Can a relationship with a loved one survive — and even evolve — after the ultimate loss? This thought-provoking question is explored by Lisa Romeo in her new memoir, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss (University of Nevada Press, May 2018). In her poignant re-telling of a father-daughter relationship, Romeo recalls her childhood and rediscovers her enigmatic father, reinterpreting that relationship after his death.
While Lisa was growing up in New Jersey, her father, Anthony, owned a polyester textile business that provided such gifts as lavish vacations and the opportunity for Lisa to pursue an extended equestrian career. Horses weren’t Lisa’s only interest, however – she began reading at four and writing at five. She edited her high school newspaper, earned a journalism degree, and then spent three years working as an equestrian journalist while competing on the circuit with her own horse, Cool Shoes.
As I got to know Lisa through her writing and website, I was intrigued by this combination of horses and writing. Eventually, Lisa made a decision that many writers must make: she pursued a career that helped her bring in more income. She became a public relations professional, married her high school sweetheart, had two children, and moved back to her original hometown, where she still lives.
In her forties, Lisa made another decision: she decided to earn her MFA degree to focus more seriously on her writing. Her personal essays have been featured in numerous publications ranging from The New York Times to The Chronicle of the Horse, to Baristanet.
I connected with Lisa some years ago through the literary world. She was one of the first people to feature an interview with me on her blog when Message From a Blue Jay was published. At the time, Lisa was working on her own collection of personal essays, which she eventually transformed into her newly published narrative memoir.
Let’s learn more about Lisa Romeo.
FRD: It’s no secret that I’m an animal lover, so let’s talk about the important stuff. Horses! Tell me about your background with these amazing animals.
LR: I think I was born asking, “Can I have a pony?”
Dad took me for pony rides on Sundays, but I didn’t take lessons until I was 12. By 15, I’d convinced my parents to buy me a horse, which we boarded at a neighborhood stable—a rarity in our New Jersey suburb. I practically lived in that old barn from then on!
Eventually, I moved on to other horses, different stables, more serious trainers, and competing in horse shows. I rode all through college, and for three years after graduating (with a degree in journalism), I was on the horse show circuit more-or-less full time. My parents paid the show, training, and travel fees and I earned money writing for equestrian publications, tutoring the children of trainers and professional riders, and doing publicity for events. It was a glorious young life!
Mind you, I wasn’t a particularly great rider; I started late, I’m not naturally graceful nor slender. But I loved the challenge and kept at it. Horses were a daily part of my life for about 15 years, in all kinds of weather and any temperature, no matter where I was living and what else was going on. I wouldn’t trade one minute with those magnificent animals.
FRD: What parallels can you draw between life as an equestrian and life as a creative writer?
LR: In some ways, I think the dailiness of life with horses, what goes on behind the scenes, the constant practice, the caring for and training, set me up well for the writing life. No matter how far you progress, you still need a good trainer and daily dedication. You always need to drop back and reinforce basics: to stay sharp, even top riders and horses that may compete over six-foot obstacles have to trot over dozens of small fences on any random Tuesday, whether you don’t feel well, whether it’s snowing, or 95 degrees.
You do it, and you get filthy and frozen and tired, and you do it again and again, and no matter how awful things went all week, you show up in the show ring that weekend, nicely turned out, and do your best. Sometimes it’s your day, other times not. (Early rejection training!) Then it’s back to the quiet anonymity of the barn where you do everything all over again, out of the spotlight, so the next time in that ring, you do better. Along the way, you aim higher, enter more difficult shows, try to master more complicated courses. Revision at its finest!
FRD: Like you, I have worked as both a journalist and a public relations professional. At some point I had to break free of the formulaic and/or structured writing required in those professions to produce creative work. What did you to do shake up your prose and/or find your creative voice?
LR: When my kids were in elementary school, I decided I needed a dramatic change, so I pursued an MFA degree, via a low-residency program. That was a game changer. I wanted to immerse myself in craft and see where it could take me. Unfortunately for our family bank account, it took me completely away from (more lucrative) public relations and biz writing! But I needed to make that clean break; I was already in my mid-40’s and felt if I was going to get serious about creative writing, it had to be then, and it had to be at full throttle.
Craft-wise, one difficult thing for me was learning it was okay—mandatory even—to (re)create quoted material from remembered events, to change a name here or there: things you are trained in journalism school to not ever do. But in memoir, personal essay, and narrative nonfiction, you often can’t rely only on documented, recorded sources. Writing good dialogue was a challenge for me at first, but now I really like that part of the craft—getting it to work in a narrative way while staying faithful to the experience and the real people who were part of those conversations.
FRD: Your new book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, is about the interesting way you’ve forged a new relationship with your father since his death. In an article about the book in Publisher’s Weekly, you said, “If the book spurs anyone to look at bonds that last beyond death, that would be wonderful.” How is it possible to foster bonds with someone who is no longer living?
LR: I can’t answer that in any kind of technical or expert way; I can only offer—as I do in the book—my experience. Being quiet and ready to listen was key for me, being ready to learn some things I maybe wasn’t going to like, particularly about myself. When I was open to knowing more about my father than I did before, many things that had confounded me during his life began to make sense. Part of that came from talking to and asking questions of elderly relatives, Dad’s old friends, my older sister, even my husband and kids and my best friend (who was like Dad’s third daughter). There was a lot of contemplation, a lot of time staring into the fireplace or out the window while also “talking to” my gone father.
By the way, I just heard of a new theory that says every person we are in a relationship with exists as part of and within our own mind as well as a separate being. I suppose it was that Dad I was talking to and continuing to be in connection with. Since Starting with Goodbye was published, I’ve heard from many readers who say they too are still “hanging out” with their deceased loved ones. I suspect it’s not so rare, only rarely discussed.
FRD: What were you thinking, publishing-wise, the day before you learned your book would be published? Were you ready to give up, sure it would happen, or somewhere in-between?
LR: That would have been mid-March 2017. I was hopeful. It felt like I was getting close, that something was going to happen. The month before, two publishers had asked to see the full manuscript; then I’d been to the AWP conference and met the director of University of Nevada Press (my eventual publisher) and he’d asked for the full, as had one other press. So, four publishers were reading the full manuscript. I could feel momentum gathering.
FRD: Your father retired to Las Vegas. If you could meet him at one of the casinos there today, which one would it be, and why?
LR: I’ll have to cheat a bit and name two, because my father was a complicated guy and his tastes swung to both ends of what Las Vegas offers. He loved sophisticated and ultra-luxurious hotel casinos where high rollers congregated and where he’d play Baccarat, as well as down-home simple places where you play slot machines alongside locals.
We’d meet first at the Frontier Hotel, where our family spent probably a hundred nights over the years (before they moved to Vegas), a place with a corny western theme where we felt at home in casual clothing. Then, we’d cross the Strip to enter the hushed quiet of the Desert Inn, a place of lovely understated elegance where we also spent many happy vacations, and later, celebratory family dinners. The Frontier was demolished in 2007 and is now an empty lot, and the Desert Inn was razed in 2000 and replaced by Wynn Las Vegas in 2005.
But in this imaginary meet-up, we’d be visiting their late 1970’s/early 1980’s incarnations. Traveling there, as we do in memoir, and lingering in that grand graced place called memory.
FRD: Thank you for taking us from horses to publishing to Las Vegas in this short interview, and for your thoughtful responses.
Lisa Romeo’s website is at this link: https://www.lisaromeo.net/. You can read her blog, where she has offered advice, tips, and resources on the art, craft, and business of writing, via personal experience, guest posts, and author interviews here: http://lisaromeo.blogspot.com/