The Inspiration Behind the Rebecca Contest
When I moved to Albuquerque, I’d just finished my first book. I joined LERA right away and posted a message on the email loop asking for a critique of my manuscript. I didn’t realize what a big ask this was at the time, but I was glad when someone responded.
Her name was Rebecca Gault, and she became my critique partner, my mentor, and my best friend.
We met up at a book store and discovered we both had red hair and daughters named Leah. And while I’d always considered myself a “grammar queen,” Rebecca had a few things to teach me—lessons I’ve never forgotten. (And never once have I misspelled “sentence” since they day she informed me it had no “a”.)
Rebecca was blazingly clever. She had a PhD from Georgetown in German Literature and Linguistics. She worked for the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy, helping New Mexicans in her adopted state learn the most valuable life skill. Her dream was to adopt a child from foster care—she had so much to share, she told me as she showed me a photo of the little girl she hoped to adopt.
I soon learned Rebecca had a wicked sense of humor—very, very wicked. When we decided to attend RWA nationals in New Orleans, she asked me to share a room with her—so she could swear with abandon.
Two redheads shared a room, and the walls turned blue. She even taught me a few good German curses.
Rebecca’s critiques were spot on. She dug deep, finding meaning in passages I’d not considered, suggested connections and images that had escaped me. Best of all, she loved my writing, despite the first-novel awkwardness. I remember beaming with pride over my salad as she told me all the things she loved about the book of my heart, Redemption.
She slayed my self-doubt, that monster on my shoulder. If this smart, witty, accomplished woman could like my work, maybe someone else would, eventually.
She’d just finished a novel, too, but before I could read the last chapter, she got The Call. Her book, Into the Blue, would be published by Five Star. We celebrated the news together, and continued to meet regularly for critiques and laughs and encouragement. When I got The Call from an agent, she was the first person I called, even before I told my husband.
It was because of her that I finished a second novel, knowing she was eagerly waiting to read another chapter. And when I began my third, I was counting on Rebecca to help with some of the tricky German bits.
I still remember the morning she called to tell me she wouldn’t be able to make lunch that day. It was really silly, she said, but her doctor had admitted her to the hospital after she’d complained of side pains. They figured it might be her gall bladder.
But by the time I visited her in the hospital that afternoon, they were already using the C word. We laughed at the absurdity. I offered to donate my hair when she lost hers, knowing there was no way Rebecca could have cancer. She told me no thanks—I’d look terrible, she said, in a pixie cut.
We laughed together, and a few days later we cried together, as the diagnosis came back: stage four colon cancer.
I was the only one who was sure she’d make it, despite the prognosis. Her five sisters gathered, her children, her friends. From the phone calls I fielded, from friends back East as well as those nearby, I realized Rebecca had made an impact on many people’s lives. Her own life would be cut short, but the number of people she’d affected was enormous.
I’ll never forget the day I returned her daughter to the house Rebecca had just bought. (Rebecca had completed the adoption process a few months before she was diagnosed with cancer.) By then Rebecca was in a coma—the end would come at any time, the hospice nurse had told us.
I sat next to her, watching her breathe. Finally I accepted, deep down, that she wouldn’t recover. I touched her hand—it was cold. I moved my hand to her forehead, and found it warm. My thoughts were incoherent, unusual for a writer, but somehow I tried to convey the sense to her that I was at peace, at last, with her passing.
I left, and five minutes later received a phone call. She was gone—she’d drawn her last breathe by the time I reached the door.
Rebecca had left us with a promise: whenever we saw a feather lying on the ground, that would be her, she said, a message from beyond, where ever she was.
And we told Rebecca, before she died, that the LERA unpublished writers’ contest would be named for her. It was appropriate—she’d touched so many friends, influenced so many writers, encouraged so many dreams, during her time on earth.
The prize for that first Rebecca contest was a tiny silver feather.
I’ve had more than my share of struggles with writing. I’ve given up many times. Yet there was always a voice urging me on, castigating me for quitting—in typical salty language. And just when I most needed encouragement, I’d see a perfect feather, lying on the ground.
I hope anyone who enters The Rebecca contest hears that voice, and sees a feather.
And damn it, whatever you do, don’t quit.
Kathy Flake, writing as Kathryn Barrett, had an award-winning novel Temptation published in 2013, followed by Redemption in 2014. Having lived all over the world, Kathryn and her family have recently relocated to northern Virginia. She enjoys long walks with her squirrel-obsessed dog, traveling to tiny European countries, cooking vegan feasts, and, only occasionally, she still reads the Financial Times. She’s still looking for feathers.