Monday, April 14, 2014

A Novel About the Novel

Good Monday morning. 

This is a rerun of sorts. It's something I wrote and shared a long time ago, and then when I signed a contract for Dear Miss Moreau I pulled everything book-related from the blog, including this. 

What follows are answers to book-related questions that have come my way. If you're curious about anything that's not covered, feel free to ask. I warn you there are spoilers ahead if you've not read the book, and if you've not read it this likely won't be of much interest to you anyway. She's on sale today on Amazon if you're ready to jump in. Seriously, stop reading now if you've not read the book and have plans to read it or think you might possibly ever read it. Some things will be ruined for you. 

Two things prompted me to share this (again) now. First, the kids are home today because it's a holiday, and so I am taking the holiday and thinking and writing very little. Second, a young lady who read the book awhile back asked me some interesting questions regarding the fact that Dr. Foster is, you know, legally a married man in the book. It's something I thought a whole lot about when I was writing the book. 

One editor who read the book and loved it suggested I rewrite the book and have Dr. Foster merely dating Shannon (his wife), but I did't want to do that. To me the whole emotional arc of the novel would change for both Edie and Dr. Foster were he merely dating someone at the novel's open. He is in a dark place when he meets Edie primarily because his wife is cheating on him. Similarly, Edie's whole approach to Dr. Foster hinges on the fact that he's married, and this continues to be the case for the most part even after she knows of his wife's affair.

Edie doesn't always make the best decisions,  and I didn't write this as a blueprint for how young ladies should handle themselves in graduate school, but I do think she makes realistic, human decisions. Characters who never make a decision you question or never make a decision that angers you are, to quote Hemingway, caricatures.

The book is, among other things, a book in which I attempt to deal with the emotional messiness of marriage, adultery, divorce, and the unexpected possibility of beginning again. 

A note on names:

I've been asked about names. How did I decide on character names, is there any significance to their names, etc. I'll begin with Edie. Edith was on the original list of names I composed when I learned I was pregnant with Reagan. I adore the nickname Edie. Trey nixed Edith/Edie quickly, and I accepted that (somewhat graciously . . . there was a little pouting). 

I knew my protagonist needed an adult-sounding name; her name could not suggest images of a teenager blowing bubble gum. When Trey and I were deciding on names for our kids, I told him I didn't want to give them a name that would be a liability were they to ever run for the Senate. Nothing too cutesy. I felt the same way about Edie. I know from my years of teaching and scanning many rosters that names matter.

I knew before I began writing that Edie and her unnamed, beautiful literature professor would be exchanging letters (more on the letters momentarily), and that he would initially refer to her by her surname, so I wanted something that begins with M for a nice, alliterative effect: Miss M___________.  I also wanted a surname that is suggestive of her Louisiana roots, so I did some googling, and ultimately I decided on Moreau. Her middle name, which I think is only referenced once in the novel, is Elizabeth. Again, nicely alliterative (Edith Elizabeth). Elizabeth is Reagan's middle name and was given to her in memory of my late cousin.

So what about my beloved Dr. Foster? Dr. Foster's first name, as many of you know, is my maiden name. Were Trey not a III I'd have made a strong push to name Henry (who is Donald Henry, IV) James. So as is the case with Edie, Dr. Foster's first name was on an original list of names for my own children. James is also a Senate-worthy name and works for an English professor. His first name, along with Edie's friend Jess's first name (whose given name is Jesse, if you recall) is a tribute to my late grandfather, Jesse James, who loved to read and write, correct people's grammar, and drink coffee.

I mulled over Dr. Foster's last name since I knew his surname would be prominent in the novel. I wanted something befitting a suit-wearing, coffee-drinking literary guy. I needed something that rolls off the tongue easily. I decided I needed something that ends with the same -or sound as Doctor, so I played around with names ending with -er and -or until I settled on Foster. I ultimately settled on Foster both because I like the way it sounds with Dr. and because he represents home to Edie while she's in Boulder away from her parents and her childhood home.

I wanted Dr. Foster's wife to have an androgynous name specifically because of the discussion of the two Catherines that occurs in chapter six ("Miss Barkley"). I can't remember others I considered, and when I first typed Shannon it just seemed to work for me, so I went with it.

Emily and Charlotte (Edie's friend and sister) are just names I like and of course are also the Bronte sisters. Charlotte was also on my long list of potential names for my children.  

Dr. Susan Windham is intended to serve as sort of a fairy godmother figure to Edie and Dr. Foster, sprinkling fairy dust on their budding relationship, so I wanted her name to sound a bit whimsical.  For the other professors named, Conrad Lizenby and Duncan Crawford, I just played around until I settled on names I thought sounded quirky and professor-ish.

Edie's mother's name is Louise, my late grandmother's middle name and also just a name I like. Edie's father's first name is never revealed in the book, though if I am ever able to sit and write a sequel, Mr. Moreau will have more of a presence since we'll be headed back to Louisiana, to the Moreau household, for a little while. Oh to hear his reaction to Dr. James Foster showing up on his doorstep.

I think that covers the main players.

How long did it take you to write the book?

In total, a little over a year.  I began writing it in 2011 when Reagan was nearly six months old. I'd started blogging a few months earlier, and I desperately wanted to write. There were many days it wasn't possible to even think about the book. During October, November, and December of 2011 I don't think I looked at the document once. In addition to the holidays, during those months we were attempting to sell our house (and my sister got married in December) so there was not much time to spend in Boulder.

In January of 2012, we moved into our current house. Once settled, I began to write again. I did take a break for much of the month of March that year in order to read The Hunger Games trilogy, obsess over said trilogy, and basically question why I should ever write anything at all when there are people out there like Suzanne Collins writing and creating epic characters like Katniss and Peeta. Once I emerged from my Hunger Games stupor I wrote quite furiously and finished the book that summer. I knew Trey and I would soon begin discussions re: the making of Henry and that if I wanted to finish the book, it needed to happen before I got pregnant and was tired and nauseous all the time (and certainly before I had two kids).

Elements of nonfiction?

More than one person has commented that clearly Edie is a little bit like me. Or a lot. Obviously her obsessions mirror mine. The coffee. Hemingway. Edward. Expensive shoes (I am kind of a shoe snob . . . often my clothes are from Target while my shoes are a pair of Clarks that cost more than everything else I am wearing combined). Oh and yes, I am kind of anal about grammar. However, Edie does go running at one point in the novel, and she does get drunk and sing karaoke, all activities outside my repertoire. What can I say? People write what they know (see: Hemingway).

Edie, in my mind, has better hair than I do. She's also much braver than I am. Even if I hadn't been crushing on Trey I don't think I'd have ever considered leaving Louisiana and my family to live and attend school in a city far away no matter how much I wanted to earn my M.A. in English literature from a prestigious university that potentially employed dreamy professors.

Edie's academic ambitions mirror those of my sister more than mine. My sister does hold her M.A. in English (my M.A. is in Communication, which is a long story, but basically I was burned out on literature for a good while after college and I was obsessed with politics, so I opted for a masters that allowed me to take a bunch of media communications classes in which I had tons of fun arguing with my liberal professors). After earning her masters, my sister moved to Denver to begin a new job, a job she continued to do while she earned her law degree from the University of Colorado in Denver. She studied for and took and passed the Texas Bar while very pregnant with her daughter. She is a force. I am kind of lazy.

There are a few instances of nonfiction that significantly color the novel. I have a friend whose first marriage ended in divorce. Without divulging details (and before my blood pressure rises) I will simply say that the failure of her first marriage was in no way her fault. I realize there are two people in a marriage, and of course I am biased because she's my friend, but trust me on this one. Trust me.

I began writing the book in May of 2011, and a few months later, when I was about 40,000 words in, an interesting situation arose regarding my divorced friend. A third party wanted to set her up with a guy who was in the middle of a divorce. Much like my friend's failed first marriage, the dissolution of this gentleman's first marriage was in no way his fault. Long story short, despite having what I would term a scriptural reason to move on with his life, including remarrying should he choose to do so, he refused to take my friend on a date until his divorce was final, which delayed their first date for several months.

I was both irritated and impressed by his decision to delay dating (you know because it was completely my business). Little did he know, I was in the middle of writing a book featuring a dashing English professor who was himself in the middle of divorce proceedings. I thought a lot about his decision. I thought about when exactly a marriage ends if one spouse is unfaithful. Does the God who says that lusting after a woman is committing adultery with her in your heart care about the legal status of a marriage when half of a married couple is routinely joining themselves with someone else? The answer is, I don't know, but I sure did a lot of thinking about it while I wrote. If you're curious, my friend is now happily married to the gentleman who refused to date her until his divorce was final.  Their marriage is an answer to countless tearful prayers. 

I learned a lot while watching my dear friend navigate her unfortunate circumstances. I learned how much I love her, how strong she is, and how fiercely she loves and trusts the Lord. I learned that it is always best to refrain from making assumptions about a situation when you don't know the details.  On a few occasions I had to quell my desire to publicly lecture someone who made veiled insinuations that my friend had no business dating, revealing their lack of knowledge about the reality of the circumstances surrounding the end of her first marriage.

I mentioned above that before I began writing the book I knew Edie and Dr. Foster would be exchanging letters. That's about the only thing I was certain of when I began writing. When I was eighteen, Trey and I began dating. During the week we were six hours apart at our respective colleges, and so we began exploring our communication options. We did talk on the phone some, but soon the lectures about phone bills commenced. This was in 1999, so texting and emailing and various other technological means of communicating were foreign to us. Thus, we wrote each other. It seems crazy now, given technological advancements, but we regularly put pen to paper, foraged for envelopes and stamps, and mailed actual letters to each other, and for those letters I am so thankful. 

In some ways technology has ruined romance. If you want to get to know someone and see how their mind works and learn what they love and what bothers them that they may not adequately be able to express orally, exchange letters with them, preferably handwritten. I easily fall for men who can do wonderfully beautiful things with words (see: Trey, Ernest Hemingway, Antonin Scalia). Most of what Trey writes now involves romantic things like appellate briefs and motions for summary judgment, but he is a fantastic writer, if you didn't know.

I vividly remember walking to my campus mailbox my freshman year of college and the thrill I experienced every time I opened and read a letter from Trey, Those memories, along with a general desire to pen discussions of literature, were the seeds that grew and began demanding so much of my attention that I finally sat down and started typing. I didn't have an outline, and I didn't know where I was headed, only that coffee, Hemingway, and a ridiculously gorgeous American literature professor who could mightily wield a pen would feature prominently in the novel.  How can you go wrong with that list?


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