Another Burst of Light


Around a year ago I wrote an essay about my friend Jamie Sumner. It was more or less a book review disguised as a love letter. Or perhaps it was a love letter disguised as a book review?

Either way, that particular blogpost allowed me to:

1) satisfy my sometimes insatiable need to overshare personal stories;
2) praise and promote Jamie’s splendiferous memoir about her skirmish with infertility;
3) express my gratitude for all the support Jamie offers up while I cope with my mother’s slow but steady demise from dementia.

She shoots arrows of light into the sky for me, she does. Yup. I email Jamie to tell her I’m flying down to Florida and what does she write in return? She tells me not to worry; she’ll be “shooting prayers into the sky like arrows.”

I’ve felt those arrows. Those prayers. That light of hers pushing away the darkness. Jamie’s presence in my life has been nothing short of miraculous.

But here’s the thing: Jamie isn’t just an arrow-shooting friend. She’s also the mother of three beautiful children, one of whom is differently-abled. (Her firstborn, Charlie, has Beckwith-Wiedemann Syndrome and cerebral palsy).

Charlie is the inspiration for Jamie’s new book–the book I expect to be one of the most talked-about, gushed over, and positively reviewed Middle-Grade novels on the planet. Friendsx, I give you:


So, okay, maybe this here blogpost is yet another love letter disguised as a book promo or perhaps it’s a book promo disguised as a love letter? Either way, it’s allowing me to:

1) congratulate Jamie on her BOOK RELEASE DAY! release-day(We authors take this very seriously. I mean, hello? Your shiny new book is born today! It’s like your birthday, only it has fewer candles and more words.);
2) tell everyone I know to go out and buy this book. Buy it now. Today. Buy it before midnight and, if you prove to me you did, I will shoot a few beams of light in your general direction.

Congratulations, Firefly. May this extraordinary story of yours brighten the hearts and spark the minds of a million readers.

Lillian’s Light


Photo credit: Lisa Kusel 

Memories, like Jell-O, shake,
fall off the Spanish chandelier
all she left me, my father’s mother,
once she died, it hangs there from the ceiling
in our dining room, ceramic flowers
pink and blue and yellow like a child’s toy
giving light with open arms

spraying light and then
she is stooped under it
gnarled painful back, humped
spreading tuna salad
on rye toast
heaping canned fruit bits, cherries
redder than an oil painting,
squares of pineapple so perfect
a geometry teacher would marry them
on my plate and I wipe

treacly juice
from my small mouth
from the table
my elfin reflection
in that lucid bough hanging
over her table alive with possibilities
I could not perceive

before I escaped to
my Florida friends

Marco Polo

before I could scurry from
dry cold old-smelling air into
a humid embrace like a mink stole
saddling sunburned shoulders

she kisses my freckled cheeks, in her hands
like a vise tightening waiting sides
leaving me lipstick smudged,
plastic smelling Hollywood Red, Uptown Red, Marilyn Red
Radiant Red, Royal Red, Ravishing Red, Really Red, Truly Red,
Russian Red, West End Red, Silent Red,
Burnt Red, Flame Red, Hot Red,
Red Licorice, Red Ribbon, Red Devil, Red Fox,
No Question Red, Deep Cut Red, Riot Red
Fatal Red, Midnight Red, Velvet Red, Drop Dead Red
Classic Red rubbed off with thumb and spit. Cleaning

a hanging light is treacherous.
So many reflections lie beneath the dust.
In the breeze they make no sound.

What’s Going On, Lisa?


Thanks for asking. It’s been a while, so I figured, what, with this 3-day weekend upon us, I may as well catch you up.

I spent three weeks in northern California this summer and it was an altogether fabulous holiday. Among my many adventures, I

  • visited my girlfriend Lela, the doctor who delivered Loy. She opened a new ob/gyn practice in Santa Rosa with an attached spa that offers skin-altering facials, one of which Lela treated me to. After the machine sucked out the toxins and the aesthetician rubbed some magic lotion on my skin, I positively glowed. For a few days, anyway, I looked a decade younger.
  • ran into my old boyfriend, Doug, of Modern Love, Rejected fame. (Still happily married, he did not take notice of my shiny countenance.)
  • hiked 8 miles (and 1545 feet of elevation gain) up a mountain dyingafter both mistakenly taking too much of my ADHD meds, and not bringing along enough water in blistering heat. I almost died.
  • reconnected with friends from our former lives in Nevada City which made me consider moving back there again.
  • enjoyed two blissful weeks in Lake Tahoe, writing, cooking, hiking, swimming, reading, and hanging with my BFF Lori. I sort of never wanted to leave.IMG_0133

But leave I did and once back in Vermont, I got back to work. Yeah, writers do more than just stare off into space, conjuring up fantastical plots and wondering what to name their fictional characters’ dogs (I did actually spend a lot of time doing that). Among other things I

  • listened to 8.5 hours of the first run-through of the audio version of RASH, stopping every 22 seconds to note mistakes made by the narrator, most of which were Bahasa and Balinese mispronunciations. Granted; I should have recorded it myself, but Sharon Larson, the producer I chose, lives in Idaho and it was easier to let someone else take it on. Sharon is working on the final edits and the audiobook should be available in the next month or so.
  • finished the final edits on my domestic suspense novel Love Lies Here. I am now composing the ever-important query. I never had to write a query before: my previous agents came to me through introductions. I follow this guy, Nathan Bransford, an ex-agent turned writing blogger. He offers in-depth, accessible advice to newbie writers, as well as to old hands like me who still need some help. As to query writing, Nathan says:
Writing a query is such a tricky balance. One the one hand, you have to condense an entire novel into a few dozen words. On the other hand, you want your query to reflect the uniqueness of your book and stand out from the pack. You need to be general, but you also need to include detail. You need to be clear, but you need to be original. You need to give flavor, but you can’t get bogged down. How in the world do you do all this at once?


Now then. Besides the query-writing I

  • flew to Florida to check on my mother. I’d like to be the bearer of good news where she is concerned, but, unfortunately, this is not to be. (Have I mentioned that the heat of Florida in August is not that different than the heat in Bali anytime?)
  • fretted over the fact that my daughter, Loy, just started her senior year of high school. I miss her even though she’s still here and now my head and heart are swirling with a kaleidoscope of
    1. sadness
    2. pride
    3. wonder
    4. questions about my own mortality
    5. time
    6. success: what does it even mean?
    7. #metoo
    8. motherhood
  • made reservations at various Airbnb’s around the US in advance of the many colleges Loy and I will check out together in the coming months. Her heart is set on Barnard, but hearts, as we well know, are made to break.
  • sifted through boxes of recipes, pulling out the non-meat ones since the high school senior has just informed us she is a vegetarian.
  • dwelled far too much in past memories and fantasized far too much about what I want my future to look like.
  • filled out the volunteer application for the local food shelf but didn’t yet turn it in.
  • wrote a polite thank-you note to a book blogger who reviewed RASH in a most favorable fashion.
  • considered re-organizing my office.
  • meditated daily with soothing meditation teachers.
  • made a list of writing residencies I was absolutely going to apply to, then missed half the deadlines.
  • saw Tony Bennett perform at the Flynn and waxed nostalgic about my dead father who was a huge fan. I am constantly amazed by music’s profound ability to unmoor me.  As the late Oliver Sacks wrote in his book Musicophilia: “Familiar music acts as a sort of Proustian mnemonic, eliciting emotions and associations that had long been forgotten, giving the patient access once again to moods and memories, thoughts and worlds that had seemingly been completely lost.” Interestingly: my mother has lost so many of her memories due to dementia, yet, when old-time crooners swing by her facility to entertain the residents, she sings along to every song, remembering all the lyrics.  Apparently, this is because
Musical memory is considered to be partly independent from other memory systems. In Alzheimer’s disease and different types of dementia, musical memory is surprisingly robust…
  • fell out of love with Facebook while spending hours scrolling through Instagram, alternately experiencing boredom, awe, and FOMO.
  • connected with an old housemate from when I lived on Balboa Island and attended UC Irvine. Debbie found me on FB, and after I told her I based a character in my second novel on her, I noticed my Amazon sale numbers shot up precipitously.
  • binge-watched Crashing (the British version), Fleabag, and The Handmaid’s Tale. Victor and I are presently ensconced in season 2 of Billions. I can watch Paul Giamatti tie his shoes and still be riveted. If you haven’t yet, you must see his series, John Adams. Both he and it are phenomenal.
  • starting reading Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion so that I may learn how to give myself more of that.
  • wrote this blog post.















War is Heck

It didn’t take a whole lot of arm-twisting to convince my husband Victor that I needed to go to  England and France if I wanted Mary’s Crossing, the WWII romance novel I was writing, to be as true-to-life as possible. I’d already spent the last year reading dozens of books, interviewing veterans, watching countless WWII movies, perusing innumerable websites, and listening to hundreds of interviews recorded by the National WWII Museum.

Certainly, secondary research is all well and good, but I had yet to fully capture the emotional and physical journeys of my two main characters: Eugene Walsh, a naval officer from a small town in northern California who lands on Utah Beach on D-Day; and Claudette Delors, a French woman trying to return to her village in occupied France. For that to happen, I felt I needed to see what they saw. I wanted to walk beside them.

Which meant, of course, that Victor and our three-year-old daughter, Loy, were going to walk beside them as well.


I’d developed the book’s rudimentary historical plot in 1998, when during a trip to France with Victor, we chanced upon the village of Oradour-sur-Glane where, on June 10, 1944, every man, woman, and child, was rounded up by Waffen-SS troops and executed. The men were shot to death; the women and children herded inside the village church and burned alive.

When he saw the devastation, President de Gaulle ordered that a wall be erected around the town so future generations would never forget. The “Village des Martyrs,” as it is known today, looks almost exactly as it did in 1944. We spent hours there, silently strolling the haunted ruins through a light drizzle. By the time we got back to the car, I knew in my bones I’d write about it someday.



The modern day segment of the plotline floated into my mind’s harbor in 2003 (by then I’d had two novels published). While out on a walk, Victor casually mentioned an article he’d read about the Queen Mary 2which was to be the fastest ocean liner ever to be built.


Its maiden voyage was planned for 2004 and it would be large enough to accommodate 2620 people.

“So, basically, everyone who lives here could fit on that ship,” I’d said, referring to our hometown of Nevada City, California. “How weird would it be for a whole town to sail together across the Atlantic Ocean?”

A weird idea, indeed, and more than a little provocative. A few weeks later, I finished an outline for my next novel’s plot: The small gold mining town of Lost Hill, California, is in turmoil because the Mionee Indian tribe has applied to build a casino on its outskirts (I based this on the real-life battle consuming the Gold Rush town of Plymouth, CA). Eugene Walsh is Lost Hill’s curmudgeon, embittered by the tragic events of WWII. He is also the town’s richest man. His only friend is Henry Weymouth, an unassuming house inspector who plays chess with Eugene most every evening. When Eugene dies, it is up to Henry to see that Eugene’s wishes, spelled out in his will, are carried out: Eugene offers to pay the Mionee to take their casino elsewhere. He also bequeaths every Lost Hill adult $10,000, if everyone in town agrees to accompany his ashes to France on the RMS Queen Mary 2. He wants his remains to be spread on the grave of a woman he met on the original RMS Queen Mary in 1944, back when he was on his way to war, and she was on her way home. After a lot of contentious debate, the entire town agrees to the proposition and travels aboard the QM2. Unresolved tensions between main characters flare throughout the crossing. Henry and Julia (Eugene’s estranged granddaughter) fall in love. Finally, they all reach Oradour-sur-Glane where lessons are learned and a shocking truth about Claudette is discovered.


By the beginning of 2005 I’d written a first draft and scoured every bit of historical research I could lay my hands on. My office was crammed full with books. Maps lined my walls. But so many details were still hazy. First off, I needed to see both ships. Flying down to Long Beach, where the original Queen Mary—now a hotel—was berthed was easy enough. I paid the admission price and walked around the decks, getting a feel for what Eugene might have experienced while traveling to England as a twenty-three-year-old naval ensign. I got a better sense of what the QM looked like when she was fitted out to be a troopship.

troops on queen mary 16x9

During the peak of the buildup to D-Day, as many as 16,000 troops were crowded onto a ship designed to hold just over 1,900 passengers. A glamorous and comfortable crossing it was not.

Most importantly, I saw the isolation ward where Eugene first meets Claudette.

isolation ward

But…how to describe the QM2? And what of the villages in England and the battlefields in France where Eugene spent months? It would have been remiss to set huge portions of the plot in places I knew only from photographs. Or, well, that was the logic I presented to Victor. “Loy is three. She’s so easy. We can travel cheap and stay with friends,” I’d offered. I also reminded him that his parents would be in Alsace for the summer. He said he’d “look into it,” and went back to reading to Loy.

The QM2’s incentives for first-time passengers turned out to be generous enough for us to afford a second-class (Princess Grill) stateroom. We contacted friends of friends who lived within driving distances of the many museums and sites I planned to visit. The grandparents even offered up some funds as incentive to detour northward for a visit.

In late May we boarded the QM2 and began our six-day transatlantic crossing. I spent those six days noting the myriad details I would use for the voyage of Lost Hill’s inhabitants. I charmed an invitation into the first-class (Queen’s Grill) area of the ship where butlers hung clothes and accompanying dogs had their own playground. During the day we three sipped strong tea in the ballroom whilst being serenaded by a string quartet. loylisaqm2At night, before fetching Loy from the daycare run by British nannies, we drank martinis in the Commodore Club overlooking the sleek bow. We listened to lectures, stared up in amazement in the planetarium, splashed one another in the pools, jogged the running track, and stretched out on comfy deck chairs in the breezy sunshine. By the time we docked in Southampton I knew, amongst other particulars, exactly what my characters ate for breakfast and what pieces of art they passed on their way to the dining room.


We rented a car and drove down to South Devon where I scouted out where Eugene lived and trained for the invasion. I’d chosen Salcombe, one of the three departure points for the Utah Beach landing force. We put Loy in her stroller and roamed the charming seaside village so I could affix to my mind what Eugene saw as he stepped out of his Quonset hut each morning before heading to the harbor for military exercises.

In the village of Frogmore I found the 19th century inn where he and Claudette met for a second time. I sat in the room where they made love and vowed to be together after the war ended. We picnicked in the grassy field where Eugene begged Claudette not to go to France.


And then, like my characters, we were off to France. To honor the thousands of men who lost their lives on D-Day, we crossed the English Channel on June 6, exactly sixty-one years after Eugene did.

lisamuseumI filled notebook after notebook as we wandered battlefields, war museums, beaches, and cemeteries. Since Eugene commanded an LCVP, a small landing craft, there was nothing I didn’t know about LCVPs—on paper. 
amphibious-military-vehicles-wwi-to-presentIn Saint-Marie-du-Mont I got to climb onto a real one. I stood where Eugene would have stood as he and his men crossed the choppy waters.

If we knew a particular exhibition displayed gruesome or violent imagery, Victor would take Loy to a nearby playground or bistro while I, alone, immersed myself in the many displays of Nazi brutality. Hours later, stinking of death, I’d come out of the darkness, blinking against the bright sun, and go meet up with my husband and child. I’d desperately want to tell Victor about my ghastly discoveries, but inevitably he’d shush me. “No, Lisa. Not in front of Loy.” Like a puppy being house-trained I learned to hold in the horrors.

I returned to Oradour-sur-Glane, and when I saw the remains of the slaughter through Eugene’s eyes, as if for the first time, I was again shaken to my core. Since our last visit an underground memorial had been built to exhibit photographs, Oradour-victims-2_articleimage (1)films, and recordings about the tragedy. Personal effects found among the carnage were presented in clean climate-controlled glass cases. A watch, frozen at 3:15. A charred schoolbook. A hairbrush which may have belonged to Claudette.


After the obligatory trip to Alsace to see the grandparents we set off for London, where I’d reserved time in the Imperial War Museum’s extensive library. On July 7, the night before our planned departure from France, suicide bombers carried out a series of attacks throughout the city, killing 52 people and injuring over 700.


The Chunnel ceased running, so we were forced to return our car and ferry back over. We disembarked in Dover on July 8, stepping onto a vastly different landscape than we’d left a month earlier. There were police everywhere. Travel was restricted. A sense of doom and danger permeated the air. Here, I’d been consumed by a war long over, and was now suddenly slapped into a present-day conflict.

We hunkered down at a friend’s house in East Sheen. Instead of traveling into London together, Victor and Loy stayed behind. Every morning, as I boarded a train, I wondered if the terrorists were finished terrorizing or if I’d become another innocent victim who happened to choose the wrong train car. The fear overwhelmed me. Would I see my family again, I asked myself as I glanced furtively at the other passengers. I looked into their faces. Scanned their clothing for signs of bombs. Only when I reached my stop and exited the train was I able to breathe again.

Sure, I could have eschewed the paranoia by staying in the suburbs, but knowing the Imperial War Museum housed tens of thousands of primary sources from WWII, I was determined to finish my research. (Recall please, that in 2005 the internet was a far less powerful resource.) For the next week I scoured innumerous medical records from Queen Victoria Hospital (Claudette was assigned there). I flipped through thousands of photographs of naval training exercises. climbingnetsI held in my hand actual letters and diaries from soldiers, sailors, and civilians. There, in the small silent room I read their stories and let myself get transported back in time so that I could almost grasp their feelings: The gung-ho young men excited to be traveling abroad, as if going off to war were an innocuous adventure. The mothers and sisters, wives and girlfriends who cloaked their apprehension with words of pride.


Back in California I sequestered myself in my writing cottage. Now that I had all this data, my characters would finally get to see what I’d seen. Hear what I’d heard. I would color every scene with my memories and bring history alive. I would make Eugene suffer so much, he’d return to Lost Hill a broken man.

What I hadn’t planned on was returning to Nevada City a broken woman. Two weeks after I started rewriting Mary’s Crossing, I fell into a deep depression.

What had I been thinking, trying to recreate war? What had possessed me to believe it’d be easy to transfer the grisly scenes onto a page? I was beholden to the dead and constantly felt the pressure to get it exactly right. I began questioning my ability to tell the story. I hated everything and everyone.

I had become Eugene Walsh, the town curmudgeon.

One afternoon after I’d walked into the house and slammed the door because I felt so grumpy, Victor said, “You’ve become a real jerk, you know.” Before I could get defensive, he added, “Maybe you should stop writing that book. It’s just pissing you off.”

He was right. Maybe I should. “I’m going for a walk,” I announced.

“Mommy. I made this for you. Drink it before you go,” Loy said, handing me a plastic martini glass filled with green Mardi Gras beads. I drank it, making gulping noises as the beads dribbled all over my face and down onto the floor.

I handed the empty glass back to her so she could wash it in her fake sink. “Yum. That was tasty. Thank you.”

“Did it make you feel better, Mommy?”

“Yeah, did it?” Victor asked.

I left without answering and flew down the hill, jumped over the fence, clomping through the neighbor’s yard and over to the gravel road until I hit the trail that lined the wide creek flowing below our property. I cut right at the grove of buckeyes and carefully picked my way across the white boulders to a small eddy hurried-rushing-waters-of-a-stream_800where we often brought hot chocolate and a picnic lunch. Where I usually panicked as Loy walked along the slippery rocks, knowing that if she fell into the fast creek she’d be washed away in the blink of an eye.

I crept up to the pool and dangled my right hand in the icy water until my fingers started to sting. I welcomed the pain.


My doctor prescribed Lexapro. In a matter of weeks my anxiety was gone and my anger subdued. I finished writing Mary’s Crossing, sent it off to my agent, and then promptly titrated off the drug. I liked being on an even keel, emotionally speaking, but I’d become less sharp; my cognition was less nimble. I wanted my full brain back again.

In the end, my agent never did sell the novel. Editors loved “the conceit of the story,” and many adored Eugene and Claudette, although the majority of readers thought it was overwritten. There were too many main characters, and they found the present-day plotline less compelling than the historical section.

Instead of rewriting it, I moved to Bali where I began writing a different novel altogether: one that had nothing to do with war or death.

“Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” 
                             ― Edmund Burke

I figure someday I’ll return to Eugene and Claudette’s fateful tale, but in the next version, I’ll cull the casino story and focus only on the love story. After all my family and I experienced during those months abroad—from landscapes swathed in graves of dead soldiers to the London bombing—I’ve come to accept that there will never be an end to war in my lifetime or in my daughter’s lifetime. We, as individuals, can only do so much to stop hatred and its violent consequences. But we must try to attain peace, if not for the sake of our children, for the sake of those who lost their lives in wars past and wars present.

I know that my writing a romance novel that takes place during a war will not change the course of history. Eugene and Claudette are fictional characters sprung from my imagination, but through them, because of them, I have to believe that love will someday prevail.





Author Interview with Gilion

RCR header 2


In case you missed it on FB and IG, I was recently interviewed by the extraordinarily charming and generous book blogger, Gilion Dumas; aka Rose City Reader. For anyone itching to find out the whys and hows of this tropical tale of mine, have at it: 

How did you come to write your recent memoir Rash about moving your family from California to Bali?

Truly, this book was a long time in coming. A week after we returned to the States from Bali, I met my agent for lunch in New York City. I asked him to advise me how to make the novel I’d been working on better. He suggested I put it aside and instead write “the Bali book.” He’d read my email dispatches, he said, and thought my experiences would make for a fantastic, relatable book. Since I’d always been a fiction writer, I fought him on it. I had no interest in writing a memoir. I mean, who wants to talk about themselves for 300 pages? (Given the abundance of memoirs out there, I suppose lots of people do—although I, for one, did not wish to.)

I never forgot his entreaty, though; even as I worked on my next novel, his words continued to shadow me. Two years after that lunch date, I gathered up all my emails, papers, photographs and mementos from our time in Bali, checked into an empty B&B in northern Vermont, and spent three weeks writing the first draft. (When a snowstorm sealed me in, I came close to channeling Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.”) Four more drafts and a new agent later, Rash found a publisher who fell in love with it.

You don’t sugarcoat the experiences you had while living abroad. Did you have any qualms about sharing so much?

That is a definitive YES! Qualms, reservations, and queasiness to boot. Over-sharing is not in my nature, but honesty is. I knew if I wanted this book to be good, I would need to be completely forthcoming and authentic. I remember nervously pacing the house while my husband read the first draft. Given that Victor is a preternaturally private person I was uber worried he’d be angry at me for broadcasting our intimacies. After he pointed out a few factual inaccuracies, his response was something along the lines of, “You left out a lot and it was much worse than you depicted. Go write it again.”

I almost hate to ask, but can you give us a hint about what the title means without ruining the story?

That’s a great question. It’s funny, but my agent wanted to title it Bitch Mom in Bali: Confessions of a Desperate Woman in Paradise. Gosh, but I hated that. I was bitchy, but certainly not a bitch. I chose “Rash” because I love a double entendre. It was a rash decision to pack up and move to the other side of the planet mere weeks after I discovered Green School’s existence. The other use of rash—the literal usage—speaks to my constant fears about our daughter’s safety. Mosquito-borne dengue fever is rampant in Southeast Asia. And, for children, it is often lethal. One of the first signs of infections is a flat red rash. Given that our bamboo hut was completely open-aired, it was impossible to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes, no matter how much bug spray I slathered on Loy. I was forever checking the poor kid for rashes.

For all you guys went through, your book is quite funny. How did your sense of humor affect your time in Bali or your book writing?

It’s an odd thing to write memoir. Some of the more surreal or scary experiences I encountered—like the monkey attack or the ant invasion—weren’t funny while they were happening, yet when I wrote about them, I was able to laugh at myself. I’ve often described the book to people as “I Love Lucy Goes to Bali” because I really am a bit of a nutcase. I always mean well, but my tendency to act before thinking got me into some pretty crazy situations.

Are there other expatriate memoirs that you love or inspired you to write your own?

No other book inspired me more or gave me the courage to write my own story than The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost. Here is the Amazon blurb:

… Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish—all in a country where the only music to be heard for miles around is “La Macarena.”

If you were to substitute “Bali” for “Tarawa,” “mosquitos” for “bacteria,” “rogue monkeys” for “toxic fish,” and “gamelan” for “La Macarena,” you’d essentially be describing my book. I read Troost’s book years before I knew Bali existed and I loved it. When I read it again—post-Bali—I knew I had to share my story too.

Naturally, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, especially since lots of people and reviewers have referred to Rash as the anti-Eat, Pray, Love. I really enjoyed it, even though our experiences in Bali were polar opposites.

Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?

Ack! I can’t possibly answer this. I never play favorites. Okay, here are three dead and four living authors I greatly admire.

  • Dead: Nora Ephron, Ray Bradbury, Evelyn Waugh
  • Living: Ian McKewan, Jumpha Lahiri, Julian Barnes, Stephen King

I respect the heck out of these writers. They excel at their craft and know how to tell a good story. All good writing inspires me to be a better writer, whether it be a book, an essay in a magazine, or a blog post.

What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now? 

The word eclectic could never suffice to describe the ever-growing pile on my night table. Honestly, no genre takes precedence. I’m usually reading two books (one non-fiction and one novel) at a time and, because I travel a lot, I always have an audiobook downloaded.

Presently, my NF read is A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield. As I am writing my first young adult novel, I’m reading my way through my teenage daughter’s bookshelves. I just started The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. And—because I cannot neglect my adult proclivities—The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I recently finished listening to the eighteen-hour-long audio version of the brilliant A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I’m flying a lot in the coming weeks, and just downloaded The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer to help me through the long layovers in Atlanta.

You have a terrific website and are also active on twitter and Instagram. From an author’s perspective, how important is social media to promote your book? 

My website is the clearinghouse for all things Lisa Kusel, not just promoting my book. It has links to all my published work, book reviews, and links to my other social media accounts. It’s also the place for me to occasionally blog about personal stuff—from recipes I’ve cooked to essays I choose not to submit to magazines.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?

  • Kill your darlings (Faulkner).
  • Something most always be at stake (literary agent Brian DeFiore).
  • Read. Read. Then read some more (6th grade writing teacher).
  • Just because you’ve thoroughly researched your subject matter doesn’t mean you need to share all of it with your readers (Stephen King).

What is the best thing about being a writer?

Without a doubt, it’s the friends I’ve made around the world. Something magical happens when you publish a book that speaks to personal struggles, no matter what the context. Strangers by the dozens have reached out to me since the book was published. They tell me they loved it. They related to it on so many levels (okay, so yeah, my agent was correct). From those initial emails or FB posts or Instagram messages, the conversations have continued—deeply personal exchanges that mean the world to me.

I am beyond grateful to be a part of the larger community of writers. I am the sort of author who writes to every single reviewer to thank them for reading my book—even if they didn’t like it. I write to bloggers and bookstagrammers; fellow authors and aspiring authors. I believe everyone has a story to tell and, if I can be of any help, I will.

What’s next? Are you working on your next book?

At the moment I’m writing a long essay about what it was like to travel through France and England with a small child while researching a WWII novel. (I’ll post that on my website soon). Two weeks ago I finished a complete rewrite of a novel I wrote a few years ago. It’s a genre-bending suspense story. While I wait to hear back from publishers, I’ll return to the young adult book I workshopped at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. It received outstanding feedback from an editor at Knopf, and I’m excited to dive back into it.


Hui Means “Smart”


Edith Dora Rey “Blue Necklace” (2007) 12×12″, oil on wood. Image used by permission.

I visit my mother so often these days it sometimes feels like I’m starring in Groundhog Day: The Florida Version.

It’s always the same. I wake at 3:30 (after having spent the night anxiously checking both my clock and iPhone, afraid I will sleep through both alarms). I drink a cup of tea, feed the yawning cats, dress quietly, pack up my computer, zip close my suitcase, walk out into the cold darkness, and climb into the idling Uber.

While most everyone on the airplane sleeps, I fit my treasured and indispensable BOSE over my ears, sit back, and listen contentedly to a book or podcast. Sometimes, if the flight has backseat screens, I watch an episode of Chopped on mute, or a movie I know my husband has no interest in seeing. When the cart appears alongside my row I ask for tea.

“Two bags, two creams, and two cookies please.”

biscoffOver time and countless flights on Delta, I’ve become a Biscoff-dunking expert: two dunks is just enough to soften their ultra-hard crunch, but three dunks will cause the dipped part to break off and tumble in, settling as unwanted sludge at the bottom of the cup.

After touchdown, I step outside into the steaming exhaust-filled air and hop a shuttle to the car- rental counter. I ask for a Nissan Sentra or Rogue because I know they are comfortable, and they handle well. In Florida you need a nimble car: people here drive at either recklessly high speeds or dangerously slow ones, and, as far as I can tell, Floridians don’t concern themselves with lane boundaries, turn signals, or with keeping a safe distance between cars.

Once at the gated community where my aunt and uncle reside, I pull up to the guard house and hand over my name and driver’s license. While waiting for the guard to determine whether or not I pose a threat, I listen to the peaceful gurgles from the fake concrete creek flowing nearby.


Sophie greets me at the front door with growls and high-pitched barks until my aunt yells from the kitchen, “Sophie, shut up!” at which point the mini poodle waddles off in search of her ball. I kiss my mother’s incredibly likeable younger sister and—if he’s not out playing pickle ball or cards—my affable uncle hello, tell them the flight was fine, and roll my suitcase down the long white-tiled hallway, passing the elegant dr.jpgdining room with its enormous glass table and glittering crystal chandelier, into the guest suite. I kick off my black boots and my jeans and sweater and replace them with flip-flops and a sundress, respectively. After washing my face and hands I lug the 1960s vinyl-topped card table from the enormous closet, and pull open each leg until they lock into place with a squeaky satisfying click.

For the next four to fourteen days, this will be my home office away from home office.

I traipse into the kitchen and eat whatever lunch my sweet aunt has thrown together for me. It will more than likely be carb/fat/sugar-free, but I will be starving so I won’t mind. I’ll ask if she and my uncle have dinner plans tonight. Ninety percent of the time they will: since retiring to Florida they have become the busiest and most social human beings I know. They’re never too busy, though, to tend to mother when she needs them. For this I am beyond grateful.

I fill my pink water bottle with ice and water from the door on their refrigerator, say, “I’ll see you later,” and hop into my sauna car, blast the AC and speed by the many dark-skinned bugsgardeners peppering the air with their ever-present lawn mowers and leaf blowers and pesticide dispensers. To be sure, wild and unruly are not commonplace here in V_____, and only by blood am I allowed passage into this moneyed village of stucco mansions, perfectly-placed palms, and sparkling German automobiles.

I jam out past the guard gate, turn left and head north. Twelve minutes later I arrive at H______, a sprawling tan building that houses 100 assisted living residents, as well as 56 people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. In vain I search for a shaded parking spot, grab my purse and go in. I am supposed to sign my name in the visitors’ log but I never do and no one ever asks me to. Instead, I head for the locked door into the memory care unit, say, “Can you please let me in?” to the receptionist who points a clicker. The light next to the door turns from red to blue, and I push through.

As is the case lately, I expect to find my mother sleeping somewhere, whether on a couch outside her room or in a chair on the sun-drenched patio. Today, I find her in a chair in the living room area next to the dining area. Even though the sun is shining brightly, the room is dark; the overhead lighting adding little brightness. There are about a dozen residents arranged in a semi-circle around a large television; a few, including my mother, are asleep. I don’t think anyone is actually watching the television, which seems to play a continuous loop of Tony Bennett songs, I Love Lucy reruns, and black and white movies from the 1940s. At a table behind the group, two bored kitchen workers fold dark green napkins in preparation for dinner. I look around for any caregivers or activities people and find none. I am frustrated by the lack of activities here as well as the ratio of caregivers to residents and will, again, at some point during the week, make my dissatisfaction known to the executive director, who will again promise that things will change.

I will again pretend to believe her.

I kiss my mother awake. She opens her eyes and, looking as if I’d been there all along, says, “Hi darling,” with a sweet smile. “How are you?”

“I just flew down,” I inform her.

“How’s your father?” she asks, not aware that he died last June. Not remembering that they had an acrimonious divorce more than thirty years ago.

I say, “I have no idea,” and take her hand. “Come on; let’s go for a walk.” It takes me more than three minute to heft her up. She’s in pain all over. She’s heavier than she’s ever been. (At some point I will drive to T.J. Maxx and Ross and again buy her new pants that will fit her ever-expanding girth. Such is the result of inactivity coupled with three large meals, two snacks, and two desserts per day.)

Slowly, we make our way outside to the patio where I help her settle into a cushiony chair before dragging the one umbrella-shaded table over toward her so she is covered. We catch up for a few minutes. I tell her about her granddaughter’s recent accomplishments. She smiles proudly, but no longer asks questions or attempts to further the conversation. I ask her if she wants to play cards and she says sure. I spend eight minutes trying to find a deck and when I return, she is asleep. I check my email, play a word game, move the table over a few inches so she’s out of the sun, watch her sleep.

And so it goes.

Sometimes there are activities, such as BINGO or drawing or trivia games from a downloaded program on the TV. Sometimes a few of the more ambulatory residents are put on a small bus and taken out for a donut or pizza, or just for a drive around town. When I moved her into this particular facility in January, I was told there would be a Shabbat service every Friday. In her previous place it was one of her favorite days of the week. She loved reading through the prayers, listening to the cantor sing, sipping the wine. Here, they have yet to find a Rabbi.

When I notice her face getting red from heat exhaustion I bring her back inside hoping the activities director will have found something fun for the group to do. If there’s a live musician we go together to the room where the “singer” will perform. (I put that in quotes because, frankly, the ones I’ve seen here stink. 13-murray-schaffer-snl.w700.h700.jpgThey don’t even bother memorizing the songs and sing while reading the lyrics from their computers.)

Since some of the assisted living folks might want to see the show—and God forbid they come into the memory care section of the building—the memory care folks must be herded, like slow-moving confused cows, to some other part of the building. I suppose the change of scenery is good for them, but still…it takes up to thirty tortuous minutes to get them all from one place to another.

I slip out during the performance since dinner will be served as soon as it ends, and I really don’t want to eat dinner with my mother. It is enough that I will spend the entire day here tomorrow as well as the next day and the day after that, sitting, reading, playing cards, watching her sleep, listening to bad music, and joining her for lunch.

Eating lunch with my mother is a disquieting affair. In the small dining room we are surrounded by a few wheel-chaired residents with much advanced symptoms who must be spoon-fed liquid food. Other residents continuously hurl insults at their plates, screaming to whoever will listen that they refuse to eat this slop. (The food at H____ is actually quite good. Fresh quality ingredients. Well-seasoned. Varied menu.) There are never enough caregivers to help server so the mealtimes often feels rushed, chaotic, and loud.

Additionally, it hurts my heart a little to have to remind my mother to put her napkin on her lap—the very same woman who lived for good manners as if her life depended on them. Watching her eat her soup with her fork frustrates me, but I’ve learned to keep my mouth closed. If she wants to drop food onto her clean shirt, I need to let her. Just as I need to let her finish every last morsel on her plate because eating is one of the last great joys she has these days. She used to enjoy a lot more than food, but not anymore. No longer does she read. Television holds no appeal. Arts and crafts mean nothing to her. Card playing confuses her. Because she still knows numbers I always suggest Crazy-Eights, card-game-570698_1920but after one round of “Do you have a six?” she just starts plucking card after card from the deck until she’s holding most of the cards. I utter, “Mom, you won!” and she nods contentedly.

But now it’s just music and food that sustain her. Music and food and her robot cat which purrs and meows when you rub its head or belly.


As the aged crooner sings about wasting away in Margaritaville, I lean close to my mother and say, “I love you, Mom. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She shrugs her shoulders. “I thought you were staying here,” she says with a frown.

I smooth her hair away from her eyes. “No, I’m staying at Aunt Sharon and Uncle Marty’s house.”

“Why are you leaving now?”

Because I hate everything about this place. Because I hate the smell of soiled adult diapers and impending death. The dark rooms and vapid TV shows and stale music. I hate the weariness and cynicism I see on the faces of the caregivers when they think no one is watching them. I hate the wheelchairs and walkers and the vacant stares.

“I want to beat the traffic,” I reply, giving her a quick kiss and running off.

I wait until I am in the car with the AC blasting before I let myself cry. I let loose the pain, gulping the air between sobs, my emotions swaying back and forth between anger and anguish.

Dementia is a vicious and wily disease. One never knows how it will materialize; in what fashion it will go about mucking up an individual’s brain.

After she was diagnosed two years ago with mild cognitive decline, I had no idea how quickly my mother would start to disappear into the ether like so much exhaled cigarette smoke. Only a few months ago she could still play gin rummy. Still read and write.

Now she is totally incontinent.

She cannot dress herself or shower alone anymore.

She can’t remember my daughter’s name. She has no idea how many children she has or where she went to school.

Now she tries to drink her fruit cup and often believes her hands are not her own.


I’m feeling sorrier than shit for myself as I pull into a grungy half-shuttered strip mall a few miles down the road. I’d read on Yelp about a great Chinese take-out-only place, menu.jpgand, as long as my aunt and uncle are busy tonight, I will treat myself to some Asian junk food. I deserve it, I tell myself as I grab a menu from the counter of the tiny restaurant. I have a parent who’s dying. I am suffering. I am sad. I get to eat whatever I want.

I order more food than I can possibly consume, pull out my phone and lean against the wall to wait. The dirty kitchen door swings open and a little girl strolls out and sits up on a barstool next to me. She’s wearing a pink dress with a white cardigan. Her jet black hair glints under the fluorescent lights.

I smile at her. She smiles back shyly. For a second, her bright colorful presence in this dingy dive makes me think of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List.

“Hi,” I say as I drop my phone back into my purse. “Are you getting food?”

“No. My mother is the cook,” she says as she steadies her petite hands on the filthy counter and twists back and forth on the seat. “I have to wait for her.”

“Ah.” A millions scenarios race through my head. “Does she own the restaurant?” I ask, hoping she does.

“No. It’s his,” she replies, pointing to the man who took my order.

“How old are you?”


“Third grade?”


“You like school?”

She nods. A young couple walks in and orders food in another language, one the owner knows.

Now that we’ve become acquainted and she doesn’t think I’m a scary stranger I tell her my name and ask the pink girl what hers is.

“You want to know my American name or my real name? No one can pronounce my real name.”

“Your real name,” I say slightly horrified. Are we still at a point in this country that children have to use fake names?

She looks behind her as if she’s about to share something she maybe isn’t supposed to. “My name is Whee.”

I’m pretty sure I heard Whee pronounce the beginning of the name with a microscopic catch in the back of her throat and I try to echo it exactly when I ask, “How do you spell Whee?”

“H. U. I.”chinese_character_hui_meaning_meet_mouse_pad-reab439d70a984cc8b50141d0812586cb_x74vi_8byvr_307

And that’s hard, why? Are Hui’s schoolmates—those Emmas and Sophies and Jacksons—so thick they cannot commit to memory such a simple word?

“Does it mean something?”

“Hui means ‘smart’,” she states assuredly.

I raise my eyebrows with exaggerated curiosity. “And? Are you?” I ask.

“I think so. Yeah,” she says, adding an emphatic nod.

Just for fun I show Hui the letters of her name in American Sign Language. asl
She imitates the H and the U but before she gets to the I she giggles. “I can’t do that. It’s the Chinese fucky sign,” she says as she surreptitiously points her pinky finger toward the sky and grins. I grin along with her, imagining her giving the pinkie to those nincompoops in her school who made her change her own name.

“Your necklace. It’s so beautiful,” she declares totally off-topic. I touch the pendant hanging from the black leather cord. It’s a round pale-blue glass stone set into a black filigree flower. I don’t remember where or when I got it, but I love it, and wear it often. “It looks like it’s magic.”

The kitchen door swings open and a young woman carrying two bags of food appears. She places them on the counter before looking over at Hui with a harried worried expression. Her brow glistens with sweat. Her apron looks as if it’s never been washed. Hui says something to her in (presumably) Chinese, after which the woman nods. She smiles at me and bows ever so slightly then disappears back into the kitchen.

“Your food is ready. You’re going now,” Hui tells me. I don’t know whether she’s relieved or disappointed. She’s eight, I remind myself. What does she know or care of impermanence? Of people flashing in and out of her life like lightning. The moment I walk out the door I will no longer exist. By the time I eat the last fried pork dumpling at my aunt’s kitchen table, our twelve-minute conversation will no longer matter to Hui.

I suddenly picture my mother having her dinner. If no one bothered to cut up her meat I’m sure she’s using her hands instead of a fork to convey what’s on her plate into her mouth. If they gave her thousand island dressing for her salad, she will not remember that she hates thousand island dressing and eat it anyway.

I wish I’d thanked her more than I have for all she’s done. For all she sacrificed for me and my bothers. She never hesitated to give of herself, even if it meant giving away her own happiness.  Sure, my mother is alive, but the woman who raised me to be the person I am today no longer exists. Because I hold close the memories of her, she still matters. She will always matter.

Before I have a chance to reconsider, I unhook the necklace and tie two knots in the twine to make it shorter. Hui asks me what I’m doing.

“I’m giving this to you,” I say as I clasp it around Hui’s small neck.

She looks confused, but unmistakably delighted. “Why?” she asks as she lifts the pendant and peers down at it.

I don’t tell Hui it’s because for the past twelve minutes I didn’t wallow in my own selfish grief and that talking with her brought me the sort of simple joy I rarely experience when I’m in Florida.

I don’t tell her it’s because I am sorry that she has to grow up in a world where she needs to be known by a name not her own.

I don’t tell her it’s because I want something I do to matter.

I don’t tell her it’s because I want her to remember me.

I find my keys, snatch the bags of greasy steaming food and say, “Because I’ve already used the magic and now it’s someone’s else’s turn.” Then I open the door and walk out into the still-hot evening.











I Can Relate


When a book reviewer discovers that they can relate to much of what went down in a memoir, you know the review is going to be great. This is one of those reviews. Heidi, a nurse and paramedic who lives in Australia, reads a lot. (How she finds the time, I have no idea.) She and her family traveled around her own country in a caravan (trailer) for THREE YEARS. And she’s been to Bali. A lot. Because of that, and because she pens terrific, in-depth reviews on her blog, I begged asked her to read RASH and she said yes. I am so thrilled she did. Thank you, but books are better!!!

Title: RASH

My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

I don’t normally read a lot of memoirs. Lisa Kusel’s book Rash made me reevaluate that choice, because there is something infinitely touching about someone sharing their life story with you, the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. As I laughed, cringed and shuddered my way through Lisa’s honest and vivid account of her year in Bali, I related on many levels to her story. For us, the thing that would fix all of life’s problems was a three-year stint travelling around Australia in a caravan with two kids under five. I wish that I could be sitting around the campfire with Lisa and compare notes, because what a laugh that would be!

Who would give up the comfort of their life in California, uproot the whole family and move to a little tropical island in Indonesia? Someone looking for a change. Change is good, right? A change of scenery may even fill that hole of chronic discontent in our heart that niggles that there must be more to life. So when Lisa found an advert looking for teachers to help set up an innovative new school in the tropical rainforest of Bali, it was like a dream come true. Her husband Victor applied for the job, and soon the whole family set off to embark on their new adventure.  But life is usually not that simple, and Lisa and her family soon find out that their tropical paradise is not what it was supposed to be.

I loved Lisa’s candid writing style, her self-deprecating humour and her warts-and-all approach in describing her “seachange”. There are no enlightened moments with Balinese medicine men or serene rides through lush rainforest on an old-fashioned bicycle to the gentle tinkle of windchimes. Instead, her days are spent squashing giant killer ants that threaten to carry off her daughter in the middle of the night, hiding under layers of netting to escape swarms of dengue infected mosquitoes and scraping thick mould off bamboo furniture and walls to the deafening sounds of gamelan music as she is reflecting on her crisis-stricken marriage. There were quite a few funny moments, too, like Lisa’s standoff with a protective male monkey, which I related to from our own personal experiences in Bali – I never forget the time when my husband tried to fend off the fang-bearing killer monkey with his thong (the flip-flop kind, not the underwear) whilst his womenfolk fled in panic. Lisa, if you had indeed spent some time in Kuta with those beer-swilling Aussie rugby teams you may have learned some life-saving thong combat action!

Whilst Lisa spends many lonely, miserable days in the country she had hoped would be the answer to all her problems, she reflects on the eat-pray-love phenomenon and questions herself on her lack of Gilbertian enlightenment. Having been to Bali I can see that living in a rather basic bamboo hut in the middle of the Balinese rainforest without some of the conveniences we take for granted would look a lot more serene in a movie (or the Green School advertising clip I found on Youtube) than in real life. I appreciated Lisa’s honesty as she shared her struggles every step of the way, and the way her Western views regularly clashed with the different cultural practices she is faced with in her new home. Her inner probings to explore her capacity for unhappiness are relevant in our society today and made for some reflection on my part whilst I was reading her honest account. I have read somewhere before that characters in books never seem to eat or pee – well, Lisa has it all in her book, which makes it all the more relatable! What also made this book speak to me is that I knew most of the places Lisa talked about in her story – we may even have aooommmmhed on neighbouring yoga mats during a yoga session at the Ubud Yoga Barn without realising it.


All in all, Lisa Kusel’s memoir is a poignant account of a woman searching for happiness and contentment in a far away land, only to find that all her problems have followed her. Written with honesty and humour, Rash will appeal to everyone who has ever dreamed of escaping it all. I hope that Lisa and her family have found contentment in their new life in Vermont and that the year in Bali is but a distant memory that ultimately brought them closer together. If nothing else, it made for a damn good read!

Thank you to the author for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.