“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
— Leonardo da Vinci
If you’ve visited this page any time in the past few months, you’ve probably wondered where we’ve been. And the answer is all over the place. Both of us are navigating that delicate balance between mothering many children and writing many books. It is a wonderful place to be and we are loving (almost) every minute. But as our kids have grown (someone told us this parenting thing got easier… someone lied) and our writing commitments have expanded, our She Reads venture has needed to find a new place within our busy lives.
You’ve seen us retire the book club and watched the posts here on the blog dwindle. And if you’ve joined us over on Facebook or Twitter, you’ve seen us slowly taper off there as well. BUT! Good news!! There is one place that we’re still going strong. And that’s Instagram. (See our feed on the right) Instagram is, for both of us, our social media happy place and, for that reason, we’ve decided that, going forward, we will devote the vast majority of our time and efforts in the book sharing world over there.
So, if you’ve been with us for a while and are not following us on Instagram, we humbly ask that you come and join us. (It’s a blast, we promise!) And if you’ve been hanging out there with us already, we are so thankful that you’ve chosen to do so. While things are changing, the one thing that is staying the same– the most important thing– is that we are still sharing the books we love with people who love books. That’s what got us into this adventure. And it will keep us going for a long time to come.
We admit… it’s been awhile. If you’re still hanging around, or if you’re looping back to hear what we have to say, let us start by saying thank you for being here. You’re the main reason we’re writing this post today. Let us explain:
We took some serious time this fall and into the holidays to do some She Reads soul searching. We’ve been doing this gig for lo these many years (ten to be exact) and… we were tired. Publishing multiple books, raising our respective children (many of whom are teenagers now– gulp!), taking on the role of event planners for the #Read event, and trying to keep up with She Reads left us overwhelmed.
In November we announced we were retiring our book club. And that brought a great deal of relief. But there was something we were missing still. We landed on what it was as we have landed on many things; accidentally and quite unexpectedly:
What if we got back to what we once were?
And so, we have decided to move forward with She Reads, by going back.
Back to those two moms who used to call each other to talk about a book we just read because we had to talk about it with someone.
Back to where we aren’t busy with the wrong things (numbers and promotion) and are focusing on the right ones (great stories).
Back to buying books with our own money that we want to read instead of getting buried under an avalanche of free books that have arrived at our house that we feel obliged to do something with.
Back to reading slowly, to savoring stories.
Back to simple and meaningful.
Back to connection, which is why we started the site in the first place– to connect with other readers out there who, like us, loved to read and wanted a place where they could talk about and share those great stories.
And so, that is what we are doing; that is our new direction for 2018. We are going back.
As we said, stay tuned– lots more to come! We are happy and at peace with this new direction and we hope that happiness and peace is evident as we go back, and forward. No matter which direction we’re going, we hope you’ll be with us.
There is something therapeutic–restful, even–about the changing of seasons. And we, at She Reads, are stepping into a major new season. After almost ten years, we will be retiring our book club next month. We’ve shared well over one hundred novels as official selections and we’ve read over ten times that many in the process. (No wonder we have reading fatigue!) This has been great fun and we’re not going anywhere, but we are ready to try something new (more on that in January). For now we are simply going to introduce you to one more amazing novel. And then we are going to rest through the holidays.
Shortly after She Reads was founded I (Ariel) met a writer named Joy Jordan-Lake who would, unbeknownst to me, become a dear friend. At the time I had just gotten the idea for The Wife The Maid And The Mistress and she was working on a novel called A Tangled Mercy. We stayed in contact and, believe it or not, we read each other’s early drafts and offered input. When Joy finished her novel I put her in contact with my agent who loved the book as much as I did. They began working together immediately and it sold shortly thereafter. A Tangled Mercy will be published on November 1st.
Here is what I can say about Joy: she is brave. I respect her immensely. And she is one of the most naturally gifted authors I’ve ever met. It is an honor to call her friend and it is an honor to have her novel, A Tangled Mercy, as our final book club selection. It has everything I love in a story: history, romance, suspense, beauty, impossible odds, bravery, tragedy, hope, and redemption. It is the kind of novel you remember.
We hope you will join us on this last adventure and we hope you love this story too.
Told in alternating tales at once haunting and redemptive, A Tangled Mercy is a quintessentially American epic rooted in heartbreaking true events examining the harrowing depths of human brutality and betrayal, and our enduring hope for freedom and forgiveness.
After the sudden death of her troubled mother, struggling Harvard grad student Kate Drayton walks out on her lecture—and her entire New England life. Haunted by unanswered questions and her own uncertain future, she flees to Charleston, South Carolina, the place where her parents met, convinced it holds the key to understanding her fractured family and saving her career in academia. Kate is determined to unearth groundbreaking information on a failed 1822 slave revolt—the subject of her mother’s own research.
Nearly two centuries earlier, Tom Russell, a gifted blacksmith and slave, grappled with a terrible choice: arm the uprising spearheaded by members of the fiercely independent African Methodist Episcopal Church or keep his own neck out of the noose and protect the woman he loves.
Kate’s attempts to discover what drove her mother’s dangerous obsession with Charleston’s tumultuous history are derailed by a horrific massacre in the very same landmark church. In the unimaginable aftermath, Kate discovers a family she never knew existed as the city unites with a powerful message of hope and forgiveness for the world.
There is nothing quite like seeing the cover of your book for the first time. It’s nothing at all like seeing your child for the first time because with a child you have some idea what you are going to get. There is no looking in the mirror or at your spouse and making an educated guess. With a book cover you are utterly clueless. Your words are turned into an image by a cover designer you have likely never met. It is their job to capture the essence of what you have written, to tell a visual story based on your actual story. The whole thing is a wonderful, baffling experience for me. Wonderful because the anticipation is delicious. Baffling because I could no sooner create a book cover than a stained glass window. The only art I’m capable of making is that which you find on the page. I am a one trick pony. I can’t even write poetry much less sing, dance, or paint.
That said, I am besotted with the cover for my new novel. It is perfect. And I think it perfectly captures the mystery found within its pages. Friends, I give you, officially, the cover for I WAS ANASTASIA:
And because today is a day for sharing, I decided to finally share a bit of what the novel is about, along with the first page of as well. (Keep reading for that) I’ve been a bit cloak and dagger about this project since first announcing it here two years ago. I think I needed time and space for this book to become real to me before I could officially introduce it to you. So you cannot imagine how pleased I am to finally be able to give you a taste of this book. It is the hardest novel I’ve ever written and I’m more proud of it than I can possibly explain.
________________________________________________________________________________I WAS ANASTASIA unravels the extraordinary twists and turns in Anna Anderson’s 50-year battle to be recognized as Anastasia Romanov. Is she the Russian Grand Duchess, a beloved daughter and revered icon, or is she an imposter, the thief of another woman’s legacy? Countless others have rendered their verdict. Now it is your turn. Russia, July 17, 1918: Under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik secret police force Anastasia Romanov, along with the entire imperial family, into a damp basement in Siberia where they face a merciless firing squad. None survive. At least that is what the executioners have always claimed.
Germany, February 17, 1920: A young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia Romanov is pulled shivering and senseless from a canal. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water, she is taken to the hospital where an examination reveals that her body is riddled with countless, horrific scars. When she finally does speak, this frightened, mysterious woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia.
Her detractors, convinced that the young woman is only after the immense Romanov fortune, insist on calling her by a different name: Anna Anderson.
As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre, old enemies and new threats are awakened. With a brilliantly crafted dual narrative structure, Lawhon wades into the most psychologically complex and emotionally compelling territory yet: the nature of identity itself.
The question of who Anna Anderson is and what actually happened to Anastasia Romanov creates a saga that spans fifty years and touches three continents. This thrilling story is every bit as moving and momentous as it is harrowing and twisted.
(Read below to see the first page of I WAS ANASTASIA)
If I tell you what happened that night in Ekaterinburg I will have to unwind my memory–all the twisted coils–and lay it in your palm. It will be the gift and the curse I bestow upon you. A confession for which you may never forgive me. Are you ready for that? Can you hold this truth in your hand and not crush it like the rest of them? Because I do not think you can. I do not think you are brave enough. But, like so many others through the years, you have asked:
Am I truly Anastasia Romanov? A beloved daughter. A revered icon. A Russian grand duchess.
Or am I an imposter? A fraud. A liar. The thief of another woman’s legacy.
That is for you to decide, of course. Countless others have rendered their verdict. Now it your turn. But if you want the truth, you must pay attention. Do not daydream or drift off. Do not speak or interrupt. You will have your answers. But first you must understand why the years have brought me to this point and why such loss has made the journey necessary. When I am finished, and only then, will you have the right to tell me who I am.
“A young Tsarina traveling towards tragedy and an aging Grand Duchess penniless and betrayed. Twin stories so gripping you will believe history itself can be rewritten. Told with masterful intensity and moments of true human compassion.” —Helen Simonson, New York Times bestselling author of The Summer Before the War “Ariel Lawhon is a masterful storyteller; I Was Anastasia is a wild ride, extravagant with its vivid sensory experiences and page turning suspense. Inspired by history, and infused with imagination and intrigue, this novel satisfies with every twist and turn. I was both captivated and enchanted; I will carry this story—from it’s beguiling opening to its catch-my-breath ending — in my heart and imagination for a long, long while.” —Patti Callahan Henry, New York Times bestselling author of Driftwood Summer and The Bookshop at Water’s End
“The fate of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of the last Tsar, is an old mystery that never gets old. In the hands of Ariel Lawhon, it springs to life again, challenging everything we believe about what we remember and who we are. Was Anna Anderson really the only survivor of the Romanovs or was she a persistent fraud? Somehow, Lawhon, a masterly writer, not only leads her readers to ponder this riddle, but to care about it as well. This is a deft and deeply moving saga.” —Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times bestselling author of The Deep End of the Ocean “I don’t know what’s most impressive about I Was Anastasia: the wildly inventive structure, the ferocious heroine (or is it two?), or the dark, twisted questions it raises about the stories we tell—both to others and to ourselves. Ariel Lawhon has written a gorgeous, haunting puzzle of a book that will grip you until the final page.”
—Karen Abbott, New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and Liar Temptress Soldier Spy
“In I Was Anastasia, Ariel Lawhon vividly reimagines the stories of Anastasia Romanov and Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be Anastasia years later. Beautifully written and masterfully plotted, Lawhon deftly interweaves these two women’s lives into a gripping and richly detailed historical novel with the pace of a thriller. I was absolutely captivated.” —Jillian Cantor, author of Margot and The Lost Letter
“A wildly unique look at the dual mysteries of Anastasia Romanov and her possible imposter Anna Anderson results in a brilliant reimagining of two fascinating lives. Complex, exciting, and beautifully written, Lawhon never disappoints. Her impeccable research and lush prose make I WAS ANASTASIA compulsively readable. A fantastic novel.”
—J.T. Ellison, New York Times bestselling author of LIE TO ME
“I Was Anastasia crackles with authenticity. Lawhon focuses a glittering, sharp-edged lens on the intertwined reality of Anna and Anastasia, bringing the reader closer to their story than any other writer or filmmaker has ever dared. Intimate and heartbreaking, brittle as Siberian ice, yet intricate as a snowflake. A mesmerizing triumph.”
—Laura Benedict, Edgar-nominated author of the Bliss House trilogy
Secrets lie at the heart of my new novel, Odd Child Out. Two families find their normal lives torn apart when a mysterious incident endangers their teenage sons, leaving Noah Sadler unable to talk about what happened and his friend Abdi Mahad refusing to. As Detective Jim Clemo investigates, Abdi’s decision to be tight-lipped about the traumatic events of that night seems to be only the first in a series of powerful secrets my characters are keeping. Clemo must dig deep to get to the truth, and lives may depend on it.
As I wrote the novel, I found it was an intricate task to construct a story in which layers of secrecy are peeled away one by one until the truth about my characters is revealed. It made my own pulse race at times! I also began to reflect on why secrets are so tantalizing for both thriller writers and readers.
I believe it is because we all keep them. We guard them fiercely and occasionally blurt them out when we shouldn’t. The secrets we keep can induce significant feelings in us: guilt, shame, pleasure, self-satisfaction, and those are just a few of the big ones. There are a whole host of emotions that hover around secrets like a persistent cloud of midges, and thriller writers can make very good use of them.
If we keep secrets ourselves, it follows that people close to us are probably keeping secrets, too. Sometimes, we know what their secrets are. We might be co-guardians of that secret, or perhaps we have kept it a secret that we know their secret. Knowing about a secret, our own or somebody else’s, gives us power. And what if our parents or grandparents, friends or partners are keeping secrets from us? A few white lies? Sure! They may have made our lives feel more comfortable or secure from time to time. But what if they are big lies? Ones which can rip the rug out from underneath us? Ones which would change everything? None of us want to contemplate that. We don’t want to because in families and relationships we have no choice but to place our trust in other people, and if one of those people is keeping a secret from you, isn’t that basically the same as lying? Even if it’s lying by omission? Or perhaps that person might claim they were being protective by not telling you something that could hurt you.
The scale of secrets is significant. Some are small: ‘I never liked the curtains you picked out for the living room.’ These we can probably live with even if we feel annoyed. They probably fall under the White Lie category. Other secrets could make you re-evaluate your entire life. Consider these: ‘You have a sibling I never told you about because I had to give them up for adoption.’ ‘I am not your natural parent.’ ‘I am in love with somebody else.’
Then there are secrets which don’t just damage lives, but risk them. That could be because of what you know: ‘I know who murdered Colonel Mustard and I know where and how!’ Or it could be because you might use your knowledge of a secret in a way somebody else might not want you to. Blackmail, anybody? Knowledge is power, after all. How do you trust somebody to keep a secret, anyway? Particularly if more than one person knows about it? As Benjamin Franklin said: “Three may keep a secret. If two of them are dead.”
In a thriller such as Odd Child Out, as in life, secrets carry the potential to create anything from nuanced ripples to a full emotional tsunami. There’s more than one way to look at a secret and that can cause conflict between characters. Tension over whether an important secret may or may not be revealed can carry a thriller plot a long way. Secrets possess the power to influence human behaviour causing tension, plot twists, dramatic changes of direction, red herrings and more. Is it any wonder they are an essential item in the thriller writer’s toolkit?
One of the questions we asked at our #Read event recently was, “Why this book?” And what we meant by that was, of all the ideas you’ve had and all the directions your writing could go, why did you choose to write this particular book at this particular time? It’s a valid question, and one I think all writers should be able to answer about the book they’re working on. Because I think that, of course I make sure I can answer it myself.
I have teenagers. And as the parent of teenagers I understand the duality of this role. On one side you’re their parent, and you want to shield them from life with every fiber of your being. On the other, you remember being a teenager, and therefore you understand where they’re coming from. You remember the emotions, the exhilaration, the anticipation of that stage of life. And so you spend much of your parenting caught between these two realities– of shielding and letting go. You say things you wish you didn’t and you feel things you never knew possible and somehow you navigate it all. And when you fail– because you will– you learn to say I’m sorry. I have three mothers of teens– Marglyn, Darcy, and Leah’s mom– in this novel, and they’re all just winging it. I thought that was an important message to share. I wanted to show the struggle within this role, and the ultimate satisfaction that comes from just hanging in there and doing the best you can.
I wanted to write about women who feel marginalized, victimized, and are trying to figure out how to move on. They are strong, but they have forgotten it. Both on the larger stage and in my own personal life, I see this far too often. And I wanted to write about fighting to get back on top of your life no matter how knocked down you are. I wanted to depict women who, yes, bad things happen to. But who don’t stay there. I wanted to show them figuring things out, standing up for themselves. The epigraph at the beginning of the novel is “I am not what has happened to me. I am who I choose to become.” (Carl Jung) That pretty much sums it up. I want to inspire women to live that way.
Every writer has a theme they circle back to again and again. For me that theme is secrets– and how damaging they can be. If you ever spend any time with me you find out that I’m sometimes brutally honest. I’m not sure that’s the best way to be but it’s my approach simply because I hate secrets so much. They are toxic, and their poison leeches into everything. As a writer, I like to depict that through stories. And in this story there are plenty of secrets! Not only do I like to talk about how damaging secrets can be, I also know that discovering just what those secrets are will have readers turning pages. Which is what every writer wants when they sit down at the computer each day.
So that’s a brief look at why I was compelled to tell this story at this time. I hope you will read it. I hope you will find it satisfying. And I hope it will inspire you.
I’ve known Marybeth Whalen for nine years. We met at a publishing conference in 2008 and became fast friends. Inseparable really. She speaks my particular kind of crazy and I’m more grateful for that than I can express. Like me, she’s a dreamer and I will never forget the day she called me with the idea for She Reads. Nor will I forget her asking me to come along for the ride. We have been running this website together ever since. And in that time I have watched her become a first-rate novelist. So I am honored, as her closest friend and biggest fan, to announce that her latest novel, WHEN WE WERE WORTHY, is our September Book Club Selection! It is no exaggeration when I say that this is the best thing Marybeth has ever written.
I love this novel and I believe you will too. Rave reviews for WHEN WE WERE WORTHY have been pouring in for months.
A win brought them together, but loss may tear them apart.
When the sound of sirens cuts through a cool fall night, the small town of Worthy, Georgia, hurtles from triumph to tragedy. Just hours before, they’d watched the Wildcats score a winning touchdown. Now, they’re faced with the deaths of three cheerleaders—their promising lives cut short in a fatal crash. And the boy in the other car—the only one to survive—is believed to be at fault. As rumors begin to fly and accusations spin, allegiances form and long-kept secrets emerge.
At the center of the whirlwind are four women, each grappling with loss, regret, shame, and lies: Marglyn, a grieving mother; Darcy, whose son had been behind the wheel; Ava, a substitute teacher with a scandalous secret; and Leah, a cheerleader who should have been in the car with her friends, but wasn’t. If the truth comes out, will it bring redemption—or will it be their downfall?
A few really fun things you need to know about this novel:
Joshilyn Jackson narrated the audiobook. (If you’ve never listened to Joshilyn on audio, now is the perfect time! She’s a powerhouse and she brings this story to life in the most vivid way. Also, that Georgia accent is A+)
It will make you laugh out loud–the kind of laughing that makes people turn and look at you in public. They’ll end up laughing too because you’ll sound like you’re having so much fun. So basically what I’m saying is that you will bring joy to the world simply by reading (or listening to) this novel.
It will make you ugly cry–the kind of crying that makes you wipe your nose on your sleeve and ask people to “give you a moment.” But in a good way. You’ll have to trust me on this.
It will make you believe that there is hope and forgiveness and redemption in this world. It will make you remember the good things and the good people in your life.
It’s the sort of book you will thrust at your own best friend and ask them to read.
There’s a running joke in my family about “the skinny blanket.” When my older sister was in her mid-twenties and feeling ambitious about her domestic pursuits, she taught herself how to crochet—but instead of starting on a small project, she decided to go all-out and make a massive blanket. The first row was twelve feet long. Unsurprisingly, she got through maybe twenty rows before she gave up. The finished blanket was twelve feet by two and a half feet—hardly a blanket at all! But rather than admit defeat and throw it out, she used it as her guest blanket. Whenever I’d stay the night with her, she’d give it to me to sleep with. It barely covered me from arm to arm so I would have to stay really still in order for it to do any good. To this day, everyone in my family gets a good laugh out of it.
In my new novel, Wish You Were Here, I used the idea of the skinny blanket to explore my central character Charlotte’s deeper inability to follow through on her ever-evolving desires, both professionally and romantically—something I think a lot of women can relate to. It was really important to me to show this phase of a young woman’s growth. Charlotte is like so many of us in our twenties: she’s flawed, fickle and immature. She loves well and she’s a good friend, daughter, and sister, but she’s having a hard time finding her way in the world as she experiences many ups and downs for the first time. Finding love is even more challenging for her, mirroring her career woes, but Charlotte’s romantic journey ultimately leads her to a place of self-realization that allows her to have breakthroughs elsewhere.
This theme comes out of my reflections on my own life choices. In my teens and twenties, I changed career paths about as often as I changed my underwear. My sister often jokes, “Remember when you wanted to be a horse jockey?” That wasn’t a little kid fantasy; I was probably twenty-five when I read and watched Seabiscuit a few too many times. I had dreams of becoming a famous horse jockey, but I barely knew how to ride a horse.
Becoming a wife and mother brought things into sharper focus over time, and that allowed me to figure out what I really wanted to do. And when I wrote my first novel, something clicked into place for me. As I sat down and typed the first twenty thousand words, I knew I could do it forever and that I loved it. I had no idea if anyone would ever read my books, or if they’d even be published, but I didn’t care: I had found myself. Things don’t click for Charlotte quite as easily—novels have to be more exciting than real life!—but I assure you, it does happen for her. And I think readers will find that journey really satisfying.
You know when you’re looking at someone and you can’t help but smile at how oblivious they are to their own charm? That’s what was happening to me, and it was making me feel…happy. Euphoric. Something indescribable. It was like we already knew each other, like we had met in a previous life. Memories that didn’t exist began exploding in my mind like fireworks.
Charlotte has spent her twenties adrift, searching for a spark to jump-start her life and give her a sense of purpose. She’s had as many jobs as she’s had bad relationships, and now she’s feeling especially lost in her less-than-glamorous gig at a pie-and-fry joint in Los Angeles, where the uniforms are bad and the tips are even worse.
Then she collides—literally—with Adam, an intriguing, handsome, and mysterious painter. Their serendipitous meeting on the street turns into a whirlwind one-night stand that has Charlotte feeling enchanted by Adam’s spontaneity and joy for life. There’s promise in both his words and actions, but in the harsh light of morning, Adam’s tune changes, leaving Charlotte to wonder if her notorious bad luck with men is really just her own bad judgment.
Months later, a new relationship with Seth, a charming baseball player, is turning into something more meaningful, but Charlotte’s still having trouble moving past her one enthralling night with Adam. Why? When she searches for answers, she finds the situation with Adam is far more complicated than she ever imagined. Faced with the decision to write a new story with Seth or finish the one started with Adam, Charlotte embarks on a life-altering journey, one that takes her across the world and back again, bringing a lifetime’s worth of pain, joy, and wisdom.
Reading fatigue. It’s a real thing. But it’s a thing we don’t talk about often. Because we’re book lovers, right? Reading is our happy place. There’s nothing we’d rather do than curl up with a warm drink and a good book. We love to read. Until we don’t.
Here are a few books that are currently sitting on my nightstand:
The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Extraordinary Adventures by Daniel Wallace
I paid cash money for each of these books. I am really looking forward to reading them. But every night I crawl in bed, look at my nightstand, shudder, and turn off the light.
The truth is, my reader is broken.
I just…can’t. I’m trying. And I can’t. And that’s okay. Reading fatigue happens for any number of reasons. For me it manifests either in avoiding books altogether or abandoning them within a page or two. So I just have to pat that pretty cover and say, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
I’ll get back to them. Eventually.
I am convinced that reading fatigue is linked to mental and physical fatigue. For me, self care is key. I’ve been in this particular dry spell for a number of months. It coincided with me finishing my new book. My brain was exhausted. My body was exhausted. I was spent.
This isn’t the first time this has happened so I recognized the symptoms. Over the years I’ve learned a few things that help recharge my batteries. And I asked Marybeth what works for her. So, if you find yourself in this situation, here are some ideas that might help (and if they don’t, that’s okay–this too shall pass):
1. Go back and read an old favorite.
2. Take a nap instead.
3. Watch some booktubers or scroll through bookstagram posts (other people’s excitement can sometimes spark yours)
4. Take a walk and listen to a podcast.
5. Find a shorter novel or book of short stories to read. (Instant gratification)
6. Read a childhood favorite to your kids.
7. Listen to an audiobook.
8. Sit on the deck with a glass of wine.
9. Switch up genres to something you don’t normally read. Or read nonfiction.
10. Go on a blind date with a book (let a friend or bookseller pick your next read).
11. Read what you want to read instead of what you *should* be reading.
12. Go to bed early and get eight or more hours of sleep.
13. Give yourself permission not to read at all for a few days (or weeks) and wait for the feeling to pass.
14. Flip through all your cookbooks and drool over the pretty pictures.
What about you? Do you have any tips on how to recover from reading fatigue?
Please welcome Lisa Duffy to the blog today. She’s the author of The Salt House, our August Book Club Selection. We asked her to share about her inspiration for writing The Salt House, and, as always, the answer fascinated us.
I’m often asked at readings to talk about the inspiration behind my debut novel. Specifically, the spark that ignited The Salt House, a story told in alternating perspectives that traces the lives of a young family in the aftermath of tragedy. Truthfully, the novel began with a writing assignment in a creative writing class…ten years before the novel’s publication.
I think a lot of writers know they want to be writers early on in life, but attempting to make a living at it is a bit like admitting you want to walk on the moon. When I decided to take my writing seriously, I was a thirty-four-year old recently divorced mother of three young children with an unfinished degree. So, with my youngest in preschool, I did the only thing that made sense at the time—I went back to school for writing.
One of my first assignments was to write about setting. Now—all writers have strengths and weaknesses. For me, setting is not one of them. It can take me days to describe something as simple as a room in a way that feels authentic and intriguing.
I completed the assignment, handed it in and when it was returned to me, the professor had scrawled on the back page: Not the assignment, but evocative. Keep writing. You have something here.
The professor was generous, because not the assignment was a polite way of saying the assignment had, well, nothing to do with setting. Instead, it was a scene about a mother in bed with her infant. It’s a snow day, school is canceled, and she can hear her two older children making breakfast and watching TV. As she holds her baby, the mother thinks about her older kids. They had grown so fast that now she can’t even remember the last time either one of them let her hold them, really hug them.
There was a sense of loss in the piece. Nothing specific. But it was the spark—this idea of loss and motherhood and the passing of time.
Over the next ten years, I would pick up and put down the novel many times. It took shape early on with the first four chapters in changing perspectives. I knew then it was going to be a story about a tragedy told through the lens of each family member—how one singular event impacts an entire family.
While I was writing it, my father died, and it was a “truth is stranger than fiction” experience in that it was so interesting to see those closest to me navigate their own grief. In many ways, his death inspired me to dig deeper into the intersections of tragedy and family, heartbreak and hope.
But the first spark that ignited the novel will always live in my memory as an exercise in setting that was not the assignment, but the one I kept writing.