Montecito’s Hideaway

On weekends, Plow & Angel, the downstairs cave-like bistro-style no-reservation first-come-first-sit eatery that shares a chef and kitchen with San Ysidro Ranch’s Stone House Restaurant, its more formal upstairs neighbor, is chock-a-block with visitors and tourists luxuriating in the Ranch’s newly renovated splendor. But, tourism being what it is, the small (36 rooms/cottages) hotel is less than full during the week. Before the kitchen fire that put both eateries out of business for the better part of three years, the Plow & Angel was one of Montecito’s favorite hidden spots; now that it has re-opened, Montecito stalwarts have quietly rediscovered the rathskeller, and pile in early from Sundays through Wednesdays, attracted by Plow & Angel’s “Friends and Neighbors” policy that offers specially priced three-course meals. Sunday is Prime Rib day, Monday, barbequed baby back ribs, beer-battered fish & chips on Tuesday, and Wednesday’s 17-hour braised short ribs have proven popular. Prices range from $37 to $41 depending upon the special, and include soup or salad and dessert.

Plow & Angel opens at 5 pm and is usually filled by 6 pm, so getting there early is advised. As the meal progresses, many diners spy someone they know and table-hopping is rampant, but despite the convivial din this creates, excellent acoustics allow for easy conversation. To join the informal fray, you could call 565-1700, but Plow & Angel doesn’t take reservations, so unless you need directions to San Ysidro Ranch (and if you do, you’re not a neighbor), just show up any time after five; membership is free!

Andy’s For Rudy

“I know Rudy Giuliani very well. I honestly believe he should and will be our next President.” Calling him “straightforward, dead honest, extremely intelligent and very hard working,” Andy Granatelli has been beating the bushes (if you’ll excuse the expression) for Mr. Giuliani’s March 25 fundraising appearance in Montecito. The afternoon (2 pm to 4 pm) event is set to take place at the Ennisbrook home of Lee and Lori Mikles and all indications are that Andy’s (and others’) entreaties have been heard by receptive ears. Well over 100 attendees have already RSVP’d to attend the $2,300-per-person meet and greet, including many politically prominent celebrities. If you’d like to join event co-chairs Andy & Dolly Granatelli, Ralph & Melissa Iannelli, David Lack, Lee & Lori Mikles, Parker & Carolina Montgomery, and Tom & Mary Belle Snow in a show of support for the likely Republican candidate for President in 2008 you should call Andy directly at 805-565-3522.

Pet Snake Looking for Owner

As he was pulling out of his driveway near Cold Spring School, Make-It-Work founder Eric David Greenspan nearly drove over a fluorescent orange object lying in the road that he believed was “some kid’s toy.” It turned out Greenspan had approached a nearly four-foot long snake that was wriggling on the pavement near a small creek bridge. Greenspan pulled a three-iron golf club from his trunk and attempted to corral the snake as the elusive creature slithered away into some hillside brush. Greenspan kept both eyes on the snake as he dialed for help.

Mike Brown, who operates Santa Barbara Snake Rescue, later determined the creature was a “non-indigenous, non-threatening, domestic” albino corn snake that had likely “gotten loose” from a nearby residence. Brown confirmed the snake was in good condition and appeared well fed.

He’ll be keeping the reptile until his rightful owner claims him. Call Santa Barbara Snake Rescue at 708-2570 or visit www.snakerescue.com.

Celebrity Authors

This year’s CALM Auxiliary Celebrity Authors Cocktail Party, which, along with the Celebrity Authors Luncheon, was co-founded by Sharon Bifano and Stephanie Ortale over two decades ago, was held in the elegant home of Fred and Joyce Lukas in Montecito. With its long driveway and Old World charm, the five-year-old manor sparkled like a mirror reflection of the faraway oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel within easy viewing from the main rooms.

The cocktail party always presents an opportune venue to hear many of the writers invited to the yearly get-together, and to meet them face to face, even, perhaps, to engage in conversation with a favorite author. For example:

Frances Halpern, whose regularly scheduled one-hour radio talk show airs every Saturday from 2 to 3 pm on KCLU (102.3 FM/ 88.3 FM in the Ventura area), celebrates 11 years on the air on St. Patrick’s Day. She hopes to convince her son Michael Halpern to write a “thriller” fiction novel based upon his experiences under the sea. Michael, you see, is a nautical archeologist, and lives in Meze, France. He received his Masters in Nautical Archeology from Texas A & M, “which is located in College Station in the middle of, well, nowhere, and there isn’t a body of water anywhere,” Frances explains with a laugh as we savor a gourmet delight offered us by a passing server (Fresco! catered).

Michael’s dives take him down 170 to 180 feet off the coast of Meze, in the Mediterranean, where “most of the old [ship] wrecks are.” Her son has written “a bunch of essays on the subject” and Ms Halpern is hoping to help him put them together as a book. “The book may be called ‘In Search Of The Wild Coconut’,” Frances quips, rattling off the title of the only essay in the collection that has nothing at all to do with nautical archeology.

Neutering In 30 Seconds

Another accessible and successful author at the Lukases was James Rollins, a semi-retired veterinarian who began writing thrillers after retiring from his animal clinic nine years ago. His first book was “Subterranean” (Avon Books Paperback Original). “I planned to take five characters two miles underneath the earth,” he says as we sit outside on the patio overlooking the dark Pacific. His synopsis was based upon the following detailed outline “I’m going to throw in some monsters; I’m going to shake,” he jokes.

Rollins began his talk at the Celebrity Authors Cocktail Party at the Lukases by boasting that he was probably the only one in the room that could “neuter a cat in thirty seconds, and spay a cat in less than five minutes, and I’ve been timed.” That got our attention; although Rollins is officially retired, he still works with the Sacramento (his hometown) Council of Cats that spays and neuters feral cats and then releases them.

NBC picked up the rights to “Subterranean” for a potential mini-series, which launched James into the business of books – he’s now with HarperCollins. His most recent book, “Black Order,” has made the New York Times’ Bestsellers list. “Black Order” is second in a series begun with his previous novel, “Map Of Bones,” featuring the same cast of characters.

Where does he look for inspiration? “Little historical mysteries, little question marks,” he says. He watches the History Channel and reads Archeology Magazine looking for those unanswered questions. His latest book, due this summer, for example, is based upon a curious historical incident: “Marco Polo, on his way back from China, was sent with eighteen galleys by Kublai Kahn, and six hundred men. When he arrived in Italy,” Rollins says, “he was down to two ships and eighteen men. Even on his deathbed he would never tell what happened to those other ships and those other men,” the best-selling author notes. In his written account, Marco Polo hints that something tragic happened, “but we never know what that was. So, that’s a big question mark and I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to answer that.’” His answer is in “The Judas Strain,” his ninth novel, due this summer.

How does he allot his writing time?

“My schedule isn’t so much time-wise as it is page count. I’ve got to write six pages a day – roughly 1,700 to 2,000 words,” he says.

When he was still working as a veterinarian, his output was half that: three pages a day. He worked fourteen to sixteen hours a day in his clinic and could only write whenever he found “cracks in time” to do so. When he finally freed himself of his clinic, he was able to double his output.

Rollins says he isn’t wild about setting a goal, like, for example, writing an hour a day. “You can just sit and twiddle your thumbs for an hour and get nothing done, so I like the page count. If I write those six pages fast, then I have more time to play, but I have the obligation to write those six pages.”

Writing six pages turns into about an 8-hour day; he writes for two or three hours in the morning, takes a one-and-a-half or two-hour break “just to get out and get the juices flowing,” and then another two or three hours in the afternoon. He prints up the pages and hand-edits them in the evening. He then reviews them in the morning before writing.

A post-in note next to his computer reads: I give myself permission to write crap today. “A lot of times when you sit down as a writer, you think, ‘Today, I must be Hemingway,’ or that you must be brilliant. If you do that, you’re setting yourself up to not write. Sometimes, I’ve got to let myself write.”

Rollins, currently single (he was divorced three years ago), belongs to a critique group in Sacramento. “They are the first people that read any of my novels,” he reveals. The group consists of three published writers, two that are “agented,” and the rest in various levels of their writing careers.

Every book he has written has been optioned by Hollywood.

From Colorado to Rome

Author Josh Conviser lives in Montecito; he served as an executive consultant on HBO’s “Rome.” Conviser is one of the people that wrote what is called the “story bible” for the series. “It’s the document that sets up the show, the arc of the characters,” he explains, as we munch another tangy Fresco! morsel.

Conviser majored in Cultural Anthropology at Princeton, and thought he’d go into academia, but after graduation, while traveling through South East Asia with Dave Digilio, a college roommate who wanted to be a writer, Dave suggested writing a screenplay together. They wrote a road trip comedy that was never actually sold, but got them both work in Hollywood.

Dave stayed in Hollywood, found work with a producer and ended up winning a fellowship at Disney, where he most recently wrote the screenplay for “Eight Below.” He has an ABC series coming out called “Traveler,” due in June.

Josh began working on a TV series with some other Princeton buddies, called G vs E (Good vs Evil) that appeared on USA and later on the Sci-Fi Channel. Josh began working for the twin-brother writers-producers-directors of that series, Jonas and Josh Pate, and learned a good deal about Hollywood collaborating with them and decided to venture off into independent production to get his own projects produced. The Rome series came out of that.

Josh grew up in Aspen, Colorado, and originally thought he would become a mountaineer – “doing something I really liked doing for a living without actually having to work” – but reassessed his future after getting pulmonary edema [his lungs filled up with fluid, a condition brought on by the altitude] at the 21,000-foot level of a 22,000-foot peak. “I started feeling sicker and sicker and ended up falling on the way down,” he recounts.

He was able to parlay that experience into his writing: a good bit of his book, “Echelon,” is played on a rock and his main character is a rock climber.

“Echelon” [Random House} is Dave’s first book, a spy thriller that delves into the inner workings at the National Security Agency’s spy network. “Echelon is a real system,” he says, “it is one of the main parts of the NSA’s infrastructure.”

Conviser warns that the capability to look in on someone’s life is going to become more intrusive and encompassing. “What ‘Echelon’ does is look at what the ramifications of this would be in a few years,” he says, adding that, “While I am concerned about it, I also understand the reasoning behind doing what we’re doing. It’s not as if the NSA doesn’t have threats that we’re actively dealing with. There are threats out there.”

That said, Josh says he wrote his book “to be a fun, fast, action thriller.” But behind the fun, is the idea of the dilemma between control and safety. “How much control – how much physical freedom – are we willing to give up for safety?” he asks, and wonders where the line is that makes that dilemma acceptable. “It’s a tough question. It’s something that I think will become a main political and social issue in this century,” he suggests.

Josh attended Cate School and moved to Montecito four years ago in order to write his book. “Writing in Hollywood is a communal endeavor, and I wanted to do something that was my own from start to finish,” he says. He and his wife, Barbara, have an 8-month-old daughter, Sophia, and they plan to send her to Cold Spring School. The couple met as under-grads at Princeton; Barbara, manager of the Cancer Research Center of Santa Barbara, is from Houston, Texas.

His first novel, “Echelon,” was published in July, and the sequel, called “Empyre,” was turned in to his publisher on Monday, March 12.

His writing schedule?

“I put a hard time limit on my working every day. My wife leaves for work in the morning and our nanny comes. I work from 8:30 for at least three hours. If things are going great, I’ll continue. If things are going horrible, I’ll stop, then do research, or daily busy work. I force myself to do a full three hours. Often, for me, that first fifteen minutes is the worst, most painful, tooth-pulling experience in the world. But, after that, it gets better. Sometimes it takes a little longer, but sometimes it’s immediate. When I’m actually involved in writing a book, instead of editing it, I’ll try to do five pages a day. That doesn’t mean they’ll be five great pages, but that’s five pages that are out there. I work from beginning to end, based on an outline, then go back and edit. I usually write substantially more than what the book turns out to be. Then, I spend a lot of time editing and culling down what I’ve got.”

Does he have any Montecito mentors?

“There are wonderful writers here that are generous with their time and their friendship. People like Allan Folsom, who has a new book coming out called “The Machiavelli Covenant.” Laird Koenig is another. Chris Carter [of “The X Files”] worked with me on “Echelon.” That was something that would never happen in Los Angeles, but, up here… well, it’s a very special community to be part of. I’ve gotten to be friends with a lot of accomplished writers. It’s a thrill for me and it’s a great thing.”