Reason to Live

In 1993, Joni Rodgers started writing a novel. Late at night, while her kids were in bed, she pecked at her keyboard, creating Tulsa Bitters, a heroine suspiciously like Rodgers's younger self: a tall, red-haired disc jockey, sensitive about her weight, a bookworm who learned oral-sex techniques by reading Erica Jong. Occasionally someone would tell Joni how lucky she was to have time to write while raising two kids. "Bullshit!" Joni says of the luck theory. "That time came out of my backside."

She called her book Crazy for Trying, and maybe she was. Her husband, Gary, thought she was wasting her time. To keep him from complaining, she rigged her computer. When he walked by, she'd hit a special key combination and her words would disappear from the screen, hidden behind a spreadsheet labeled "Family Finances."

She mailed out sample chapters, hoping they'd catch a publisher's fancy. Some responded with flat noes; others asked to see the entire manuscript. A couple of publishers told Rodgers that with a little editing, her book could be marketed as a romance novel. The May-December love story had a properly happy ending; the sex scenes possessed sufficient zip; and the setting, 1970s Montana, was pleasantly unusual, but within the bounds of the genre. Of course, those publishers said, the bits about the lesbian mother would have to go, as would the peyote scene. And please, lose the menstrual blood. Such complicating facts of life don't belong in escapist literature.

Rodgers refused to reduce her story to a bodice-ripper. She didn't read such books, and she had no intention of writing one. She mailed out more rounds of sample chapters. And more. And more. Gary began to care about her book. The rejection letters hurt him more than they hurt her.

Eventually, she tired of the process. In '94, Continental transferred Gary, an airplane mechanic, from Pennsylvania to Houston, and the whole family moved to Spring. Joni decided to concentrate her creative energy on theater.

But her plans changed. Shortly after moving, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Cancer.

Her oncologist said that there was a 50 percent chance she'd live another five years. Before she began six months of chemo treatments, she braided her hair, cut it off near the scalp, and saved the skinny red braids; she figured it was better to cut her hair off than to watch it fall away. Gary shaved his own head in solidarity.

Joni found "chemo buddies," people who'd lived through the same treatments, people who could talk about pain. "Is this normal?" she'd ask when, say, her toenail fell off in the shower. With chemo, she found out, almost anything can be normal.

A chemo buddy encouraged Joni to send out her manuscript one more time, to give herself something to hope for. Joni needed the hope, even after the treatments were finished. Recovery from the chemo, she knew, would take a year and a half, and she wasn't sure whether she'd last. "I lived, but what for?" she thought.

Joni doesn't read genre novels, so she wasn't properly prepared for her life's next plot development. As in any good escapist novel, just when she hit bottom, her book was accepted. And not as a romance novel, but as a bona fide work of literature. She had something to live for.

The publisher, MacMurray & Beck, wanted substantial changes -- mostly trimming the 700-page manuscript down to a fighting weight. Those changes, Joni thought, improved the book. And besides, they gave her something to do.

"The book was my escape," she says. "It was so lovely to go to this world where I control everything, as opposed to my life, where I control nothing."

Despite her high-toned literary aspirations, Crazy for Trying became escapist literature. And it was Joni who escaped.

Publication didn't disappoint her. The book appeared in November, and Barnes & Noble designated it a "Discover Great New Writers" selection, which means the book is specially displayed at the chain's stores. Of the hundred or so writers chosen last year, Rodgers is a finalist for the Discover Prize -- an honor previously awarded to impressive first novels such as David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars.

Mac is a lady's man twice Tulsa Bitters's age. Part Blackfoot, he smokes pot and grows peyote, just like his Indian grandmother. He can't pay his rent, his truck needs a new starter and he smells like coffee, cinnamon and leather. When he quotes Wordsworth, Tulsa recognizes the line.

Of course Mac and Tulsa fall in love. Of course Tulsa overcomes the sexist pigs at the radio station. And of course Mac and Tulsa work out the kinks in their relationship; the reader can see a happy ending coming a mile away. The interest lies in how the characters will manage to resolve matters. Think Jane Eyre with rock and roll, plus a few fashionable dashes of childhood trauma.

The odd thing is that Mac and Tulsa's eventual happiness surprised Joni. She conceived of Mac as a fictional version of "the Gimlet" -- her name for a boyfriend she had loved passionately, but who barely returned the favor. Through her fictional surrogate, Joni planned to exact revenge: In the book's original version, Tulsa dumps Mac, leaving him broken and bitter, lonely and old.

But as Joni wrote, she felt herself coming to terms with the Gimlet; she realized she hadn't been stupid to love him. And along the way, Mac metamorphosed. He became less Gimlet, and more Gary. Joni began falling for Mac, and naturally, so did Tulsa. By the time Joni reached a pivotal scene -- the one where Mac and Tulsa were supposed to realize their relationship couldn't possibly work -- she couldn't bear to make her fictional world so sad. "By then, I was so much in love with Mac myself, I couldn't bear to let him go," she says.

The real world, of course, is far harder to manipulate. Last April, while Joni was revising the novel, she itched, felt tired and started shedding hair abnormally fast -- just as she had before, when she was diagnosed with lymphoma. A CAT scan of her neck showed that her lymph nodes were enlarged, but the oncologist couldn't be sure whether the cancer was growing again. She recommended that Joni have follow-up scans every four weeks, till they could be sure whether she'd lost her remission.

Joni decided that she couldn't bear to spend the summer focused on her cancer, and told her oncologist that she'd return in September. By then, it would be clear whether she was no longer in remission. One way or another, she'd know.

She worked feverishly on her book and traveled again to Montana, where, like Tulsa, she'd been young and happy. While there, she allowed old friends to take her to a shaman. She was skeptical, and giggly, and worried about hurting her friends' feelings.

The Indian woman was supposed to tell Joni her "power animal," an Indian guardian angel, usually in the shape of some impressive large mammal -- a bear, a wolf or a cougar. But the shaman said that instead of a big furry beast, she saw a griffin standing behind Joni. The shaman asked the spirit about its shape. She said it replied that in Joni's life, fiction is stronger than reality.

Joni went home, and per the shaman's prescription, she built a mandala. She bought a metal hoop from Wal-mart, and hung on it a rabbit skin her daughter gave her, along with a rattle her son had made and an agate from her mom. She attached feathers and her braids, the remnants of her pre-cancer hair.

In fall, the CAT scan was good; the oncologist pronounced her in remission. Maybe it was the mandala that somehow saved her -- or maybe her newfound vegetarianism, or her latter-day avoidance of caffeine and sugar. Joni gives lots of reasons, but mostly she credits her book with making her want to live. She gave her novel a happy ending, and it returned the favor.

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Lisa Gray