Novel throws sex after 60 into the pop culture mix

Wednesday, October 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Leslie Garcia / The Dallas Morning News

Jeanne Ray was feeling pretty darned good about herself. She'd turned 60, looked good, felt good, had wonderful, active friends, saw herself as a sexual being. Then she went to the grocery store. At the checkout stand, she casually looked at the magazines. The headlines leapt out at her: Sex at 20. At 30. At 40."

No mention of a sex life for anyone older.

"It really [ticked] me off," says the Nashville nurse. "I don't look 18, but it doesn't matter. I liked where I was."

The incident ate at her so much that she decided to write a story about love between 60-year-olds. When she saw Romeo and Juliet with Claire Danes, she began thinking: What would have happened if Juliet's mother and Romeo's father had fallen in love? Would the end be different?"

She decided to find out in her own way, her own setting, her own time. The result: Julie and Romeo (Harmony Books; $21. It tells the story of two rival florists, one widowed, one divorced. Many years ago, their children tried to marry but the family stopped them.

Decades later, the two meet at a florists' convention. They develop their own romance, much to the horror of their families. And, yes, their relationship is sexual. Just think: Flower cooler. We'll leave it at that.

"I wanted to make it steamy without being vulgar," Ms. Ray says. "I think that was accomplished. My editor wanted me to change the ending, which I did, and to put more sex in it. I said I thought it would be a real mistake. I felt very comfortable with the sex in it. I didn't think it needed more."

Her editor agreed. The fact that she even had an editor is a little story in itself. Ms. Ray showed the original manuscript to her younger daughter, novelist Ann Patchett, whom (after making her mother work hard to finish it!) in turn passed it to her own agent. The agent liked it, too.

"She put it up for auction, and Harmony bought it," Ms. Ray says. "My new editor called to say she's so happy to have the book. Then, 15 minutes later, she called and said Barbra Streisand had optioned it. That was quite a day."

Ms. Ray had written before, but only in her journal or little stories for her grandchildren. This, she says, was the first writing she had wanted to show someone to see whether it had commercial value.

"At the beginning, I started out wanting this to be something that would create a little hope for older people," she says.

As Ms. Ray has been promoting the book in various cities, she's finding that those who are most passionate about it are women in their 60s. Not surprising, she says, because she wrote it for 60-year-olds. But an unexpected pleasure has been seeing a big group of people in their 40s and 50s who tell her, "This made me feel good. I thought I was headed on the downhill slope."

A female college student told her, "I'm only 18, but I've already begun to worry about getting old. You've helped me so much."

Says Ms. Ray: "That's kind of great to hear."

She's working on another book about sixtysomethings, and still works one day a week in a doctor's office. Many of her characters have come from her nursing experience, she says. For Julie and Romeo, she spent several days in a floral shop that has been in a patient's family for generations.

"I never thought this could happen, not for a moment," Ms. Ray says. "I was happy with my life. I'm still happy with my life ... I hope people can look at me and think, 'Well, she was a nurse for 40 years, then after she was 60 she learned to do something else.' By example, I hope I show people life isn't over at 60. You don't need to hang it up."