The first time I attempted to write a novel I was seventeen, a freshman in college, and like many writers that age, I had unrealistic career goals. I would have a best-seller by age twenty-five, make millions, and crank out a novel every year or two until I died or ran out of ideas, whichever came first. The novels, with the exception of the one I planned to write on my great-grandfather, painter Carl Ahrens, would all be contemporary women’s fiction.
I should have known better on all counts. My mother is a writer as well, and I grew up watching her write novel after novel, query unsuccessfully, and secure an agent only to have the agent go out of business. My genre choice certainly does sell and I’ve read hundreds of novels within it, but very few have stayed with me long after I finish the last page.
It amazes me that I did not recognize my true calling earlier. I took every available class for 18th and 19th century literature in college, yet shied away from anything more contemporary. My electives were all history classes; I graduated one class short of a minor in the subject. I took up genealogy while still in my teens. In graduate school my favorite class was not literature (my major), or creative writing (my passion), but the one on how to conduct research. One particular assignment involved reading and transcribing original correspondence between two obscure American authors. Each student received ten letters to work on, but I was the only one in the class who read all of them. For fun. Those of you who read my post In Praise of Packrats already know that few things excite me more than finding those windows into the past.
As I write The Oak Lovers, the novel originally planned as an “exception” to my chosen genre, I’ve discovered other voices from the past who speak to me far more clearly than any of my contemporary characters. The same holds true for characters in novels written by other authors. Here are a few that have stayed with me.
I originally read this book because a friend of mine mentioned that my writing reminded him of Urquhart’s. Having read all her novels, he recommended I first read The Underpainter because the protagonist was a fictional painter who would have been a contemporary of Carl’s. I had never heard of Jane Urquhart before, most Americans probably haven’t, but within a couple of pages I was in awe, both of her and the fact that someone had compared me to her. No other author could make me love such a despicable character as Austin Fraser. I never stopped hoping he would find a way to let people in, to find happiness. This remains the only book I’ve ever thrown across the room.
My mother discovered this book at Barnes and Noble, took one look at the haunting cover and snatched it up as a birthday present for me. Leafing through it later, she discovered it was set in
Thanks to Julie, I knew about this book before its release and bought it the first day it came out. It was not the
As I read I wondered what may have happened had Madonna met Carl at seven instead of seventeen. Would they have still been drawn together, albeit differently? I sense they would have. Alice I Have Been inspired me to revise large chunks of four early chapters in The Oak Lovers, and completely rewrite the reunion scene between Carl and Madonna. If seven year old
I wonder how many other writers unconsciously gravitate toward books or characters that will inspire their own writing. I’d love to hear from anyone with similar stories to share.