Although it’s been eagerly anticipated as a debut, the epic novel Roses isn’t the first outing for author Leila Meacham. In the mid-1980s, Meacham wrote and published a handful of romance novels. But it wasn’t a process she enjoyed much. At the time, she was teaching English, and the solitary process of writing took her away from preparing lesson plans, learning about new techniques and enjoying hobbies like gardening.
“I guess the difference is the years. I had other things I wanted to do,” Meacham says from her San Antonio home during a recent telephone interview. “I just didn’t want to spend the time cooped up.”
But after retiring, Meacham ran through her list of retirement goals. She and her husband traveled. Thirteen years into retirement, at age 65, she was left with a question: Now what?
The answer was Roses.
“One day I was in bed, drinking my cup of coffee, and I just thought to myself, ‘I’ve got so much to offer somebody somewhere or something. I just don’t know what to do with the rest of my life,’” Meacham recalls. “I will defend this to my dying day: A voice in my head said, ‘You will get down Roses and you will finish Roses.’ I like to believe that’s a divine inspiration.”
Meacham had begun the novel in 1985, when a bad case of pneumonia forced her to temporarily resign from teaching. As years passed, the typewritten pages of the novel were stored in a box in a closet, almost abandoned as Meacham and her husband moved from one house to another. “My husband said, ‘Oh, go ahead and take it. You’ll regret it if you don’t.’ ” Six years ago, his suspicions proved accurate as Meacham pulled the box off the shelf and resumed writing.
The novel traces nearly 70 years in the history of the Toliver family, owners of a cotton plantation in a fictional Texas town. When patriarch Vernon Toliver dies, he entrusts the land to his daughter, Mary, because he knows she will love and care for it. His wife and son are outraged.
That decision and the stubborn love that motivated it determine the course of Mary Toliver’s life. She’s unwilling to compromise anything that would negatively affect her beloved Somerset plantation, whether it means sacrificing her fair complexion to work in the field or the man she loves because he won’t settle for second place in her heart. The decisions Mary makes, and the lies that accompany them, alter the history of the Toliver clan and its relationships with the town’s other founding families, the department store-owning DuMonts and timber magnates the Warwicks.
Through a series of flashbacks—first Mary Toliver’s, then Percy Warwick’s and finally Mary’s great-niece Rachel’s—Meacham reveals just how much Mary lost by dedicating her life to the land, and why she has sold the land in her determination to save Rachel from the same fate.
It’s only appropriate that this 600-page epic took Meacham five years to write. The narrative sprawls across geography as much as time, stretching from the fictional Texas burg of Howbutker to Lubbock, Dallas and points between. (“The two together—cotton and timber—you don’t find that in the same state” anywhere but Texas, Meacham says.)
The five years Meacham devoted to the story were filled with as many interruptions as the book has plot twists. “But I persevered because I felt like I promised God I would complete this book,” she says. “Just as sure as I’m talking to you, I was assured from the get-go, you write the book and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Now the 71-year-old Meacham is not only anticipating book signings to support the book, she’s also hard at work on another epic novel, this time with a more modern focus. So what happened to the woman who so disliked the solitary nature of writing?
“I didn’t like the confinement, the frustration of trying to get your thoughts on paper,” Meacham recalls. “Oddly enough, I’m happiest when I’m writing now. And I’m all by myself and anything in the world can come out on the page.”
“What this has done for me has made me aware that I can write. Now, I don’t know if you’ll agree with me. But I feel that I can write. I can tell a story.”
Carla Jean Whitley reads, writes and lives near three generations of her family in Birmingham, Alabama.