Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate
By Alexis Rankin Popik/ Aucoot Press
When Alexis Popik and her husband, William, moved from California to Connecticut 15 years ago, they were, she laughingly says, "the first members of either family to leave home." By "home," she means California, and she laughs because the most compelling impulse in America is to move westward, not to turn around and head eastward. They'd both lived most of their lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the last nine months of their California chapters were spent in Los Angeles, a fish-out-of-water experience that suddenly made Connecticut — where her husband was hired as an executive at CIGNA — look like the land of Canaan.
Though the stay in LA was relatively brief, it got under Popik's skin — and crept into her writing. This was due in part to the serendipitous timing: it was the year of O.J. Simpson's murder trial and Northridge earthquake. But other aspects of life in LA struck her as "just like its stereotype — plastic." She could not help noticing the "facelifts, fake breasts, the year-round tans," but she also noticed that the entire area was "plastic" in another way: "It was constantly changing, for eons arranging itself by earthquake, fire, flood, erosion and landslide — ruthless natural forces in an unnatural setting of vast green lawns and cement-lined riverbeds."
Having written fiction since she was a kid — starting her first novel at age 10 ("By the second sentence, I had already given away the ending") — she began work on what became the novel Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate (Aucoot Press), which has just been published.
It's the story of Richard Stone, his wife Clare and their two children, newly arrived in the suburb of Agave Hills (modeled on Augora Hills, where the Popiks lived). Richard is from an old Yankee family in Sainsbury, Conn. (modeled on Simsbury), but he has morphed into a Type A attorney whose specialty is setting up ironclad trusts for rich clients; he has the obligatory vanity plate ("TrstMe") on his obligatory Lexus (which replaced the BMW, which replaced the Porsche). His heretofore untreated bipolar disorder flares into a full-blown mania feeding off the jagged energy of Los Angeles, a city that rewards manic type-A behavior — that is, until the person begins to crack or crashes from a high. At that point, the vultures circle the kill. And therein lies the tension of this engaging literary mystery novel whose title derives from Clare's failed attempt to carve a garden out of the coyote-patrolled land behind the house — "kiss me over the garden gate" is a type of flower (double-entendre spoiler alert: the "landscape architect" hits on Clare).
"I didn't intend for it to be a mystery novel at first. But there has to be some of that to drive the narrative," said Popik, whose work has appeared in Connecticut Explored and in publications for the Hartford Seminary, where she's a member of the corporate board. "People are coming and going all the time in Los Angeles, the constantly changing staff in the entertainment companies. I had to steep myself in bipolar disorder to get that part of it right."
The rest of it is based on gimlet-eyed observations of the LA scene and her Connecticut haven.
"People just don't try to look so seductive in the Bay Area or here the way they do, no matter their age, in LA," she said. "Manic people don't see anything wrong about any of it."
Though the idea had been eating at Popik for years, she pulled out the manuscript periodically to make changes over the years since moving to Connecticut.
"I began to see a clearer story," said Popik, who also ran ideas by a sympathetic friend who was also working on a novel.
"We became our own book circle of two," she said. "We even went to novel-writing seminar. Giving copies of a manuscript to a bunch of friends can be frustrating because you get almost no useful feedback. I had one friend tell me to use fewer adverbs."
The most useful thing she found was the STORY seminar taught by Robert McKee, a legendary Hollywood figure on whom a character in the film Adaptation was based.
"I did it to understand the mechanics of a good story," she said. "I remember McKee saying, 'Writing isn't thinking about writing or talking about writing. It's actually sitting down and writing.' It's not fun and you feel absurd some of the time, like 'who do I think I am?'"
Before she turned to writing full time, Popik was a union organizer. She became interested in this work while studying history at UCal-Berkeley.
"When I graduated, I didn't want to be a secretary, which is what I did to put myself through school," she said. "So I talked myself into a job as a union organizer. We organized workers in the college system in the early 1970s when Jerry Brown was governor. We felt like we ran the state. We spent a lot of time lobbying in Sacramento and got to know all the lawmakers — talk about bipolar personalities! One thing I learned that has stayed with me is how to resolve conflict."
Popik had the launch party for her novel in early May at the library of the Goodwin Estate on Asylum Avenue in Hartford, near where she and her husband live. She hopes the novel will find a market in Southern California, where much of the action takes place.
One difference she's noticed between Southern California and Connecticut is, "It's not flim flam here. If someone says they're going to do something, they actually follow through. In LA, everyone is so upbeat and ingratiating but they never follow through."