The entire story of my debut novel, Contrition, came to me fully formed in ten minutes. I didn’t conceive it so much as hear it playing in my head, as if it were being dictated and all I had to do was commit the major plot points to paper. That had only happened to me once before (and hasn’t happened since), so I knew I should write it.
The trouble was, I didn't want to write a book. I was writing comedy screenplays at the time and I knew Contrition’s story belonged in a serious novel. I had no experience writing novels and found the thought of starting one too daunting. So I tried to ignore it.
I continued to write screenplays but found myself doing research for Contrition on the side in spite of myself. The story fascinated me. The idea of researching for a novel was only slightly less daunting than the prospect of writing one, but my curiosity about cloisters and painters propelled me forward. How would I research cloistered nuns who don’t typically interact with the public? The way I eventually contrived to speak with them without being invasive is a tale in itself. In addition, I needed to learn more about painting since one of my main characters, Sister Catherine, is a fine arts painter. I’m an artist, but I work with trash and everyday objects, not canvas and oils, so I began looking for ways to learn about the technicalities and creative process of painting.
Around that time, I went to the Santa Monica coffee shop where I often wrote and got my usual cup of herbal tea. Grabbing a napkin at the stir station, I looked up and saw a black and white abstract painting hanging on the wall that made me gasp in awe. Like my journalist character, Dorie, I’m not a fan of most abstract art, so to feel moved by an abstract painting was new for me. I instantly wanted to know more about the painting and its creator.
I soon learned that the artist stood just yards away, working behind the counter. The painting, titled Lift, along with all the other powerful abstract pieces that had just been put on display, was the work of one of the shop’s baristas, Christine Taber. I knew Christine as the barista who liked to joke that I was “not so much a customer as a fixture in the shop” and often gave me my drinks for free, but I didn’t know that she was an accomplished artist with an MFA in painting from USC.
I asked Christine to help me with my painting research for Contrition. She happily agreed, allowing me to tag along at her group gallery shows and in her studio, sharing her creative process with me. At the time, we both had artwork featured on the sets of television shows, so we enjoyed spotting each other’s pieces on the small screen. I found all of her paintings to be striking while also subtle. One brushstroke in Lift is so spirited that I feel like it represents Christine herself. I wanted to buy Lift, but couldn’t afford it.
Unsurprisingly considering the depth she conveyed in her artwork, I was even more impressed by Christine herself. A far cry from the stereotypical tortured artist, Chris approached life with an enviable enthusiasm and focus. The lore was that she took apart her Volvo and put it back together just to see how it worked. Whenever a machine broke at the coffee shop (like the day the espresso machine broke during the eight a.m. rush), Christine figured out how to fix it. She rode her bike everywhere with her backpack strapped to her back, ready for anything.
As time went on and I continued to drag my feet on writing Contrition, Christine’s career began to take off. She sold paintings to two celebrities, enabling her to quit her barista job to paint full time. She also landed her first major gallery show. I was thrilled for her and hated that I had to be out of town for the opening, which took place within a few days of her thirty-second birthday.
When I returned after my trip to write at the coffee shop, a framed picture of Christine along with the dates of her birth and death sat on the counter surrounded by flowers. I grabbed the picture, not believing it. Christine couldn’t be dead. She was so young and everything was going so well for her. This had to be some sort of mistake. But it wasn’t– Christine had been killed on her bicycle in local traffic a few days after the opening.
Devastated, I went straight to the William Turner Gallery where Christine’s work still hung on the walls. The first person to greet me when I arrived was her identical twin sister, Cathy. In my grief, I had forgotten that Christine had a twin I’d never met. For a moment I was startled into thinking that she had somehow beaten death. It was both surreal and comforting to embrace Cathy and share our sorrow as we stood surrounded by Christine’s paintings in the clean, white gallery.
At the memorial service, I stared at Christine’s familiar backpack, which her partner, Kevin, had chosen as the vessel for her ashes in lieu of an urn. I reflected on all the people Christine had touched and all she had accomplished in her short life. She never hesitated. But I had been researching Contrition for three years and was still afraid to write the book. I made a decision, standing up at Christine’s service and announce through my tears that I would be writing the novel and dedicating it to her.
After Christine’s death, it became too difficult to write in the coffee shop. Every time a regular came in and learned of her death, I experienced the news as if for the first time all over again. Instead, I went to the gallery even though it meant driving past the spot where Christine had lost her life. I set up a beach chair on the polished hardwood floor and began writing about Christine’s paintings. The owner, Bill Turner, was gracious enough to let me stay as long as I liked - which turned out to be several weeks. I wrote my reactions to and descriptions of all of Christine’s paintings on display and as well as those that Bill had stored in the back – more than forty paintings in all. The descriptions I wrote of Christine’s abstract paintings became the basis for the descriptions of Sister Catherine’s religious paintings in Contrition. And Lift, which I later bought even though I still couldn’t afford it, is the basis for Rene Wagner’s abstract painting, Shift, in the novel.
Christine’s death and example in life gave me the courage to overcome my fear and write Contrition. This book is for her. I couldn’t be more proud or grateful to have been her friend. I miss her still.