I first saw her from a distance. She was talking on her BlackBerry. Her short, wispy blonde hair was streaked with time spent in the sun. She was wearing all white—white, cotton top and white, cotton pants. I thought, She looks much too fresh for a woman who rose before dawn—the darkest part of the night—hopped aboard a catamaran and sailed 15 hours across a notoriously rough channel, from Oahu to Kauai. But that’s just what she’d done. She was as tireless as the bird wrasse, known for its endurance swimming.
When Patricia saw me, she ended her phone conversation and hopped inside my Jeep.
“Hi, I’m Patricia,” she said, stuffing her backpack at her feet and offering me her hand.
And, then, she plunged into her tale. I say “tale,” because it is more than a mere story. Patricia Wood’s story is more along the lines of a fairy tale.
We arrived at a stop sign. I hesitated. Patricia read my thoughts. “Take me anywhere,” she said. “I don’t care where we eat.”
“Aren’t you exhausted?” I asked.
“No, but I am famished,” she said.
Because I was driving and because my digital voice recorder was stashed in my purse in the backseat, I didn’t take notes, so I don’t have the tale verbatim and I can’t quote her, but Patricia’s dream-come-true, once-in-a-lifetime, every-writer’s-fantasy goes something like this.
In 2005, Patricia attended the Maui Writers Retreat where she workshopped her first manuscript with best-selling author Jacquelyn Mitchard. Soon after, Patricia wrote her second novel and started a third. In January 2006, after sharing her idea for a fourth book with a horseback riding student of hers—who happened to be the celebrated author Paul Theroux—she spent the next four months writing Lottery. When Paul read it, he told her to get an agent.
Over the long weekend of Memorial Day, Patricia started querying agents. On July 20th at 5:15 a.m. HST, Dorian Karchmar of the William Morris Agency called to offer Patricia literary representation. That Labor Day weekend, Patricia again attended Maui Writers Retreat and Conference. That fall, Lottery went to auction and was sold to Putnam in December for a six-figure advance.
Patricia’s first published book Lottery appeared in hardback in August 2007. The same month, she again attended Maui Writers Retreat and Conference, this time as a student and as a published author. In October, Lottery made the Book Sense Notable list. The Washington Post Book World included it in their Best Fiction 2007 roundup. This past spring, Lottery was short-listed for the UK’s 2008 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. In June 2008, Lottery was released in paperback. Then, the film rights were optioned by Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Through it all, Patricia has received thousands of emails from readers. She’s participated with dozens of book clubs around the world by conference call. She’s spoken with local Hawaii schoolchildren who have read Lottery in their classrooms. As of this date, Lottery has been translated into 18 languages.
But the tale didn’t come out in that order. Patricia jumped around in her story like a ping-pong ball, and I sometimes had a hard time keeping up. I figure she is not the kind of writer I imagine journalists to be. Linear. Chronological. Methodical. I think Patricia must approach writing more like a bird wrasse (gomphosus varius). Darting here, there and everywhere. I imagine her office—which is the salon of her sailboat Orion at Ko Olina on Oahu—looks like a hurricane blew through.
At my favorite Lihue restaurant, Kauai Pasta, Patricia scanned the menu.
“I’ve lost a lot of calories today,” she said. “What do you recommend?”
“I like their salads,” I said. “Especially the Portobello mushroom and roasted red pepper salad.”
“I need more than just a salad,” Patricia said, eying the filet mignon. “I need protein. Maybe the shrimp.”
By the time I finished eating, Patricia’s plate was still more than half full. I watched as she forced an inordinate amount of greens onto her fork, opened wide, and shoveled the bounty into her mouth. She paused for the briefest of moments as she parked the bite in one cheek and resumed her story, without once spitting food across the table at me. Then, she took a bite of shrimp.
After dessert—more calories—we headed to the airport. Patricia was slated for a 9:45 departure on Hawaiian Airlines. She would return to her home on Oahu in the dark, just like she left it.
I was a little disoriented when I dropped Patricia off, because my mind was swimming with the unreality of her story. Sometime during dinner, the phrase, “You can’t make this stuff up” flitted through my mind. As did, “This is the kind of story nobody would believe.”
But it’s true. I swear.
As I drove to my home, Patricia’s words reverberated in my head. I kept hearing her say, “When I turned 50, I decided if I was going to call myself a writer, I should write something, so, I set a goal of writing 2,000 words a day.”
Two thousand words. Let me do the math for you: At an average of 250 words per double-spaced page of Times New Roman, 12-point type with one inch margins all around, that’s eight pages of writing a day. Eight pages a day.
That’s when I started to understand this woman and why she published her novel last August and why today we were talking about how her book was short-listed for a $60,000 award. I get it. When you live on a sailboat, you have to put more stock in experiences than things.
That explains why she’s sailed the Pacific, from Honolulu to San Francisco. That explains why she’s participated in shark research off the remote island of Midway. Why she’s won the Hawaii State Jumper Championship with her horse Airborne. Why she’s enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Hawaii. Why she’s worked as a medical technologist and taught high-risk students at a pubic high school in Honolulu. And, now, why she’s a published author.
Sure there have been some strokes of good fortune and good luck in this woman’s story. Indeed, her father won $6 million in the lottery. But Patricia was already 40 years old, long past the time a daddy’s generosity could shape her character. Beyond serendipity, there’s another ingredient in Patricia’s success, and that’s hard work.
It’s sitting down at your computer and resisting the urge to shop on the Internet, set sail, do a load of laundry, create a new computer filing system and go snorkeling. It’s writing 2,000 words a day. And it’s not easy. The key, according to Patricia, is to gather advice from places like the Maui Writers Conference and, then, to do the work.
The bird wrasse is a small reef fish that grows to six inches. It uses its beak-like nose to gather small crustaceans like shrimp and crab out of the nooks and crannies of rocks and corals. It is a determined swimmer and has even been known to take flight. Just like Patricia.
When I returned home from dinner, I was inspired anew to write the book about which I have talked for a couple years now. And I resolved to rise early the next day and start on my first 2,000 words. Wish me luck.