The last time I saw my friend Barbara Seranella was in October of 2006. We drove together from the desert into downtown Los Angeles, along with my wife Wendy, to attend an awards ceremony at a fancy old hotel. We were both up for prizes that we were pretty sure we’d lose, but Barbara was ebullient. Not for the prize. She was certain her friend T. Jefferson Parker would win that night. (“He always wins,” she told us. “They should just give him the award every time he has a new book out, because he deserves it.”) No, it was because her cell phone rang a few miles outside of Palm Springs with good news. A doctor in Iowa thought he could get her onto a new plan that would help her avoid a third liver transplant and bring her back to good health. The three of us did a little cheer that afternoon and it was clear Barbara didn’t care if she won or lost a literary award that night, she’d been given something better: a dash of good hope.
She needed it.
Barbara was jaundiced, weak, and impossibly frail, the last few years of illness having aged my friend quickly beyond her fifty years. In a former life, Barbara had run with bikers and found herself hooked on a variety of substances. Clean for decades, Barbara had gone from riding on the back of bikes, to working in a garage, to writing bestselling crime novels featuring a street toughened mechanic named Miranda “Munch” Mancini, a protagonist who bore a rather striking resemblance to the author: funny, wise, empathetic, knew her way around bad decisions, and could help you out of a jam. Having that past to rely on for her fiction was a good thing for Barbara…but not a great thing for her body, the years of drug and alcohol abuse having left her liver in a bad state. Her first liver transplant, two years earlier, nearly killed her (necessitating an almost immediate second liver transplant that left her in a coma…an experience, she told Wendy and me one day in the Target parking lot, that was like a party at a ski lodge) and now it was trying to kill her again. But that call perked her up and for the next few hours she told Wendy and me about all of her big plans for the coming year. She wanted to see the Walt Disney Concert Hall. She wanted us to start a crime writer’s conference in Palm Springs. She wanted to dance and she wanted to spend more time at the beach and she wanted to golf and she wanted to try restaurants she’d driven by and she wanted to read this terrific book she’d heard about and she wanted to write something new…and…and…and…
I can still see her in my rear-view mirror, sitting in my backseat, looking out the window, telling us about all the things she wanted to do. The thing was, Barbara wasn’t the kind of person who ruminated on the things she wanted to do, she just did them. In memory, this vision of Barbara both saddens and emboldens me: sick as she was, she had plans. I wouldn’t see Barbara again before she died a few months later, but for years I held onto the last email she sent me from a hospital in Ohio, reminding me of an event she wanted us to do together. Plans.
Barbara has been gone a long time now, but I still think of her regularly, because from where I sit at my desk, I can see her books on my shelf, and how amazing that is, to be able to flip through her novels and hear her voice again whenever I want. And that’s how we honor writers. We read them.
But I also get to help honor her memory in a different way now, too. Thanks to a generous donation from the Palm Springs Writers Guild, who created the Barbara Seranella Scholarship after her passing, I am so happy to announce that the Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts at UCR Palm Desert is able to offer new students a chance to make a few plans of their own, in Barbara’s name, with the Barbara Seranella Award. It’s an award meant to pay homage to Barbara’s spirit, tenacity, and boundless generosity, but for me it’s also a chance to tell her story to someone who maybe doesn’t know it, to pass along the incredible life of a writer who left us too soon, to help an aspiring writer find their voice, so that it might last long after they’re gone, too, and, well, to talk about my friend Barbara.
If you’re interested in donating to the Barbara Seranella Award, even a few dollars, it will help a writer. You can do it right here. Then do yourself a favor and buy one of her books, find a comfortable place to sit, turn off all your stuff, and just read for a few hours. You won’t regret it.
— Tod Goldberg