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July 7, 2008

Writing is very much a solitary endeavor. One does not get time for social events and gatherings with friends as much as one would like. In my last posting, I mentioned the Book Passage Mystery Conference, and this get-together reminded me just how much I cherish the rare but always gratifying opportunity to meet with my creative friends. It has inspired me to use this forum to discuss these friends in some depth, to share them with the world and sing their praises, as a way of cutting through the solitude and distance that separates us. The first such offering is below, about my good friend Lu Schwerin.

Leslie (Lu) Schwerin

She is perhaps the most unassuming whirlwind you will ever meet, having junketed across the world, filming Russian widows and transsexual fish, swarming rats and active volcanos, snakes and tornadoes and lesbian macaques and her own brilliant border collie: Ollie. Nominated for an Emmy for her film Girl Power, with a hardware store full of other awards for her films Rat Genius, Dog Genius, United Snakes of America, Island Castaway, Return of the Mummy, Shipwreck Hunters, Talking Trash, and the multi-million dollar series Bug Attack, she has also written dazzling fiction and non-fiction and in general has every reason to be an utter snob. Instead, she is quite possibly the most accessible, playful, nurturing, inquisitive, resourceful, adventurous, unpredictable, funny and charming person I know.

Not surprisingly, she comes from a family of creative women. Her mother is the photographer Polly Brown, whose photographs of male rituals are mesmerizing. (One of the truly wonderful writing pieces Lu has shared with me concerns the time, in her early twenties, she accompanied her mother to the Soldier of Fortune convention in Las Vegas for a photographic opportunity that almost went wildly awry.) Her sisters, like Lu, are in the film business—Jennifer (a documentary filmmaker both here and in China) and Christina (a creative and versatile film editor with extensive credits)—and they have formed their own production company, 3 Sisters Pictures. As for the logistical difficulties of working together despite the geographical distances involved—Jen in China, Chris in Manhattan, Lu in Washington, D.C.—she claims the sisters have a unique advantage: "We share the same brain."

I met Lu in Guatemala, while I was attending a workshop given by Bay Area author Joyce Maynard in San Marcos on Lake Atitlan. We were both in the fiction section led by author Robert Bausch —Lu had taken workshops with Bob in D.C.—but as often happens among talented people confined to a small remote locale for a solid week, we soon left talk of fiction behind and began discussing everything and anything, from family to food to pets to politics to favorite films, and we developed a rapport that grew into a warm and supportive camaraderie.

I have to admit that I was already interested in meeting Lu when I first read the story she submitted for the workshop. It concerned a facial recognition expert whose uncanny ability to detect deceit in facial expressions had all but ruined her life. Her style was witty and visual and concise, with counter-intuitive leaps in the narrative that never seemed jarring or wrong. It was clear she was gifted. She also sounded like she'd be a kick.

The kick element, as it were, surfaced most memorably on our first evening of group dining. Joyce gathered us all together for the night's readings at a restaurant known for its fabled lemon cream pie. Once Lu received her portion, she handed me her camera and said, "Get this for me." I readied to take the shot, watching as she settled herself before her plate, a mischievous glint in her eye. Then she plunged down, face-first into the pie slice.



Photo by David Corbett


Also while we were encamped in San Marcos, Lu showed me a longer piece she'd been working on titled "California," about a Bosnian woman whose path from manicurist to photographic model to war zone prostitute to designated charity cause celebre was by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, something for which Lu has a particular gift. It was with this piece that we decided to become a cross-country writing group of two, and have been sharing work ever since. She's a careful reader, with an instinctive sense of narrative arc developed in her years of TV work. She also has an excellent bullshit meter, which every writer needs—if not in himself, than in his most trusted reader. She helped me immensely with several pieces I've worked on this past year.

One of these was for a reading series titled Lip Service, at which both Lu and I read. Lu's piece was particularly touching—it concerned her work in Russia doing a documentary on the Russian submarine Kursk, which sank in the Barents Sea with all 118 crew members on board. What made the piece so moving was the fact that at the time she was on location for the shooting, she also believed she might be pregnant. Her husband and she had tried for several years to have a baby; she believed this was her last best chance—but it turned out not to be. (Listen to Lu read her story on the Lip Service website) What made the reading all the more affecting to me was my chance to see Lu with Emma, the daughter of Mireya Mayor, the on-screen narrator for Girl Power. Not that Lu has lacked entirely for maternal opportunities. She has helped raise her stepson Franz, whom she avowedly adores, the son of her husband Paul, a musician and documentary screenwriter.

Given the vagaries of modern life and the fact each of us travels extensively in our work—not to mention our living on opposite ends of the continent—it is unclear when or even if Lu and I may actually be in the same place at the same time again. Such is the nature of things for everyone, of course, but artists and writers in particular. It's a gypsy existence, with long stretches of time spent in remote places. This fact of life hits home particularly hard for me, having lost both my brother and wife to illness at young ages. Time with those who make one's life meaningful is always shorter than one would wish. But her friendship has become one of the great rewards of my life, and the world has become a more interesting place with her in it.

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