Victoria Lilienthal’s writing career can be chalked up to a late-blooming massage therapy career and an idea from a client.
“I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder and studied intellectual history there, and I went on to do all kinds of different things, including getting married and raising a daughter,” Lilienthal says. “Later in life, in a kind of unexpected way, I ended up becoming a massage therapist, and I really enjoyed working in that arena.”
“That arena” included the therapists, the clients, and all sorts of New Age–type characters. “I had a client show up and say, ‘Gee, I wish someone would write a funny book about this world,’ ” she then adds. “I sat down and embarked on this crazy ride, [having] no idea what it would be.”
What it became is The T Room, a sometimes sexy, sometimes romantic, sometimes spiritual, sometimes mystical, and often funny debut novel that Kirkus Reviews calls “a raucous, entertaining, New Age erotic yarn.”
The book follows the exploits of Vera West, a single mom and massage therapist involved in a torrid love triangle with her work mentor, Ernesto. He’s married to a woman named Jean, and Vera finds that a promotion that Ernesto gives her was taken away from Jean.
That scenario, along with other characters, such as Vera’s teen daughter, India, a client named Grace, a mystical woman named Tara, and Star, another masseuse, leads Vera to examine her career and life choices, as she does in this passage from the book.
Why am I wearing this trench coat? And in front of my teenager? I pull over to look at my cell as if some sign from the universe will magically appear on the screen. I look down at my thighs. Am I really wearing black silk stay-ups, a very pretty, transparent black lace bra, and the skimpiest thong known to mankind in order to bring this married boss of mine a still-warm plate of chocolate chip cookies, a man’s ultimate mystery fantasy? What’s in all this for me? Like, why am I performing? After a moment, my common sense gets the best of me, and I decide to head home.
Though Vera is a single mom and a massage therapist, the author says the character is only loosely based on her. “She’s way out there,” Lilienthal says of her heroine. “My life is way too tame for Vera, but that was part of the fun.”
Lilienthal, born and raised in San Francisco and now living in Palo Alto with her second husband, chalks her blossoming writing career up to her high school education and a passion for reading. “I was blessed to be an early reader, and I had [a mother who was] an incredibly voracious reader,” she says. “She and I devoured everything, both fiction and nonfiction, and she took us to the library after school. But never in a million years did I think I’d write a book. It wasn’t my fantasy. It wasn’t my dream. That came later.”
She says much the same about massage therapy, noting, “Sometimes you figure out you’re really good at something you had no idea you would be. I found, having spent a lot of time around women and thinking about women’s issues, that massage therapy is an amazing healing practice,” she adds. “It’s very peaceful. Nobody talks. And it’s simple—somebody’s on the receiving end, and somebody’s on the giving end.”
She quit massage therapy about the same time she started work on her book. “Once I got to a certain place, I decided I couldn’t keep up with it. Anybody who does that work is heroic. It’s physically difficult.”
So, like a lawyer who uses a legal background to write books, Lilienthal did the same with her book set in the world of massage therapy. “I thought the path of the healer would be an interesting book,” she says. “It would be topical and funny and Marin County–based, spoofing everything we have here in Northern California. You can’t beat it for material. It’s a wacky world, the healing highway out here in California. I’m not going to lie.”
It’s a sendup written with love and respect, according to Lilienthal. “I think it’s extremely amusing, but a lot of really good things have come out of the New Age [movement], too. I wasn’t trying to debunk New Age, per se, but I felt it was an interesting journey for Vera to take.”
Vera’s situation allows her to “take back her power” in the end, despite the affair with Ernesto, and the book ends with Vera leaving her current life behind in search of a new one. “She has a choice,” Lilienthal says. “She can stay, but her claiming that and leaving is really where the series begins, with her…embracing the unknown. It’s pretty scary for her.”
Lilienthal had moments when writing The T Room was a bit scary, too, and while experiencing one particularly demoralizing phase, she went to hear a reading by Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, one of her favorite authors, who asked Lilienthal what she was doing.
“ ‘I’m trying to write my novel,’ I told her. She signed the book I was purchasing from her, and I got to my car and opened it, and it said, ‘Victoria, please finish your novel.’ It’s those moments that kept me going. She could have done it a zillion different ways. I burst into tears in the parking lot of Book Passage in Marin, where I ended up launching my book.”
Initially, Lilienthal planned for The T Room to be a mystery, at one point writing to bestselling mystery author Louise Penny when she realized she wasn’t heading in that direction. “I was too far down the road when I realized you had to have a dead body to have a mystery,” she says with a laugh. “I told Louise Penny that I have so many bodies, but none of them are dead.”
Penny, by the way, wrote a “nice reply” to Lilienthal, who is hard at work on her second book, one that she hopes will finally put Vera in the middle of that mystery. “I’m playing around with killing someone right away,” she says.
Alec Harvey, former president of the Society for Features Journalism, is a freelance writer based in Alabama.