No doubt you’ve heard the expression, “life imitates art.” In my experience, or at least in my writing, it’s been mostly the other way around. I’ve consciously drawn on my own experiences for many of my novels, especially the Blue Notes Series books, which are set in the classical music world I used to inhabit. My experience with Lighting the Way Home, my upcoming Dreamspinner Press release (part of the Delectable Series of food-themed romances), co-authored with the incomparable EM Lynley, was much the same. EM and I drew on our own backgrounds growing up in Jewish families to create the Jewish home life chef Josh Golden and lawyer Micah Solomon grew up with in Lighting. Somewhere along the line, however, the more imagined aspects of the story became reality for me. But first, a bit of story background…
Josh Golden grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan and figured out pretty early on that he was gay. He also figured out that he was in love, or a least in lust with his best friend Micah. Micah has a much harder time figuring things out for himself than Josh. When things fall apart between them, Josh runs to Europe to pursue a career as a chef. Ten years later, he’s successful and loving his work. Then his parents ask him to come home temporarily to help out at their family restaurant. Josh agrees, although he’s counting the days before he returns to France even before he sets foot back in his family home.
EM and I fashioned Josh’s parents’ home, family, and community by drawing on our own backgrounds. From the old plug-in clock and the metal cabinets in the kitchen, to the slightly faded drapery, to the “claw ladies” who pinch cheeks until they hurt–those are all recreated from our memories of growing up. And if we were thinking of our own aging parents when we created Miriam and Seymour Golden, it was only peripherally (or at least, I can say that it was for me).
Josh comes home because his mother, Miriam, needs gall-bladder surgery. But later on, he learns that his father has been having heart problems, and needs valve replacement surgery. When EM added this last piece more than six months ago, I thought it worked well–Josh’s parents are getting older, and heart valves often need replacing in older people. Perfect sense, right?
Then my own aging parents came for Thanksgiving this past year, and my dad (never overweight, always a regular and serious exerciser), was experiencing extreme shortness of breath. To the point where he was literally struggling just to walk. My dad the former swimmer who had two knees replaced so he could keep hiking in the mountains outside my parents’ apartment in the French Alps. After several months of tests, we got the verdict: he needed at least one new heart valve and another repaired or replaced. Open heart/open chest surgery. I was floored.
Fast forward to March 1st, when my dad had his surgery, which also included double bypass. Turns out he also had two calcium blocked arteries. No wonder he could barely breathe! While I was waiting around the hospital that day, and for several days before, I was working on edits. Which book, you ask? The galley proof for Lighting the Way Home. The irony was not lost on me (or EM, for that matter).
I’m happy to report that my dad’s recovering well now. Still, even though I thought I understood what Josh was going through by coming home, I feel a bit more affinity for his situation now that I’ve experienced some of his reality. More fodder for future stories, no doubt. I just didn’t expect that the bit of unreality that I had helped write in a story would become my reality. Go figure.
Lighting the Way Home is now available for pre-order at the Dreamspinner Press website. I’ll leave you all with the blurb and an excerpt from the first chapter of the story, where you’ll get to know the Goldens. Enjoy! -Shira
Blurb: World-class chef Joshua Golden is homesick for Paris before he even arrives in New York, but he’ll endure it—his parents need him to help run the family restaurant while his mother recovers from surgery. Running a place so far beneath his talents is bad enough, but bad turns to worse when Josh discovers his former best friend and lover, Micah Solomon, is living at his parents’ house with his ten-year-old son, Ethan.
For ten years, Josh has done his best to forget how Micah shattered his heart into tiny pieces. Now Micah’s back, fresh out of prison, and helping out at the restaurant. Micah may not be the kind of sous chef Josh is used to, but he is more helpful and supportive than any of the other employees. But Josh finds it hard to keep his distance when, time after time, Micah proves himself a better man than Josh thought. Reluctantly, Josh realizes there is more to Micah than his lousy life choices… but that doesn’t mean Josh is ready to forgive him.
Excerpt from Chapter One (prepublication excerpt, final version may change):
“DON’T worry. It’ll be fine. I’ll be fine!”
Joshua Golden couldn’t begin to count how many times he’d heard his mother say those very words. This time, however, he didn’t believe them.
“Mom, it’s surgery. It’s serious.”
“You’re a good boy, Joshy.” She reached for his hand and placed a loud kiss on the back of his knuckles. “Don’t worry about me.”
He cringed at the old nickname. And the kiss.
“The doctor says it’s nothing.” Josh’s dad gave his typical shrug. “She’ll be in the hospital overnight, that’s it.”
“Then why did you need me to come home from France and help you run the restaurant for two weeks if it’s nothing?” Josh suspected there was something they weren’t telling him. He let out a loud sigh, louder than he expected. His mother tilted her head and gave him that look that said “Don’t start.”
Yes, he was home. He hadn’t even stepped foot inside his parents’ house, but he already knew everything would be the same as it had been while he was growing up, from the slightly faded drapes on the front windows, to the outdated upholstered furniture in the living room, to the worn rug in the front entryway. Everything would be the same, right down to the way his parents manipulated him, as they always did, and the way they treated him like a five-year-old, no matter his age.
It would be a long two weeks.
He already missed France. Even a week away from the restaurant now was something he couldn’t afford, not when they’d just been awarded their third Michelin star—the highest rating. Only about eighty restaurants in the whole world had achieved the feat. Press and gourmets from all over Europe were flocking there, and here he was, in New York, because his mother called and asked him to come home for the holidays.
She’d told him she was scheduled for surgery, and she’d explain everything once he arrived. But not to worry, which from Miriam Golden was a signal to do exactly that. But Josh couldn’t help but worry. It was the main reason he’d agreed to come home—temporarily. The only reason. He’d kept his distance from New York—and the memories it held—for a reason. He hadn’t been back to his old neighborhood for five years, though he’d been in the States on a number of occasions he hadn’t mentioned to his family. They wouldn’t understand, he reminded himself at the wave of guilt that swept over him at the thought his mother’s condition was more serious than she’d admitted over the phone. She looked perfectly fine. She sounded like she had his entire life. As they walked toward baggage claim, Josh’s dad shuffled along; then his mother turned around and smiled enigmatically. Oh yeah. Now he was really worried, but it had nothing to do with his mother’s health.
“SO, TELL us all about your restaurant in Paris?”
They were in the car driving toward Manhattan, stuck in on the Long Island Expressway. They had barely made it a mile from JFK. His father’s shoulders were visibly tense—Josh knew how he hated dealing with the traffic. Why hadn’t he just taken a cab instead of letting them pick him up? He could afford it.
“Well, Mom, it’s called Le Petit Cerisier.”
“Sounds very French,” his mother said, in a tone that implied it might be better to sound Martian.
“It’s named after the Japanese cherry blossom trees. We cook European-Asian fusion and—”
“What the hell is that when it’s at home?” his father interrupted, turning his head toward Josh.
“Dad, pay attention to the road.” “We’re going two miles an hour, where’s it going to go?”
“That’s not the point, Dad.”
“Sure it is.”
A taxi cut in front of them, nearly hitting the front right bumper.
“Seymour.” Just his father’s name. That was all his mother had to say—in just the right tone, with heavy emphasis on the first syllable—and his dad shrugged and turned his attention back toward the road ahead of them. Amazing, really. He still couldn’t figure out how she did it. It had worked on him, too, when he was a kid.
It’d probably still work now, he thought wryly.
“Go on, Josh.” His mother patted his hand. “What kind of food is it?” It was her usual smile this time, but he noticed the wrinkles around her mouth were more pronounced than he remembered. When had her hair gone completely white?
“You wouldn’t like it.” He wouldn’t even try to explain why he was cooking traif—non-kosher foods Jews considered unclean, like pork and shellfish. They’d never eaten any of those things when he was growing up. He hadn’t tasted shrimp until he was in college, and even then he felt guilty for liking it. And once he’d moved to Europe, it was as if an entire new universe of tastes had opened up for him.
“Fine.” She let out another heavy sigh, and Josh immediately felt a touch of guilt at having foreclosed that part of the conversation. She meant well, didn’t she? “Do you like it?”
“I love it. We’re really hitting our stride, and we just got another star.” He smiled, partly out of pride, but partly to reassure her.
“That’s nice.” Josh repressed a sigh. He knew she was more proud of him than she let on; she just didn’t quite understand how important his career was to him. Neither of them had understood why he’d left home, left Goldens, their family-run restaurant, and headed off on an international culinary adventure through Asia and Europe, eventually ending in France where he’d washed dishes and peeled potatoes to pay his way through Le Cordon Bleu. It wasn’t all about food at the time, but he put his passion into his cooking rather than dwell on the real reason he’d left.
He’d finally got up enough courage—chutzpah, his dad would call it—to walk into Raymond Vessy’s kitchen and ask for a job. He was right out of culinary school and with no experience working in any professional kitchen other than his parents’ and half a dozen little places around Asia and Europe, learning local cuisines and techniques. Raymond had just stared at him as if he’d lost his mind. “I do not hire children,” Vessy said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Come back when you have lived a little.”
Undaunted, and knowing no explanation of his travels and experience would suffice, Josh had offered to prepare him a meal, and surprisingly, Vessy had relented. Josh had done everything himself, working from early in the morning to have dinner prepared for the chef. The look of happy surprise on Vessy’s face had been worth every Band-Aid on his fingers.
“I’ve never had dumplings like this before. Duck confit pot stickers? Where did you learn this?”
“I made it up.”
“Really? Why this combination? And five-spiced pineapple.” He pursed his lips in the way the French had that could be interest or insult. Josh had struggled to express himself in French. Vessy pelted him with more questions. “What wine would you serve with the dumplings?”
“Petite sirah.” Josh made sure to state it with confidence, even though he felt anything but. He could see by the raised eyebrows he’d impressed Raymond, who’d made an exception to his “no babies” rule and given him a job on the spot.
He started as a kitchen assistant, tasked with the scut work in the kitchen—peeling, boning, and cleaning up after the more experienced staff—but once a week Raymond asked him to prepare staff lunch, and after six months he’d been promoted to the lowest rung of station chef. Five years later, Josh was number two in the restaurant and all but ran the place.
The drive to his parents’ house, only twenty miles, took two hours in typical traffic. They’d hit rush hour. Jet lag and the late nights at the restaurant caught up with Josh, and he fell asleep curled up on the backseat of the car. By the time they’d parked the car in the garage and Josh’s mother shook him from his slumber, it was six o’clock.
Josh sat up and moved to wipe the back of his hand across his face, but his mother’s glare put paid to that intention. He hoped he hadn’t drooled while he slept. He ran his fingers through his hair to smooth it down as his father shuffled around to the trunk. “Dad, I’ll bring the luggage.” Josh put his hand on his father’s shoulder and with a forced smile, placed himself between his father and the trunk. He was here to help them, wasn’t he? His dad didn’t need to be schlepping his bags.
“That’s okay. I’ll be fine. You go and have a nap.”
“You better not sleep too much, or your clock will be all messed up,” Miriam added with a frown.
Josh shrugged and realized he’d reacted the same way his dad had earlier in the car. Shaking off the horrific thought he might be turning into his dad, Josh lugged the suitcase out of the trunk in silence and began to roll it toward the back door.
“I could have gotten that.” His dad sounded slightly insulted.
“What happened to that nice suitcase we got you?” his mother added as she studied the hard-case spinner suitcase he’d picked up in Paris.
“Mom, that was when I graduated from college. It was years ago.” He remembered the suitcase well: fake carpetbag paisley. He’d taken it when he’d left home, but it had been too impractical for his travels, so he’d replaced it with a sturdy backpack long ago.
“I still have the same suitcase I had when your father and I….” Josh tuned her out. He loved her, but it was times like these he realized how much he’d changed since he left home and begun his own life. His parents would never understand why he did what he did, why he’d chosen a different life from theirs. He’d given up explaining himself, but then they asked so many questions. He was caught in the middle. Somewhere between the kid and the adult.
He stifled a yawn as he wheeled the suitcase in through the kitchen, letting it bounce over the raised threshold that separated inside from out. The kitchen looked the same, with its drab linoleum floors, ruffled curtains, and metal cabinets. The clock over the sink was the same one Josh remembered from when he was a kid—the electrical cord ran from the bottom up and over the pass-through to the dining room.
“Why get a new clock?” his father had said when Josh had suggested a battery-operated one on a trip home from college. “This one works fine.” The kitchen smelled good, though. Comforting. Familiar.
“Oh, Josh, honey. Wait a minute before you go upstairs,” Miriam called to him as he made his way along the familiar hallway toward the front entryway.
Thundering feet rushed down the stairs and a blue and red blur sped past him. Was that a kid? His gaze followed the blur toward the kitchen, and sure enough a boy of about ten was settling himself in at the kitchen table. His mother smiled at the boy and ruffled his hair, just like she had always done when Josh was that age. Whoever the boy was, Josh was too tired to have what promised to be a strange conversation with his mother about him. He turned back toward the stairs, came face to face and nearly collided with a man who had just stepped down. Not just any man.