Our friendship was cemented over a great bottle of wine.
Which is a preposterous statement, when you think of it, because we haven’t met in the real world, and I no longer drink. Nevertheless, it’s still true. When I read the premise behind Pandora’s Bottle, Joanne Lessner’s first novel, I was certain that we’d get along.
If you’ve been reading Telling Stories long enough, you may know that I used to be a wine evangelist. For years it was my greatest passion.
So I know that the famous bottle of wine in Pandora’s Bottle really existed. Thomas Jefferson was a learned statesman before he became president and, as ambassador to France, he amassed quite a wine cellar, including some legendary bottles of first-growth Bordeaux that he inscribed with ThJ. Two centuries later, one bottle of Chateau Lafite became the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold — to the Forbes Collection.
Elsewhere, a similar vintage of Chateau Margaux became the most expensive bottle never sold. That bottle was broken by a clumsy waiter at a Margaux tasting in New York, so no one ever learned if it was ambrosia or vinegar. The insurance company was still out $225,000.
[Spoiler alert!] Lessner imagines the first ThJ bottle meeting the second bottle’s fate, when an awkward, quirky millionaire treats a working-class secretary, who happens to be the love of his life, to a special night centered on a $500,000 bottle of wine. Various stories weave into the narrative as the wine event of the century unfolds, and the story entertains at every turn.
But what surprised me most about Joanne is what I learned after reading Pandora’s Bottle. She has absolutely no background in the restaurant or wine industries. I’m a former professional in both, and I was duped. Even better, Joanne told me that her introduction to the food service business happened over an afternoon at a popular New York restaurant.
And that’s why I’m keen to read the adventures of Isobel Spice, Joanne’s new series of mystery books, which debuted with The Temporary Detective last year, and Bad Publicity in April. If she’s half as good with the cloak-and-dagger stuff as she is with the world of rarified wines, I will be entertained.
I also think that it’s incredibly cool that Joanne enjoys an active performing career and, with her husband, composer/conductor Joshua Rosenblum, has co-authored several musicals, including the cult hit Fermat’s Last Tango and Einstein’s Dreams, based on the celebrated novel by Alan Lightman. Her play, Critical Mass, received its Off Broadway premiere in October 2010 as the winner of the 2009 Heiress Productions Playwriting Competition.
So please welcome her to Telling Stories and, while you’re at it, introduce yourself to Isobel Spice.
About The Temporary Detective.
Phones, light typing…and murder.
Think breaking into show business is hard? Try landing a temp job without office skills. That’s the challenge facing aspiring actress Isobel Spice when she arrives in New York City, fresh out of college and deficient in PowerPoint. After being rejected by seven temp agencies for her lack of experience, Isobel sweet-talks recruiter James Cooke into letting her cover a last-minute vacancy at a bank. New to his own job, and recently sober, James takes a chance on Isobel, despite his suspicion that she’s a trouble-magnet. His misgivings are borne out by lunchtime, when she stumbles across a dead secretary in a bathroom stall. With her fingerprints on the murder weapon, Isobel sets out to prove her innocence by investigating the crime herself. While learning to juggle phone lines and auditions, she discovers an untapped talent for detective work—a qualification few other office temps, let alone actresses, can claim.
About Bad Publicity
In the world of PR, there’s only one crime worse than killing a deal—killing a client.
Aspiring actress and office temp Isobel Spice finds a warm welcome at Dove & Flight Public Relations, thanks to her old school friend Katrina Campbell. However, the atmosphere chills considerably when Isobel unwittingly serves an important client a deadly dose of poisoned coffee. Her stalwart temp agent, James Cooke, rushes to her aid, but balks when he learns that the victim was the fraternity brother who got him expelled from college. News that Dove & Flight is being acquired by an international conglomerate quickly supplants the murder as the hot topic of office gossip, but Isobel is convinced the two events are related. When all roads of inquiry lead back to Katrina, Isobel is forced to consider the possibility that her friend’s killer instincts go beyond public relations.
25 Questions with Author Joanne Lessner
1) What was your favorite book as a child? What is your favorite children’s book?
I adored Little Women. I was also a huge Nancy Drew fan, which will not come as a surprise to anyone who’s read The Temporary Detective. I’m also a huge Harry Potter fan, although I would say those books are almost in a category by themselves.
2) What is your most marked characteristic? Does it help or hinder you?
Okay, there’s no way this isn’t going to sound obnoxious, but I’d have to say it’s that I’m smart. (Told you.) But honestly, it’s probably the first thing people notice about me and often comment on—for better or worse. When I was eighteen, a director said to me, “You’ll never be an ingénue, because you look like you know too much.” Obviously, it’s helped me in many ways: I have a quick wit, and I tend to grasp situations quickly and clearly. But for a creative artist, being brainy can be a hindrance. Your mind wants to control everything, but the best art comes from a willingness to let go. My acting teacher used to remind me constantly to “check my brain at the door.” It’s easier for me to let my instincts take over as a writer. It’s still scary for me as an actor, probably because people are watching me as I’m doing it.
3) Which quality do you most like in a man?
Sense of humor.
4) Which quality do you most like in a woman?
5) What is your favorite memory?
That’s an impossible question! But I’ll go with the first moment I laid eyes on my firstborn, Julian. He was looking around the room, silent and covered with muck, with these enormous eyes taking everything in. He was just checking it all out, with a little smile on his face. In that moment, I felt a flash of what it means to be divine, to give life. It was an extraordinary thing.
6) Describe the best meal you’ve ever had.
On our honeymoon, my husband and I splurged and went to L’Esperance in Vézelay, France. It’s one of the most highly rated and most expensive restaurants in the world, and the food and setting were really special. After 22 years, we still laugh about the moment when my husband reached for the wine bottle, and the sommelier dashed across the room and cried, “Non, non, monsieur! Zat ees my job!”
7) What’s the best book you’ve read in the last two years? The best movie you’ve seen?
Best book: Cloud Atlas
Best movie: The King’s Speech
8) What characteristic about yourself would you most like to…
I have a habit of interrupting people when I get excited or if I agree with them. I need to work on simply listening.
9) What always make you happy?
Hearing my kids crack up.
10) What always angers you?
11) At this moment, where would you most like to be?
Curled up in bed, taking a nap.
12) Tell me about a boneheaded mistake you made in writing The Temporary Detective.
In describing Doreen dead on the toilet in an office bathroom, I wrote that Isobel could see Doreen’s feet sticking out from under the door of the stall. My 11 year-old daughter, Phoebe, happened to glance down at that page and piped up, “Doreen must have freakishly long legs if they’re sticking out that far.” Suffice it to say, spatial relations were never my strong suit.
13) What has social media brought to your life?
Facebook reconnected me with a group of theater camp friends with whom I did a very memorable production of Sweeney Todd in 1982, playing Mrs. Lovett. Twenty-seven years later, we mounted a revival in New York, and it was a fantastic and uniquely rewarding experience that couldn’t have happened without Facebook. What I love about Twitter is connecting with like-minded people I would never have the opportunity to meet in real life. I feel like I’ve made true friends on Twitter. Like you!
14) Who is your favorite fictional heroine and why? And fictional hero?
My favorite heroine is Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. She’s smarter than all the men and sexier than all the women, and it’s her ability to foresee the consequences of other people’s actions and think on her feet that saves the day. My favorite hero is Mr. Darcy. Do I really need to explain that one?
15) Who are your three favourite composers (or musicians)?
My husband, Joshua Rosenblum, Mozart, and Gilbert & Sullivan. But mostly my husband. He is a brilliant composer and nothing gives me more pleasure than performing his music.
16) Who is your favorite painter?
I picked three composers, so I’m picking three painters ☺ John Singer Sargent, Alphonse Mucha, and Renoir.
17) Which talent would you most like to have?
I wish I could dance. Specifically, I wish I’d learned to tap.
18) How would you like to be remembered?
As a wildly creative, fun, energetic, loving, happy, funny, loyal and big-hearted person. And possibly as a little bit taller.
19) What has been the most exciting part of being published?
Hearing from people how much they enjoy my books. That never gets old.
20) What is your greatest regret?
I wish my husband and I had traveled more in our twenties, after we were married and before we had kids. Not so much because of the kids—actually, we love traveling with them—but because traveling in general was much easier and less expensive. In retrospect, the world seemed more accessible in the 90s.
21) Aside from your book, of what accomplishment are you most proud?
My kids, who are 11 and 16. They’ve completely out-evolved me.
22) What is in heavy rotation on your iPod?
Confession: nothing. Because I review CDs and live performances regularly (for Opera News), I don’t listen for pleasure as much as I used to. But there’s always music playing in my house, often live, so my life has a soundtrack even if I’m not composing it.
23) When was the last time you wept?
A woman was hit by a car and killed on my corner last year. I heard the impact from several blocks away. It was deeply upsetting in every way.
24) What is your guilty pleasure?
25) In what way do you hope your life will change now?
I would love to see one of my novels dramatized either for movies or television. Both books have had nibbles, so I’m crossing all available body parts.