A conversation with Ann Pearlman, who gave readers around the world “The Christmas Cookie Club,” seemed appropriate for a December books column. But, it turns out her 2009 novel isn’t about Christmas. It’s about commitment.
Which, coming from the Jewish author of a memoir entitled “Infidelity,” makes considerable sense.
The fictional cookie club is hosted by narrator Marnie, whose day begins with preparations for a dozen friends who will be arriving at her Ann Arbor home that evening with food, wine and a story to accompany the ritual exchange of imaginatively presented cookies – with frequent dance breaks. But she’s also anticipating important news that evening from her older daughter and her husband in San Diego and, in a month, a grandchild from her 18-year-old, whose boyfriend is “a black ex-convict and aspiring rap star.”
Pearlman belongs to a real Christmas cookie club here in Ann Arbor, and reading her bestseller had me fantasizing about how lovely it would be put something like that together with friends whose company I treasure all year round and don’t see as often as I’d like. But then I thought again about the generally sluggish crowd I hang with and how the kinder ones would simply laugh at me. Righto. What say we just meet for pink drinks in January, hmm?
Such a lame crew, I suspect, would mystify Pearlman. Among her commitments: She’s a writer (seven published books). She’s an artist. She’s an adventuresome cook (her latest effort extends to homemade liqueurs). By her own account, the boundary between her family and her friendships is often indistinct. She has maintained a psychotherapy practice in Ann Arbor even as her writing career became firmly established. And the day we spoke, this mother of three and grandmother of four was looking forward to dancing the night away at the Necto’s Townie Party, despite a lingering cough from a bout of illness that put her off the cookies at this year’s meeting of the club.
Is she “driven”? Such a harsh word; such a joyless concept. Pearlman calls herself “hyperactive,” but that implies frenzy – movement without purpose. Pearlman gets things done.
Pearlman’s father, she says, “didn’t get to finish his story.” He was in his 40s when he died at home of a heart attack. She was 19; she witnessed it.
“For six months afterward,” she says, “I was wandering around, saying ‘Life is meaningless. Life is meaningless.’ I drove my mother crazy.”
She was obsessed, she said, with the unanswerable question: “How could this amazing, vital man drop dead?”
But then came an epiphany. If life could, indeed, be cut short at any moment, the only way to function meaningfully with the knowledge was to spend “every single day” doing what she loved – “and enough with the bullshit.”
It’s not grim, she says: “I’m just doing things that are fun.”
But the creative life is also a serious business. “I ‘sacredize’ time” to write, she says. “Do the most important thing of your day the first thing of the day.” On her blog, Pearlman shares her routine: “The sun wakes me. I grab espresso coffee and sit before my computer.” She writes until noon, at least five days a week. Such discipline, such commitment, brings joy.
Her published books are mileposts of a sort for her personal and professional lives. The first ones were related to her therapy practice: “Getting Free: Women and Psychotherapy” in 1982 and “Keep the Home Fires Burning: How to Have an Affair With Your Spouse,” in 1985. Then came “Infidelity,” a brave account of the pain that marital betrayal inflicted on her grandmother, her mother and – after 30 years of marriage – on Pearlman herself. Thirty-eight publishers rejected the memoir before a fledgling literary house, MacAdam/Cage, published it in 2000.
Her next project was “Inside the Crips,” written with gang member Colton Simpson and published in 2005. The ambitious and acclaimed account of “life inside L.A.’s most notorious gang” also drew Pearlman deep into a subsequent, headline-making drama when Simpson was charged with acting as the getaway driver in the robbery of an $800 earring from a California department store. In what she has described as a devastating experience, Pearlman was subpoenaed by the prosecution to testify at Simpson’s trial; he is serving a life sentence thanks to the Golden State’s insane “three strikes” law.
Pearlman turned then to fiction – “I thought I could say more” – with “The Christmas Cookie Club” (followed a year later by “The Christmas Cookie Cookbook” with fellow “cookie bitch” Marybeth Bayer of Ann Arbor). Her latest, “A Gift for My Sister” (the paperback will be out in February) follows the stories of Marnie’s daughters, Sky and Tara.
A Tale of Two Sisters
Sky, the older one, is cautious and conventional, a law school graduate who married her childhood sweetheart and is raising a daughter. Tara, a gifted musician with sharp edges forged early by her father’s abandonment, has a rising rap career and an intense but uncertain relationship with the father of her young son.
Pearlman says she had a great time writing “Gift.” It gave her a chance to explore the lives of sisters (she has one brother) and, she says, the two distinct sides of her own personality.
“There have never been times when I haven’t made something,” she says. So why would a restlessly creative soul (like Tara) go after psychotherapist’s credentials instead of an MFA?
“I’m Sky!” she replies. “Sky needed to have a job!” And it helped, she says, that even strangers always seemed to find it easy to open up to her: “I was 14 years old, on a bus, and a woman sitting next to me started to tell me all about an affair she was having.” But she offers a deceptively simple purpose for what she does: “People need someone to witness their lives.”
Pearlman is finishing another novel involving characters from “The Christmas Cookie Club” – no dates for publication yet. And she’s also compiling a book of family recipes for her extended clan – a project for which her new tablet is perfect: “I can do it anywhere!”
And of course, she’s reading: “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell, “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach get enthusiastic mentions; Julian Barnes’ latest novel, “The Sense of an Ending,” gets raves.
Lately, she’s been tackling Lucretius. In comparing several editions, she says, the divergence of the translations was so disconcerting that she thought, “I’m going to read it in Latin and I can translate it myself.”
She says she reconsidered. So let’s presume that Pearlman has chosen a satisfying translation and settled in, maybe with a plate of pecan butter balls and a pink drink. Sometimes pleasure is the greatest good.
The Best Christmas Present Ever?
Plans appear to be in the works for a new downtown bookstore. Huron High grad and former Simon & Schuster sales rep Hilary Lowe and her fiance, video producer Michael Gustafson, pulled up stakes in Brooklyn over the summer and moved to Ann Arbor; they’re looking for a spot to set up shop as Literati. Watch this space for an update.
And Happy New Year.
About the writer: Domenica Trevor lives in Ann Arbor – her columns are published periodically in The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our columnists and other contributors. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.