 10 years as a marketing director, and it wasn’t thrilling me. Every time I thought about going after another job, though, it made me feel so tired. Have you ever had that experience? I was just … stuck.

Gradually, that first year in Australia, something happened. I had FUN. WE had fun. Because people over there don’t work six or seven days a week the way they often do in the U.S., we both had the weekends off, and we explored near and far—bushwalks, surf beaches, rainforests and waterfalls and the beauty of Brisbane itself—and also became extremely wary of snakes. (Fun fact: 21 of the 25 most venomous snakes in the world are found in Australia, home of Too Many Things That Want to Kill You. And I’m not even going to TALK about spiders.) I learned to knit. I went to farmers’ markets twice a week, and we gave dinner parties to the other expats on our Queensland-style enormous balcony, featuring fresh-caught fish, surprisingly much tastier Australian fruits and veggies (it’s the soil, apparently), and Australian wines that the guy at the “Bottle-O” helped me pick out. I felt like Julia Child in France. (Well, not EXACTLY like her. I cook OK, but I’m not exactly ready for a TV show.) And gradually, my heart eased and my brain sort of … relaxed.

After another year in New Zealand, doing my open-water swimming in the sea, my running on the beach and the green remnants of volcanoes, and my yoga in a boathouse with the water slapping against the pilings, traveling more, exploring more, LIVING more, my mind opened up more, too. I fell in love, in fact, with the people and places and spirit of New Zealand, a love that’s proven to be the lifelong, lasting kind.

OK, yay New Zealand, but what was the writing thing all about?

Man, I don’t know. I’ve always been a logic person. A detail person. A get-it-done person. I’d always read a lot, but it never occurred to me that I could write a book or do anything creative at all. My head was too full of checklists and obligations and family responsibilities for that.

The one thing I had, though, was daydreams. While I swam or ran or hiked, I’d be weaving these complicated romantic stories. I never thought of them as books, though, just fun diversions. I’d always heard that “writers have to write,” and that was not me. Marketing copy? Yeah, I wrote that, and I was good at it. White papers, too. Fiction? That I made up from my BRAIN? Ha.

The other thing happening in New Zealand in 2011, though, was the Rugby World Cup, which is held every four years. This was only the second time in history that it had been held in New Zealand, and the All Blacks, as usual, were the favorites to win. Being favorite, though, even being the winningest team in the history of sports, doesn’t mean you’ll get across the line, because a world cup is a hard, hard thing to win. You have to lift in every game, against teams who are more motivated to beat you than any other opponent. Over the course of the year, I watched the whole country turn themselves inside out to support their team. It was everywhere. The grocery store, the fence in front of the kindy (preschool), painted on barns and lining livestock fences in the countryside. Go the Mighty All Blacks.

I went to the public ceremony in September where the All Blacks team got their caps for the Rugby World Cup, mainly because I was taking some kids of my acquaintance who were so excited to be there. I couldn’t have picked the players out of a crowd at that point, but I watched Richie McCaw, a legend then and now, give a speech remarkable in its humility and acceptance of pressure. He said, “I know we’ve got a wee little job to do for all of you, and we’re going to do our very best.” They did, and more specifically, HE did. The country found out later that he played that entire seven-week tournament on a broken foot. He couldn’t even hobble after each game, but he geared up for them somehow anyway, and as the tournament went on, I, along with everybody else in my household, became riveted.

The End Game

The Rugby World Cup final, New Zealand vs. France, was the most intense sporting event I’ve ever witnessed, and probably the most-watched two hours ever on TV in New Zealand. We watched in a pub in Wellington where, inside, the Kiwis fell silent as the minutes ticked by and the score sat at 7 to 5 in favor of the French. Outside, the French fans (who were out there because they could smoke) waved their flags and sang the Marseillaise louder and louder, getting more excited and more raucous as the second half ticked down and their team looked on track to beat the best team in the world in the most important rugby contest they’d ever face. Finally, the All Blacks’ fourth-string No. 10 (the driver of the offense) had to take the field in a jersey two sizes too small after the second and third choices were injured. The best in the world, Dan Carter, had injured himself before the World Cup began, a huge blow to the All Blacks’ hopes.

That No. 10, Stephen Donald, in his ridiculously tiny jersey, ran on and kicked a penalty goal as coolly as you please, and the score was 8 to 7. And there were still minutes left in the game. Many minutes, during which New Zealanders everywhere (and I) clutched the edge of the table and couldn’t breathe. The French were attacking, and attacking again. And the All Blacks captain was everywhere, too, stopping them again and again. Sometime close to the end, one of the French players gouged both of his eyes. He got up rubbing them, then threw himself into it again. What we all saw that night was a captain carrying his team to victory on his back, on his strength of will and his determination—on his mana. And he carried New Zealand, too. At the end, he’s said, all he could feel was relief that it was over and he could lay down that burden. A few days later, he had surgery on his foot to repair the broken bone, and the country found out what he’d done.

Like many others, I’ve never been able to watch that final again, though it’s available. It was too intense. And I thought, afterwards—what would it be like to live with that kind of pressure, day in and day out? To carry the hopes and dreams of a nation? To try to live your life as a very private person in a country of four and a half million, where you’re more recognized (and much more popular) than the Prime Minister? Where you’re expected to be not only brilliant at and dedicated to your sport, but humble, gracious, and good-natured—always—to all those people who recognize you? What would it be like, as a young man still in his late 20s, to try to find love in that environment? Who would want you for the man you were, not your position or the legend you’d become?

The Story Appears

A couple days after the final, we took a long walk through the rhododendron gardens of Mount Taranaki, and I had one of my romantic daydreams. This time, I couldn’t get that daydream out of my head. The day after that, as we drove to our next spot on our little vacation, I asked my husband, “Do you think I could write a book?” And he said, “Of course.” I just wanted to write my story down in order to read it. Still one of the big reasons I write today.

The hero of my book is not Richie McCaw. I don’t know Richie McCaw. All the same, my proudest moment as an author came when his aunt emailed me after reading the book, a few years down the line, and said, “It’s like you’ve been sitting at our kitchen table. You got it right.” The book is about an overworked, overstressed woman who finds it hard to trust and harder to have faith, and a quiet rugby captain with strength and mana and a direct mind who knows what he wants and goes to get it. But it’s also about New Zealand, the Pakeha culture and the Maori and the blend of all of it that is uniquely Kiwi. The lightness of life there, the humor, the unpretentiousness, and the joy in spending time outdoors in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and with your family and friends. The satisfaction of being a good neighbor, a good son, a “good bugger.” That’s why I’m still writing about the country, and why I have three series set there. It’s not perfect, because no place is, but it’s awesome. I normally spend two to three months a year there and in Australia, and I look forward to it with the same excitement every time. (Also, I totally think they should make me a permanent resident, or at least upgrade me on Air New Zealand. Seriously.)

So what happened next?

Next time, I’ll share a bit more about how my publishing journey went, but for now I’ll just say—I finished the book and published it 9 months after I started writing it, along with two more Escape to New Zealand books. JUST THIS ONCE has sold well over 100,000 copies now, plus another 35,000-plus in German translation. It’s been nominated for an Audie as Best Romance Audiobook (like being nominated for an Oscar, but with less money involved!) That book I started writing in a barnyard, that risk I took, has turned into the best job I’ve ever had and the best work I’ve ever done, and I love it for that. It was my rebirth, out of the ashes and into something better, and that’s what I try to do with every book—to give the reader that experience, too, and that hope. We can all be more than this. We don’t stop learning and growing just because we’re 40, or 50, or 70. We can all be bigger.

 

The World of Rugby Romance

 

 

I’ve written fifteen New Zealand rugby romances now, and I still love writing them. In between, I’ve written all the other series, which I love just as much, and which I’ll tell you about more later, but as they say—there’s something special about your first! (Well, not mine, but you know. It’s a concept.)

Which are the best Escapes, besides that first one? In my opinion, JUST FOR NOW (My Sound of Music book, full of family love and my first adventure writing kids, which has become one of my favorite things); JUST SAY YES (another heartwarming and funny one with kids, but also with the beauty of ballet and some really satisfying moments with the hero being, well, a hero); JUST SAY (HELL) NO (my favorite opposites-attract book, with a pretty combustible relationship, steamy sex, some of my funniest writing, and also probably my biggest weepfest moments); and, finally, JUST COME OVER (my only book with a 4.9-star average, and to my mind, the best book I’ve ever written, about a Maori rugby coach with a tough backstory who falls in love with his brother’s widow). All the books in the series are stand-alones except JUST ONCE MORE and JUST SAY CHRISTMAS, so if one of them sounds especially good to you—take your pick! They’ve all got a lot of humor, a lot of family, a lot of warmth, a lot of New Zealand, and, yes, a fair amount of steam, too.

I found my dream job, and I love it.

All That in Pictures

Here’s Pokarekare Ana, “the other New Zealand national anthem.” Sung here by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, with a backdrop of some of the things that make New Zealand so special.

 

And I couldn’t tell you about the Escape to New Zealand series without showing you the haka! Here you go. Richie McCaw at the head of his men, facing the French again four years later during Rugby World Cup 2015. (Spoiler alert: he and the All Blacks won the tournament again, the only team ever to do it twice in a row. The All Blacks definitely make my job easier!) As many times as I’ve seen the haka, live and on screen, it still gives me the same tingle down my spine.

Next time: Stepping Outside the Box, or: Panic Stations!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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