Today's guest post comes from writer Shelly King, whose first novel, The Moment of Everything, goes on sale next week. It's set in a used bookstore, where former Silicone Valley employee Maggie has found part-time work after the failure of the tech startup she was working for. When Maggie finds a lovers' conversation written in the margins of a used copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover, she embarks on a quest to discover who they were—and what happened to their romance.
In a guest post, King—who moved to California from the South and once worked for a Silicon Valley startup herself—explains the mystery of found objects and shares some of her favorite found objects in literature.
I was 15 the first time I found a letter in a used book. I was in Montana visiting family and had wandered into a used bookstore. There I found Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I hadn’t read Hemingway yet, but I knew he was an important writer and that he’d spent a lot of time in Africa. I opened the front flap and saw it was covered in writing. It was the letter from a father to a young boy.
The details are fuzzy, but I remember the father was traveling in Africa. I thought it was nice that he was sending his son a book about another man who had been to Africa. He missed his son. He signed the letter “Papa.” I fell in love with this letter. But I didn’t buy the book. I didn’t have much money, so I left it behind. But that letter stayed with me. I thought of it for days, wishing that I’d bought that book, not for the letters of Hemingway, but for that letter written in the book. I finally told my mother about it, and she took me back to the bookstore. But the book was gone.
About 15 years after I first found that letter from the father in Africa, I was in Seattle at another used bookstore where I saw a copy of Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I smiled thinking of that other copy I found years ago in Montana. I opened up the front flap, and there it was—the handwritten letter from a father traveling in Africa to his son. Only this time I was more familiar with Hemingway, whom I now knew was also known as Papa. And this time, I noticed the letter was dated decades before this book was published. When I looked closer, I realized the letter wasn’t written in the book. It was a reproduction of a Hemingway letter that decorated the inside flap.
Even though the letter was not what I thought it was, I’m grateful for my misunderstanding. It started a lifelong search for treasures of the past in old books. Over the years, I’ve found drawings, letters, postcards, ticket stubs, restaurant receipts, photographs, recipes, and inscriptions. The people who owned these books before left a bit of their lives in them. I love not just the story the author intended but also the story of the book itself.
My favorite novels (and one play!) that have someone discovering something in a book:
The fast-paced world of romance publishing is always offering up great new authors to discover. As part of our #FirstFictionMonth coverage, we're spotlighting three new voices who are each debuting in their own way this year.
Jennifer Ryan will be making her print debut with At Wolf Ranch (on sale February 24, 2015), the first in her thrilling romantic suspense series, Montana Men. The novel focuses on Ella Wolf as she flees to her family’s ranch, certain that the man who murdered her sister is now after her. Luckily for Ella, a ruggedly handsome cowboy is bent on protecting her from the killer.
Despite finding eBook success with her best-selling The Hunted and The McBrides series, Ryan is excited to finally have a novel in bookstores, admitting during our discussion at RWA that she's “really more of a print person.” And her path to print publication is the stuff of writers' dreams. While attending a panel discussion during a previous RWA convention, Avon editor Lucia Macro mentioned that she would love to see more romantic suspense novels. Taking the cue, Ryan sent Macro her manuscript, and a short three weeks later, Avon bought her series. It's no surprise, really; Ryan is adept at writing those gripping scenes that leave you flipping pages till the end.
Ryan’s romance-writing career took off with a bit of a happy shock: the discovery that she was pregnant with third child. “I was reading all the time—I read 10 books a week while my kids were growing up!” she says of her time as a stay-at-home mom with her first two children. But when they grew older, she decided it was time to go back to work as a computer programmer. That plan quickly changed when she discovered that she was pregnant again with her daughter. With another baby on the way, she decided that writing romance novels from home just made sense.
So what inspired her to base her series on the cowboys of Big Sky country? “When I was younger, I had a friend in California with a small ranch and horses. I would spend my weekends riding horses with her, and I just thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world," she explains. "I grew up daydreaming about cowboys, because who wouldn’t? I remember thinking, there’s got to be a cowboy our there for me—And I ended up marrying a military man!" Ryan lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children, and can usually be found immersed in a world of books.
We chatted with debut author Lillian Marek over email about her first novel, the Victorian romance Lady Elinor’s Wicked Adventures (on sale November 4). This novel answers the call for romance in exotic locales, since its heroine Lady Elinor and a distractingly handsome family friend find love while exploring Italy and the ruins of the ancient Etruscan civilization. Marek writes with humor, historical knowledge and just enough spice to keep things interesting.
Writing historical romance was an easy choice for Marek. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else—you could call it a compulsion. For a number of years, I got my writing fix, so to speak, as a journalist, but it’s much more fun writing fiction,” she says. Her focus on romance was inspired by a friend’s suggestion to pick up Loretta Chase’s romance novel Mr. Impossible. “I absolutely adored it,” she says. “I started devouring romance novels, especially historical ones, and had a glorious time. Then I thought it would be fun to write them, so I did.” As simple as that!
Getting published was a bit more complex than her decision to write, but after winning a few romance-writing contests, Marek felt confident enough to pitch her book to Sourcebooks. Not only did Sourcebooks buy Lady Elinor’s Wicked Adventures, they bought the rest of the proposed series as well. "I was, as you can imagine, ecstatic," she says. Marek lives near Long Island Sound with her husband, where she enjoys taking long walks along the coast. We're excited to see where the next intrepid installment in Marek's Victorian Adventurers series takes us!
Rhonda Helms is venturing into the world of New Adult print with her love- and music-inspired novel, Scratch (on sale September 30). Scratch is a departure from her usual romantic young adult novels, which are “frothy and fun,” she says during our conversation at the hotel Starbucks. New Adult is an up-and-coming genre, marketed towards young women in their early 20s—a grown-up YA reader, if you will. New Adult focuses on characters finding themselves and struggling with choices and consequences, from first jobs to first loves, as they explore life after high school. “It’s got that young adult voice [first person], but with more adult situations. I like the fact that you can write these characters that are a little bit older, and there’s lots of high emotion,” Helms explains. Helms has a knack for writing convincing dialogue between her young characters, perhaps inspired by conversations with her 18-year-old daughter!
In Scratch, college senior Casey attempts to keep memories of an unpleasant past at bay by losing herself in her gigs as a DJ. She tends to keep others at a distance, but when a fellow student takes an interest in her, she wonders if letting him in might be worth the risk. Helms knew music would be a big part of the book, and explains, "Music is really important to me. I was a DJ too for a while—It was awesome!" Scratch even includes a track list which “reflects stuff that would be on Casey’s personal playlist or music that she would play in the club,” Helms says. Here's a sample track from the list.
Along with her interest in music, Helms has always loved romance novels. “I started reading romance when I was a kid,” Helms says. “I would hide in my mom’s bathroom and read her Harlequins!” Growing up with those Harlequins, she knew she wanted to write. However, she says, “The first book I wrote, I had no idea what I was doing. I just sort of vomited out five chapters, and then didn’t know what to do next. . . It took me a year, but after that first book, I learned my process. But that first book was rough!” Seven books later, it looks like she’s gotten the hang of it.
Helms lives in Cleveland with her family, where you may find her enjoying time with her pets, reading or perhaps sampling her favorite cheeses. “A good aged Gouda is divine, and Asiago cheese is exquisite,” she says. Romance with a side of cheese: what more could you want?
Exhilarated by her newfound passion for archeology, Catherine Lemay is left feeling deflated when she's assigned to a dig in the sprawling sagebrush of 1950s Montana. Here, she must ascertain if there is anything significant worth saving in the deep pit of a canyon before plans for a major dam can progress. If she finds nothing of importance, the canyon, considered sacred to the local Crow Native Americans, will be drowned. Accustomed to thrilling, richly rewarding digs in England, Catherine is less than enthused by the endless, seemingly empty landscape before her.
A sliver of gray stone pierced the rubber tread like a spike. She stood there and watched the tire empty and for the first time since the day she watched the English coast recede behind her, felt as though she might break down and cry. She fought the tears until the wave passed.
Jessie Burton pairs lavish descriptions of life in 17th-century Amsterdam with a clever touch of intrigue in her debut historical novel, The Miniaturist.
Eighteen-year-old Petronella "Nella" Oortman is the shy new bride of an enigmatic and wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt, but too often she finds herself alone in her new, unfriendly household.
Johannes tries to comfort Nella with the gift of a tiny cabinet house, which is an exact replica of their own. But when Nella employs a miniaturist to furnish it, his cryptic clues lead her to uncover long-hidden secrets about the Brandt family.
Get the in-depth scoop from Burton herself in the video below:
The Miniaturist is out today! Will you be picking up a copy?
Magic and reality combine in award-winning short-story writer Josh Weil's first novel, The Great Glass Sea. Set in an alternate present-day Russia where a city is kept under the titular glass greenhouse in a world of perpetual daylight in order to maximize crop production, it follows twin brothers Yarik and Dima. Once inseparable, the brothers are now on opposite sides of a controversy: Yarik is working to support the government that placed the citizens of Petroplavilsk under the sea, while Dima dreams of a return to their childhood farm and the freedom of a day where the sun rises and sets. When circumstances force the brothers even further apart, they must decide just how much family means.
Click here to read our full review.
Exiles and emigrés haunt the pages of Vanessa Manko's evocative debut novel, which spans decades and continents. The story begins in 1913 Connecticut, where Russian emigré Austin has come to escape the pogroms and turmoil of his native land. After several years of hard work, he can afford to leave his cheap men's lodging house for a real boarding house, where he finds not only a room that only belongs to him, but an American woman he loves. But when the Bolshevik Revolution really takes hold in Russia, Austin finds himself under suspicion and expelled from his new home along with Julia, whom he marries at Ellis Island just before they are sent to Russia. Will he ever find his way back to the country he longs to call home?
The newspapers were calling it the Soviet Ark. The New York Times, January 1920, ran photos. A massive ship, anchored at Ellis Island on a bitter day. They stood on the peir amid the wind and ice. The sky opaque, flurries like chipped ice. The only sounds the murmur of men's conversations, seagulls crying, the moan of the boat on the day's hard air. The anchor cranking like a scream; the massive chain lifted out of the ocean, iron red with rust, calcified with sea salt, seaweed. Just moments before, he'd sat on the long benches of the waiting room, the very room he'd sat in only years prior eager to get beyond the bottled-glass windows whose light he knew was day in America—a country behind glass, the new country's light. . . . Somewhere, a man named Hoover had his name on an index card: Voronkov. Affirmed anarchist. Bail set at $10,000. Deported.
What are you reading this week?
The myth of the rugged outlaw and the Wild West gets turned on its head in Courtney Collins' inventive debut, The Untold. It is based on the real-life story of Australian female outlaw Jessie Hickman, but making a woman the hero of a Western isn't the only risk Collins takes here: She also chooses to make the narrator of her story a dead baby, born to and killed by Jessie in a desperate act to preserve her own survival.
Collins says she's always been drawn to "alternative histories—histories told by aboriginals, by migrants, by women. . . . Maybe it’s because I went to Catholic school, and my education about these types of people was extremely moderate.” Those willing to veer onto the path not typically taken will thrill to this lyrical debut.
Use your past favorites to discover your favorite new voice! Here are some notable first novels paired with their 2014 read-alikes. Agree? Disagree? Duke it out with me in the comments.
Susanna Clarke's twist on the conventions of the magician's tale captured reader imaginations nearly 10 years ago. Lauren Owen brings the same energy and creativity to the tired trope of the undead in The Quick, which is set in the Victorian era. When Charlotte's brother, James, goes missing in London, she leaves their isolated Yorkshire estate to discover what's happend to him—and uncovers a fate that just might be worse than death.
No, it's not just the word "box" that these books have in common—it's the creeping sense of horror and the difficulty you'll have falling asleep after reading them. The bogeyman in Malerman's debut goes nameless and undescribed, since to see it is to go mad. But its very vagueness increases the menace.
Like Jonathan Safran Foer's acclaimed debut, Boris Fishmann's first novel follows a young man who is grappling with his Jewish heritage in an unusual way. But instead of traveling through Eastern Europe, Slava Gelman is helping his grandparents' friends apply for restitution from the German government—whether or not they were directly affected by the Holocaust.
Fans of Sue Monk Kidd's Secret Life of Bees and Beth Hoffman's Saving CeeCee Honeycutt shouldn't miss the first novel from McNeal, a touching coming-of-age story set in Civil Rights Era New Orleans. Dollbaby is the story of Ibby Bell, a young girl who is abandoned by her flighty mother on the doorstep of the grandmother she's never met in the wake of her father's tragic death. As Ibby adjusts to life in the South—and to the habits of her eccentric grandmother, Fannie—she must navigate some troubling family secrets.
Like the works of Sarah Addison Allen and early Alice Hoffman, Creech's debut is centered on women who have more than a touch of magic in their lives. The Lenore women have long been able to make a living off their unique perfumes, which contain a secret ingredient from a magical flower cultivated by their ancestor. But when the flower suddenly begins to sicken and die, a prodigal Lenore sister may be key to bringing them back to life.
Ben Fountain took on the military and the media in his award-winning debut; German-born author Clark takes a similarly satirical and darkly humorous look at the food industry in Sweetness #9, the story of the inventor of an artificial sweetener and his slow realization that the consequences of his invention might be more serious than he could have imagined.
Fans of the friendly, uplifting and heartwarming will enjoy the first work of fiction from Woodroof, a longtime NPR contributor. It stars a long suffering college professor who falls in love and finds out he has a son all in the same eventful summer. Eccentric hero Tom's crooked path to love and family will charm fans of Graeme Simsion's quirky first novel.
Nancy Horan was one of the early adopters of the "telling stories of lost women in history" genre. In her remarkable first novel, Kimberly Elkins brings not one but two historical women to life in her debut novel, which tells the story of Laura Bridgman, the first woman to learn the language of the deaf/blind/mute that was later taught to Helen Keller.
Just as Hannah Kent brought to life the vanished world of 1820s Iceland, so Jessie Burton reveals the intricacies of 17th-century Amsterdam in her first novel, The Miniaturist. When country girl Nelle marries a rich merchant, she is at first in awe of his opulent household—and his icy sister, Marin. But as Nelle gains a foothold in her new family, she realizes they are hiding some dangerous secrets.
Boston writer and visual artist Annie Weatherwax's perceptive debut, All We Had (Scribner) is the story of an unusual mother-daughter duo attempting to find a place to belong. At just 13 years old, Ruthie convinces her mother, Rita, to leave her no-good boyfriend and start a new life. The pair hits the road, cruising through small-town America—a vista of diners, local businesses and memorable characters that Weatherwax describes with flair.
In a guest blog post, Weatherwax explores the appeal of the road novel, explaining what the pressure-cooker of car travel brings out in her characters.
At the beginning of my debut novel, All We Had, my protagonist, Ruthie, and her mother, Rita, spend a lot of time in their used Ford Escort. The car is central to their lives. It’s the only thing they own, and when they have no other choice, it doubles as their home.
The car is a built-in pressure cooker. With nothing to distract them their highs and lows become heightened and intensify.
At first they feel invincible. Speeding along the freeway, with the windows down and the music blaring, they are full of almost exalted hope as they escape their California and head east towards Boston to what they are certain is the promise land.
But car rides can become endlessly boring and boredom can quickly lead to irritability. “[A]ll the things my mother usually did—tapping the steering wheel with her thumbs when she liked a song, biting her bottom lip when she wasn’t smoking—suddenly annoyed me,” Ruthie says.
If you leave characters in a car long enough there is bound to be drama. When emotions escalate there is no way to avoid them. Characters are restricted in their seats. When arguments are over they must sit with their feelings and negotiate the psychic space between them and, in a speeding car, there is a limit to the actions they can take.
At one point after a particularly bad fight, Ruthie rummages through the glove compartment and when she finds gum shoves the whole pack into her mouth. One piece after another, she crumples up the empty wrappers, throws them on the floor then abruptly hawks the entire wad of gum out. Her mother retaliates by blatantly ignoring her.
The lack of distraction in the confines of a car lends itself to the exploration of daydreams. Could there be a better vehicle (pardon the pun) for a writer?
The vantage point from inside a car is unique. The whoosh and rhythm of sounds has a particular quality. The skyline looks different and the fragmented glimpses from rearview and side mirrors can be astonishingly beautiful. In fiction a car can do many things. Most obviously it can reveal status and move characters from point A to point B.
For this writer, it’s the confinement of a car that exhilarates me. Limitation takes away choice but it also relieves the paralysis of choice. Creativity is often fostered by such constraints. Restrictions and obstacles can spark connections between things that are not necessarily obvious. The true nature of a human being can reveal itself when characters make decisions under pressure and a car can provide that pressure.
A car ride implies that the desired time and place resides at some point in the future. But the destination is often not what’s important; it’s what happens on the journey that can truly move a story forward.
For more on Annie Weatherwax and All We Had, visit her website.
Author photo by Lou Goodman
The power of TaraShea Nesbit's first novel, The Wives of Los Alamos, builds slowly and catches the reader by surprise. Told in a chorus of women's voices, the book provides a powerful portrait of life in Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the years of the fateful Manhattan Project. Clothed in secrecy, the project's aim was unknown to even many of the men who worked on it—and their long-suffering wives, torn from homes across the country and brought to this desolate area, knew even less.
As Nesbit writes,
“What did we think our husbands were doing in the lab? We suspected, because the military was involved, that they were building a communication device, a rocket, or a new weapon. We ruled out submarines because we were in the desert—but we closely considered types of code breaking.”
A time capsule in book form, this masterful debut recreates a lost world. Check out our full review here.