Todd Aaron Jensen is the author of four books, including the beloved On Gratitude: Sheryl Crow, Jeff Bridges, Alicia Keys, Daryl Hall, Ray Bradbury, Anna Kendrick, B.B. King, Elmore Leonard, Deepak Chopra, and 42 More Celebrities Share What They're Most Thankful For. He is an award-winning journalist with regular bylines at American Way, Spirit, WGA’s Written By, Men’s Health, and many others. He has enjoyed the privilege of interviewing many of the nation’s greatest writers, including Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, Ray Bradbury, and Joyce Carol Oates. He lives in Los Angeles with his three teenaged sons, and is a certified yoga instructor, former youth baseball coach, and aspiring rodeo clown. His recent cover story on the legendary author Toni Morrison is available to read here: http://hub.aa.com/en/aw/toni-morrison-novelist-margin-pulitzer
Did the retreat meet your expectations?
Ever since requesting for my eighth Christmas a bicycle, but instead receiving a unicycle, rendering me one wheel and a steering system short, I’ve tried to live life free of expectations. However, in replaying with delight and accomplishment my recent adventures at Moshin Vineyards, I can happily report that my expectations, based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs of food, shelter, love, and sex, were very happily met and surpassed. Well, not the sex part. Unless you count that incorrigible asterisk.
What was the most unexpected part of your stay?
One late afternoon, after typing for a solid six hours, I was ravenous and hit the trail by foot in search of sustenance at an establishment called Red Spaghetti I’d passed days earlier by car. After a 6-mile hike to the Red Spaghetti’s quaint front porch, I was crestfallen to learn they served no pasta, prosciutto, or pignolata. Red Spaghetti, turns out, is a tattoo parlor. So I had them do an anchor on each of my forearms and feasted on wildflowers as I walked back to Moshin.
What was the most enjoyable aspect of your stay?
In Healdsburg, the sky is as high as an elephant’s eye, the landscape as pure as a verse of Racine, and the silence – at least at the vineyard -- a source of great strength. Also, after sampling a number of Moshin pours – after a hard day’s work, of course -- I’m with Ben Franklin; “Wine is constant proof that God love us and loves to see us happy.” Also, I can’t say enough good things about the combination of the exquisite nighttime dining at Ravenous Café followed by the madcap Mr. Healdsburg Pageant at the Raven Theatre next door. That Mr. Cha Cha Cha can really rock “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
Did the vineyard setting inspire you and/or your writing?
Indeed. Early morning coffee at the vineyard’s secluded picnic table, pouring over story notes and research materials, halcyon skies and hopped-up hummingbirds shoving clouds and nectar-hunting overhead, was a marvelous and inspiring start to each day. I also found the Russian River to be quite lovely, ideal for impromptu baptisms, though the locals, I found, prefer you remain clothed for such rituals.
What did you work on during the retreat?
My original intention was to complete work on my long-gestating manuscript, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition. However, the morning of my departure for Moshin Vineyards, I was alerted via telegram that Barry R. Burg had already written a so titled volume in 1983. I then briefly considered completing work on my Broadway-bound musical jukebox biography of Wayne Wilderson, but felt the idea not quite ripe. I finally settled on beginning work on Born Like This, the first novel to fall from these fingers since I was 19. Turns out, there are a lot of things that come easier when you’re a teenager. That said, Born Like This – a bonkers crime thriller, inspired equally by Elmore Leonard, Chuck Palahniuk, and the Marx Brothers – flowed with grace and ease.
No one can write 24 hours a day. What other activities did you do during the retreat?
I walked every day. A lot. Sometimes in this direction. Sometimes in that direction. Often, I got lost. As cell reception is spotty at best on the area’s winding, wooded roads, my iPhone GPS was as useful as a pig at Purim, so I wandered a lot. Occasionally, I roamed instead. Several times, I drove into town to phone my three teenaged sons, who ordinarily live with me full-time, and loitered, teary-eyed, outside the strip mall Dollar Tree. Oddly, I was not the only one weeping in this location. My first night in Healdsburg, I enjoyed a local theatre company’s ASL rendition of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross, which featured more shadowboxing than a Muhammad Ali warm-up.
One of the most memorable moments of my Healdsburg adventure was sitting on the front steps of Dry Creek General Store, chatting with Buster, a lifelong local, how homeless and widowed after 30 years of marriage. We shared a Cherry Lime Rickey and he told me that the secret to a good marriage is such: After she hits you on the head with a frying pan for whatever it was that you did, resist all reflex and temptation to hit her back. You probably had it coming. Buster had beautiful blue eyes, by the way, and a bushy white beard.
Did you participate in any events arranged by the host winery?
I quite enjoyed their monthly meeting of The International Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo, though when it came time to vote on the organization’s logo, it was realized we did not have a quorum in attendance. The agenda item was moved to their next meeting and we quite happily returned to drinking a lot. I found particularly enchanting the 2008 Pinot Noir from Moshin Estates, with its hints of white pepper, vanilla, sandalwood, caramel, and cherry cola.
Any tips or advice you think might be helpful for future residency applicants?
If you care to unwind your day by viewing television programs or repeated plays of Koyannisqatsi, be sure to do your downloading ahead of time. Internet is woefully slow to non-existent at the Vineyards. Also, and this may simply be my social awkwardness and general lack of agility, but it would have been useful to practice for a few weeks the whole “swirl, sniff, sip, swish, spit” routine. Or to have brought a bib.
Can you sum up your experience in eight to ten words?
Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.
Any other comments or impressions about the retreat you wish to convey?
Moshin Vineyards is truly an exquisite property, staffed with grace and generosity (with particular gratitude to Julia Lander, Director of Hospitality). The cottage was lovely, spacious, quiet, and with a really awesome make-up mirror. Really, this week was such a gift for me. I am a full-time, single father to three teenaged sons, always writing between the cracks of lunch-packing and kid-shuttling. It was amazing to have 168 hours to devote exclusively to the goings-on of the Mormon drug mules, transgender superstars, and quixotic burn-outs of my novel. I am so grateful for the opportunity.