Unlike Leila Meacham’s previous novels, “April Storm,” which she’s currently writing, takes place over a single month.
Photo: Billy Calzada, Staff / Billy Calzada
If you know anything about San Antonio author Leila Meacham, it’s probably that in 2010, at the inspiring age of 70, the retired Judson High School English teacher published her surprise bestseller, “Roses,” a romantic, multigenerational tale of warring East Texas families and star-crossed lovers.
You also may know that since then, Meacham has published four more historical love-story sagas, all told with her self-taught flair for drama, serpentine plots and layered characters.
But there’s another Meacham story you may not know. That’s the real-life story of her yearlong, ongoing battle with pancreatic cancer and how her devoted readers have helped her weather the storm of chemotherapy that has slowed but not stopped her writing.
She’s hoping this story will have a happy ending later this month when she completes her treatment.
“I am making great progress, and there is great hope for this thing to be eradicated,” she said recently by phone, her compromised immune system and coronavirus concerns precluding an in-person interview. “The cancer hasn’t spread, as we’ve been hoping and praying. I have a huge fan base — my prayer warriors, they call themselves — who’ve been with me the whole time.”
Meacham sounded strong and positive during the hour-long interview, ready to laugh about having to stay close to home because of her cancer treatment — joined unexpectedly by shut-ins across the world trying to stay safe from the coronavirus.
“I actually feel a little sorry for all you healthy folks because you have certainly had your wings clipped,” she said lightly.
Although she already had begun treatment when San Antonio stay-at-home orders went into effect this spring, Meacham seems accepting of the fact that she and Richard, her husband of 54 years, can no longer travel or even go out to a restaurant, at least for the duration.
“We’ve settled into a pleasant, daily routine of the same-old, same-old,” she said with a chuckle. “We do have a small group of friends we consider safe to visit because everyone takes proper precautions. We keep our social distance, everybody wears a mask, that sort of thing.”
Meacham also has found solace in social media, a world she entered only recently.
“We were getting ready to release my newest novel, ‘Dragonfly,’ last July, and my agent told me, ‘You really need to be online because that’s where it all is,’” she said. So she joined Facebook.
She was puttering along nicely, promoting the book, when her cancer was diagnosed in August 2019. She said she didn’t hesitate to announce it to her more than 2,500 Facebook followers.
“I wanted them to know what was happening,” she said. “I asked them to remember me in their prayers, and, my goodness gracious, I had no idea of the response I’d get. It’s been so humbling.”
She has a social-media manager, and she doesn’t respond to individual comments. But she said she reads them all, and during her regular Monday postings, she often gives a shout-out to those who’ve written to her to share their support.
She recently congratulated a reader on the birth of a first grandchild, thanked another for the “fluffy and warm” shoes they’d sent to help ease her foot pain and assured a third, a former Judson student, that it had been her pleasure to be their English teacher.
She also gives updates on her latest chemo treatment, lab results, blood readings, organ function and more.
“As of July 13, my cancer markers dropped another 22 points and I have had two treatments since then,” she wrote over the summer, referring to biomarkers found in the blood and elsewhere that indicate whether a tumor is growing or shrinking. “My fingers are trembling so at the good news that I can hardly text, so I will see you next Monday. Be well, everyone.”
Later, she wrote, “The encouraging news is that while I don’t feel good, I don’t feel worse. The neuropathy, fatigue, chemo fog are cumulative but playing according to script without further symptoms.”
And, in what may be one of the best-written pages on Facebook, she also provides progress updates on her latest novel, “April Storm,” which is set in a Colorado ski resort. She explains how side effects from the treatment are making “the maneuver down the corridors of language difficult.”
Her posts typically generate more than 100 comments. Though most are of the “thoughts and prayers” variety, others recount their own or loved ones’ battles with cancer. A breast cancer survivor from San Antonio told of how she now appreciates life more and how hearing birds sing and taking a walk in the park give her a sense of peace.
Another told of a cousin whose surgeon said that her cancer was so advanced she needed to get her affairs in order. That, she wrote, was seven years ago, and today, “I cheer her on as she faithfully gets checked out and looks this doctor in the eye and (says), ‘I’m still here.’”
She’s had to make accommodations for the side effects of her cancer treatment, however. Though she used to begin at 8:30 a.m. and work through the rest of the day — taking a short nap midway through — the fatigue caused by her “chemo brain” limits her writing to two hours a day, between 4 and 6 p.m. She describes chemo brain as a mental fatigue that sleep does not cure.
“It makes it hard to get the creative juices flowing,” she said. “Some days, the exact choice of word, the precise phrase of expression, the clear setting of a scene just do not come. Then there are those hours when it’s like old times and the language passage is clear for smooth navigating. I just never know.”
The chemo also has caused neuropathy, or painful nerve damage in her fingers, which can make typing difficult. She said progress is so slow she often repeats Oscar Wilde who, when asked if he’d gotten any writing done, answered, “Yes, this morning I took out a comma, and this afternoon I put it back.”
“I have to wait for the fog to clear to let in the muse,” she said. “The good news is the story is completed in my head down to the last period.”
One area her chemo brain has not affected is her research. “That’s my favorite task,” she said. “Chemo fog does not prevent learning, just retention. But once I get the info on paper, it’s done.”
Meacham’s strong relationship with her readers is evidenced by the fact that they’ve stuck with her despite her unwillingness to stick to the formula that made “Roses” — whose big-canvas sweep was often compared to “Gone With the Wind” — so successful. No one-note Nelly, her follow-ups have been set in locations as varied as occupied Paris during World War II, the early days of the West Texas oil boom and high school life in the Texas Panhandle.
And her refusal to adopt the common “bodice-ripper” conventions of historical romances has helped expand her audience beyond women. Rather than mustache-twirling villains, for example, her bad guys tend to be normal people who make the wrong decisions even as they think they’re making the right ones.
“My publisher tells me that’s why I have almost as many male readers as female,” she said. “I once got a call from Red McCombs, who said he was reading one of my books and that my characters were so realistic they were keeping him up at night.”
Unlike her previous books that sprawl over decades, “April Storm,” which she says is about half finished, takes place in a single month. “It’s definitely another departure,” she said with a laugh.
Another departure her readers are sure to embrace.
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