Jeanne Ray has redefined life after 60 for herself and her readers. At an age when most people start thinking of retirement, Ray launched a second career writing endearing comedies about the angst-filled love lives of the senior set. "Yes," Ray says, "grandma and grandpa can still kick up their heels and fall in love."
In violet eyeshadow, a silk blouse and delicate jewelry, Ray proves that over 60 is still sexy. In fact, the author attracts a few stares when we meet in the Davis-Kidd bookstore in her hometown of Nashville. When her first novel, Julie & Romeo, debuted to rave reviews, the store was the site of her very first reading and drew a crowd of more than 400. "Surprise is not even a big enough word for it," Ray says of the reaction to Julie & Romeo, which sold some 480,000 copies and was optioned for film by Barbra Streisand. Readers were inspired by the spunky over-60 florists who not only reclaimed romance late in life, but passion as well. Even now, Ray admits to tearing up when delighted fans tell her how much the book meant to them. "It is just so touching and surprising to hear," she says.
This month Ray releases her second book, Step-Ball-Change, and breathes new life into the old married couple misconception. Caroline and John's dream of retirement and travel is always just out of reach; instead, they face everyday catastrophes with hilarious aplomb: their daughter is planning a 1,000-guest wedding, their home's foundation may be collapsing and they still can't find time alone.
"I wanted to show how complicated even a happy family can be that nothing is ever status quo or comfortable."
"One of the things I was trying to show in Step-Ball-Change is that it is possible to have a long, respectable, happy marriage," says Ray, who has found happiness with her third husband. "I wanted to show how complicated even a happy family, a well-adjusted family, if you will, can be that nothing is ever status quo or comfortable."
Ray shook up her own status quo when her writing unexpectedly blossomed into a full-time career. After 45 years as a nurse, the timing seemed right to turn her little joy time activity into a serious pursuit: she was in a secure relationship, the kids were grown, and she had finally found a topic that motivated her. Sharing her writing was frightening, but Ray had a little help from daughter Ann Patchett, who happens to be the author of such acclaimed novels as Bel Canto and The Magician's Assistant. Patchett gave lots of constructive criticism and then leaned on Mom to finish the book. "Now we understand each other on a whole new level," says Patchett, who thinks the new book is terrific. "The things we get really excited about and the things we complain about are now the same things."
If Ray gets tired of writing, she might take up tap dancing as a third career. "I always, always, always, wanted to be a dancer," says Ray. "I think I was really living my dancing needs out vicariously with Caroline." The do-gooding heroine of Step-Ball-Change, Caroline is a dance teacher juggling the demands of a family pulling in every direction. The house is crowded with children, her estranged sister and the ever-present construction man, but with a little fancy footwork, Caroline manages to keep the chaos under control.
"I think [Caroline] came from me," laughs Ray a little ruefully. "I'm sure she hasn't made as many mistakes as I have made, and probably did a better job in many ways, but the basis [is] pretty much me." The relationships with her husband, children and sister are essential for Caroline, a mother who has created a cozy nest of family and friends. Without being saccharine, Ray's characters have just enough witty banter that when the table is set, you can't help wishing there was an extra place for you.
Just as Caroline thrives off those basic connections, Ray admits that writing can sometimes be too isolating. "I think that's why I'm a nurse. I didn't work when [Julie & Romeo] came out, and I was miserable," she says. "The family my patients and I had created was very, very important to me."
Now she's back to working one day a week with an internist at the Frist Clinic in Nashville. "Meeting people as a nurse which I've been for 45 years or so is very different than meeting people as a writer," Ray says. "You get more respect as a writer, but people tend to reach out to you more as a nurse."
And what's it like with two writers in the family? Both women say there's no competition or jealousy, but Ray laughs, "[Ann's] friends who are writers tell her, 'Ann, if I were you, I'd break your mother's knees.' . . . We have learned a whole lot about one another. Our relationship has changed throughout all this. We've always been very close, but now, I think I understand a whole lot more about what she does."
Like the grueling demands of promotion, for one thing. A three-week book tour kicks off this month, and the woman who three years ago would never have pictured herself as a public speaker is looking forward to the trip. She'll be back at Davis-Kidd in Nashville on May 28.
Writing has filled a niche for Ray, but she didn't spend her first 60 years being miserable. "I loved what I was doing, had a good time, have no regrets," Ray says. "I think it's sort of perfect that I did what I did the first 60 years of my life and now I get to do something different that's equally as enjoyable. It's like seeing the stage from stage right instead of stage left. You just get a little bit different view of life."