Nearing 90, “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” author Joanne Greenberg still has stories to tell
Author Joanne Greenberg has never been one to rest on her laurels.
In 1964, her second book, the critically acclaimed “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” was published and sold millions of copies. The semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a 16-year-old girl diagnosed with schizophrenia who creates an entire world inside her head as a way to retreat from the reality that she lives in an institution.
The book brought Greenberg, who was also diagnosed with schizophrenia at an early age, international renown. It was subsequently turned into a 1977 movie and a 2004 play, and has recently enjoyed the Penguin Classics treatment when it was reissued in May.
But Greenberg went on to write 15 more novels and four short story collections. She’s also won a dozen awards, including the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction for her debut novel and the Colorado Author of the Year award in 1991.
And she’s not done yet.
Greenberg is gearing up to publish a memoir as she approaches her 90th birthday this fall. Titled “On the Run,” it will re-live the 13 years she volunteered as one of the first female firefighters on the Lookout Mountain Fire Protection District’s rescue team.
Today, Greenberg lives in a cabin-like home near Lookout Mountain, overlooking the rolling foothills west of Denver. Foothills Fire & Rescue, which was formed in 1997 after the Lookout Mountain, Idledale, and Mount Vernon Fire Protection Districts merged — lies just down the road.
But 50 years ago, Greenberg got a call from her friend, Dee Scott, who told her she was in desperate need of daytime volunteers on the fire rescue team.
It was 1973, and a 40-year-old Greenberg, who had already achieved success, was happy to lend a hand, figuring she’d be putting out a few small bush fires now and then. “I wasn’t doing anything particularly — probably ironing,” she noted.
So Greenberg donned the coat and the boots of a firefighter, and learned to drive the fire truck and engage the water pumps. But it wasn’t long before the male-dominated team found out two women were among their ranks, and they weren’t happy about it, claiming they were “taking over” and wouldn’t be able to emotionally handle the job.
“About half of them quit,” Greenberg recalled.
But she persisted, soon paving the way for more women to join the team. Her missions (which they called “runs”) included fighting house fires, tending to car crash victims as an emergency medical technician, and even rescuing a kidnapped child who had been abandoned in an outhouse pit.
The novel doesn’t get too gory, Greenberg promises, but it doesn’t back away from hard truths. Life lessons rise out of the people she meets out on the road — often good people who made bad decisions, she said. Sure, she says, it was intense, but in the end, she “loved every blood-soaked, smelly minute” of it.
Publishing the memoir, not unlike the novel that won Greenberg lasting fame, has not been so rosy. While her later novels garnered mixed levels of popularity, none matched “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.” Greenberg also believes she has outlived many of her readers.
Still, the style of her prose remains untouched, a quality appreciated in a review of her 2017 novel, “All I’ve Done For You,” by former Colorado Poet Laureate Joseph Hutchison.
Greenberg’s memoir will be printed through a self-publisher Xlibris via McMania Publishing, which has published her last two novels, after falling short of being picked up by a big-name publishing house. She attributes some of the pushback to critiques from editors who say her memoir focuses more on the job than it does about her — but that’s how she wants it, without the spotlight on her, and she’s adamant: that’s how it will stay.
“‘There’s not enough of you in it,’” she recalls being told. “And I’m struggling — I think there is. Because the ‘me’ is not the subject of this memoir, the job is.”
Greenberg’s memoir is set to be published by Christmas. In the meantime, she still writes every day — except Saturday to observe Shabbat. She sticks to the rigid schedule no matter what — even through her bout with COVID-19 earlier this month (“COVID-schmovid!” she said).
And what has she been writing? She’s not quite sure yet. Bits and pieces of what may soon become her next novel, perhaps. What’s certain is that she’s not done yet.
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