The Aptos writer and former Sentinel columnist tells absorbing, often painfully honest stories about the pains and joys of her life, set in the form of never-postmarked letters to famous people.
Before now, there was only one plausible answer to the question “What do Goldie Hawn and Leonard Cohen have in common?” (They both starred in separate films called “Bird on a Wire.”)
Now there’s a second link between the two. They are neighbors in a book title.
But “Dear Goldie Hawn, Dear Leonard Cohen” (Paper Angel Press) has almost nothing to do with the 1960s bikini dancer-turned-movie star, or the Canadian folksinger with the voice as deep as an earthquake. Instead, this book is very much about its author, Aptos writer Claudia Sternbach.
From her longtime perch as a columnist for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and from her previously published books, “Now Breathe” and “Reading Lips,” Sternbach has mainly practiced the art of memoir, mining her rich personal experience to draw out hard-won and often humorous lessons on being human.
Her orientation hasn’t really changed with “Dear Goldie.” She’s still telling absorbing, often painfully honest stories about the pains and joys of her life. Only in this case, Sternbach’s warm and knowing essays on life, love and loss turn on a clever conceit.
The stories are told in epistolary form, in letters to famous people, never actually sent to their addressees. (She reads from her new book at an online “Zoom Forward” event sponsored by Catamaran on Friday.)
The letter to Goldie Hawn, for instance, is a jumping-off point for Sternbach to relate a bit of her adventures as a flight attendant in the go-go 1970s. Hawn was the star of the film “Butterflies Are Free,” the in-flight film that Sternbach could never sit down and enjoy because she was working, until the moment she got to fly in an empty plane and could finally watch the film, and see a relatable example of a young woman making her way in the world. The letter to Cohen becomes a wistful rumination on the loss of Sternbach’s mother and her two sisters, one to cancer, the other to “a rip in the family fabric which seems impossible to mend.”
It would be a mistake to assume, however, that this is a collection of fan letters. Among her essays are letters to some of the most high-profile scoundrels of our time, including Bill Cosby, O.J. Simpson and Woody Allen (though to Allen, Sternbach extends the benefit of the doubt).
She also writes letters to fictional characters (Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex in the City” fame), historical figures dead more than a century (Emily Dickinson) and to non-famous people in her own life, including her mother, her two sisters and her husband, Michael.
The idea, said Sternbach, came about when she was seeing a psychiatrist who suggested that she think of people who have had an impact on her life in a positive way, just as a mental exercise. Her first thought was Cohen, to whom she listened when she drove from her home in Aptos to the East Bay to care for her ailing mother.
“It was sort of the perfect music for me at the time,” she said. “It was dark, and he was always right in my head. I probably should have been listening to happier music. But that was where Leonard came in. I thanked him for keeping me company.”
The collection’s first essay/letter, “Dear Johannes Vermeer,” could be the most stirring and deeply personal piece in the book. It’s about the first session with that psychiatrist:
“Tell me,” he asked. “Why have you come?”
Because I am broken. Because I no longer understand what love is. Because I don’t know where I belong. Or if I ever belonged. Because I am sitting at the bottom of the pool and do not want to come to the surface.
But I did not say these things.
“Because my husband is afraid to leave me alone,” I told him. “He is exhausted by my sadness. And I am afraid that if I can’t get better, be better, he will leave. And I would not blame him. If I could leave me, I would. And that too scares the shit out of him. And me.”
After the psychiatrist’s suggestion, the letters came in waves “to fill some empty space in my head.” She wrote to Ray Charles, Jerry Garcia, Steve Jobs, Joan Didion, magician David Blaine, fashion icon Tim Gunn, her friend and fellow writer Jonathan Franzen — and to her deceased sister, lots of letters to her.
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“I used to do things similar to this in the writing class I taught at (the now-closed Aptos bookstore) Bookworks,” she said. “It was really really fun.”
In addition to writing the book, Sternbach also contributed its cover art. A late-life interest in painting has manifested in an artistic obsession with furniture, mostly chairs, that she now paints with some frequency
She painted an image of a writing desk in a field that she thought would make for a nifty cover image for “Dear Goldie.” Her publisher agreed. That was among about two dozen paintings she’s done of chairs. Why chairs? Why not?
“I just love finding ways to be creative that don’t make any money whatsoever.”