Making “The Lists”

September 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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Midnight on Julia StreetYou’ve heard the line “I was an overnight success after twenty-five years?”  Well, that certainly applied to yours truly when I received an email early in the summer from my publicist at Sourcebooks/Landmark .  “Great news!” chortled Beth Pehlke.  “Your book Midnight on Julia Street is going to be a Nook Daily Find August 24th!”  The price would be dropped to $1.99 that day as a way of encouraging new readers to discover a bargain novel by Ciji Ware…and hopefully  be inspired to buy my other books at full price.

I figured that was very nice and put it in my electronic date book to remind myself to go online to have a look when the date rolled around and post something on my Facebook Author Page–and then promptly forgot about it.

Much to my astonishment, by noon on the 24th,  Midnight on Julia Street  (a book published originally in 1999 and reissued in June of 2011) “opened” in the #2 slot on the Barnes & Noble list that day…and a few hours later was #1!  I checked that title on Amazon, and lo-and-behold, the price had dropped to $1.99 there, too.  Now I had a nice “come on” book on both big online sites. It was exciting for an author who’d written eight books, only one of which made a few city lists like the Los Angeles Times for a few weeks, and another on an Extended List (above the 100 mark)–but never anything “national.”

Then, exactly a week later, my cell phone rang on Thursday, August 30th, and my editor, Deb Werksman said excitedly, “Julia Street has made the USA Today Bestsellers List at #54!” Soon my writer friend Peter Lerangis from New York posted on Facebook that I should definitely be doing the Happy Dance as this list is a “bar code” compilation of every book in America that was sold last week, including cookbooks, self-help, nonfiction, “coffee table books,” and–yes–fiction.  “This is serious stuff,” said he.

The following day, Friday August 31, my cell phone rang again, and I swear, when I saw it was Deb Werksman calling for the second time in two days, my heart stopped and I thought, “They made a mistake…I didn’t actually make USA Today…” and she’s calling to break the news.

“Why would your editor call two days in a row?” she asked, and I could hear the excitement in her voice. Not waiting for my guess, she announced, “Julia Street made TWO lists in the New York Times this week! You’re #18 on the New York Times Bestsellers e-book list, right after Stephen King and you’re #27 on the combined e-book and print list between James Patterson and Danielle Steele!”


I was having coffee at Poggio’s–a wonderful trattoria that serves great Italian java in the mornings– with my dog walking group, and I think my screams shattered a few cups of foaming lattes, to say nothing of nearly scaring my Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Ensign Aubrey, witless. Fortunately, I was smiling and doing a jig, so everyone there assumed no one had died.  I told my walking pals what had just happened and they told everyone else while I danced around the outdoor bistro tables, trying to hear what else Deb was saying about such wonderful news.

Later that day, author pals from all over the country started posting my happy news.  Then the site Goodreads posted my announcement and a bunch of other readers and authors weighed in.

What struck me, when I finally calmed down, was that we are in a totally new world as authors.  For the first time in history, there is very little standing between an author and her readers and a book like Midnight on Julia Street never really “goes out of print” anymore. Here it is, eleven years after its first edition, making the all-important New York Times & USA Today lists for the first time!  Thanks to the Internet and online book sales, a novel that had a modest distribution in print back in the day can always–given a late-life electronic push–find new audiences that, in this case, were attracted by the price (a bargain); by New Orleans (the setting) during a week when Hurricane Isaac was bearing down on the Gulf Coast; by their love of good music and food (which play a secondary role in the plot); and by a media-based story (faintly autobiographical) about a tired, worn-out television reporter who successively gets fired from her on-camera jobs for –gasp!–telling the truth.

Talk about a shot-in-the-arm for a tired novelist and “recovering” TV and radio journalist!

Now, each morning since Deb Werksman’s calls, I cannot wait to put the seat of my pants on the chair and my hands on the keyboard. “Making the Lists” for the first time is truly inspirational for a writer who’s been in this game a very long time….


Culinary Research in the Big Easy

January 11, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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Midnight on Julia StreetA wonderful new “Author’s Cut” edition of my novel, Midnight on Julia Street, was recently released by Sourcebooks, and prompted so many memories from the days when I was researching life in modern day and 1840 New Orleans.   This “time-slip” story deals with burnt out television reporter who arrives in the Big Easy with high hopes that at last, she can tell the truth as a journalist without getting fired.  (No such luck, I’m afraid…)

Julia Street–once the heart of the cotton warehouse region of the city in the 19th century–is host these days to trendy galleries and fabulous eateries like Emeril’s.
This part of town became the focus of many a foray I made into the wonderful world of Louisiana cuisine that, at times, figured in the story of a young professional getting to learn about a city famous for a certain flavor of magic and mystery.  Scents, especially, became the “way back” for the heroine inexplicably to slip between the city’s storied past when “Cotton was King” and the modern day of cell phones, digital news-gathering, and a city that never stops celebrating.

Part of that celebrating that I had the good fortune to witness generally involved that most hallowed of all culinary traditions in NOLA:  making a good Gumbo!  Everyone, it seemed, had his or her own special recipe or way of making a roux–the “building block” of any respectable gumbo.  There are seafood gumbos, chicken and sausage gumbos, even vegetarian gumbos, but the one I developed over the last fifteen years was made either with quail, Rock Cornish Game Hens, or–if pressed for time–organic chicken thighs…or even a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket!

So, if you want to add to the sensory experience of reading my historical novel Midnight on Julia Street, get into the spirit of the Mardi Gras season that started with Twelfth Night (January 6, 2012) and will run until Fat Tuesday (February 21) by trying out my version of New Orleans Gumbo as posted in my blog…and if you like your gumbo spicier, just add pepper flakes and more cayenne!


New Year’s Eve in New Orleans!

January 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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It’s been several years since we owned our Creole cottage on Ursulines Street in the Lower French Quarter in New Orleans…but every year as the holidays roll around, I get an irresistible urge to make “my” gumbo.

Actually, there is no “official” recipe for this dish…families have handed down their ingredients and techniques for generations.  I developed my own version when I spent a few years there researching and then writing Midnight on Julia Street, and created a chicken-and-sausage gumbo that evolved over the years from a recipe I found in Emeril LaGasse’s wonderful cookbook, Emerl’s Creole Christmas.   His used quail, and since that wasn’t always handy, I subsituted small Rock Cornish Game Hens.  His used alot of cayenne and spicey andouille sausage, but my Western-raised family liked smokey flavors that wouldn’t burn your tongue, so I made a few more adaptations.

During this same period, my husband Tony and I became great friends with another historical novelist, Michael Llewellyn who’d written a wonderful novel, also set in New Orleans, called Twelfth Night and who made the best chicken gumbo I ever tasted.  He shared a few secrets with me which altered and refined my “morphing” version until I thought I’d reached pretty much perfection, and stopped messing with it.

Enter my wonderful pal from my KABC Radio days in Los Angeles, Diane Rossen Worthington, author of some twenty-two cookbooks (a number of them in the Williams-Sonoma series–but probably her best known and best loved is the classic:  Seriously Simple).  She now writes a syndicated column for The Chicago Tribune and we were chatting on the phone this autumn about holiday fare.  I mentioned how I loved to make my gumbo, stirring the roux –which is made from slowly combining oil and flour together and takes about 45 minutes to attain a rich, dark, chocolately color–while thinking of all the friends and family members I love.

“Can I use that in my column?” asked Diane.

“Sure,” I replied. “I can email you the recipe and you can put your own spin on it.”

“Oh, no, thanks,” she said. “I have my own seafood version I’ve been doing for years.  I just want to borrow the part about you thinking of family and friends while you’re stirring the roux!”

Well, she did just that in December, and guess what?  I’d completely forgotten about our conversation and suddenly I hear from the publicist Beth Pehlke at my publisher, Sourcebooks Landmark, that Diane’s piece, kindly mentioning my 2011 release of Midnight on Julia Street, had hit tons of newspapers all over the country.  So, here’s a link to Diane’s article and version of seafood holiday gumbo–which makes a great Winter meal anytime it’s cold outside.  And if there’s interest, I’ll post my chicken and kilbasa sausage version in a later blog.


Meanwhile, Happy New Year, everybody…and for 2012, Laisser Les Bons Temps Rouler, y’all!

Visiting Old Haunts in the Big Easy

August 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

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Midnight on Julia StreetThe new-and-improved edition from Sourcebooks-Landmark of my second “woo-woo” novel, Midnight on Julia Street hit the bookstores and online retailers August 1, but in June, I had a wonderful chance to revisit some of my old haunts in New Orleans and environs.  The American Library Association was holding its convention in the Big Easy and my publisher asked if I’d be willing to sit in their booth and sign books.

Well, yes! Yes, indeed, I would!

Next to my home city of San Francisco, New Orleans is one of my favorite places on the planet.  After  spending over a year researching Julia Street, I did what so many lovers of that city do: I bought a place in the lower (residential section)  French Quarter on Ursulines Street between Dauphine and Bourbon where the pace is slower and the sense of history surrounds you on every corner.  We loved our tiny piece of Le Vieux Carre, but after a couple of years, found it difficult to manage it properly from 2000 miles away and have since sold it.

Since Julia Street’s plot was deeply embedded in the on-going struggle to preserve and maintain the city’s incredible  historic architecture, I decided to revisit some of key spots depicted in the novel.  On an early, steamy Monday morning, I departed the fabulous view of the Mississippi River from my room at the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street, and headed over on foot–as does Corlis McCullough, the heroine in the novel–for my favorite morning ritual:  a cup of cafe au lait and a beignet at the famed 7/24 establishment Cafe du Monde.

The coffee, of course, was already flowing, though the chairs outside at 6a.m. hadn’t yet been lifted down from the tables where the floor had been cleaned in the wee hours of the morning. As usual, there were lines waiting for that first cup of steaming, chickory-laced brew and the decadent confection of deep-fried puff pastry dredged in about an inch of powdered sugar.


(Tourist tip: do NOT wear anything black when eating a beignet!).

I munched on this ambrosia, read my morning copy of The Times Picayune, gazed across Decatur Street and into the gated park at Jackson Square dominated by the three-spire magnificence of St. Louis Cathedral (which you can see on the cover of Julia Street).  I found myself offering up thanks to whatever Muse originally gave me the idea for a book about the good fight waged daily by a stalwart band of dedicated preservationists to save various aging structures around the city from the wrecking ball.  The “Live in a Landmark” program and other efforts sponsored by the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans have gone far to keep the city’s historic “built environment” alive and well–and still live-able.

Once I’d dusted off the powdered sugar that had rained down on my T-shirt and jeans, I began a leisurely stroll through the streets I’d come to know so well.  The Rue Royal, as you see here, Ursulines, where we’d owned our cottage, and eventually I circled back to Canal Street where the Salin buildings still stand with their less-than-esthetic 50’s-era metal cage, behind which are a row of stunning 19th century townhouses that some officials in the City of New Orleans and some developers wanted to tear down at one point to build a high rise hotel.  The metal cage encasing the old buildings is still there, but so are those precious structures behind it (which you can see a glimpse of, if you look carefully). What makes them especially noteworthy is that in the 19th century they were built and owned by a consortium of local citizens that included Free People of Color, and some prominent white citizens, among them: Paul Tulane of Tulane University fame. It was a very early version of a “Rainbow Coalition” when Cotton was King.

Apparently, post-Katrina, the fight over this particular issue is at a Louisiana stand-off, but in Julia Street –a work of fiction, remember–I devise a plot (and a fate for these buildings) that I hope the reader finds satisfying.  However, I’m not telling what happens, here, but just wanted to share the wonderful time I had in one of the most wonderful, brave, enduring places in America.