I’m having a nice little Gaithersburg Book Festival run lately, hosting Caroline Leavitt in January, Eleanor Brown in February, and now Sarah Pekkanen in March. (I can’t wait to meet all three of them at the festival!) Sarah’s new novel, Skipping a Beat, won a starred review in Library Journal and has earned praise from Emily Giffin and Kirkus, which called it a “two-hanky weepy.” And her move from journalism to writing novels is a lovely story. Enjoy it! – Meg
For a person who has absolutely no interest in politics, it might seem odd that I began my career as a newspaper reporter, covering Capitol Hill. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life – all that yelling and posturing and fighting was deeply traumatic for a peace-making middle child like myself – but the longer I stayed, the more entrenched I became. The only job offers I received were from other political media outlets, and suddenly, five years later, I was still writing about politics. But what I dreamed of doing – yearned to do, really – was tell the stories of ordinary people who were suddenly thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The idea that any of us could be spun around by a sudden event was fascinating to me.
So quietly, on the side, I began to write the kind of feature article I wanted to pen. It was the story of a congressman from Virginia, whose young daughter had been diagnosed with cancer, and his family’s incredible, unorthodox, and ultimately successful effort to save her. I spent hours and hours interviewing the congressman’s wife and the little girl’s doctors, and even more time writing their story.
The article was published by The Washingtonian magazine, and it led me to a dream job at The Baltimore Sun newspaper. The paper wanted me to write more articles like it, and hearing that was like listening to the angels break into song. For the next eighteen months, I hopscotched the country, reporting on painful but important stories. I wrote about an aimless boy who turned into a hero during the Columbine school shootings, and a female police officer grappling with the aftermath of a car crash – one that she survived, but that claimed the life of her fellow officer and dear friend. I spent a night in a house that was built atop a graveyard – something the owners discovered after eerie things began happening in the household (it wasn’t the basis for the movie “Poltergeist,” but it could have been).
Then I had a baby boy – a sensitive little guy who refused to take a bottle and cried whenever he left my arms – and suddenly, commuting every day from D.C. to Baltimore and running to catch a plane with almost no notice lost their appeal. I felt completely torn. I wanted to do both, but I wanted to be home with son more. Less than two years later, I had another baby boy, and by then, I barely had time to read the paper, let alone write articles for it. My husband was working long hours at a new job, and we’d recently moved into a house that needed a lot of renovation. Life was pure chaos.
Saying I missed writing doesn’t do the emotion justice. I ached for it. I felt like my best friend had suddenly disappeared, without leaving me a forwarding address. Even though my life had been enriched beyond measure with the birth of my boys, a piece of it had also been torn away, leaving a jagged hole. I packed up my old reporter’s notebooks and tucked them away in a box in my attic, where I couldn’t see them.
Then one day, something – a long-ago memory – surfaced in my mind. I saw myself as a child, writing Nancy Drew-style books and short stories on three-ring binder paper and mailing them off to publishers in New York. I was so confident back then; so certain I’d see my books on the shelves at stores. In some of my correspondence with publishers, I was down right impatient (something, by the way, that publishers find endearing in a ten-year-old but not so much in an adult).
So one night when the kids were asleep, I brought a glass of wine to the computer for courage and began to type. A few months later, I had a hundred pages, and I was beginning to think I really might be able to do this. I had a shot at putting together an actual book! Then one evening, my family went to visit my husband’s parents for dinner. We came home a few hours later, opened our front door, and stood there in shock as thick smoke pored out. Firefighters managed to save our house, but many of our belongings, including our computer, were destroyed.
My family was safe, and even our beloved pound mutt had been out with us, so I couldn’t lament the loss of something as relatively unimportant as my manuscript. But I was too discouraged to start over. We had to move into a hotel room for a couple of months while our house was repaired and to top it off, my husband contracted pneumonia. Who had time to write? I was scrubbing out sippy cups in the bathtub and racing to the drugstore for medicine and submitting piles of paperwork to our insurance agency. I laughed about it so I wouldn’t cry: Could the fire mean God was an editor, and was telling me what he thought of my book?
A few years later, when my kids began elementary school, I finally had time to unpack the final few boxes of our belongings that had been in storage since the fire. And I discovered a back-up copy of my half-written novel.
It wasn’t bad, I realized. It also wasn’t good enough to get published, but it caught the attention of a literary agent who told me to write something else. So I did (yes, I’m making it sound simple, and no, it wasn’t all that easy!) Nine months later, I sent her ”The Opposite of Me and she submitted it to editors. Within a week later, the book had sold not just in the U.S. but also in Italy and Holland.
A year later, I’d produced a third baby boy as well as a new manuscript (and you’d better believe I carried a back-up of it on a zip drive attached to my key chain every time I left the house). Atria bought that novel, too – it’s titled Skipping a Beat. It’s the story of a woman whose husband changes into a completely different man after a sudden medical trauma – and she has three weeks to decide whether to stay with him, or start over alone.
I’ve noticed something about my novels: I’m drawn to telling the stories of women who get chances to step into entirely new lives. And I think I know why the theme resonates with me: I’ve been given that chance, too.
Being published is wonderful, but it’s not the part of my journey that reshaped my life. The real shift began with that glass of chardonnay and the blank screen of my computer, on a night when I took a deep breath and began to move my fingers across the keyboard. It was when I found a way to become a writer again. – Sarah