Subscribe to Jessica's exclusive newsletter

Subscribe to Jessica's newsletter

* indicates required

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Wisdom from the Historical Novel Society Conference 2017

Huge quantity and huge quality authors at the book signing, with yours truly 

I'm back from the Historical Novel Society Conference 2017 in Portland, Oregon. I'd been planning to go to this convergence of great historical fiction authors from all over the world since they announced its location last year, not knowing at the time that I would be so close, I wouldn't even have to book a plane ticket.

The view from the hotel room where I missed my husband 

I participated in so many fun, informative, happy, and intense events! It was no time at all before someone commented that most authors are introverts, so we all must be exhausted from social activity that we desire and enjoy but that drain our energy. I was not the only one who wondered if it was too much fun. I'll try to sum up each event with a word or two of wisdom.

FYI, telling people you're going to be living in Spain soon is a great conversation starter!

Selden Edwards and Irene Goodman 

Perhaps it was foreshadowing for the way the conference would go. I began at the preconference academy with courses on how to start your novel to grab your readers so they can be entranced by the dynamic pacing you maintain throughout. First, agent Irene Goodman and author Selden Edwards offered oral histories that were models of pacing that kept the audience hooked no matter how much they meandered. They dissected what worked with many examples of first lines. It's the perfect exercise for any novelist to look at the first lines of a wide range of first lines of novels and think about why or why not you want to keep reading, looking at tension, suspense, lively words, and specificity.

Irene Goodman gave a memorable example written by no less than her own daughter when she was young: "It started with ordinary carrots." The sentence has so much more tension than the typical "Once there was..."

Heather Webb had us at Hello. 

Heather Webb continued the learning with the first half of You Had Me at Hello. I'm having tremendous trouble getting the sequel to Seven Noble Knights started. Heather looked at my pages and gave me an idea for a new start that will better hook the reader with characterization, and mystery, and obvious stakes, tone, time, and place. (Yes, it's even harder than it sounds.)

Gillian Bagwell had us at Hello and goodbye. 

Author Gillian Bagwell entered in signature polka dots and dropped the bombshell that dialogue can do a lot of the heavy lifting of exposition and description. Drawing from her time as an actress, Gillian illustrated arcane writerly secrets in fresh and entertaining ways. If I don't nail the beginnings of all my books and stories from here on out, it won't be the fault of these fantastic instructors.

I've known author Kim Rendfeld for years,
but we met for the first time at this conference.
The digital age actually can bring people together. 

On the first day, the welcoming atmosphere, the sense of writerly support, and the openness to always learning were already apparent. I've been to a few conferences before, and there are always a few notoriously negative presenters or attendees. Not here.

Irene Goodman and editor Lucia Macro started off the wise positivity the next day, advising us that selling your first book is the good news and the bad news! They made me wish I had their jobs, warts and all.

Seven Noble Knights in excellent company at the Barnes and Noble display 

Author Carol McGrath suggested ways to invent convincing medieval heroines to an intimate "Koffee Klatch" group of my peeps, medievalists. When we present our women characters as strong, some readers complain that they seem too modern. But really, to survive the Middle Ages, they had to be. We discussed the obstacles women came up against with Carol's memorable advice that if you need to give female characters opportunities, send the men to war. Medieval Spain was in a constant state of war, so that is excellent advice for any of my future stories.

Anne Easter Smith, Aimie K. Runyan, and Stephanie Dray revel in
researching archives full of accidental—or deliberate—holes. 

In the wonderfully titled How am I Supposed to Write About This When They've Destroyed All the Evidence?, Anne Easter Smith, Aimie K. Runyan, Stephanie Dray, and Kim Rendfeld discussed the frustration and fascination of having to solve some of history's most entrenched mysteries to move your story along. Anne made convincing arguments that Richard III did not have the princes in the tower killed. When to make it up because nobody really knows was thoroughly discussed. What constitutes a good faith effort for you as a writer?

I didn't get close to Geraldine Brooks, but she was inspiring from afar. 

Geraldine Brooks spoke at lunch the first day. She entranced the audience talking about her career as a war correspondent journalist, how she got into writing novels, and how she gets her book ideas with the concept of implausible history: true events that no one could make up. Describing the sympathy both authors and readers can feel with characters in spite of geographical, cultural, and temporal distance, she said, "She loved as I loved, and that's as good a place to start as any." Read more at M. K. Tod's blog.

That afternoon, I participated in the Blue Pencil Café as a mentor. I wasn't sure what to expect, but both of the writers whose first chapters I'd read were highly receptive and ready to learn. One had just pitched to an agent and received a request for pages, so that added thrilling intensity to the revision process we were discussing. I'm glad I had the opportunity to participate in some other writers' process.

Cold Reads but a warm reception from Lucia Macro,
Anna Michels, and Margaret Porter 

On the heels of thinking about revising first chapters, I attended a Cold Reads session with editors Lucia Macro and Anna Michels and author Margaret Porter. Margaret read the first two pages of twelve unpublished novels submitted by the session attendees and the editors told us what worked for them and what didn't. The most egregious sins were the samples that didn't make the setting and time period clear. I went to a similar but infinitely more brutal session at The Muse and the Marketplace, the Grub Street conference, in 2014. In the end, it made the beginning of Seven Noble Knights 100 percent better, but I had to process it for a long time because the information was delivered in such an unsympathetic way. I wished I'd had some pages to give to these ladies, because I learn more easily in a welcoming environment like this.

The only thing lovelier than this many historical novels for sale is Powell's Books. 

That evening, I went to dinner with Kim Rendfeld and Rita Ashley, whose pages at the Cold Reads session provoked extensive discussion because they were masterfully written but described a child in distress. Apparently, that's a major turnoff for publishers because so many of them have children of their own. We followed dinner with a visit to a Portland institution, the ice cream parlor Salt & Straw. The menu is thrilling reading in itself and I hope I have a chance to go back there before I leave for Spain.

My name tag says Jessica K. Knauss—Medieval Spain. 

Bright and early the next day, I went to possibly the most informative session, How Far Can a Horse Walk in a Day and Other Questions of Accurate Historical Travel. Mary Ann Trail let us in on the secrets of Paterson's Roads, British military records for invading Scotland, which led quickly to the first travel guidebook, complete with inns, the cost of renting horses, best routes, and road conditions—all the nitty gritty details a historical novelist needs. Faith L. Justice took our breath away with Information Age ways to get at travel as far back as Ancient Rome. The best advice was to become the best friend of your local research librarian!

Stephanie Lehmann illustrates coming up against unique challenges
with Patricia Bracewell, Rebecca Kanner, Mary Sharratt, and Nicole Evelina. 

High on potential knowledge, I entered Putting the Her in History, which had possibly the best energy of any of the panels. Women come up against challenges unique to them throughout history, and yet only .5 percent of recorded history is occupied with women's lives. Each panelist had an interesting story to share, whether about her heroines or how she is perceived as a writer who is a woman. Rebecca Kanner has been asked why she's so "stuck on violence," and we imagined no male author has ever been asked that question. Such dynamics are one reason I decided to use my initials for Seven Noble Knights. Most inspiring, of course, was the idea that writing about women validates our stories and lets us know we're important. Read more at Patricia Bracewell's blog and Nicole Evelina's blog.

David Ebershoff, also dynamic from afar 

The speaker at that day's lunch was author David Ebershoff. He described how he came upon the information that inspired The Danish Girl and how he struggled with whether to write the story at all. He had a vision of how much he would regret it in the future if he didn't write it, and we're all glad for that. Every author at the conference writes because s/he feels deeply that a certain story must be told. Getting David's humble take on that passion, complete with museum visits, grave sites, and film crews, validated the struggle and hard work.

Geraldine Brooks, Ed Goldberg, David Ebershoff 

I now share an honor with Geraldine Brooks and David Ebershoff—we've all been interviewed by Ed Goldberg! It was an hour full of anecdotes and pithy replies to clever questions from the audience.

Then we filled a vast ballroom with more than a hundred historical fiction authors for the book signing. So much talent in one place! Because we were grouped in alphabetical order, I seized the opportunity to chat with authors I hadn't been able to catch until then, including Patricia Bracewell, Susan McDuffie, Lucy Pick, and Judith Starkston. Believe it or not, Seven Noble Knights didn't sell out, so Barnes and Noble has a few copies signed by the author available for purchase. Check it out online if you're not local to Portland.

Kate Forsyth 

Entertainment for the closing banquet included an enchanting recitation of the Scottish folktale Tam Lin by Kate Forsyth.

The masquerade ball off to a great start with George Washington and Alison Stuart 
The whist games provoked many shouts of victory. 

To cap it all off, a regency masquerade ball—but of course—complete with tables for playing whist, as all good regency characters do. I chose a red mask even though the purple would've matched my dress better.

The only place where a medieval gentleman can hold hands with Marilyn Monroe 

The Jane Austen Society provided authentic live music and instructors for the dance and the whist. I would likely have hung back, but author Stephanie Renee Dos Santos pulled me in for the first round of dancing. The instructor taught each dance for ten or twenty minutes before we really did it while he called out the moves, and it had a strong feeling of square dancing, lots of holding hands, promenading, and changing partners. I was exhausted!

This dance reminded me of a Goya painting. 
This one is straight out of Jane Austen. 

Many thanks to the tireless organizers and every attendee, who made this conference joyfully worth every penny.

Each person mentioned in this post is connected in some way to at least one excellent historical novel worth checking out.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

New Life: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 13

It was June 2016. Stanley and I were waking up to bright blue skies and doves cooing in Arizona. For an instant each morning, I could fool myself into thinking I was still in Spain, on that trip I wish had never ended. Arizona will always live in my heart, especially now that I don't live there, but the disappointment was palpable, the lighting angles all wrong, the smell of the air off somehow.

I've lived in quite a few places, and geography has been a central preoccupation in my life. After I first traveled to Spain, when I was sixteen years old, I noticed a tiny seed of anxiety that I imagine in a manner similar to traditional depictions of the angel and devil hovering over a decision-maker's shoulders. As I moved east and west, north and south, and across the Atlantic for education, employment, and finally to be with my roaming true love, that anxiety devil grew from a seed and blossomed into something formless but huge.

The view from my study in Arizona could almost be Andalucía. 
I had a lot of freelance editing work that June, and as I pounded away at the keyboard in the little study I so appreciated for the short time I had it, I cogitated on this eternal geographical anxiety in the background. I noted that it affected my mental state at all times. It calmed down quite a bit when I spent time with Stanley and especially when we purposefully centered ourselves in the present moment. But maybe, just maybe, a physical place existed beyond that anxiety's reach.

Looking through the photos and videos from our Trip of a Lifetime, I came to one of those realizations that break the world open, that energize you and let you see new possibilities: I had an epiphany. I leafed through some old journals and photo albums and confirmed my suspicion that this new truth wasn't run-of-the-mill traveler's regret. Someone once told me I was born in the wrong country, and I was only beginning to understand how true that was.

Stanley was parked on the couch in front of the TV, a place he'd been more often than not lately, but I was too wrapped up in my epiphany to notice. I went out to him and spoke from my heart. "Spain is the only place I ever feel at home, the only place I don't feel as if I should be somewhere else." Over the course of the next half hour, with tears of emotion, decision, and joy, we hashed out some of the feasibility of going to live in Spain. I was convinced his visa would be easy as a retired person; mine, as a "working person" (a productive member of society or a drain on it), would be much more difficult to obtain. Stanley hadn't been feeling well—that's as much as he ever said—and all this was overwhelming at the time, but he agreed that we would look into it and figure it out "as soon as you get better," as I so naively put it.

I felt better because I always feel good with a plan or even a plan for a plan. My true love, however, never did feel better.

Without going into too much detail, he entered the hospital about a month later on a Friday. Stanley's sister flew in to help, but she considerately left me alone to chat with him his first night in the ICU. I played him several of his favorite Manolo García songs on his phone. In all the emotional strain, I was convinced that Stanley was now in a position to understand the Spanish in the songs perfectly. And so I closed the Manolo García bookends of our marriage.

Then I told him I'd found a program through which Americans could teach English in Spain, and that if he needed to leave, he didn't have to worry about me. I would be living the dream. Everything else he already knew.

The following Friday in the early morning, barely a week after arriving at the hospital, Stanley passed away. I have no working memory of much of anything that happened for the following four to six months. In spite of my best efforts, my life has become increasingly difficult and meaningless since then. But I had the resilience to undergo the complex, all-in-bureaucratic-Spanish application process for the teaching program I'd promised my husband I would apply for.

That small but epic act of hope has come to fruition. I'm just getting started with what promises to be a long and winding road, but barring further catastrophes (Have I had enough yet? Please?), this autumn I will start an academic year imparting my English expertise in a high school in Zamora.

This close-up of the frontispiece of the Cantigas de Santa María, Códice rico,
shows Castilla y León, Zamora's region, with its castle and lion insignia. 
This feels like exactly what I should do. Much more about this magnificent location in later posts.

Catch up with the rest of the posts in this series here

Monday, June 12, 2017

Leaving Madrid: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 12

We thought we were tired in 2015! 
In 2015, at the end of the trip that was mostly about visiting Seven Noble Knights sites, Stanley and I had made plans to have dinner with my good friend—okay, he's an ex-boyfriend—who lives in Madrid. In the event, we were too unspeakably tired and emailed our regrets the day of. In May 2016, there we were, unexpectedly in Sevilla, at least six hours driving from Madrid, when the original itinerary I carefully put together back in Arizona had indicated we would only be three or four hours away. The itinerary would've given us plenty of time to see the city we would've been staying in and mosey over to Madrid to get to our makeup dinner date in plenty of time.

Hasta luego, Sevilla.
It was scary and exciting to drive the car straight into an elevator in the hotel garage. 
The unexpected joys of this trip were worth just about anything, but not disappointing my friend again. After that insanely wonderful night in Sevilla, we got up dutifully early and dragged ourselves to the car to get going. We took the time to finally use the black shoe polish to cover the scuff on the bumper from our first day, in Calatayud—which of course seemed like a million years ago. That's where Susie (as we called our phone GPS navigator) gave us a beautiful gift: When I gave her the address of our Madrid hotel, she showed me we didn't have to take the due north, six-hour route I was accustomed to. If we went through Extremadura, NNW and then swerving east, Susie thought it would shave an hour and half off the time.

Susie's route sent us through
Talavera de la Reina,
home of fine ceramics. 
I can't thank Susie enough for that insight. Not only was the trip shorter, but it also let me check off the last region of peninsular Spain I had never been to before: Extremadura. To Spanish ears, the name of this region sounds harsh: "extreme" and "hard." (Really the name comes from the fact that it was at the edges of "reconquered" territory.) In reality, it looks lush and inviting. The landscapes changed every few minutes into beautiful new configurations, and we still had that wonderful Spanish road trip feeling of being the only ones on the road. When we stopped at a roadside rest for something to eat, it seemed all of Hispanic humanity had converged there and Stanley's astonishment lasted all day: Where did they all come from? We didn't see any cars! 

We made it in plenty of time, relaxed and still on a Manolo high, to regale my Spanish friend with the first account of our trip of a lifetime. My friend is from Valencia, so of course he asked what we'd seen in his hometown.

"Manolo García," I said. "We had no time for anything else!"

My friend took us to a traditional Madrid eatery, where we enjoyed various tapas and larger plates, my friend practiced his English, and Stanley learned a lot about a Spaniard's point of view and my life before I met Stanley. 

Afterward, Stanley said, "He's a nice guy."

"Yes," I answered, self-satisfied. "I didn't always date jerks." Stanley was, of course, the ultimate proof of that. 

Sad section (skip if you desire)

Throughout the dinner, Stanley had a nagging, dry cough. "Allergies," he claimed so my friend wouldn't recoil in horror. Because Stanley never lied to me, I even believed the allergy excuse to some extent, telling a lady at the airport the next day who was constantly blowing her nose that my husband had them really bad this year, too. And so my true love's quiet distress was folded into the bizarre new reality I mentioned in previous posts. 

I asked why he hadn't eaten much at the delicious tapas dinner, and Stanley said it tasted weird—way too salty. I said I thought it had the normal salt level of cured meats. He was a salt lover, so the comment was even more bizarre. Food never tasted right to him again. 

End sad section, although it's always sad to leave Spain.

T4, Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas never looks as cheery on the way back. 
The next day, I tried to memorize how the streets, sights, sounds, and people made me feel because I wasn't sure how quickly we could come back. We were then subjected to some of the worst flying of our lives. Loads of turbulence, horrible treatment at US security, and we sat in the North Carolina airport starving but unable to stomach any of this weird food. Grief, mourning as only a traveler can experience it. I broke down in tears when we got on the plane from CLT to PHX, I was so done with everything. The ups and downs were so drastic, I could barely process them. 

The collage we made together includes photos, our VIP wristbands, a map
of Sevilla, and our Metro card from Valencia, which won a major design prize.
We both felt severely jetlagged, but when I recovered, I got some pleasure out of uploading videos and photos, playing Carmen's and Ricardo Marín's albums for Stanley, telling people the amazing things we did for two glorious weeks, and putting together a large photo and scrap collage of our last four days in Spain, i.e., the Manolo days, with Stanley. The finished project exerted a fascination over me and we never moved it from its spot on the breakfast table, so it was at eye level and I could stare at it before getting on with the details of this strange and foreign life in America. Once, Stanley contemplated the collage and said, "That's the best gift I could ever have given you."

"Yes," I said, because it was the honest truth. None of it would've happened if Stanley hadn't insisted I write to tell my story. "Have I thanked you?" I had, of course, but it was never enough to match my gratitude. True love creates an upward spiral of wonderful things. 

Next, the grand finale of this blog series: what Spain means to me and how it's still in the picture...

Catch up with the rest of the posts in this series here.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Sevilla Without Losing Our Seat: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 11

There's always time for a fangirl moment. 
There's a rhyming saying the Spanish use in a musical chairs situation: Quien va a Sevilla pierde su silla (Whoever goes to Sevilla loses his seat). Stanley and I went to Sevilla, and did not lose our seats; on the contrary. However, there were many moments when I lost my mind with too much happiness. 

Monument to Don Quijote in Valdepeñas 
We got up groggily the day after the life-changing Valencia concert, although my head was pretty clear. No cobwebs could come in with all those neurons firing. We had debated exactly what to do about the laundry, and in the end we went to a lot of trouble to get our car out of the garage at the mall early, threw our clean laundry in the back, and felt very satisfied. Clean clothes! At last! 

Once we were on our way to my city (Sevilla! I thought I wasn’t going to see you! You sly gal.), I drowsed, but the smile never left my face. All the events of the past day kept replaying for me in the most delightful way. We had brought our mp3 disc with all of Manolo's songs, and listened to about six hours of it. The beautiful countryside looked so familiar. We zipped past Córdoba and I had a straight shot to see down the Guadalquivir to the Mezquita. Be still my heart! 

When we arrived, it was like an embrace from a beloved friend. I soaked in the sights, got to practice my Andalusian accent, and the enchantment of Sevilla tugged at me all night. 

We woke up early considering how late we were going to stay up. Happiness doesn’t let me rest. It was cloudy, which is weird for my Sevilla, and we consulted the weather report and it was supposed to rain! I agonized over my hair, which responds poorly to humidity. We wanted to know what was going to happen that day, so I called Marta. She said Manolo was very tired, and I said I understood. Stanley insisted I mention the coffee Manolo had invited us to, and we had to wait and see, but with the knowledge that the sound check would be delayed because of the rain. Even in the absence of news, no one could be sad in Sevilla, where all three of my true loves were converging (Stanley, Manolo, and Alfonso X, el Sabio). We thought we’d go have some lunch and come back so as not to miss anything. 

It was weird to have the sky grey. Was this really Sevilla? We started at the Corte Inglés, department store par excellence, where we looked in the tourism section for an umbrella. It was hard to decide—how many times are you going to need an umbrella in Sevilla?

Stanley wasn’t sure where we were—we'd only been in Sevilla a few hours on our honeymoon—but I led us fearlessly, using the new umbrella against pitterpats of rain. We found the nicest traditional shop, and I went in on a mission to get new fan. It was a complete shopping experience, not unlike wedding dress shopping, with me telling the saleslady what I wanted, and she showed us what she had, and I made more specifications, and there were loads of lovely fans, but I ended up with a fantastically gorgeous red one with polka dots and flowers. The fan is too pretty. The only thing I've used it for was to spruce up my display at the Spring Into Art event this last April. 

750 Years in Sevilla 
We passed an elaborate temporary archway near the town hall celebrating 750 years of the Catholic Church in Sevilla (since 1266!), and Stanley took my picture with the Alfonso X statue in the Plaza Nueva. That completed my trinity of brown-haired men. We made it to the cathedral and here might be the first time I noticed my own break with reality. Alfonso X is buried in the royal chapel in the cathedral, and it's only open to the public during masses. I wanted to check the schedule so we could spend some quality Alfonso time the next day, after staying up who knew how long at the concert. Stanley was so scandalized by the thought that I would be trying to do anything except get out of Sevilla to make it to Madrid the next day that I took a step back. Too much pleasure had skewed my reason. There was much more pleasure to come, I knew it, so who cared if it drove me crazy.

Jessica and perhaps the most bookish of her loves, Alfonso X 
I saw a British couple walking and the lady was talking about shopping, needing to get something “preferably with polka dots.” Ah, yes, my Sevilla satisfies everyone’s idea of Spain. Polka dots? Bring ‘em on!

We wandered down some of the side streets around the cathedral and passed an empty bar. I could see inside and there was a lone barkeep, and “Pájaros de barro,” Manolo's most popular song, was playing. Stanley heard it, too, and it’s out of character for me to play a joke, but the spirit was upon us. I came up with a whole fictional scenario of Manolo García playing music in a little bar for three people because that’s the kind of intimacy vibe I got from him. “Is he in there?” I said. And Stanley looked! But I wasn’t laughing at my love, because at that moment anyone could’ve done the same to me. With everything that had happened so far and the fact that we were going to another Manolo concert later, there was magic in the humid air.

Our plan was to rest up at the hotel for the long night ahead, but not a lot of rest took place. I called Marta to get the scoop, with Stanley egging me on, but again, Manolo was too tired. “He won't be at the sound check?” I concluded. I couldn’t help my voice rising a bit. But Marta gave lots of apologies and I maintained my understanding because how can you not when everyone’s so nice? She said Manolo would meet with us before the concert, and to be there for 7 p.m. I didn’t have a chance to picture what that might look like because as I was hanging up, comfortable with my Spanish phone manner by now, I heard Manolo say “Hasta luego” in the background! Surreal. Why wasn’t he taking a siesta? 

La Barqueta Bridge 
We returned to the front desk to ask if there was any good ice cream nearby. Stanley used the word gelato and the receptionist had no idea what he was talking about. “Helado al estilo italiano,” I said, and that worked, and was the perfect thing to do under the clearing skies before trekking to the auditorium. 

Stanley with bougainvillea on the Expo side of the river 
After a lot figuring, we decided we would take the trusty bus to the banks of the Guadalquivir to the correct bridge, La Barqueta, then walk. And did we walk. The auditorium wasn't on the map, so we had only faith to guide us. 

The 1992 Expo grounds, of which the auditorium is an integral part, were run down, even more than when I’d last seen them in 2004. After the Expo, it appeared to be neglected. We were there during the dead of siesta, which added to the ghost-town feel. It was hard to tell which buildings were closed for the afternoon and which closed forever. We walked and walked, our spirits never flagging, but doubt was creeping in. The map wasn’t too helpful because I wasn’t sure where we’d gone straight when we should’ve turned—there had been nowhere obvious. Then we came out of the alley created by buildings into an opening and far to the left, there appeared to be an auditorium, and we could hear music—the sound test! I’m not sure how far we went out of our way, but it wasn’t terrible because nothing was terrible. Todo es ahora

At the special guest entrance, segregated from the huge line 
We were amazed at the number of people in line already, but I knew we needed to find a place where there was a sign for press and special guests. It was just beyond the regular entrance and no one was there. We made it there around 6 p.m., way too early, as usual for us. We stood in the shade of a tree full of lovely bright yellow blossoms and looked through the gates and imagined what was beyond.

After the bullring chat, Stanley and I had batted around the idea of where in the world could a person actually have a Cola Cao with Manolo García? It would be madness anywhere public. He gives the impression he can move about freely, but I don’t know that he could honestly have had a quiet time with his new best friends. The world may never know. 

We chatted and waited patiently while the wind buffeted us. Some guards came out and gave us bottles of water and little posters advertising the concert in Badajoz, in June, much too late for us. A certified groupie arrived and acted as if she was on the special guest list. She wore a white t-shirt elaborately printed in black with “Mira Manolo lo que tengo pa’ ti solo” (Manolo, look what I have just for you). Yowza! I told Stanley what it meant and we both had the impression that nothing like that would move him. A friend of hers wearing the same shirt stopped by but didn’t stay, showing us that there’s more than one person who not only thinks of Manolo as a sex object, but also thinks he might cast his sexuality toward his fans. The idea didn't belong on the Planet Manolo we'd experienced. 

Sometime after 7, I called Marta again and we learned that Manolo was still resting (understandable, of course, after giving it all in Valencia) and he wouldn’t be there until 8 p.m., which was the time they were going to open the gates. I hope I didn’t seem too pushy. I asked her if we could come in and just sit down because we’d been standing and there was a lot of wind (whine whine). But she said okay, and kept calling me guapa. The whole thing was the most civilized and goodwill-filled experience anyone’s ever had.

Miguel came out to the gate, and we went through and the groupie and some others tried to come, too, but Miguel said, “Solo ellos.” 

Our VIP bracelets led to a pun that led to a huge compliment to my Spanish! 
He walked us in with the usual “qué tal” stuff, and before we went through the doors, he taped bracelets around our wrists that said “Manolo García en concierto auxiliar.”

I made a silly pun based on auxiliar in Spanish that made Miguel chuckle. “¿De dónde eres?” (Where are you (just me) from?) he asked. 

“Los dos somos de California” (We're both from California), I replied. 

“Sí, pero ¿de dónde en España?” (Yes, but where in Spain?)

I just shook my head.

“¿No eres española? Creía que eras española” (You're (just me) not Spanish? I thought you (just me) were Spanish.)

Yay! I told Stanley what had just happened—a Spaniard thought I was a Spaniard! He imagined Miguel had been wondering what this Spanish lady was doing with some American dude. That would’ve been a headscratcher. Best compliment ever! I’ve had people make assumptions before, but this is the longest anyone has heard me speak while maintaining that mistaken conclusion.

Backstage to catering, where the VIPs go 
He walked us through the backstage areas—I couldn’t get back there with a GPS now, there was too much stimuli—and it seemed like the catering tent was literally behind the stage. It was big, with a large kitchen area and maybe as many as ten tables. Miguel sat us down at an empty table, but there were several people eating at the next one, and they said to come sit with them, so we did.

A red-haired lady whose face was all smiles said, “¿Sois amigos de Manolo García?” (Are you friends of Manolo García?)

I was taken aback. Were we? What universe had we entered? “Sí.” And saying it made it so.

Someone brought bottles of water and we nibbled discreetly on some bread rolls, but soon enough Spanish extraversion, mainly Pilar's (“Pili”), took over. They were from Málaga, and we talked about being from the United States, and pretty soon I was regaling them with the long story about 2008 and the letter and the watercolor and this year’s letter and Valencia and now Sevilla. Talking about things I love and understand. Is it any wonder I felt in my element?

Manolo García's amigos are all amigos, too. 
It turned out that the older couple had had a son who was a huge Manolo fan, and then he passed away from an aggressive cancer. They struck up a relationship with Manolo after the initial shock and have met Manolo a few times in setups like this one. It gave me the idea that once you’re an amigo, you’re always an amigo in this universe. My tenuous grasp on sanity couldn’t stand up against it. I followed these friendly people down the rabbit hole, as it were.

We talked about how much Spanish Stanley knew, and he cleverly replied, “Café con leche.” 

We're even amigos with the caterers! 
They took a few pictures, including with the caterers, because everyone was a friend there, and they encouraged us to get something from the catering. I ordered a salad for Stanley, thinking I would eat my sandwich we still had in the bag if my head ever reattached to my body, but they brought a salad for each of us—flavorful lettuce, nice tomatoes, and peppers. Stanley was well occupied while I kept jabbering with the malagueños.

They said the American band had just been there, after I said I preferred the Spanish band. We talked about PhDs and teaching and editing. Then Pilar's husband got into telling us to come visit them and they would feed us and they would invite Manolo (invite, but not see) and they would take us to a national park near them with incredible gorges and dangerous-looking bridges. 

A much bigger venue than Valencia, the better to fit all the creative genius in. 
All the while the anticipation was building. They started talking about needing to grab our seats, they’re letting people in soon! They made sure we were going to sit with them, and I was thrilled to lay the responsibility for choosing at anyone else’s feet, because we’d seen that it wasn’t going to be as close as Valencia—you could fit a couple of bullrings into the open standing section—and we had left the binoculars behind.

When there were murmurings that in another five minutes, Manolo would be there, Pilar brushed her hair, “Pa’ que me vea guapa” (So I look pretty for him). “Yo también” (Me, too), I said, trying to undo the rough texture my hair had picked up in the rain, which was long gone. A simple comb can't do that. 

The American band must be on the ground floor? 
At last, Marta came through and led us all with our VIP wristlets to an elevator with a printout of which mythical beasts were on each floor, through some run-down hallways, and to a long, plain dressing room. The light poured in the windows that looked out onto the concert area. Manolo was standing next to these windows and was backlit the whole time, natural halos imitating the ones I detect are hidden on him, anyway. The Málaga people swarmed him. They all had bags full of something: Stanley thought they had presents for Manolo and wondered what we should’ve gotten him. Trust my true love to imagine something so nice. They were actually things for Manolo to sign. I already have two signed items from him, and it never occurred to me to use this meeting in such a manner. I must be unusual. Or demented, like the lollipop! 

Backstage! Photo by Jessica Knauss 
I wish I’d brought Carmen’s CD with me so she could sign it. Who knew she would be there? She ran through and Stanley tried to talk to her because he missed out the first time. She said thank you and “Hasta luego.” The Spanish have a severe aversion to saying adiós (goodbye).

Marta the magnificent, Jessica, Stanley. Photo by Pilar 
While I was hanging back there, Marta came by and chatted a little. We thanked her so sincerely for everything she'd done, and she was all, “A ti,” which is “No, thank you,” but I can’t imagine what we did that was thankable. Just enjoyed ourselves!

Listening to the maestro. Photo by Stanley Coombs 
Once the Málaga contingent left, promising to find good seats, it was time to say something to Manolo. What could it be? What would be appreciative and poetic and memorable? He was holding forth to a bunch of people I didn’t recognize, but later focused on me. I felt like the only human who mattered in the entire world for those few minutes. Stanley was hanging off to the side trying to get pictures. Manolo reminded me to read Lucia Berlin's stories, so I scribbled the name down later, taking it to heart. (And I'm not sorry I did! Great stuff!) 

The photographer who took the picture that's the cover for Saldremos a la lluvia (the first album Stanley heard) was there and Stanley took a picture of the three of us, and then got one of me with Manolo in which I put my arm around his slim waist and he returned the gesture. Because we’re amigos, right?

Amigos. Photo by Stanley Coombs 
When it was time, he shook Stanley’s hand again, and I went in for the two Mediterranean kisses I wanted so bad. I was so overwhelmed feeling that smooth-shaven cheek against mine that I whirled away, choked up, to grab my purse. It felt like the end and we hadn’t said half the things we’d hoped to. We waved goodbye with loads of smiles and hasta luegos all around, and found our way to the elevator. 

All the VIP amigos sat together. 
The auditorium was completely full by the time the show started. 
Valencia was meant to be a once-in-a-lifetime concert event. Sevilla didn’t make it less special because, in spite of the identical set list, the experience was totally different. Twice the wonder, or even more, because all was unique. 

I've always loved tortilla de patata and Stanley did, too! 
For one, it was a more social experience because we found our Málaga friends and conversed while we waited, and even ate with them. We didn't eat the sandwiches we'd bought, but gladly accepted their hospitality and chowed down on homemade tortilla de patata baguettes. Pilar in particular got a kick out of the Americans eating such iconic Spanish food. 

It was just as exciting when the show started and I took just as many videos of the unique performances. I tried to keep up with what my Málaga friends were doing, and they in turn were amazed that I knew all the words to all the songs. No casual listener, this American! So, they asked, Manolo García is your favorite performer? "I have two great loves in my life," I answered. "My husband and Manolo García." (I skipped Alfonso X for simplicity, but he wasn't far from my thoughts.) That utterance got a lot of olé mileage! 

Because he had so recently expended so much energy in Valencia, I thought Manolo seemed a little tired, loopier at times, missing a couple of musical cues. I couldn't believe it at the end, when people were already filing out, when he unhooked all his earpieces and leapt off the stage to bodysurf in the crowd. He used to do that all the time, but as I had mentioned to my new friends, he might want to consider doing it less, since he's getting up in years. That night, no one had any age at all. We were nothing if not innocent children. 

I thought I'd loved it when Manolo talked to the audience in Valencia, but in Sevilla, during the second half, before they played "Para que no se duerman mis sentidos," he came to the mic stand, very solemn, to deliver the speech to end all concert speeches. "My musical companions and yours truly... I know some of you have come to our concerts for many years, since you were little. We're grateful, we treasure it, we enjoy it, I promise and swear. Thank you very much. You've come from Cáceres"—here Pilar yelped and grabbed my leg: "He's gonna say it! He's gonna say it!"— "from Albacete, from every part of this peninsula, and even, even... from the United States. Thank you very much, truly."

"You've come from Cáceres... from Albacete..."
"and even, even from the United States."
Of course I stood and threw my hands in the air and yelled as if my life depended on it. I wanted everyone there to know who Manolo García was talking about. Stanley asked me what was going on and I said, "Manolo García gave us a shout out on stage! He's up there performing his heart out, thinking of us!" 

I've seen a closeup video of this incident, and while Manolo's expression is pleasant throughout, the smile that crosses his lips when he says "Estados Unidos"—priceless. 

Left: Ricardo Marín, guitar and voice;
center back: Nacho Lesko, keyboards;
center front: Olvido Lanza, violin;
right: Manuel García, voice and guitar. 
"We saw the show in Málaga at the start of the tour and we thought that was great," Pilar said after the finale but before Manolo jumped into the crowd. "This was even better!" I could just about believe it. I couldn't compare Valencia and Sevilla because they were parts of one amazing whole, but if a musical event ever got better than that, I was sure the universe would implode. 

(Marta and Carmen can be seen in this short video looking after Manolo's athletic welfare.)

We spilled out of the auditorium afterward and followed the flow of people as they gravitated to the nightclubs and other music venues that were now open. If the Expo '92 area seemed like a ghost town before, now it was all flashing lights and activity, as if we'd been transported to the world of The Jetsons—but with no taxis to be had in the sky or on the ground. We said friendly hasta luegos to our Málaga amigos and pushed against the crowd, facing the fact that we were going to have to walk all the way back to the hotel. It was more than two kilometers, for sure, and remember that even if we weren't aware of it, my husband was suffering from Stage IV lung cancer. Knowing that, you would never believe the brisk pace he kept up the whole way. I explained that we were actually safer then, in the middle of the night, than we had been during siesta. "Why is everyone out now?" Stanley asked. "Are they trying to prove something?" While there is a bit of bravado in how little sleep you can get by on, in southern Spain, culture takes place at night because before air conditioning, it was unquestionably too hot during the day. We didn't get back until three in the morning, but we were safe and happy. 

In the hotel room, I got a flash forward of being back in the United States. It seemed unbearable. How could that life be real? This life, here in Spain, full of joy and belonging, that should be real. 

Next: the Trip of a Lifetime comes to an end with a friend. 

Catch up with the rest of the posts in this series here