I write in a variety of genres. Gasp!

Years ago when I first started writing seriously — that is, trying to get novels published instead of just penning stories to be shoved in a file under the bed — I began with romance. My first published adult novel was in the romance field, a sub genre called chick lit. My agent at the time told me that if I sold that book, I’d have to write chick lit for a while, stay in that lane, in other words. I didn’t.

But first, a few words about why I chose romance. I’ve written/talked about this before, but here’s the tale again: Although I’d been a singer, gotten two degrees in music from a conservatory, no less, I’d always felt called to write. I always wrote, in fact, for my own pleasure (see above). My sister knew this, and she encouraged me to try writing romance as short story after short story of mine was rejected by magazines. I read some romances and thought, yeah, I can do this. And so it began.

Writing romance is hard. Anyone who turns their nose up at the genre doesn’t really know it. Yes, there’s a formula (discussed here), but that makes it a challenge to get right — to tell a story that’s unpredictable while satisfying the expectations of the reader.

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Writing across genres is not new. Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited and satires like Scoop.

While I tried my hand at romance, I also penned a young adult mystery, which I sold to a small press. It went on to become an Edgar nominee. And then, of course, I landed a contract at Harlequin for that first romance/chick lit: Loves Me, Loves Me Not. It received lovely reviews from the Washington Post and Publishers Weekly and was translated into French, as well.

By the time it was published, though, I felt pulled to write a more serious book, a retelling of one of my favorite novels, Jane Eyre. That book, Sloane Hall, took many years to find a publishing home, eventually landing with Five Star/Cengage, a hardcover publisher catering to the library trade. This year, it was one of only 14 books featured on the “Off the Shelf” blog celebrating Charlotte Bronte’s 200th birthday anniversary.

During the years that I tried to get Sloane Hall published, I went through several agents and continued to write. I wrote another three YA mysteries, one a historical. And I wrote more romance/humorous women’s fiction (the term “chick lit” had gone out of fashion). One of those books, Fire Me, snagged a film option.

Over the years, I’ve jumped from serious to light, from genre to literary, from historical to contemporary.

I used to wonder if I was crazy. Or if I had an attention deficit problem. Or if I just didn’t know what the heck I was doing.

Maybe all of those are true. But even if they are, I’ve learned that you can only write the books that call out to you, the stories that won’t let you go, the tales that you really want to tell. Writing long form stories takes a lot of effort, energy and time. You don’t use those resources on creative projects for which you have little creativity to spare.

At this moment, young adult mystery no longer calls to me. Maybe it will in the future. I don’t know. I have two novels that I’ve been tweaking and polishing and shopping around.

One’s a serious book about an evangelical man who sins and tries to redeem all he’s lost by that sin–his wife, his family, his faith.

One’s a romance about a man and woman learning to love again after betrayals. It’s lighter than the evangelical story. But both have common themes: love conquers all.

Maybe that’s the theme that threads through all my books, romance or upmarket, young adult or mystery.

If I had taken my first agent’s advice many years ago, I might be a more successful writer, with readers following me through book after book in one genre. I chose a different path, and I accept the consequences with no rancor. I’m grateful just to be a published author, telling the stories I feel compelled to tell.

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To agent or not to agent

Actually, that headline should be: To have an agent or not to have one. That is the question. Right now, I’m answering…no. Let me share with you my observations on life without a literary agent and how I wish this aspect of the publishing business would change:

I’ve had several literary agents in my brilliant career. They each had their talents, and for some authors, they might have been perfect. But there’s only one I’d recommend out of the bunch. She and I split when I started writing things she wasn’t repping. The others…well, I’m not going to whine about them. I’ve done plenty of that already to friends. Any author who’s had a less-than-stellar relationship with an agent will be able to imagine the reasons for breaking with one.

I went into the agent hunt recently, though, because editors want to deal with agents, not authors. My heart’s not in it, however, so I’ve started querying editors directly. And, yes, I am knocking on a lot of closed doors.

As authors know, virtually all publishing houses are closed to unagented submissions. Editors won’t respond to authors who don’t have agents, won’t read their manuscripts, sometimes won’t even read their queries.

So going without an agent means an awful lot of dead ends, even for a multi published author, who has an Edgar nomination on her resume and a film option in her bank account (that would be me). In other words, when I query editors on my own, a certain amount of doubt in editors’  minds should be removed from the process due to my experience. They don’t have to wonder if I have it in me to revise a novel for publishing or if I know about how to market a book or if I understand the legalities of the business or how to put a plot together.

I also offer another reassurance to skittish editors: I tell them in my query that I use an entertainment lawyer for negotiation (same one who did my film option deal). This is to let them know they won’t have to fret about muddying the editor/author relationship with the haggling that comes over contract details.

Several editors have responded to my recent query about an upmarket commercial fiction novel and requested to see the manuscript. I won’t out them, so don’t ask who they are. I applaud them for thinking for themselves and evaluating whether to say yes to an unagented author, regardless what their imprint’s submission guidelines are.

Back in the day, when I first entered the publishing world mumble-mumble years ago, some of the big houses were still open to unagented submissions. Being unagented meant you’d be waiting a heckuva long time for a read even when an editor said the magic words, “send the manuscript.” But it didn’t automatically mean “no, sorry, won’t even take a look.”

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A book I self published after having my rights reverted from the publisher

The turning point in houses closing their doors to unagented submissions came during the anthrax scare, when white powder was being mailed to various places. Then, one by one, the big houses started building walls to keep out unagented authors.

Only a few imprints remain open today to the unagented — mostly “category” romance at Harlequin imprints, or some small publishing houses.

I wish it weren’t so. Maybe because I’ve bounced around this biz for those mumble-mumble years, I’ve become somewhat cynical about the whole submission process. I’ve come to the jaded opinion that there are maybe a dozen (or fewer) agents whose submissions are read quickly, even immediately, because they have a reputation for backing winning horses.

The rest of the agents are clamoring for attention, trying to get editors to read manuscripts after a conversation or just a damned good cover letter. And, lately, from stories I’ve heard, even good agents seem to be having trouble with that, getting timely access for their clients’ works and timely responses to the read.

In today’s world, I can self-publish it if no one bites on my new book. This change in the industry, where big publishing houses have a lower share of the market than self-published and small press-published novels, is part of the digital/Amazon revolution. Amazon recognized that authors are customers, too. Some publishers are catching up to that changed paradigm.

I hope at some point all editors will evaluate for themselves whether to read unagented material.

 

 

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Did I turn it off? Did I?

I have stick-straight hair, so, naturally, I curl it, using a curling iron. If the electricity ever went out for extended periods of time, I would become a stranger to friends and family.

Since I use the curling iron every day (sometimes more than once in a day), I regularly confront the existential question: Did I turn it off?

Before heading out to the store, hand on the garage doorknob: Did I turn off my curling iron or will it eventually burn down the house while I’m gone, leaving me to confront a smoking heap of ash when I return?

Or, two blocks from home: Did I turn it off and unplug it?

Or, staring at my husband over a candlelit restaurant table: Did I really turn it off? Really? Am I absolutely certain?

I’m sure anyone who’s used an iron, a stove, an oven, a coffeemaker or any other heat-producing appliance can relate. I’ve stopped backing out of the garage to go check on the curling iron’s status. I’ve turned around before leaving our development to come back and check on the curling iron. The curling iron must feel very loved with all the attention it gets.

And although 99.9 percent of the time, I did, in fact, turn off and unplug the thing, there is the occasional, very, very rare moment when I didn’t, which just affirms my obsessive need to double-check its status.

Over the years, I’ve tried to develop strategies to remember if I unplugged the thing.

I’ve looked at it and waved the plug in front of my face, thinking that visual image would surely stick in my mind.

Result: When the memory of that action comes back to me, I wonder, but was that just now or…yesterday?

I’ve stared at the plug and said out loud: “I unplugged the curling iron.”

Result: But was that just now or…yesterday?

I’ve stared at the plug and said out loud, using different accents: “Ja, ja, I unplugged ze curling iron, bien sure, n’est ce pas?”

Result: See above.

I’ve sung, in operatic tones: “I’ve unplugged the CURLING iron! It is in my hand, you see! Rodolfo! Alfredo! Siegfried! Ah! AH!”

Result: See above.

The curling iron unplugging. It is driving me crazy.

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My hair. And a tiara.

So here’s my latest tactic: I tell my husband I unplugged it. Then, you see, the responsibility is shared. I can ask him later, “Did I unplug the curling iron, dearest one?” And he can answer, “Yes, you told me you did, my sweet, and I carefully listen to every dulcet word that you utter.”

Or, more likely, “I dunno.”

But if my husband isn’t around, I still have to deal with this anxiety, which I have labeled Anxiety About Appliances’ Remaining Good and Hot. Or AAARGH, for short.

I am now going to start using a tip from my oldest son, who suffers from a similar affliction–remembering if he turned the heat back in his apartment before leaving.

He snaps a photo of his thermostat.

So, that’s what I’m going to do. Snap a photo with my phone of the unplugged curling iron.

If I can remember…

 

 

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Wish you were here…

My mother and father were wonderful people. I was blessed to have them. But, like most kids, I feel that blessing most acutely now that they are gone.

My mother passed away at the age of 63 when I was 33. Elizabeth Beatrice was her name, but she went by Bea.

Thirty-three years should have been adequate time to get to know her, but as time passes, I realize that I was just beginning to comprehend who she was as a person, not just as my mom, and to relate to her as an adult…when she was gone from my life.

One of my children remarked once that I don’t talk a lot about her, and I decided this is a disservice to them and to her, that I’ve not shared more about the grandmother they didn’t get to know.

So, here then are some memories of my mother:

Mom BeaFirst, she was beautiful. She came from a family of redheads, and, like her mother and some siblings, she, too, was a ginger. Ginger is an apt way to describe her hair, because as she aged it went from deeper reddish hues to a strawberry blonde shade that hairdressers envied — what dye did she use, they’d ask her. She had blue eyes to go with that gorgeous natural hair. (As an aside, pictures never really captured her hair’s real shade; her hair sometimes photographed darker than it actually was.)

She was born and raised in a small town in Indiana, with a German-born mother and a taciturn father (Nanny and Pop-Pop to their grandchildren). She had two younger sisters  (Lillian and Helen) and an older brother (Alvin).

She married my father in World War II, when he was stationed in Indiana. I asked my aunt Lil to help round out my picture of Mom, and here are some memories she shared with me:

She was very private about her inner feelings. I remember when she brought your dad to meet us. They were a handsome couple, he in his uniform, and she in a snazzy black dress…A lot of guys in service came to Anderson to the various night spots. The Boat Club was one of the nicer ones with dining, dancing, drinking. It was a whirlwind courtship, but that happened all the time in wartime…We liked your dad right away as he was very personable.

The other morning, I was remembering how she and Alvin would argue, trying for top position in the family, two redheads. He used to say all of his sisters were smarter than he was, but I knew Bea was the smartest of all…

Your mom was a lot like our dad, quiet, but when he had something to say or tell you, he was very succinct or blunt. So was Bea, but then she would surprise you with something witty. At her eighth-grade graduation, when Father Scheetz asked her if she was going to follow in her brother’s footsteps, Bea deadpanned, “No, I’m going to make my own.”

Her footsteps took her away from Indiana to Baltimore, my father’s hometown, where she raised my sister and me in a suburban split-level that felt like a castle to us. She was, like many women of that era, a stay-at-home mom. Once my sister and I were in school, she would get together regularly with some friends of hers for luncheons. She had a set of dishes for those gatherings — clear glass triangular plates with an indentation for a tea cup in the corner.

I remember she and Dad went to a fancy dinner event one year, maybe a New Year’s gathering, for which she bought a new long dress, something pink, I think, and chiffon. But what I most remember is she got a parking ticket when picking it up, and she told us not to tell Dad. I did, of course! She wasn’t angry.

She was devout — I remember praying the rosary in our old row home living room with her, and she encouraged our devotion to Mary during the month of May, when we would set up little shrines to the Blessed Virgin on our dressers.

Mary Ann, Libby, and Bea Malinoski.

My mother with me and my sister

When we moved to the split-level on a December day in the 1960s, she’d packed all the Christmas gifts in the station wagon, drove us what seemed like a world away (it was only a few miles, it turned out) through snowy streets, and the first thing she did in her new kitchen was make chocolate chip cookies and hang curtains.

She was sometimes unhappy — our dad had a volatile personality (later, I realized I might have inherited it!), but she loved going to the movies, theater, reading. And she loved her girls, wanting for us all the happiness in the world. She encouraged my singing and was immensely proud of me, once traveling with me to New York when I finaled in a singing competition. I think she wanted me to step out of my shy shell more when I was younger.

When I was 22, I spent the summer at the American School of Music in Fontainebleau, France. It was my first time away from home (my sister and I were commuter students during our college years), and, since it was before the age of email, I have a treasure trove of “aerogrammes” and letters on onion-skin paper (back in the days when the weight of an overseas letter was an important determination for expense) that she and other family members sent me. It’s touching to hear how she and my sister would read my letters to them aloud to each other.

Looking over them now, I hear her voice, as she gives me the details of everyday life — the movies she and “Daddy” went to, some troubles she was facing at work (she’d taken a job after my sister and I entered high school), friends of mine she contacted on my behalf, news of clothes purchases — a steel-blue pantsuit, a safari jacket for my sister —  my sister’s life with her new husband…little details, yet so much more. In between the lines, there is a boundless well of love.

“We had a terrible storm last night,” she wrote in July of that summer, “electric was out for five hours. Daddy wants me to set all the clocks but leave one on Paris time…”

My guess is she did so, happy he’d suggested it.

I love you, Mom. Wish you were here. Happy Mother’s Day!

 

 

 

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Ten years ago this week: A leap of faith

On a beautiful sunny day in May 2006, my husband and I loaded a U-Haul truck with extra furniture from our Vermont house, most of my clothes and files, and some crockery, cutlery and cooking items and set off for Pennsylvania. We were taking a leap of faith. A decade later, our hearts are filled with gratitude for having been led here, a place where we’ve never been happier.

The path that brought us to Lancaster was bumpy and sometimes obscured, but we stayed on it despite worries and doubts. It started when, at the end of our children’s high school years, we realized we wanted to live closer to my family in Maryland. My father was elderly and beset by health problems, and I regularly traveled south to help my sister deal with him.

For the 16 years we’d lived in Vermont, in fact, my husband and I had annually carted our family down to visit him and my sister’s family. While we loved Vermont’s beauty, and our children had thrived there, all of us–kids included–loved the mid-Atlantic region, too. Our children, in particular, were attracted to the career, shopping and arts opportunities in the area compared to those in the sleepy Green Mountain State. Oh, and the milder weather, as well.

But securing employment more than 400 miles from home is tricky business when you’re a certain age. My husband had done several interviews hither and yon over the years preceding our move. None of those opportunities panned out. Now, looking in the rearview mirror, we’re relieved they didn’t. The locations weren’t great in some cases, and the jobs were sketchy in others.

On each of our visits south during the years we’d set our sites on moving, we gathered information about where we wouldn’t mind living. Baltimore City/County was high on my list. I was born and raised there, and it always called out to me. So, our preferences roster included Charm City and its environs but also a couple more northeastern Maryland counties — Cecil and Harford — and some areas in Pennsylvania — the I-83 corridor north of Maryland, Gettysburg (I’d been a finalist for a college job there) and…Lancaster, a little city we’d been through twice as two of our kids had considered Franklin & Marshall College.

Lancaster ended up in the lead when an arts organization responded to a query I’d sent out about job possibilities. One late winter/early spring day, we traveled to Maryland, visited my family, drove up the road to Lancaster over the Conowingo Dam above the Susquehanna River, and I thought: I can do this.

In other words, I could make that drive to visit my dad. This was no small thing. After living away from bustling traffic for so long, I’d gotten out of the habit of driving on highways and on busy roads. And I’ve never liked big bridges.

The interview went well. But here’s when we really started feeling led. While I was doing the interview, my husband wandered into an economic development office in the city. That’s his career field. The executive director happened to be in, spoke with my husband, and gave him three job leads. Three good job leads. Just from dropping in, unexpected, at an office.

Soon, he had applications into each organization, and soon after that we were planning a return trip to Lancaster for his interviews and to search out rental properties…because I got a job offer from the arts organization.

That weekend visit was a conflicted one for me. You see, I still longed to be back “home” in Baltimore. And now that a move to Lancaster was becoming more real, I had to come to grips with the fact that I might still be an hour away from the area where I really wanted to live. It felt like a compromise, one I was willing to make, but nonetheless a disappointment. Yet I kept feeling led, as if we had to do this. While my husband was at his interviews, I walked to a nearby grocery store and bought a pastry. (That grocery store–it is now the one I shop at regularly.)

We left Lancaster after that weekend, and we made a plan. We’d declutter the Vermont house by moving some necessary furniture to the town home rental we’d secured. We’d contact a real estate agent in Vermont to talk about putting our house up for sale, telling her we were “downsizing.” We didn’t want to reveal yet we were moving because my husband wasn’t giving notice at his job — he’d not yet heard news from the organizations he’d applied to.

We were, in short, moving to Lancaster knowing that my salary wouldn’t ultimately be enough to support us, that if my husband’s employer found out we were intent on leaving, it could create issues for him, that if he didn’t land the jobs in Lancaster, he’d have to start looking for other employment fast or we’d face long separations, not to mention financial challenges, as we supported two households.

And yet, we felt, in the midst of our anxiety, as if we had to do this.

On our way to the Lancaster town house that first weekend in May, we stopped at Penn State to pick up our middle son who was finishing his sophomore year. We felt like the Joads traveling on from there, crammed into the cab of the truck, his college stuff now in the back with the furniture. It took two tries for us to cross the Susquehanna from this vantage point —  we kept missing the correct turn. Was that a sign?

The next day, a Saturday, sunshine drenched the area. My sister and her husband drove up, dropping off a kitchen table and my father’s old Buick, which would become my car. My sister also brought lunch for us, and it was a sweet and happy meal, knowing we were now so close to each other. It began to feel like home. Family was nearby.

I started work that Monday, the same day my husband had been called back for a second interview at the best prospect he’d applied for of the three.

Quick conclusion: He got the job, we sold our house in Vermont, we found a house to buy in Lancaster and moved in that October.

And then, over the years, we found a church we joined, we made friends, we held family gatherings with relatives near (mine) and far (my husband’s family from Connecticut and Ohio). We bid farewell to children moving on (oldest to Hong Kong and then to London, daughter to DC, middle son to various air force bases).

Other events occurred: the death of my father early in our time here, weddings, birth of grandchildren, health issues for both my husband and me. And that first job that lured me here? It turned out the arts organization wasn’t faring well, and after I left its employ a year and a half after landing in Lancaster, it closed its doors within a short time.

Ten years on, we still sit on our patio in the morning having coffee or in the evening with a drink, and we say or think how happy we are, how glad we never let the reasonable anxieties we faced as we made this move overcome us. Because each step of the way, we felt led here. Led by, at first, nothing more than a job for me that turned out to be unstable!511 amish ohio

The lessons we learned from this move:

Make plans, but be open to other plans: I’d planned to move to Baltimore eventually. Now it’s hard to imagine moving there after being so happy here.

Listen to the still, small voice: If we’d shared our plan to move based on my job offer alone, friends might have counseled us against it or told us we were crazy. But even in our darkest worry sessions, we looked at each other and said, we’ll just move back within a year if it doesn’t work out. We trusted that the push and pull toward Lancaster was something we needed to follow, regardless of the fact that risk was involved, that not every element was in place. That leads to…

You don’t always have to wait for every element of a plan to be in place to start moving forward: It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to ask my employer to delay my start date until my husband had done his second interview with his current employer. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to say to each other, we shouldn’t move until we both have jobs, or until the majority breadwinner in our household (my husband) secured employment first. But we didn’t do those reasonable things because we felt we had to work the plan that was falling into place, not the one we might have charted out (see the first point). We had to trust.

If you feel you are being led somewhere, follow: This is a tricky thing to discern, though, isn’t it? When are we being led…and when are we being willful? When you want something a great deal, it’s easy to justify taking unnecessary chances to get it. And we both certainly wanted to move — I maybe more so than my husband. Nonetheless, my ultimate dream destination was different from the one we were headed to. I could have said no at some point, let’s wait until we get something in Baltimore. Instead, we took the leap of faith that landed us here in beautiful Lancaster.

I’ve sung Lancaster’s praises before, but let me tell you a few things we love about this area. The weather is seasonal but not harsh. The growing season is long — our garden is a wonderland from late March through November. There is a vibrant arts community in the area with many opportunities to hear and see plays, symphonies, chamber music, artistic displays and more. The closeness to farmland means an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables. A variety of restaurants, from sports bars to fine dining, are available for date nights. The economy is brighter than in Vermont, and we also like living in a community with many churchgoers. We’ve become Penn State football fans, as well. The rail spur line means we can hop on a train to Philadelphia and hook up on to the Northeast corridor within an hour. And the Delaware coastline is a mere three hours away, a regular vacation spot now for ourselves and family.

Lancaster has given us peace. So often in life, it’s easy to become seduced by a “grass is always greener” mentality, a discontent that can drive you to positive goals sometimes and negative resentments others. I certainly thought that once we moved here, I’d begin the next phase of our journey by keeping an eye out for opportunities to move across the river to the land of my birth. But once we were here, once we started to become part of this community, those feelings of discontent lifted. The grass is greenest right here. We were — and are — home at last.

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New…endings

As I’ve noted before, I’m a fan of retellings of familiar tales. I also occasionally let my imagination roam after the words The End appear on the screen or on the page. I wrote a fan fiction piece, in fact, on what I envision happening after the series Mad Men finished spinning tales on air. It’s set on a sad day in September in New York City.

For many years, I’ve enjoyed imagining what a sequel to the movie The Best Years of Our Lives would look like. First, if you’ve not seen this Oscar-winning tale of three servicemen returning to their small town at the end of World War II and readjusting to civilian life, give it a try. It’s moving, bittersweet, and, ultimately, uplifting. The scene where Al Stephenson (Frederic March) surprises his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), in their postwar reunion is an understated yet breathtaking moment that leaves you suppressing tears.

bookbannerAt the end of the movie, though, I wonder what would have happened to those characters? Would Al conquer his drinking problem and find the contentment he’d lost going away to war? Would former airman Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Peggy Stephenson (Teresa Wright) find happiness after getting together following his divorce from gold digger Marie (Virginia Mayo)? And would former sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) and new wife Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) flourish on his disability payments after he’d lost his hands in the war?

I could think of all sorts of answers to those questions. I even thought of actually writing a story based on those answers.

But I’ll content myself for now by offering a narrative of what I think would happen in the future to the characters of this tale. I hope those familiar with the movie enjoy it.

Join in the fun and tell me what you imagine for characters from some of your favorite stories!

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES: THE SEQUEL

Thirty years later, in the 1970s, poor Al has given up drink, but the smoking is doing him in. He’s retiring due to a lung cancer diagnosis his wife, Milly, hides from him. Or thinks she hides from him. Al knows he’s not long for this world, and he’s decided his last days, months,  will be spent on a mission to reconcile with son, Rob. He and Rob broke when the young man joined in anti-Vietnam War protests, even landing in jail at one point. A campus radical in the 1960s, Rob did many things he now regrets. He stayed in touch with his mother, though, who knows he has a daughter out of wedlock with a hippie he hooked up with in California years ago, and he’s been trying to track down the whereabouts of his child.

Before leaving on this journey, though, Al and Milly have a dinner with daughter Peggy and son-in-law Fred at their beautiful rancher in a nearby suburb. Fred has done very well for himself and now owns  his own construction company. They’ve lived the American Dream except for the tragedy of losing a son in the Vietnam War, a loss that led Peggy to join her father in shunning her brother, Rob. Their two daughters are both away in college, and one wants to be a lawyer. Both Fred and Peggy are enormously proud of them. Fred is a member of the VFW and American Legion, and Peggy is active in social and community affairs. While Fred chats with Al, Milly takes Peggy aside and tells her that her father isn’t well, although she doesn’t divulge the full gravity of his situation. When she explains they are going to California to see Rob, however, Peggy guesses the truth — her father’s health condition is terminal. She doesn’t let on that she knows, but she sobs out her distress to Fred later, who suggests she might reconcile with Rob, too, as a gift to her father. She agrees to give her brother a call. Fred also suggests they try to plan a reunion with Al and Homer when Peggy’s parents return from their trip. Fred and Peggy had lost touch with Homer over the years when Homer and Wilma moved out of state after the death of Homer’s parents.

Wilma, in fact, is returning to Boone City from Chicago at that moment, but without Homer. The former sailor died of a heart attack in the past week, and she’s come back to tell his friends and to make arrangements to move permanently to her hometown. Sad and even a little bitter, Wilma resented Homer’s determination to move from Boone City. They’d been lured to Chicago by a navy buddy of Homer’s fifteen years ago. The buddy had promised Homer a partnership in a restaurant, but it turned out to be a front for a mob-related money-laundering operation. Homer was lucky not to land in jail–in fact, Wilma hides the secret guilt that she is glad he passed away before being ensnared in a federal probe of the operation that began right before his death. She was unhappy the entire time they lived in Chicago, not comfortable with the sprawling city, fearful for her children, especially during the 1968 riots, afraid to drive on the new highways springing up. Their children left as soon as they were able. Three daughters moved back to Boone City and married, two became teachers, one a part-time librarian, raising families of their own. Their son is a test pilot in Texas, a career Homer encouraged but one that upsets Wilma.

Back in Boone City, she stays with her oldest daughter, sees friends, and prepares herself to visit Al and Milly and Fred and Peggy to give them the bad news about Homer. She begins to regain her equilibrium, feels she can breathe again. Before seeing friends, her first stop, though, is back to the old tavern her husband loved to frequent. There, she learns the place is up for sale, and she breaks down at the news. If they’d stayed in Boone City, this is the place Homer would have loved to have owned, a legitimate business that would have made him — and her — proud. After a good cry, she makes her way to see Peggy. Fred’s at work, but Peggy is glad to welcome Wilma, asks her in…and learns the sad news of Homer’s passing. Wilma learns, meanwhile, that Al and Milly are away. They’ll be back in a couple weeks, Peggy tells Wilma, and she also lets her know of Fred’s plan to have a reunion. They plot together to make this happen at the tavern.

Meanwhile, Al and Milly’s reunion with their son is strained at first as they adjust to staying in his small apartment, all he can afford as a part-time reporter for an alternative newspaper.As the stay wears on, though, he peppers his father with questions about his life, his war experiences, and, when Al opens up, Rob decides he’ll use the material for a book about his father and his friends, their life, in particular, after returning from the war. In the midst of the visit, Rob gets great news–the private investigator he’d hired has found his daughter, Grace, in a foster home, her mother having passed away from a drug overdose a year ago. Rob and Milly and Al have a tearful get-together with Grace, a shy and beautiful child. When Milly confides in Rob that his father is “not well,” Rob gets the meaning just as Peggy did. He pledges to come to Boone City with Grace soon for a visit, telling his father “this isn’t goodbye.” He looks forward to seeing them all, including Peggy, who wrote to him recently. Milly is happy her children are reconciling..

When Al and Milly return to Boone City after their heart-wrenching visit, they join Fred, Peggy, their two daughters, home on spring break, Wilma, her three girls, and their various spouses and children, at the tavern for a bittersweet reunion. The reunion is elevated to happier levels when Rob walks in with Grace holding his hand. He tells his mother he couldn’t stay put knowing his father was so ill, that his ties to California are scant, and he’s committed to living in Boone City…at least until “Dad’s health crisis is over.” A tearful Milly knows he’s telling her he’ll be there until the end of Fred’s life.

When Wilma tells her girls how much she’d wished their father had known the tavern was up for sale, they talk to her about the possibility of her buying the tavern, but she says she’s too old for that sort of thing. They say they’re willing to invest in her, in her business. She’s the one who ran the household for years as Homer drifted further into memory and drink. She’s a good manager, and she’s committed to Boone City’s future. Al, too, is willing to write a check. When she demurs, he insists, saying he’ll be her partner. Milly overhears him telling Wilma he’ll make sure she inherits his share should he predecease her. Now Milly knows he knows his diagnosis. They share a sweet kiss and telling glances as the party continues around them. Fade to black.

AND MORE…

Two other stories I like to think of sequels for are…Oklahoma and The Graduate. Yes, I know, you could hardly get more different. Oklahoma intrigues me, though, when thinking of its characters, because the young couples in it would all face the Dust Bowl, right, if they stayed in the Sooner State? How would they have fared?

And The Graduate…well, you tell me what you think happened to Ben and Elaine after they ran out of that church….

 

 

 

 

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In communion with Jane’s first readers

This month, I’ve featured many posts about Charlotte Bronte and her most famous novel, Jane Eyre, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Bronte’s birth (April 21, 1816). You can find a round-up of those posts here.

Not only was Charlotte Bronte an inspiration to me as a woman writer. Jane Eyre inspired me to write an homage to this well-known tale, a book titled Sloane Hall.

Yesterday, I was thrilled to receive the news that Sloane Hall was one of only 14 Bronte/Eyre-related books featured at “Off the Shelf,” a sight where Simon & Schuster employees highlight favorite backlist books, regardless of publisher (Sloane Hall was first released by Five Star/Cengage, a publisher that produces quality hardcovers for the library trade). You can find the “Off the Shelf” post here — I’m excited to be in the company of such well-known, esteemed authors!

I’ve written before about Sloane Hall and its inspiration, but I wanted to explore a little more the reason I enjoy retellings of familiar stories.

As I said in my previous post about Sloane Hall, imaginative, well-done retellings of well-known stories achieve two goals: they let you see afresh the story you know so well; and, they bring you into communion, for brief moments, with the first audiences for those stories.

Think of the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s an imperfect re-imagining of the Odyssey, yes, but it makes the story come alive as you root for Ulysses McGill to find his way home, as you see how the Sirens’ song seduced his fellow travelers to linger, as you watch him overcome mishaps and bad deeds to find the hero within himself. Somewhere along the line, in the midst of this storytelling, it hits you: I’m experiencing this story with the same sense of wonder and excitement that its original readers might have felt! Even though I know the major plot points, I don’t know how it will unfold here in this new version, and I’m eager to find out…just as those first readers and listeners were probably eager to see what happened to Odysseus next.

51LJWn26G5LThat was the effect I was after with Sloane Hall. The plot points of Jane Eyre are so familiar now, even to those who’ve not read the book, thanks to its many film adaptations. And although I knew fans of the original might enjoy anticipating the high and low points of the familiar story even as they made their way through my reconstruction, I wanted to give them more than that. I wanted to give them that “communion” with readers of the original tale, that sense of coming upon climactic moments with an inner gasp shared in the 1800s, as if they hadn’t known what would take place, despite their knowledge of the story.

This was a challenge, and, as I’ve pointed out, I decided one of the best ways to help readers experience the story, as if they’d never read Jane Eyre, was to reverse the genders. The poor and obscure role in Sloane Hall is given to a young man, John, with a tortured past. The larger-than-life part of thundering Mr. Rochester is now played by a woman, not too much older than John, who towers over John in celebrity — she’s a silent film star about to make her first “talkie.” (As an aside, what fun it was to delve into this part of film history–I hope readers come away from the novel with a deeper understanding of that industry’s turmoil during a technological turning point.)

And the lunatic spouse in the attic of Jane Eyre? Not what you might expect, in Sloane Hall, but a secret that still should evoke the feelings of horror, shock, and even sympathy for both characters that the unveiling of Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, might have ignited in the original readers of Jane Eyre.

As I thought about that scene and secret, in fact, I first pondered those reader reactions. What must the first readers of Jane have felt upon the revelation that Rochester was married? Probably overwhelming sympathy for Jane and disgust at Rochester. But then when it was revealed he was shackled to a madwoman? Perhaps some of their sympathy might have turned to him, as well. I tried to use those emotions–of the readers–to construct my own revelation.

When Sloane Hall was released, I knew it wouldn’t be everyone’s cuppa. But I was thrilled when two Bronte-devoted outlets praised it, recognizing the new story it tells and completely comprehending the effects I was after as I told my own tale. Both the Bronte Blog and the Bronte Studies journal gave Sloane Hall glowing reviews. Here are some snippets, along with one from the site Fresh Fiction:

“Libby Sternberg’s intelligent and intriguing Jane Eyre reimagining has achieved two of the most difficult goals in a novel: being a page turner and paying a worthy tribute to Charlotte Brontë’s immortal story.” —The Bronte Blog (A link to the review is here.)

“An original story with complex character development…(Sternberg) knows how to tell a story and she does it well….a refreshing tale.” Carolyne Van Der Meer, Bronte Studies journal, September 2011

“Sternberg never loses sight of the story she’s re-telling, but this novel is definitely her own. Readers have things to figure out and look forward to. Her prose flows beautifully with vivid descriptions of people and places, bringing to life a Los Angeles of times gone by. Fans of historical fiction and Jane Eyre in particular will relish this novel, and readers who enjoy a love story should definitely pick this one up.”—Katherine Peterson, Fresh Fiction

Sloane Hall is now available in trade paperback and digitally. I hope fans of Jane Eyre will enjoy experiencing the communion with its original readers I wanted to accomplish, and new readers will become engrossed in this fresh story.

You can find the book at Amazon here.

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