On Following Up a Bestseller
As I’ve been traveling on book tours, both in this country and abroad, one of the questions that almost always comes up goes something like this: How did you move forward to write The Lake of Dreams after the amazing response to your first novel? Wasn’t the pressure unbearable?
To answer that, I have to go back to the day I finished editing The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and sent it off. The writing had taken three years, the editing much of another year. I knew the book was finished; every chapter, every character, every description had been passionately written and thoughtfully considered by my editor. I didn't want to change a word. Still, that moment, when the book is officially beyond my control, is always hard for me, as an author. By that time I’ve spent years with these characters in an imagined world. They’ve become a part of my daily life. I always feel bereft for a few weeks after a book is done. Someone once compared the feeling to sending a child off to college, and I think that's fair. Yet with books, this is also the first step in letting go, in letting the novel make its way out in the world and into the hearts and minds of readers.
I’ve always written; it’s as much a part of my life as breathing, and for years I wrote even when it made no rational sense to do so. When I worked full time, I came home at night and wrote. When my children were young, I got up well before dawn to have those quiet hours. So that’s what I did, in the quiet after finishing my first novel: I wrote. I’d had the general idea for The Lake of Dreams at the edge of my consciousness for several years, and in those early days of exploration, I wrote widely and freely. I set myself a goal of 1,000 words a day, but I didn’t put any other restrictions on the work. I knew I wanted to write about Lucy Jarrett and her need to resolve her grief and sense of guilt over her father’s mysterious death in a boating accident a decade earlier. As I wrote, I found Lucy’s voice, which is always the crucial discovery, and I started to understand her, and her story in a deeper way. Thus, by the time The Memory Keeper’s Daughter was published in hardcover, I had already let it go. I had already moved on, and I was deeply into another novel, another compelling world, another set of characters, intrigued by Lucy Jarrett and the mysteries of glass and water.
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter had a rather quiet debut in hardcover. It was a Barnes and Noble Discover pick, and the reviews were quite good, but the excitement of the publication died down after a few weeks. I kept on writing. All through the next year, I walked further and further into The Lake of Dreams. I researched glass making, and tried my hand at glass-blowing to help understand one of my characters. I did a great deal of reading about the early 1900s, especially the women’s suffrage movement, which started in the Finger Lakes area where The Lake of Dreams takes place. I studied Halley’s comet. Gradually, the novel began to take shape. Many of the early pages were discarded as I learned what was essential to this story.
Sixty or eighty pages into The Lake of Dreams, I felt the urge to start writing a story from the past, the story of a woman from the suffrage movement, which at first seemed completely unrelated to the story of Lucy and her father. I kept resisting this early story, thinking I really needed to stay focused on Lucy, but it persisted. Finally, I decided that I would write it down just to be done with it, so I could get back to work. As I wrote, however, it became clear that the story from the past was intimately connected to Lucy’s story. One couldn’t exist without the other. This kind of surprise is one of the great pleasures of writing.
Around this time, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter was published in paperback and became a best seller. It was an amazing time, and my life was thrown into a wonderful state of chaos for the next two years or so, and I wrote only sporadically. Once things finally began to calm down, I found myself back home, with the silence, and The Lake of Dreams waiting.
This was a great gift, as it turned out. I think it would have been very hard to start a book from scratch at that point. Even so, it wasn’t easy to make the transition back to disciplined writing. I had to turn off the Internet, because it was too easy to get distracted. Then I had to take all the games off the hard drive: ditto. But here were the pages I’d already written for The Lake of Dreams. Here was Lucy’s story, and here was the mysterious woman from the past. Slowly, gradually, I picked up where I’d left off. I walked back into this imagined world and discovered what happened next, how the pieces I was uncovering would ultimately weave together, and how what Lucy discovered, about the past and about herself, would change her life, and the life of her family, forever.
Editor's Note: Please join us in discussing The Lake of Dreams in BlogHer Book Club!