Sheila Grinell, THE CONTRACT

Sheila Grinell, THE CONTRACT

Zibby Owens: Writing is a second act for author Sheila Grinell. She led the team that opened the Arizona Science Center as the CEO, which welcomed nearly 400,000 visitors a year, and by the way, is one of my favorite places to take my kids when we go out and visit my mom and stepdad during the winter months. A graduate of Bronx Science High School and Harvard University as well as the University of California at Berkeley, she currently lives in Phoenix and has written two books, The Contract and Appetite.

Welcome Sheila. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sheila Grinell: My pleasure.

Zibby: I have to ask first, I read that you were born in a taxi. Is that true?

Sheila: That is true. It even says so on my birth certificate.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Tell me the story behind that.

Sheila: It’s the end of the World War II. My father, who was stationed in the United States, was not present. My grandfather took my mother downstairs into a taxicab. I was the first child. My mother said, “The baby’s coming. The baby’s coming.” Oh, no, no, no. He took her downstairs. It was New York City. They called a taxi. The taxi’s moving to the hospital. My mother says, “The baby’s here.” Evidently, my head emerged. My mother had the presence of mind to reach down and close my nose because she didn’t want me to breathe. The taxi pulls up into the hospital yard. My grandpa runs out, gets a nurse. The nurse runs back and completes the delivery in the backseat. Then when I was old enough to understand all this, I said to my grandpa, “Grandpa, what did you do?” He said, “I gave the driver a big tip.” It wasn’t good for my mom because this is a long time ago and since I was contaminated, they put me in a separate room. My mother went to the maternity ward. She wasn’t allowed to see me for almost a week.

Zibby: Oh, no. That must have been so hard.

Sheila: Right. I know when I had my baby, I was out of the hospital in two days.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. That’s quite a story. I also just read your piece about how you feel now that you’re in, I don’t know what to call it, assisted living or continuing care.

Sheila: Continuing care retirement community.

Zibby: Continuing care retirement — oh, right, CCRC, because your husband has Parkinson’s, which I was so sorry to read about. Tell me about writing this piece and what it’s been like for you having to transition to this type of living arrangement to help with his care.

Sheila: Parkinson’s is a very slow, nasty disease. It’s not only movement. It’s also cognitive and emotional. It affects your seeing and your hearing and your speech, everything, but it is slow. My husband was diagnosed in 2011. It’s been creeping up. I got to the point where I knew that something’s going to have to change. Everyone says if you’re going to move into one of these places, move early so you can enjoy it together before you can’t enjoy it together anymore, so we did just about a year ago. At first, it was really wonderful because my husband had some blessings that he hadn’t had before. He hadn’t driven in three years. Here, he could just walk to the bistro and get a burger when he wanted. He could take the exercise classes and chat with the ladies. There are far more women here than men. A lot of them are widows. My husband is charming. He has a great time. We walk together and they all go, “Hi, Tom. Hi, Tom.” No “Hi, Sheila.” They said, “Hi, Tom.” He felt invigorated. I was relieved because there’s always somebody around. He has a little alarm button. He presses the button, somebody’s here’s in five minutes. They have it set up to take care of people who are old and infirm. In the future, I know I’m going to need more help. I’m not going to be able to wash him and move him around. I’m not big, but he’s bigger. We’re set up. I was enjoying it. Then COVID came. Even though we’re an independent living, we’re not in a nursing home, there is a nursing home on the campus. They use the nursing home rules for all of us, which meant no visitors at all, no more communal dining. They bring a meal to our door. Somebody drops it off at our door and rings the bell and runs away. They’re keeping the disease away, so we have to deal with it. I’m okay. When everything got quiet, I was actually able to concentrate on the next book. I’m writing my next book.

Zibby: Let’s talk about your writing. Tell me, now that you’ve mentioned it, what is the next book about? Then let’s go back and talk about the previous two books.

Sheila: The next one is a story about a pioneer young woman who comes west, contemporary pioneer. She comes west to find a better life. She winds up in Phoenix where I am. It’s post-pandemic. I’m writing it as if it’s three years from now. Hallelujah, I hope it’s post-pandemic then. People’s lives will have been changed. They’ll be expecting different things. My young woman falls in with a real estate developer. That’s the name of the game here. For the last twenty years, thirty years, forty years, the whole metro area has grown tremendously. It’s real estate developers who have a vision of the future. They decide where you’re going to live, what you’re going to want, where the transportation is, where the schools are, where the parks are. Are there any other amenities? They decide all that. Some of them do it with a great deal of vision and respect. Some of them are unethical. Some just want to make the buck. Some are cheats. I’m plopping this young pioneer woman into this post-pandemic environment where people are designing the future. We’ll see what happens.

Zibby: Wow. Even just the exercise of imagining a post-pandemic world again and how this will have affected things is an interesting exercise in and of itself.

Sheila: Yes. That’s why I’m only going three years out because I think beyond that is beyond me.

Zibby: Now let’s go back to The Contract. Tell everybody the plot of that book as well. What inspired you to write that story?

Sheila: It’s about a bunch of children’s museum designers, Jo and Ev, man and wife. Jo is around forty-eight. She says, I’ve got to make my mark now. She thinks that if they’re invited to bid on a contract in Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, she thinks, this is it. I’m going to go for this. It’s going to make my name. He is a different kind of person. She’s got all the balls. He’s got the soft side. He just wants to stay home and make things. They go. It doesn’t turn out the way she thought. She learns a lot about her culture, about her work, about her marriage, and about herself and what she can tolerate and what she can’t. That’s why I wrote the book. In this day and age, I was mulling over, how do people become tolerant? Shouldn’t they? When? What makes it happen? What are the impediments? This was in my back of my mind. I wasn’t even quite aware that it was in the back of my mind. Then I met my friend, name not to be announced. I met a friend, wonderful woman. She’s a professional, kind, generous, very thoughtful. Her sister came to visit. The way she talked to her sister shocked me. She was completely contemptuous. I said to myself, wouldn’t you have learned by now to tolerate her? Then I realized, oh, I can use my experience in Saudi Arabia. If I’m going to write about tolerance, that’s one extreme. Jo and Ev, my designer couple, they live in Oakland, California, so I have both extremes.

Zibby: You’ve had a whole career in museums and a whole museum life. You were able to bring that in to inform all the details of this book. What made you start writing to begin with? I know you have another book as well. How did you transition or how did you incorporate this element of creativity into your professional life?

Sheila: The Contract had to be set in the museum world because my own experience in Saudi Arabia was the museum world, and I had to make it real. You can’t make up stuff about Saudi Arabia. It’s just too far out. Back to, how did I become a writer? Well, I didn’t. I have to take you back to the beginning. I had a whole other life for forty years.

Zibby: Let’s go back.

Sheila: The beginning is in high school. I had a marvelous teacher. I hope you had the one teacher who changes your life. A lot of people have them. There’s one math teacher, Dr. Dotti, I had him for three years. I went to college thinking I’d be a mathematician. I got there and they had made me take physics. Mechanics was okay. Then when they got to electricity and magnetism, I didn’t know what was going on. I said, I can’t do this. I have a scholarship. I have to do well. I’m going to have to go home. A friend of mine said, “What do you like?” I said, “I like my English composition class.” She said, “So major in English.” So I did, not being so intellectually greedy. Then I went to graduate school and I got a master’s degree in social science and sociology. After my education, I was prepared for everything and nothing practical. I was in Berkeley, California, at the time. This is 1969, which is a time of great social unrest like now, only very positive. It was free speech and anti-war and the beginning of women’s liberation. It was an exciting time. Alternatives were big. I ran into a physicist who was starting a science museum. He wanted it to be an alternative, not telescopes and steam engines behind glass cases, but light and sound that you could actually play with. I thought, sounds great. It’s math and science. It’s humanities. It’s an alternative social institution. I’m going to do this.

I started my first job. I joined Frank Oppenheimer. We built the Exploratorium, which has been widely emulated around the world. My first job turned into a career. I worked in it for forty years. It was fabulous. I helped start museums in different places. I wrote a book about museums. I instructed people all over the world. Then I moved to Phoenix in 1993 for one last shot. It was really going to be from scratch. I really liked the from scratch, starting things up. I moved here, got the Arizona Science Center up and running, made it a little bigger, mentored my successor, thought about things. Then suddenly, it was forty years and I was done. It was like a little switch. I’m done. This institution still needs to change and become even more contemporary, but it doesn’t need to be changed by me. It needs to be changed by a digital native. I’m done. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I needed to change. I started consulting. Then the universe intervened.

My mother had a stroke. She was living back east with my sister. I went to visit her. I saw her first in April. I said, “Mom, you don’t seem to really know who you are anymore.” As the stroke multiplies, she was really losing her personality. “Mom, you don’t know who you are anymore. Do you want me to tell you your story?” She said yes. I said, “Okay.” So I told her her life story in forty-five minutes. I cleaned it up. I finished. She said, “That was interesting.” I said, “You won’t remember, but I’ll tell you again.” In May, I go to see her. “Mom, would you like to hear your story?” “Yes, I would.” I started to tell her story, but she couldn’t pay attention for forty-five minutes, so I told her a few chunks. She said, “That was interesting.” I said, “If you won’t remember, I’ll tell you again.” I go to see her in June. I start to tell her her story. She couldn’t even put the chunks together. She was out of it. I took a walk. It was like somebody stabbed me in the belly. I said, I have to write her story. In retrospect, I was mourning her in advance. I was trying to keep her because she was going away. I came back to Phoenix. I wrote her story. I went to the Piper Center here and got an editor. I finished it. I shared it with a few friends. Then I realized I wanted to write more. I think the old English major came back.

I enrolled in community college here. It was such fun. It was so different from everything else I had done for my business life. There were sad, lost twenty-year-olds and a bunch of other older people trying to recharge their batteries. I had a wonderful time. I kept taking classes. I’m in my third short story class. I’m looking at the story in my hands. I say, “It’s too big. It’s not going to fit in twenty pages.” The guy sitting next to me said, “So write a novel.” I went, “Okay.” That started me on the journey on my first novel, Appetite. I didn’t have writer’s block, which was a tremendous blessing. I think it’s because I already had a successful life here. I was already an asset to the community. So if I screwed up, it wouldn’t matter. At least, that’s what I told myself. It worked. I worked away at it. It took quite some time because I was still consulting. Then got it going and realized this is really what I want to do and I’m continuing to do. There’s a bunch of advantages to having another career besides just having the freedom to fail. I realized that a lot of the skills from my past lives still pertained. I know how to commit myself to a five-year project with an uncertain outcome. I know how to stick to a schedule and budget. I know how to stop second-guessing myself all the time. I knew how, when I was in over my head, to go get some expert help. All of this was kosher. I used all those skills in my writer life too. The big disadvantage about my second life is that it’s going to be shorter than the first one. I’ve got to hurry up and get more books under my belt. I don’t think that way. Every project, every book is its own thing. You just live in that book for the years that you’re in it. Then the next one comes up.

Zibby: That’s amazing. How did it feel to publish a novel? How old were you, if I may ask? You don’t have to answer, but when Appetite came out. You don’t have to say it. You don’t want to say it. It’s fine.

Sheila: Very old.

Zibby: Very old, okay.

Sheila: Zibby, I could be your mom. I started writing in my sixties.

Zibby: That’s fine. Started writing in your sixties. Then you had a novel published. What did that feel like? I know, as you’ve said, you’ve accomplished so much professionally in other areas. By the way, I love the Arizona Science Center and have been there many, many times. Love it. How did it feel when it first came out or you first saw it on a shelf? To have that happen and feel that, what was it like? I can only imagine.

Sheila: I was living in a different world. When you’re writing, you’re writing. I’ll give you an example. If you know Phoenix, maybe you know Changing Hands, wonderful independent bookstore. I had the launch there. Just before the launch, I was so nervous. I had called a friend of mine who’s a personal trainer. I said, “Work me out.” In my other life, I would stand up in front of a room full of 1,500 people and by force of will, make them shut up. It’s not possible in the new life because it’s different. When you’re standing up talking about science museums, you have the museum, you have the board and the donors and the staff and the visitors. You have all these people behind you. When you’re standing up to talk about your book, it’s just you. Art is so much more personal. I had to make a shift from a more public persona into a private one and revealing that private one. That was different, exciting, and a little scary. Now I’m much more used to it. I think it’s a privilege to be able to plumb your own depths in a way that makes sense for other people.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I love that. Having gone through this journey, what advice would you have for aspiring authors at any age?

Sheila: Most people, when they start something, think about the reasons not to. There are reasons not to. They’re probably valid, but ignore them. There are reasons to. The main reason is because you don’t lose your old skills and your old personality, but you can exercise it differently. I feel like I’m still engaged with the world, but I’m exploring it in a different dimension. That’s how it feels. My advice would be, go for it. Whenever I give talks or readings, people come up to me afterwards. You can tell by the look on their face that they’re want-to-be writers and they’re looking for help. They say, “I had this great story. I had this wonderful and fantastic experience. I just can’t seem to get to it.” I say, “Make yourself a promise, twenty-one days. One hour a day for twenty-one days.” Science says that twenty-one days is what it takes to form a habit. Also, my other piece of advice is to work on your craft. If you can’t massage a sentence into what you want it to be, you won’t really be able to tell whether you’re expressing your story or not. Work on your craft. You can take classes at a community college if you have one. I was lucky enough to have one right by. You can find a critique group. Go online. There’s tons of them. Do whatever you do, but write. Work on craft. Then see what you have to say.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so inspiring. I love this. It’s so encouraging. It’s just so encouraging. You take everything, every skill in your brain, and you melded it all together. Now you’re producing in little installments, novels and delight and entertainment for so many other people. It’s really neat. I’m very impressed.

Sheila: I hope when you read the next one that I’ve got it right, that it is accurate post-pandemic, but also, delightful.

Zibby: I can’t wait. Thank you for sharing all your stories and for coming on my podcast and for all your great writing. Thank you.

Sheila: Thank you so much. Zibby, I have to tell you, you must be the nicest person in the world. What you do for books and readers and writers and stories is just splendid. Thank you.

Zibby: Aw, you’re welcome. Thanks for saying that. Take care, Sheila.

Sheila: Bye.

Sheila Grinell, THE CONTRACT