Today’s the day the whole world can go online and meet Byrne Miller – at least the part of her divulged in “The Other Mother: a rememoir.” Despite the fact that the blurbs on both the front and back cover of my book are male writers (Pat Conroy and Franz Wisner) – most readers, so far, have been women. They’re loving it, which is great since women outspend men on books. And even better, they’re spreading the word and holding Other Mother Soirees because it’s bringing back memories of the important other mothers in their lives.
But here’s what is blowing me away. The few men curious enough to get past the title and the cover photo are sticking with it – even after they realize that Byrne didn’t stay a burlesque dancer and that the sex scenes are couched in elegant dance terms. My husband Gary didn’t have a choice. He was my front-line editor and men who enjoy this book have him to thank. He took each chapter out on the porch with a can of PBR beer and a giant red pen. If I used the word “love” more than absolutely necessary, he scratched it out. “Be more creative,” he demanded. Same thing happened to any mushy, girl-power, coming-of-age moments. And those sex scenes? He told me I was on my own with those.
Pat Conroy was the second man to ever read “The Other Mother: a rememoir.” I knew that Pat has cherished the love of many Other Mothers over the course of his life. We’d had long talks about how re-parenting changed us both. He waxes rhapsodic about Julia in particular, the Beaufort woman who “collected” him even when her own son was killed in a freak baseball accident. But I was nervous to share the manuscript with him because I knew that Pat wasn’t a big fan of Byrne Miller. (I suspect two personalities as big as theirs barely fit into a room.) Instead, he got sucked in by the story of Byrne’s husband of nearly 60 years: Duncan Miller. Pat Conroy knows a thing or two about frustrated novelists, as it turns out, and the tragedy of Duncan’s mental illness poisoning his writing was a side to Byrne’s story that broke Pat’s big heart.
The third man to read the entire manuscript is another major writer, only you find most of his work in the editorial pages of The New York Times. Lawrence and I went to graduate school for journalism together and I knew he’d fall in love with the outlandish free spirit of my star. He was so taken with Byrne that he helped me track down odd bits of New York history to fill in the gaps of her early married life in Greenwich Village. And he introduced me to the film archives at Lincoln Center, where I watched clips of the very same dancer that thrilled Byrne in the 20s and 30s: Harald Kruetzberg.
The fourth man to read “The Other Mother” is my brother-by-Byrne and Navajo elder Ben Barney. His reaction was even more important to me because he gave me permission to tell the most intimate and personal of all the stories of Byrne’s collected children. She was not very good at being an “Other Mother” back in the 60’s – when she bulldozed over his religious and tribal beliefs in an attempt to turn him into a dancer. But now, looking back, he sees her as a powerful and transformative force in his life.
“Chapter brought tears to my eyes so far,” he emailed me. “The section you wrote of me is freed, roaming, rolling and nice. I leave it as is.”
The fifth man to read the book was Larry Lepionka – an archeologist who helped me find where I had buried Duncan’s tormented manuscripts. He’s married to a major character in the book – my Byrne sister Lisa – so I was a little worried when Larry told me to come over and discuss a factual error he’d found in the book.
“My wife has no accent at all,” said this Beaufort native who has lived with his Swiss-German stunner of a wife so long that this statement was only partially a joke. In fact, he loved the book as well. “It’s a story of heroines,” he said. “Byrne, you, Lisa and even Wipeout – your brave and lovely dog.” If this book goes into paperback I’m stealing Larry’s lines for another blurb.
But the funniest reaction from a man came from my friend Terry Stone. Regular followers of my blog know him as the man responsible for my only redfish victory. He’s a regular subscriber to Garden and Gun and when not fishing fiercely defends his other territory: the kitchen.
He was deep into the book when he finally asked his wife Jane “Wait a minute, is this a love story?” He was afraid I’d be offended when she ratted on him, but nothing could make me happier. It is a love story, the most amazing one I’ve ever known. It is not the sort of book most guys willingly pick out of a bookstore (except as gifts for their wives, which I’m discovering they love to do.) And then there’s the dance terminology. “I have to admit,” Terry confided, “I did skip over some of the dance parts. My French is rusty.”
There was more. Terry had a hard time believing it was a true story – that’s how amazing this relationship was. For sixty years Duncan watched Byrne undress each night and told her she was marvelous, even after five spinal surgeries had stolen inches from her glorious height and cancer had carved away her uterus. But it was more than holding hands and quoting Shakespeare that grew their love into what I witnessed. True, Byrne had been a knockout Burlesque dancer but their love story withstood challenges that would cripple others. Instead of divorcing over the stress of a schizophrenic daughter, they lived for a time in an open marriage. Instead of letting one person’s career dominate the other’s they took yearly turns following their passions. And even when Byrne realized that Duncan’s mind was self-destructing she refused to let it erode his identity as a writer. She choreographed a stage, a life, for him even when she was the only one in his audience.
I know not every dude will “get” this book. But it says something that the men I most admire do. So here’s my promise – to any man willing to get past a dancer on the cover and the fact that it’s a love story that happens to be true. Let me get through the national launch, the blog tour and the upcoming Kindle and hopefully audio book and I’ll create a series of videos on You Tube to explain the French dance terms for you. You know – the difference been a plie and a pair of pliers. Deal?