Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Writer as Kitchen Slave

by Karen Dionne

I’m a writer – a published author, a novelist. I’m not yet a household name, but I’m not a wannabe either. My first thriller published last fall with Berkley, a division of Penguin/Putnam. My publisher paid me an advance, sold German and Czech rights, and this spring, bought a second thriller from me on spec.

I’m also co-founder and co-administrator of Backspace, an Internet-based writers community with over a thousand members in a dozen countries. I organize and run the Backspace Writers Conference in New York City every year. Backspace has the endorsement of some of the top people in the publishing industry. When I email literary agents, editors, and bestselling authors, they answer – usually within minutes.

But writing is only half of what I do. Like most novelists at the beginning of their careers, I have a day job that pays the bills. In my case, it’s working alongside my husband doing high-end furniture upholstery for interior decorators from a workshop behind our home.

Last week, I went to a customer’s house because the cushion I’d sewn for a piece of wicker porch furniture didn’t fit. It happens. We’ve been in the business for decades and we’re very good at what we do, but life isn’t perfect, and occasionally things go wrong.

This customer lives in a lovely house on a lake in one of my city's wealthier suburbs, complete with winding, wooded driveway, a beautifully landscaped yard with a bronze sculpture and gazebo, and secondary driveways labeled with discreet signs (“To Boathouse”) to indicate their purpose.

The woman was not so lovely. As soon as I arrived, she launched into what turned out to be a full half hour of abuse. She scolded, insulted, ridiculed, accused, demeaned, yelled, hit things, threw things, and even yanked the cushion from my hands as I was trying to determine what mistake I had made when I sewed it.

In hindsight, I should have called a halt after five minutes. Given her my cell number, told her I was going for a cup of coffee, and explained that she was welcome to call me after she’d calmed down and I'd come back and finish the job.

But upholstering furniture is a service business. The customer had a legitimate complaint, which I was there to fix. So I suffered through her tantrum until I had the measurements I needed, escaped to my car at last, and drove off, hands shaking, close to tears.

Understand, I'm not easily intimidated. My first novel isn’t a cozy Agatha Christie-type mystery, it’s a science thriller that plays out more like Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. To research my next novel, I traveled 7,000 miles to Chaitén Volcano in Northen Patagonia, Chile -- an active volcano officially on Red Alert. I stayed in the town at the volcano’s base, even though it was ruined by a lahar and is without electricity and running water. I hiked to within one mile of the lava dome. I saw steam vents, heard explosions from within the caldera, and felt a small earthquake.

None of that frightened me. But this woman’s screaming as if she were the lady of the manor and I was her kitchen slave was one of the most disturbing experiences I've ever had – made all the more bizarre by the fact that I’d just come from New York City, where I was a featured author at a thriller writers convention and did a joint book signing with a bestselling German thriller author at a landmark bookstore in SoHo.

My customer didn’t know about the other half of my life, of course. I understand her ignorance. Writers aren’t rock stars. Even the most successful tend not to be recognized. #1 New York Times bestselling author Lee Child relates how once while he was touring, he noticed the woman in the seat beside him on the plane reading one of his novels. He didn't introduce himself and claim ownership; instead, he waited to see what would happen. Hours later when they disembarked, the woman still had no idea she’d been sitting next to the novel’s author, even though she could have easily matched up her seat mate with the photo on the back of her book.

For most published authors, the glamorous life of a writer includes a day job. It's entirely possible I wasn’t the first author with whom my customer crossed paths. The barista at her local Starbucks, or the mechanic who rotates her tires, or the IT guy who fixes her computer might well be an author whose novel she read, loved, and admired.

But ignorance doesn't excuse my customer’s bad behavior. Whether a person’s accomplishments are obvious or not, everyone deserves to be treated with respect. No one should be treated like a kitchen slave – even if they happen to be a short order cook.

Karen Dionne is the author of Freezing Point (October 2008, Berkley), a thriller Douglas Preston called "a ripper of a story," with other rave endorsements from David Morrell, John Lescroart, and many others. Her next novel, Boiling Point, will be published by Berkley in October 2010. For more information about her, go to


Chevy Stevens said...

Oh, yuck. You have my sympathies. When I was in real estate that happened to me a couple of times and it's an AWFUL feeling. I try to remember that the other person musn't be very happy if they need to tear down someone to feel powerful. But it still doesn't feel very good when you're the one being ripped apart and treated like garbage!

Anonymous said...

Sorry about that. If she's home taking care of a mis-sewn seat cushion I assume her spouse is the one out wealth building. She's probably one of those whose only sense of self worth comes from lording their money over other people. Pathetic and sad. Good for you to take the high road.

Margo said...

The disparity is quite glaring, isn't it? Being on the receiving end of applause and honor in one role, of abuse and anger in your other working role is quite the juxtaposition.
Makes me sad indeed for the people who are only able to work menial jobs; they are always on the receiving end of such attacks from volatile customers. Thank you for the reminder to treat anyone I encounter with respect.

Karen Dionne said...

Thanks everyone, for the read, and the great comments. I came away from the experience feeling much like Margo. I'm fortunate in that for me, this was a rare experience, but what about the people who have no choice but to work in jobs where they have to deal with this kind of abuse (and worse) all the time?

Kali Karmichael said...

Hold that head high- you're a classy chick. Sweet justice for the witch. Everyone in her world can walk away but she's forever stuck with herself.YIKES.
Now back to better things- Just knowing that you actually went to Chili and got that close to the volcano- makes that book of yours worth getting. It's gotta be good. I'll be getting mine.

Karen Dionne said...

Thanks so much for the read and the nice words, Kali! The trip to the volcano was AMAZING. I'm still writing the novel, but in the meantime, if you like, you can check out some of the volcano video footage my son shot at my Boiling Point blog: