Seriously Laura, where do we start with you? There’s your series of best-sellers, gorgeous vacation rentals in France, your life-saving liver transplant, and kids and family and crazy-awesome Victoria-based life. Let’s start with your writing. How did your career start?
I’ve wanted to be a writer my entire life, but by my late thirties I’d started and abandoned about seven manuscripts. I was afraid to share anything I wrote, for fear I would be judged as talentless.
I went down a winding path of diversions, including a law degree at Oxford, a love affair with a Frenchman (now my husband, so that diversion totally panned out), three children, renovating old houses in France to turn them into vacation rentals…
Just before I turned forty I was diagnosed, completely out of the blue, with a terminal autoimmune condition of the liver and bile ducts called PSC. It was a complete kick in the teeth. There is currently no treatment for PSC. There is no cure. The only hope for survival is a liver transplant, but first I had to get sick enough to qualify for one while dodging all the other ways PSC could kill me.
The day after I was diagnosed, I woke up feeling like I was being suffocated by a lead blanket of grief and fear. My entire life changed on its axis overnight. I went downstairs, flipped open my laptop, grabbed a Post-it, and scribbled, “Fuck you. I’m not dead yet” on it. I stuck it on my screen and began to write my first published book, My Grape Escape. Ten months later I self-published it, and it quickly became a bestseller.
My Grape Series of memoirs is now seven books long and I’m still not finished. I have also branched out into fiction with my first novel A Vineyard for Two that will be part of an eventual trilogy. A cookbook based on my memoirs that I have co-authored with Rebecca Wellman will be coming out with Touchwood Editions this Fall – another completely unexpected turn in the road!
You have an incredibly supportive community of friends and family around you, but you have an especially remarkable relationship with a woman named Nyssa. Can you tell us about that?
Following my PSC diagnosis in 2012 I became very sick, very rapidly. I felt like I lived at the hospital. My doctors told me early on in the game that because of the nature of my PSC and my constant infections, I would be dead before I ever got a deceased liver. My only option was to search around me for someone who would be willing to donate over half their liver to me in a living donor liver transplant.
Usually family are the first choice, but because my form of PSC was genetic, blood relations were not an option. My husband was the wrong blood type. As you can imagine, it is *ahem* rather awkward to go around asking people to be your liver donor. I felt like a combination of the grim reaper and a vampire casting a long shadow over every social event.
I eventually got so sick that I only had a few months left to live. I chose always to be open about my disease and my search for a donor, because I figured it could help raise awareness for PSC research and the need for an opt-out organ donation system in Canada. I was put on the transplant list and the transplant team in Edmonton began to test living donors.
Early on in the game Nyssa Temmel, who I met because she was my youngest daughter’s Sparks leader, said she would be interested in donating. She went to Edmonton and was the third person to be tested. By this point I was fearing for my life on a daily basis – it was extremely touch and go.
One Thursday near mid-March 2017, I got a call from Edmonton. It was Nyssa on the phone.
“What are you doing next Thursday?” she said.
“I have no idea,” I said.
“How about you come to Edmonton and I give you a piece of my liver?”
That pretty much sums up Nyssa’s awesome brand of badassery. I will be in awe for the rest of my life at Nyssa’s bravery and selflessness and I will always be trying to pay that gift forward in big and little ways. We are both doing well, and I have already enjoyed three “bonus” years of life thanks to Nyssa’s gift.
Since 2012 you’ve published five books (all best sellers), a novel, and now you’re working on a cookbook. Holy shit amazing! Are you surprised at yourself or did you always quietly know it was going to happen?
No, I definitely didn’t know it was going to happen! If it hadn’t been for my PSC diagnosis I think I’d most likely still be a frustrated wannabe writer. The moment I was diagnosed my fear of failure evaporated, replaced by the fear of dying with my words still left inside me. It just goes to show that our fears are not the solid things we sometimes believe them to be.
“I still write like I’m being chased by a bear. In fact, I live like I’m being chased by a bear. Most of us transplantees are this way. We don’t waste our time with the non-essential or the petty. I make the most of each and every single “bonus” day Nyssa has gifted me.”
The reason I started writing My Grape Year and my other Grape Series memoirs is that I didn’t know if I would be around to tell my girls their story in person. I wanted them to know they came from a place of love and the best way to record that for them was a book.
When I was going through all the pre-transplant appointments a social worker suggested that I write letters to my children in case I didn’t survive the transplant surgery (a very real possibility).
I said “well, I’ve already written them a few books.”
She squinted at me. “Let me guess, you’re one of those Type A personalities.”
Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, PSC for short – what is it and what can we do to help?
PSC – and no, I’d never heard of it before either until I was diagnosed – is an auto-immune disease of the bile ducts and liver. Currently, it is the “black box” of liver disease, as it has no treatments and no cure. The only way to prevent eventual death from PSC due to cirrhosis, sepsis, or liver failure is a liver transplant. It’s an orphan disease, so poorly served as far as research dollars go.
If you are interested in donating, a patient advocacy and fundraising group that gives out research grants every year to promising research projects. If you are in the US here is the link: https://pscpartners.org/donate/
As you can imagine, The PSC and the transplant worlds are tightly intertwined. As a multi-tasking mother, I am so infuriated with the current “opt-in” organ donation system and the fact that it is completely ineffective. The hundreds of deaths that happen every year because of the lack of donated organs could be prevented by one piece of legislation, changing our system to an “opt-out system”.
An “opt-out” system means that everyone is considered an organ donor unless they “opt-out. This has been successfully established in so many countries – Spain, All the Scandinavian countries, France, Wales, etc. etc. and in those countries, transplant waiting lists are effectively a thing of the past. I’ve started a petition for this. Just sign here: http://chng.it/cxvpTVnx
To say PSC was a game changer for you is an understatement. Can you try to explain how you felt before you were diagnosed, and how you feel now? Is there a spiritual element to it?
I’m a big believer that shitty things in life don’t happen for a reason. If we were to swallow all that “everything happens for a reason” claptrap and extrapolate it out then we would say that a child getting bone cancer when they were ten years old happened for a reason. That is beyond cruel and blatant victim blaming, so if you are one of those people who say that without thinking about it, stop.
The same goes for people saying you can “manifest” your destiny. I heard that a lot when I was ill, and it is a sickening privileged thing to say. Would you say that to a terminally ill child, or the generations of Jewish people lost to the holocaust? Did they manifest that? I call bullshit.
That being said, I am a huge believer that we can choose to give meaning to the crap things that happen to us in life. That simple act can be transcendent and spiritual, like Viktor Frankl wrote in “Man’s Search for Meaning”. For me, as soon as I became diagnosed my life and my priorities became very simple – my family, my friends, and my writing. That was it.
This clarity has remained and has been a huge gift. I also choose to give my PSC and transplant journey meaning by advocating for an opt-out organ donation system, fundraising and awareness raising for PSC research and the PSC registry and mentoring fellow PSCers.
As Frankl wrote “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Your family has very deep roots in Victoria and you are all very close. How did your upbringing shape who you are now?
I’m a born and bred island girl like my two sisters. In fact my mother’s side of the family comes an even smaller island – Saltspring Island. The West Coast is in our blood. We were brought up fishing, crabbing, and occasionally hunting. It was a wild, unfettered childhood full of snake hunting and fort building in Uplands Park with our neighborhood gang of kids. I feel grateful for that and for being a child and a young adult before the advent of social media.
Take us through a typical day at one of your homes in Burgundy. Le sigh…
Most of the time we spend there is in the summer and it is usually hot. I wake up to the sound of the village church chiming the hour, and maybe the soft rumble of a vineyard tractor going up our road to the vineyards above.
Coffee first thing, and I drink it out on our wrap-around veranda and listen to the birds while I look out at the valley below and the vineyards above. If it’s a Saturday we’ll grab our market baskets and go to the big market in Beaune, which is absolutely fabulous.
We take our purchases home and concoct a beautiful lunch with all the fresh ingredients, then often invite Franck’s parents or sister and her family over to eat with us. Lunch can be a long affair, even a simple lunch can go longer than three hours.
In the afternoon, we might go for a walk in the cool woods where we are constantly stumbling on gallo-roman ruins or go for a bike ride in the vineyards. Just as often, we might read or nap.
The evenings start late, and we usually go to a friend’s house for dinner or have friends over for dinner on our veranda. We often don’t sit down until ten or eleven o’clock as it is still warm and we have lots of candles. The kids come and go, and then eventually fall asleep on the couches and the beds. We shuffle to bed in the wee hours of the morning.
The next morning, it starts all over again.
Do you have a mentor or someone you really admire who you can count on for direction?
My mentors are undoubtedly my girlfriends. I am blessed with the most extraordinary women in my life – fascinating, strong, creative, talented, hard-working, hilarious… I could go on and on (and do).
They are my sounding boards and my inspiration. There is zero competition or drama between any of us. We are all no drama zones, which I adore. We all help each other out, support each other and lift each other up. I am so freaking proud of my friends, and their achievements feel like my achievements. I am about a bajillion times stronger with them in my life.
You are an HK fan with several pieces in your closet. Which is your favourite and why?
I wore the Rock Salt Robe constantly on our trip to France in the Fall to take photos for our upcoming cookbook, Bisous & Brioche. It was the most incredible item. I could throw it on over anything and instantly look chic. It has such big pockets for my phone (which also serves as my camera) and anything else. In Paris I wore it with black jeans and a black top and felt like I was properly dressed everywhere.
It is now part of my uniform for life and I could not love it more. Also, maybe I feel a bit like Hermione Granger in it, and she is a badass.
I also adore the Morocco Chemise. I was worried that it wouldn’t fit as I have the upper arms and shoulders of a Scottish peasant. To my joy, it fit like a dream, skimming over my body in the most flattering way possible and making me feel exotic and comfortable at the same time. I visited Marrakesh for the first time with my husband this year and I fell in love with the versatility and effortless beauty of caftans.
Do you have a favourite quote?
“The devil whispered into my ear “you’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.” Today, I whispered in the devil’s ear, “I am the storm.”
Since the stickie note post, your health has been restored and your career has skyrocketed, hitting the top of Amazon’s bestsellers lists. What juicy offerings have you got coming up next?
I am super excited about the fall release of our Bisous & Brioche – the cookbook based on my Grape Series memoirs that I am co-authoring with Rebecca Wellman. This project was out of my comfort zone – I’d never even dreamed of writing a cookbook, but I have found the project fascinating and I’ve learned a ton.
My Grape Quebec, book #7 in my Grape Series should be out by the end of March, and I’m planning on writing the next two novels in my Winemaker’s Trilogy after that. We’ll be back in Burgundy this summer and hopefully may jaunt over to Croatia for a bit, and who knows where else?
Most importantly, I am grateful to be around to parent my daughters, hang out with my husband, and spend time with my friends.