'Life' lessons

By Bill Castanier

Grand Ledge author hits it big with debut novel

About 10 years ago, the concept of the bucket list, an itemization of either life goals or feats of endurance to accomplish before you kick the proverbial bucket, hit pop culture. Suddenly, aging Baby Boomers were creating lists with quests such as “see the northern lights,” “learn how to play the guitar” or “climb Mount Kilimanjaro.” Grand Ledge native Lori Nelson Spielman gives that idea an interesting twist in her debut novel, “The Life List.” Spielman’s heroine, Brett Bohlinger, writes a bucket list at 14, and is required to check them all off 20 years later before she can lay claim to her inheritance.

The book opens with Bohlinger set to inherit a multimillion-dollar cosmetic business after her mother dies, but she’s crushed when the estate is divvied up among her brothers and sister-in-law. However, the will details some Herculean stable-cleaning tasks Bohlinger must accomplish before she can receive her unnamed inheritance. Using a long-lost list of 20 teenage dreams, Bohlinger’s mom sends her out on a journey to complete the items.

Some are already checked off (“Kiss Nick Nichols”), some appear to be easy (“Get a dog”), but some (“Have a baby, maybe two”) seem daunting to Bohlinger, who has a live-in boyfriend who’s not interested in dogs or babies. Also, she has one year to accomplish these tasks, including “Perform live on a big stage.”

As she works on the list, Bohlinger begins to understand that her mother only wanted the best for her and to recognize who she really is and what she wants from life. As she completes each task, Bohlinger is read a letter from her mom by an executor. The letters are so on point that it’s as if her mother was omniscient. When a comedy sketch goes especially bad, Bohlinger gets a letter imploring her, “At what point did you decide you had to be perfect?”

“The Life List” is a perfect beach read and it is being marketed as a women’s book; the daisy on the cover is perfect for attracting book clubs. The novel is clever, funny, introspective and the colorful type of story Woody Allen likes to tell in black and white.

Spielman appears to tip her hand early in the book about a possible new love interest (after all, her heroine only has one year to have a baby) but misdirection abounds and just maybe it’s a set-up for another failure. No. 14 on the list is “buy a horse,” but Bohlinger wonders what she would do with a horse. Every 14-year-old wants a horse, but how does that fit in with the lifestyle of a 34-year-old Chicago professional?

“The Life List” is ripe with tension, some “Sex and the City”-style friends and some dramatic revelations, including some surprises that change how Bohlinger approaches life.

Spielman, 50, said the premise for the book came to her when she found her own “life list” in an old cedar chest written when she was an adolescent.

“I thought, ‘What if someone forced me to do the things on the list?’” she said in a recent phone interview.

In the book, Bohlinger becomes a teacher (mirroring Spielman’s profession) after she is fired from the cosmetic firm at her mother’s direction. Bohlinger crosses paths with people she would not normally interact with in her own day-to-day life, adding a richness to one of the book’s central themes of developing self-confidence.

Spielman has seen dramatic changes in her life over the last decade after she began taking writing classes at Lansing Community College. By 2009, she had a manuscript and in 2011, she began soliciting agents. She landed a top-drawer agent in August 2011 who auctioned the rights to Bantam Dell for between $100,000 and $250,000, according to her agent’s blog. Shortly afterward, the book was optioned for a film to Fox 2000. Not bad for a debut author.

Spielman is not in unfamiliar territory when it comes to life changes, having changed her career from speech pathologist to guidance counselor to homebound teacher.

Although the book is being marketed to adult women, there is no doubt it will find a home with teens and pre-teens, which Spielman hopes will lead to some poignant mother-daughter talks. She said she wants the book to help women boost their confidence and image.

“I want women to know that if they think life is out of control, they can take control,” she said.

Spielman said she wants to avoid the “sophomore jinx” for her second book, which she has begun working on. Apparently, she feels like she’s in a hurry.

“I may be the oldest debut author ever,” Spielman said.