I loved Keeping the House, by this weeks guest author, Ellen Baker, who won the 2008 Great Lakes Book Award for it. Now her I Gave My Heart to Know This is out. Richard Ford calls it “large in the best sense; large in its generous spirit, and its gallery of vivid, memorable characters” with “an abundance of intelligence” and “naturalness and finesse that are truly rare.” You’ll get a glimpse of all that in her post below. – Meg
Writing my second novel, I Gave My Heart to Know This, was a completely different experience than writing my first. I wrote Keeping the House for myself, just to see if I could. I’d already written three novels, two of which I’d submitted here and there, and it had become clear to me that they just weren’t good enough. I was determined to do better. Finally, after three years and six rewrites, I started sending out agent queries in the fall of 2005. It was Memorial Day 2006 (I was making potato salad) when one called to say she’d represent me. Even then, she warned me, publication was a long shot – but soon, to my astonishment, she’d secured for me a two book contract.
Things sped up. I took my first-ever trip to New York City and was dazzled by the lighting of the Rockefeller Center tree and the warm reception from the good people at Random House. Edits were done on Keeping the House, and copy-edits. But what about this second book? What would the story be? My agent hadn’t liked my first idea; my editor was unimpressed by my second.
Finally, six months after I’d signed the contract, we agreed: I’d write about women working at a shipyard during World War II. I got started on a draft, but, in the busy months prior to Keeping the House’s release, I found it hard to concentrate. The I’m-going-to-prove-I-can-do-it impulse that had earlier spurred me was gone, and I wasn’t sure of my “voice,” now that I was writing something that I knew others would read. Who was it who’d written Keeping the House, again? And why wouldn’t she just show up, now that I really needed her?
Months passed. I became superstitious. Bought a new couch to sit on while I wrote: if only I could be comfortable, I thought. I refused to check my email between the hours of eight and noon. Focused, first, on productivity, I wrote pages and pages and pages – most of which I threw out.
There would be, finally, more than 800 discarded pages – and thirteen rewrites that my patient, discerning editors knew about. I lost count of how many more I kept to myself. But I kept on, writing and rewriting and rewriting, finding my way to the story. It was a long story, at first; over time, I came to feel like my original 165,000 word manuscript was a piece of stone that I was sculpting into form.
Far from seeming inevitable, the book’s completion, many days, felt like something I’d never see. Instead, I could imagine the certificate: Cause of death: revising. “Hmm!” a nurse told me once, when I was in the throes of rewrite number eight or so. “Your blood pressure gets much lower than this, you’ll be dead!” It made sense to me. All my blood had gone into my novel.
But there was nothing to do but keep on. “The only way out is through,” I kept telling myself.
Now the finished book weighs in at a svelte 102,000 words. The first time I saw an advance copy, all I could think was, “So small!”
Startling to me, because, even as I was working my will on it, this book wrought a powerful force on me. It forced me into corners I had to fight my way out of; it held a mirror up to the worst parts of my nature and laughed; it kicked me while I was down. But, finally, writing it lifted me out of despair, taught me how to love, and taught me how to forgive. And it taught me how to be a better writer.
There’s no question that seeing a finished book on the shelf is wonderful, but the greatest reward is knowing you came through the fire and emerged stronger and better for it. So now I’m starting a new novel, again. I can imagine no other work more satisfying. – Ellen