A Roadtrip with Author Dean Koontz Results in Tears (and a surprise ending)

A recent article in the New York Times by Rachael Bedard, a geriatrician and palliative-care physician in New York City, attracted my immediate attention this morning. It was titled, “The Case for Writing Fan Mail.”

“When I’m truly possessed by an artist’s work, I let them know,”
Bedard writes. “It’s a way to turn distant admiration into intimacy, even
when they don’t reply.”

Her thoughts immediately brought to mind the wonderful writers’ class I’d
taken in Asheville, “The Literary Ecosystem.” And that, naturally, led to thoughts of a roadtrip Tom and I had once taken with author Dean Koontz.

Lauren Harr and Caroline Green Christopoulos of Gold Leaf Literary Services, (both of whom have an association with Asheville’s wonderful independent bookstore, Malaprop’s), taught the class, which revealed the inner workings of the publishing world, along with insights for how to work with agents, publishers, and bookstores.

I loved the class. Our weekly homework was to write a letter of appreciation
to an author whose writing we admired. As a big fan of letters & letter writing, this appealed to me. Letters were composed and written to Swedish author, Fredrik Backman (sent with a photograph of my own ‘wurse’-chewed copy of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry); Liz Gilbert (thanking her for coming to Asheville on my birthday); and Frances Mayes, author of Under The Tuscan Sun,  thanking her for her recent visit to Asheville during which she shared with me a fascinating anecdote about Italy and Ethiopia, which, despite years of research, I was unaware of. I don’t know if my letters ever reached them, for none of them responded.

But, as Bedard says, you don’t necessary write in order to get a response.

“Writing fan mail creates an opportunity to take pleasure in my own
intemperate passions,” she says. “Articulating what turns me on about beautiful work transforms distant admiration into intimacy. I do not send these letters to receive a response. Instead, my fan mail is correspondence in the same sense that prayers or blessings are correspondence … making no demands of the recipient.”

I write my own mash notes to authors both because I admire someone’s work, but also to convey that sense of connection, which is so important to me in my own writings. I know how heartwarming it is to actually get a response from someone ‘out there.’

morning coffee with my girl

Not long ago, my beautiful and slightly ridiculous large white dog, Klejne suddenly passed away. I hadn’t realized she was ill until the very last day of her life. Like so many who have lost pets, I couldn’t find words to express the enormity of the loss of my beloved companion of more than a dozen years.


Almost everything I did, Klejne did with me. Each day, she was by my side in my studio. On the evenings and weekends, we explored Asheville and the mountains of  Western North Carolina hiking thousands of miles together.

And so, when Tom showed me photos of a litter of puppies his cousin Celeste’s dog had recently given birth to, I shook my head. It was too soon, I didn’t want a puppy. I just wanted Klejne back.

Two weeks later, he showed me another photo of the puppies. This time one of them – “little boy green” – reminded me of Klejne as a puppy. I took it as a sign and said okay.


To my surprise, Tom said he would get one of little boy green’s siblings. And a few weeks later, we were on our way to Grand Rapids to pick up our new pups.

In preparation for the 22-hour round trip journey by car, Tom had thoughtfully downloaded several books on Audible. We passed through Tennessee listening to A Confederacy of Dunces but lightened things up a bit in Kentucky and Ohio with James Herriot’s All Creatures Great & Small.

Somewhere in Ohio or Indiana, Tom said, “Hey, I downloaded something especially for you.” It was Dean Koontz’s A Big Little Life: A Memoir of a Joyful Dog Named Trixie.

I was skeptical. Koontz writes suspense thrillers that often incorporate elements of horrors, fantasy, science fiction, mystery and satire – not my go-to genres.

“I think you’ll like this one,” Tom said with a smile, pushing play.

He was right. Koontz has me with his opening lines.

“She arrived with her name, Trixie. I joked sometimes that it sounded more like a stripper than a dog. But if it sounded more like a stripper than a dog, it sounded more like an elf or a fairy than a stripper. Elves and fairies are magical beings, and so was she.”

The miles rolled by as Koontz read to us. So much of what he had written about his golden retriever, Trixie, reminded me of Klejne, my half-golden. Close to midnight, we stopped in Greensburg, Indiana to sleep for a few hours, pausing to save the last chapters of the book for the final part of our journey.

On the road again the following morning, we pressed play and settled back in to spend time with Trixie. Within moments, however, it appeared that things had suddenly taken a turn for the worse in her life.

Driving 70 miles-an-hour along the Interstate, tears began to flow freely as we listened in horror. Trixie’s happy life had suddenly taken a medical turn for the worse, mirroring exactly the ailments and trauma I had just gone through with Klejne.

“How could you do this to me?!” I asked Tom, crying.

“I forgot how it ended!” he answered, crying.


We arrived at our destination with red-rimmed eyes.

But isn’t it a wonder how the scent of a warm puppy wriggling in your arms can dispel even the bleakest of moods? All was forgiven the moment I picked up little boy green. I decided to name him “Kiitos,” which means ‘thank you’ in Finnish.

We returned to Asheville with our new puppies in time for my weekly “Literary Ecosystem” class. This week’s homework, I decided, would be to write a letter to Dean Koontz telling him the story of driving to Grand Rapids in tears. I mailed the card with a photo and the story of Klejne to him and soon forgot about it.

Two weeks later, however, a package arrived covered with beautiful stamps.


To my great surprise, it was from Dean Koontz.

I tore it open and found a hardback copy of his book with a handwritten note to me from him inside.



I was overwhelmed.

That an author of his stature and success would take the time to pen the perfect condolence note to me on the loss of my dog created an emotional moment of connection I will never forget.

So yes, for whatever reason – connection or simply to express yourself in words – write a letter to someone whose art or writing or music has touched you. Let them know how they made you feel.

photo by T.
In loving memory of Klejne [photo by Tom]






Giving Death Space

I have yet to watch Halt and Catch Fire, but some words in a recent review of the series by Todd VanDerWerff caught my attention.

“The important thing about a TV death isn’t how it happens,” VanDerWerff writes.

“It’s not the shock of the moment. The important thing about … death comes in the aftermath. Do the characters get time to grieve, to live with that pain?

The reason the deaths on Lost and Game of Thrones are so resonant,” he contends, “is because those shows give their deaths space … what’s important isn’t the death itself but everything that unspools afterward.”

His words stayed with me because these days I frequent that space, as do many others this year, surrounded by the unspoolings of our lifetimes.


Throughout our lives, we move in and out of that space, depending upon where we are in the trajectory of our own life events. It’s an archeological museum set in a jungle of memories that we visit in our minds – a museum where the exhibits are photographs and letters; the artifacts are gifts received and things passed down; the audio-visual components are fragments of conversations, the memory of a laugh, the reciting of a little poem written long ago and captured on a cellphone.

But what’s really on display is the magical realism of memory.

In the beginning, when the loss is fresh, the museum never seems to close. But as days and weeks pass, the museum – almost imperceptibly – starts changing its hours. It pops up unexpectedly during dark hours, like the Night Circus or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Or at an art gallery. Or sprinkled throughout the 65,000 hand-painted frames of Loving Vincent. 

I learned about art and books from my mother, and I like that she’s still alive in these moments, popping in for surprise visits – never staying long enough for a cup of tea or chat, but leaving an impression every bit as vivid as what I’ve always thought of as reality.


Like dreams, these memory moments are ephemeral, yet still wickedly visceral. I’ve come to count on them in that empty stretch of space, the wake of her leaving.

And so, I decided to take my house off the market and I’m not going out as much for now. Instead I’m giving this recent death space, while staying open to surprises and marveling at what pops up to play with my mind when I least expect it.

Like this fragment of an interview with Father Greg Boyle I happened to catch today on NPR. He was asked if he was scared of death. No, he replied. Then, quoting the Dalai Lama, he explained:

“It’s not the end, it’s just a change of clothing.”


[all photography by me ~ from Barcelona, Seattle & Asheville]




The Best Conversations

The journey through mind and memories continues….

Many weeks after my mother’s death, my heart holds a simmering stew of mixed emotions where moments of peaceful acceptance are spiced with shards of regret and seasoned with fragments of conversations that pop into my head, often when least expected.

My mother had her favorite places in Asheville – Malaprop’s Bookstore and 5 Walnut Wine Bar among them. But I think her favorite of them all was Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, pictured above.

There, over a glass of wine and a cheeseboard,


she and I would have long discussions about the affairs of the world, my kids, and good adventures from days gone by. Although her short term memory was terrible! – as she often exclaimed in frustration – she was clear and sharp in her stories from decades past of her travels and the places we’d lived. We could (and did) talk for hours.

This past year, however, she became a little reticent about leaving her little garden apartment, even to visit her favorite places.


When I suggested going into town together, an awkward look would pass over her face and she would say, somewhat apologetically, “How about if we just stay here?”

And so, every week I would join her in the dining room at her retirement village for lunch or dinner, and listen once again to the stories. Often we were there, still talking, after everyone else had left. She loved that.

“We have the best conversations!” she would exclaim when I eventually walked her back to her little flat – even if she had done most of the talking.

She’d call a few days later to thank me for coming over and tell me how much she’d enjoyed our visit, often ending with the same words, “We have the best conversations!”

Last February, I offered to take her out for a glass of wine in celebration of my sister’s life. She started automatically to demur, but when I suggested we go to Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, she couldn’t resist. And so we celebrated Valentine’s Day and my sister there together in the usual way – a glass of wine, some cheese, and of course – stories.


“We have the best conversations!” she remarked on the drive back to her place in Black Mountain.

It was to be her last visit to the Book Exchange & Champagne Bar. In the weeks that followed, she became increasingly reluctant to leave her little home.

She did admit, some weeks later, that she would love one more trip there. A mischievous little girl smile of hopefulness and delight lit up her face at the very thought of it.

But somehow I didn’t have the time, or make the time. I wasn’t sure she could manage it. Nevertheless, it still bothers me greatly that I didn’t somehow work it out for her.

Second guesses and regrets are part of the pain of dealing with death, but I’ve realized that trying to mentally outwit the sharper edges of remorse is often unproductive.

Rather, the best antidote to the relentless head-tricks and mind games we put ourselves through in the wake of loss might just be an unexpected little piece of magic.

And so it was the other night when a painting in a dark corner of the old Wedge building in the River Arts District caught my eye.


I was wandering around a friend’s studio during a reception showcasing her work that was intriguingly titled, “Accidentally On Purpose.”

Mixed media artist Jacqui Fehl is a tiny, magical creature with large grey eyes and long ropes of platinum & black dreads. She describes her paintings as “a blend of grunge, whimsy and outsider.”


Influenced by music, lyrics, feelings, and stories, Jacqui’s art is unpredictable – playful, colorful and humorous with an appealing edge of darkness. Jacqui says her creative process is mostly intuitive; she may start out with an idea, but never really knows what the end result will be.

I’ve been a fan of her work for years.

“It is a dance of layering on, removing, covering up and revealing. I like my work to be loose, a bit flawed and not too precise or perfect.”

That sounds like my life, I thought, as I read her artist statement.

Even in the shadows, and even though it was not part of the show, I could see and feel there was something about this particular painting that was very compelling. The colors, the mood of it – it had a storytelling aura and lovely intimacy about it.

Another artist in the gallery caught me staring at it.

“You like this one?” she asked.

“Yes, I do,” I replied, unable, for some reason, to take my eyes off it. I was curious about – and drawn to – the random appearance of chairs throughout it.


Knowing that Jacqui always gives her paintings interesting titles, I asked her if she knew what Jacqui called it.

She picked it up from the easel and in the low light of dark corner, squinted at the writing on the back of it

“The Best Conversations,” she said.

I stood there, speechless. And so she said it again, a little louder this time.

“It’s called ‘The Best Conversations.'”

A little magic, a little serendipity … remembering the many times my mother had said those exact words. My head flooded with delight – and relief. Finding this painting felt like forgiveness.

Accidentally on purpose, indeed….


Jacqui Fehl’s delightful painting came home with me that night.

It now hangs in my little writing/breakfast room behind the kitchen –


– just one of the many places where my mother and I often had ‘the best conversations.’

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