Writing a Lesbian Novel in Midlife: Anne’s Story

unspecified-11After she got a handle on her son’s medical issues and homeschooling, Anne finally put down on paper the story that had been percolating in her mind. She is now shopping her lesbian novel to agents and publishers.

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in a small town in Iowa and now live in Chicago with my wife Joanne and our ten-year-old son. I’ve been a voracious reader my entire life and wrote a lot of poems and short stories in my childhood. In high school, I wrote consistently for the school paper, which led me to consider a career in journalism.

I attended the University of Missouri-Columbia, and my original plan was to get a journalism degree and become a sports reporter. I took some electives in technical theater and fell in love with the communal creative process, so I finished with degrees in journalism and tech theater.

Graduating Mizzou

Graduating Mizzou

I moved to California to work in the production office at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, and stayed four years. I did some writing during my off hours and also explored my interest in photography, taking photos during rehearsals and dress rehearsals. I taught myself to develop and print my own black-and-white shots in an unused darkroom at the theater. It was while I was in California that I realized I was a lesbian. I was a little slow to the party, figuring this out in my mid-twenties, but I’m lucky that my family and friends were supportive and caring.

Doing project work at PCPA

Doing project work at PCPA

I met Joanne online, way back when that was still a crazy way to find someone! We supported each other as we came out in our respective worlds, and soon our friendship turned to more. She was in her medical residency in Chicago, which made it difficult for her to relocate, so I left my job to move to back to the Midwest and see what was possible for us. It’s been over fifteen years now, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made!

With Joanne, the early years

With Joanne, the early years

My hope was to find a job in theater in Chicago, but I ended up working in condo management for a few years while I did some freelance proofreading. My relationship with Joanne was everything I could have hoped for, but losing the creative spirit I’d found in theater was a challenging transition.

As Joanne finished her residency, we decided to adopt a child. We’d been warned to expect a long wait, particularly since we were a gay couple, but we were selected within a month of submitting our portfolio to the agency, and within another month, our son was born! At the age of 31, I quickly pivoted to being a stay-at-home parent, which had always been our plan.

With our son, 10 months old

With our son, 10 months old

Before our son was a year old, we discovered he’d had a neonatal stroke, which resulted in hemiplegia (weakness on one side of the body). The next few years were a blur of therapies as we worked to get a handle on what this meant for him. I wasn’t writing during this time, but I signed up for a wheel-throwing pottery class, and it’s something I continue to pursue. Pottery was my first step back into the creative world that I’d been missing.

At the wheel

At the wheel

We originally put our son in public school, and my hope was to use some of that time to start writing again. I also began exploring ways to sell my pottery at art shows and festivals. But as many parents of special needs kids know, a lot of schools don’t have the resources, staff, or training to address the individual needs of these children. By the beginning of second grade, it was apparent that traditional schooling wasn’t a good fit for our son intellectually or emotionally.

In another quick pivot, we pulled him from school and began homeschooling. The change really helped our son, and I put all my energy into planning his curriculum and finding educational resources. My wife was always extremely supportive and involved during this time, but as the stay-at-home parent, I put a lot of pressure on myself to find the optimal way to handle our son’s schooling, sometimes to my own detriment. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve found more of a balance between meeting all of my son’s needs while allowing time and space for my own interests. I think finding that balance was necessary before I could move forward with my novel.

Homeschooling

Homeschooling

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

I’m not sure I view it as a change so much as an addition to my current life. I’m still a stay-at-home parent and still homeschool our son. But his medical issues and the struggle with the public schools took up most of the space in my head for a while and I had to learn to step away from the intensity of that experience and still leave time for myself. As I did this, I think the framework of the novel began to fill the open space in my thoughts.

The story grew out of a discussion Joanne and I had around my 40th birthday about what would happen if one of us died first. As a doctor, Joanne has witnessed death from many perspectives, and because of that, we have more honest conversations about death than many couples might. We asked each other to be open to the idea of moving on and finding happiness with another person.

As I drove my son to various appointments and classes, I pondered this idea, wondering what that experience could possibly look like. That’s really the genesis for the book. This percolated in my brain for a few years until the need to get the story down on paper became too great to ignore.

 

My finished manuscript

My finished manuscript

What is your next act?

I am a novelist. I’m searching for an agent for my novel, Beyond Any Experience, which focuses on a woman in her mid-forties who lost her wife to a tragic accident a few years ago and has been unable to move on. Complicating things for her is the fact that she’s also a single parent to their autistic son. It’s a love story, but it’s also an examination of grief, recovery, and the struggle to care for a child during a time of emotional trauma. It’s not a typical light-hearted romance, but I’ve always enjoyed stories that mix the dark and the light in a realistic way. I like books and movies that make me laugh and cry.

Given that I spent a good part of my twenties trying to write a novel, it’s ironic that the novel I finally finished could never have been written then. At 26, I didn’t have the life experience to even conceive of this character or this story, and I’d only recently discovered my sexuality. This story exists because of my age, not in spite of it.

My novel is a contemporary romance that contains elements of women’s fiction along with frank scenes of lesbian sexuality. It was a goal of mine to have the book be sex-positive, because a lot of the framework for lesbian sexuality is either it’s something to turn on heterosexual males or it’s the “we’re best friends, lesbian bed-death” trope. Also, and this is true in any new relationship, the development of the relationship hinges on many factors that all interrelate. The emotional life of my characters and the physical life of my characters are not separate. For me, I needed to examine the whole relationship, not just one half or the other.

 

Why did you choose this next act?  

The book chose me, really. I’d written a lot in my teens and twenties but never finished a project, and everything got put on hold with the sudden adoption of our son. I wrote this particular story because I couldn’t find anything like it. A common piece of advice is to write the book you want to read, and that’s certainly true for me. I devoured fantasy and science fiction as a teen and young adult, but in the last decade, I’ve been trying to find more realistic stories that portray an experience I can relate to. I’ve ended up reading a lot of non-fiction because I can’t find much thoughtful, serious fiction that speaks to my experience as a lesbian, as a parent to a special-needs child, as a middle-aged woman.

It’s been important for me to learn that my creativity can be an integrated part of my life, rather than something that will happen when my son is old enough, or when retirement age comes around. Along with writing this book, I continued to throw pottery. Working with my hands is very meditative, and I’m grateful pottery provided a bridge back to the creative world when I didn’t have the mental space or energy to write yet.

 

High fire altered piece

High fire altered piece

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

I’d been stewing on the book for several years in my head, off and on, so the only hard part to taking the plunge was to admit to myself I wanted to take the risk of putting this on paper. I believed in the story, but I was nervous to actually start writing again because I’d set it aside for so long, and because I’d never yet finished a book I’d started.

My sister gave me a blank journal at Christmas, with no idea I was considering something, and it seemed like the last little sign. I finally took a breath and told my wife that I wanted to write this book, and she was completely supportive and enthusiastic. I knew she would be, of course, but saying the words out loud to her was really the last thing that would commit me to the process.

About mid-January of this year, just before my 42nd birthday, I started writing it longhand when my son was at classes and in the evenings, and within four weeks I had the first draft. I’m not sure I’ll ever write another book that quickly, but it worked this time!

I’m very much a planner and organizer. I excel at it, actually, but the best things in my life have come unexpectedly — meeting my wife online, moving to Chicago without a job, our son falling in our laps in such a short time. I think this particular book worked because I didn’t sit down and plan to write a novel from a short summary or outline. I just started writing down the story that already existed very clearly in my mind.

 

The first draft, longhand

The first draft, longhand

How supportive were your family and friends?

I only told my wife as I worked on the first draft. It was a promise to myself to just do the work rather than talk about it. My wife has been my biggest cheerleader from the beginning, and that has never wavered. My son, who doesn’t know the topic of the book, quickly figured out I was working on something, and he’s also been a big supporter. He loves to “out” me to random people and inform them I’ve written a novel!

After I moved into the next few drafts, I started telling family and friends and everyone has been great about it. Lots of people volunteered to be beta readers, and having their feedback has been incredibly helpful. Handing the book over to a new reader is always nerve-wracking, especially with the sex scenes being a part of the story, but all my readers have been encouraging and enthusiastic. It’s helped to have straight readers tell me they really identified with the main (lesbian) characters, and the sex scenes were just part of the story development for them. 

My family

My family

What challenges are you encountering?

I’m in the challenging part now! I have a manuscript I believe in, and I’m shopping it to agents. The first time I clicked the “send” button to email the query letter to an agent, I flinched a little, I can’t lie. The pragmatic part of you expects rejection, of course, but it does sting each time you get a polite “no thanks.”

On the positive side, there has been agent interest in reading the entire manuscript, so I’m waiting to see how that turns out. My goal is to work with a traditional publisher. I’ve researched self-publishing, and it is an option, but given the demands on my time, I’d love the collaboration and support of working with a publishing team. To that end, I’ve started participating in various Twitter contests that can provide an avenue to agents, including a large one called Pitch Wars, organized by Brenda Drake. Although I wasn’t one of the writers selected, diving into the contest provided invaluable connections with the writing community and feedback.

I still struggle with the idea that putting time and energy into this novel (or my pottery) is time not spent homeschooling or doing research about homeschooling, but I have enough perspective now to realize keeping some time for myself makes me a happier, more relaxed parent overall. And my wife is excellent about reminding me of this! Also, I like the idea that my son sees both of his parents pursuing work that fulfills them. He’s a gifted computer programmer for his age, so he works on his projects while I work on mine.

Raku enclosed form with leaves

Raku enclosed form with leaves

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

I never thought about giving up as I was writing the book, but there are times I feel insecure about the market and the fact that my book deals with issues like grief, single parenting, a special-needs child, and an intercultural relationship, all wrapped up in a passionate love story. But that same mix of elements is what keeps me going, as well.

A lot of romances revolve around perfect bodies and perfect ages and perfect incomes. I believe we need more realistic love stories involving people of all ages, shapes, colors, sexualities, and backgrounds. Having the sexual relationship be an equal part of the novel made me a little nervous, because the idea that women can have strong sexual lives is still taboo for many people, especially when those sexual lives don’t involve men. But I was heartened recently when, during the White House Summit on the United State of Women, President Obama said, “We need to change the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality, but gives men a pat on the back for theirs.” I agree completely with this sentiment.

In terms of who has kept me going, my wife is the most amazing spouse on the planet and has been a champion of the book from the moment I told her I wanted to write it. (Although I wouldn’t let her read anything until the whole first draft was finished, and the waiting nearly killed her!) Also, all of my beta readers have been so positive, and they’ve been extremely patient with all of my questions.

 

With Joanne

With Joanne

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned that I can write 100,000 words, which is no small feat! Given my past work as a copy editor and proofreader, I had to learn that it’s to my advantage to turn off the editor and just get the ideas on the page. There’s always time to go back and rework and tear it apart and try again, but without the words on the page, there’s nothing.

I also learned how to put more time into my own interests, and to commit to my needs without compromising the needs of my son.

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

Not really. Part of me wants to say I should have kept at the writing through my thirties, but honestly, I think the break and the chance to live my life without the expectation of being a writer is what allowed me to be where I am now.

I think the sudden pressure to be a homeschooling parent may have shut off some of my creative energy for a time, but that experience has made me better aware now of keeping balance in my life.

The kitchen table where I often write

The kitchen table where I often write

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Having the support of a spouse, family member, or friend makes all the difference. You need someone to talk to when you hit a sticking point, or feel insecure, or struggle. Also, I’m 42, which I know is on the younger side for midlife transitions, but I hope other women who are still in the middle of parenting or careers read this and realize a dream doesn’t have to wait for kids to finish high school or for retirement to come around. It’s about giving yourself windows in your current life to explore the opportunity you’ve been considering.

If you know what you want to do and haven’t found the courage yet, I would say take a breath and just start. Don’t overthink or over-edit before you even get a chance to get going.

If you don’t know what you want to do, but you’re feeling a loss of direction, or a drifting sense, take some classes. Try something. My pottery, for example, was a creative interest I’d had for years and never indulged. It’s been great to find that outlet. Try a few things. Risk being bad at it for a little while. It’s the only way you’ll know what’s available to you.

 

Saggar bottle

Saggar bottle

 

What advice do you have for would-be novelists?

Start writing. Read a lot. (I feel like this is pretty natural for most folks who would like to write.) I came to this with prior experience writing and editing, and that was a help, but it’s not a requirement. Try to find the story or the idea that you’ve always wanted to read but have never been able to find. I know some people try to write to a market (Young Adult is very hot right now with agents), but if it’s not a story you would want to read, then don’t write it just because it’s a trend. It’s hard enough writing an entire book when you believe in the story. Don’t make it harder by writing to meet someone else’s perceived market.

Also, write where you can, when you can. A lot of writing advice is to write at the same time every day in a sacrosanct space. This sounds nice, but not everyone has that opportunity. I live in a two-bedroom condo! I write at the kitchen table and at Starbucks, primarily, and not always at the same time of day.

 

Writing at Starbucks

Writing at Starbucks

 

What resources do you recommend?

Twitter – It’s a good place to track the writing/agent/publishing world, including trends and which agents are seeking your kind of manuscript. But it’s been most valuable to me in discovering a supportive online writing community, both within my genre and outside of it.

Facebook – again for networking, and it’s helpful in building your author’s platform, which agents like to see.

SquareSpace – I used this to set up my website.

Park district/YMCA classes – for those women wanting a midlife change but unsure of a direction, I really recommend affordable classes in different topics. Give yourself a chance to try something new. Also, if you want to be a writer, I think a second creative hobby involving your hands is a good way to step away from the screen or page and use your mind in a different way.

Peer feedback – having multiple sets of eyes is really helpful, and if you ask enough people to read it, you’ll have a collection of unique perspectives to consider.

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Chicago Writer’s Conference

Manuscript Wish List

Query Tracker – helping authors find literary agents

Brenda Drake – good resource for tracking pitch options on Twitter

Script Alchemy – helps you sort out the hashtags and what weekly Twitter options are available for authors

Writer’s Digest

Aeorogramme Writers’ Studio

Jane Friedman’s blog

Publisher’s Weekly

 

My editing buddy

My editing buddy

 

What’s next for you?

I want to write more novels that feature lesbians who are already out and who are comfortable with their sexuality. Coming out books are important and they’re being written, especially in the YA world, but I want to tell stories beyond the coming out process. Themes like love, grief, and parenting are universal, and there’s no reason the entire lesbian experience can’t be used to reflect those themes to the wider world.

I’m also working to expand the sale of my pottery. Typically, I’ve sold face-to-face at shows, but after putting a gallery of my work on my website, I’ve received requests for individual pieces online and through email. I’ll be working to build a small shop through my website.

 

Contact Anne Terpstra at aeterpstra@gmail.com

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Falling in Love with a Woman at 51: Lisa’s Story

LISA HEADSHOT 2011When Lisa was approached to be Virginia’s agent, she was married to her second husband and had never been attracted to women. Little did she know that her business partnership with Virginia would develop into a deep friendship and, eventually, a committed and loving relationship.

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up as the oldest of three sisters. My father was a radiologist and my mom was his bookkeeper and owned two tennis boutiques in the tennis heyday. I graduated from Barnard College in New York City as an English major and knew I’d always work with books.

I made my career in publishing, working at a literary agency, then as a publicist at Random House and Crown Books. I was married (for the first time) in 1981 to the father of my two daughters. We were married for 14 years. I left NYC and my job when my husband was offered a position in western Massachusetts. There were no publishing options where we lived and so I decided to launch my own company doing what I loved—public relations and working with books and authors.

logo2015I established the first culinary PR agency in the country, Lisa Ekus Public Relations. Over the last 33 years, that business has grown tremendously and morphed into The Lisa Ekus Group, “Representing a World of Culinary Talent.” We have multiple divisions: Literary Agenting, Media Training, Talent Agenting, Literary à la Carte services, and PR/Marketing Consulting.

After my divorce, I raised my two daughters as a single mother with a full-time business, until I met my second husband. I was married to him for 9 years.

 

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When did your love life change?

I first met Virginia Willis, a chef, cookbook writer, and culinary TV producer in 2006, when she submitted her book proposal to my literary agency. Virginia was the Kitchen Director for Nathalie Dupree, Bobby Flay, and Martha Stewart, as well as being a Producer for Epicurious Television and Turner Studios.

I had never been with a woman or considered, a relationship with a woman. She was in a long-term relationship and I was married to my second husband; I had no inkling I would fall in love with her.

In the beginning, my relationship with Virginia was all business.

LUY coverBecause I work in the culinary field, representing cookbook authors, food writers, and chefs, Virginia sent me her first book proposal for Bon Appetit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking. It was the cleanest proposal for a cookbook I had ever received. We were both going to the Greenbrier Food Writers’ Conference that year and I made an appointment to meet with her.

Virginia’s initial appeal to me was that she is an extraordinary food writer. She is beautiful as well: Chanel red lipstick, pearls, and a way with a sentence that made me determined to represent her on the spot. She told me clearly that my agency was her first choice to represent her and she never approached another agent.

Our work together grew into a friendship, which deepened over the years. And, like a slow-cooked dish, a deliciously meaningful partnership started simmering. It was in the fall of 2008 when I realized I was falling in love with her.

I have always loved the wisdom and friendship of women, but never considered that I was gay. I still believe and feel that it is who Virginia is as an individual that made me fall in love with her. And, I have to say, we laugh that I “took to it like a duck to water.” My comfort level with this woman is far greater than I have ever felt with the men in my life. My “aha” moment came the first time we kissed. I refer to this as my midlife epiphany!

We currently commute between Atlanta and Massachusetts, as we both have important home bases in our respective parts of the country. We share Virginia’s town home in Atlanta and my long-time country farmhouse in Massachusetts.

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Why do you think you fell in love with a woman in midlife? 

I didn’t intentionally choose to fall in love with a woman. I feel as if I’ve lived five lifetimes—all of them very different, all of them with enormous joys and some sadness. I sure didn’t see this next act coming.

After divorcing my second husband, I didn’t say, “gee now I’ll be a lesbian.” Both Virginia and I were in emotionally unsatisfying long-term relationships. Neither of us specifically left our partners for each other, but the realization of what we were missing hit both of us pretty hard over the course of our years working together. We both wanted the proverbial “more” in life and from a partner.

I fell in love with a wonderful, smart, beautiful woman and am enjoying every minute of our deepening relationship and love. She met my intellectual and emotional needs. We are very different in terms of our backgrounds. I’m from the liberal North and Virginia from a more traditional Southern background.

We both fly a great deal for work and both of us are used to the aisle seat (leading/control). When we began flying together, we realized it didn’t have to be one or the other of us getting the aisle seat. There was room for both of us. We could sit across the aisle from each other, close while having independence. That became our joke of “aisle/aisle.” We have each met our match; we complement one another. Virginia and I each nurtured a close and respectful friendship that evolved into love and a full-blown relationship.

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Our commitment rings

How difficult was it to come out? Did you have to “prepare”? 

There were two levels of “preparation,” the personal and the professional. Since my girlfriend was also a client of our agency, I had to weigh the impact on and response from my other clients, as well as my family. In the end, I knew this relationship was serious and for long term and “came out” to all.

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With my family (photo by Levi J Miller)

I told my mom first, who high fived me! My immediate family was 100% supportive. They love me. They trust me and they had known Virginia for some years. They could see we had a deep respect and love for each other. My two grown daughters have welcomed Virginia into our family. She has a special and different relationship with each of them.

My yearbook quote in high school was “Everything I do, I do with everything I’ve got.” At this point in my life, not a lot I do surprises my family! I have always been a woman of passion and commitment. They accepted the woman I love into all our lives. Remember I come from a very liberal family. I also have a very loving and trusting family.

Virginia’s Mama and sister (and relatives) also welcomed me. I am very close to them and, like my family, they are happy that Virginia is in a loving, nurturing relationship of true partnership and support. All our friends have embraced our relationship. I have to chuckle because many of my female friends openly expressed how not surprised they were to hear this and how lucky I was to be with a woman. A few even commented wistfully “men age so badly!”

 

What challenges did you encounter?

Over the course of the next few years, we both extricated ourselves from our relationships. The decisions were hard and painful for both of us. But we were determined to be together and had enormous patience.

The greatest challenge was in my work life. Some clients had an issue with my being in a relationship with a client. I have to wonder if they would have had the same issue if I had fallen in love with a male client. Most, however, were genuinely happy for, and fully supportive of, me.

A few clients left our agency and my position is that if they couldn’t trust my ethics and commitment to each of them, then it was appropriate they move on. It’s a shame that there was this judgment, but such is life. My business continues to thrive, along with my personal life.

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My office

Is it a challenge to represent your partner as her agent?

Virginia is the creative and in-front person, and I’m the business and behind-the-scenes person; this works brilliantly for us. The mutual respect we have for each other’s strengths and skills, and our willingness to discuss opportunities and challenges, makes us a power couple. We have each other’s best interests at heart.

My biggest piece of advice is to set clear parameters on life and work. Virginia has two expressions: “I need to talk to my Agent Lady,” or “I need to talk to my Girlfriend.” That clues us both in as to the type of conversation and the results needed. Agent Lady is about business, and Girlfriend is “Hear me out and comfort me. Don’t try to solve it or charge it.”

Not every challenge has the resolution you want or hope for, but so many do. Focus on that. Kiss each other good morning and good night each and every day.

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Were there times when you thought about not going through with coming out? 

Absolutely not. I never looked back. It is seven years since that first kiss and neither Virginia nor I have ever had any regrets.

My only frustration, and we laugh at this a lot, is that I’m Northern and speak quickly and without filtering much of anything I say. Virginia is Southern, far more thoughtful, and edits her words before she speaks. I still bite my tongue and try desperately to not interrupt her long thought process. And I’ve benefited from learning to be far more patient! Do we have differences of opinions sometimes? Sure. Do we work it out? Always. She slows me down and I speed her up! I LOVE this journey together.

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What have you learned about yourself through this new chapter?

I’ve learned to continue to trust myself, my instincts, and my commitments. Change is the only constant and life is truly short. It turns on a dime. I want to and am embracing my joy. I have a true partner in life. That is incredible!

 

What advice do you have for women considering coming out later in life? 

Be kind to yourself. Be fearless and trust yourself. If you need to get the support of a professional therapist and tap into your most trusted friends, then do that. Some friends (and possibly family) will choose to take the low road. So be it. Embrace your happiness. Don’t postpone joy!

Look to your friends or a therapist. I confided in close friends, a lesbian couple, one of whom had left her traditional marriage for a woman. She had children and completely understood what I was going through. Having that support and sounding board was invaluable.

I’m very comfortable in my own skin so I did not doubt my choice or direction. The harder part was not choosing to be in a lesbian relationship, but to realize my marriage was over. I was raised traditionally and having been divorced once I had some moments of what’s wrong with me that I can’t sustain a relationship? What I had to realize was that I can—with the right person, with the right partner.

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What I do best: Entertain!

What resources do you recommend?

I don’t lean specifically towards lesbian vs. straight resources. I approach life as, how can I learn and grow? I’m interested in business books and conferences with brilliant inspirational speakers. I belong to the Women President’s Organization, which has been one of the single best learning organizations in the world to be a member of. The support of so many incredibly successful entrepreneurial women in both my personal and professional life has truly been priceless. I also have a long time therapist who has known me for almost three decades (and many acts); her insight and support has been invaluable.

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With Virginia and my daughters (photo by Levi J Miller)

What’s next for you?

Cookbooks and chefs are sizzling hot and I plan on continuing to build their careers and my business. I love every aspect of discovering new talent and cultivating good writing.

Hopefully I have many next acts. Life is a big adventure and I fully intend to participate. What I do know is whatever comes next, Virginia will be at my side—aisle/aisle.

 

Contact Lisa Ekus at Lcecooks@lisaekus.com

The Lisa Ekus Group represents a world of culinary talent.

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