In search of a town
My new novel needs a town. Well, that’s not quite accurate. It has a town, on a growing map of looseleaf pages taped together. I add to the map as the story develops because I have to remember who lives where and which corner the butcher shop is on. My husband always laughs at me when he comes into my study and sees this paper patchwork spread out on the floor. So, the novel has a town—a fictional one. But that town is in a very real geographical location: along the east bank of the Hudson River, not too far from New York City. So a couple of weeks ago I got in the car with a friend and drove to Westchester County to collect some historic details.
The village of Hastings-on-Hudson has a terrific little walking history tour, with placards displaying historic photographs and quirky local stories, like the fact that the fire station is built of bricks salvaged from the sugar refinery, which burned down in the 1870s. The Hastings Historical Society has its own extensive library in the 1860s cottage-observatory of astronomer Henry Draper. The telescopes are gone, but the remains of the domes still give the building an intriguing character. Draper is known for being one of the first to use photography in his astronomical studies, and he produced some of the first clear pictures of the moon.
After Hastings, we wandered up Route 9 through the villages of Dobbs Ferry and Irvington. All three towns slope precipitously down toward the river, and the Old Croton Aqueduct, now a walking trail, cuts through them. Each has a historic downtown full of architectural gems. We noticed in particular the many stucco buildings—a surprise to these New Englanders—which are credited to Italian immigrants of the late 19th century who were attempting to recreate the structures of their homeland.
If you have a summer day to spend and you live not far away, a trip to these villages and their environs—including the homes of Washington Irving and the Rockefellers—is well worth a trip. I hope soon you’ll be able to travel to their fictional counterpart as well, the town of Yarmouth-on-Hudson, circa 1929-1946, in my next book.
Above: Main Street, Irvington. Note the stucco buildings on a downward slope toward the Hudson River.
My short story "Intuition," available exclusively on Kindle Singles, tells the story of Hattie Paige, an overeducated young woman teaching chemistry at an elite school for girls in 1889. Hattie determines to solve the problem of spoiled milk that kills thousands of babies each year in New York City. But book knowledge alone won’t ensure her success. She will have to enter a new world far from the sheltered mansions of her youth, where testing her hunches requires risks she has never taken before.
September 27, 2014
Presentation, 3 p.m.
West Haven Public Library
West Haven, CT
I do book club visits, in person and via Skype. For more information, send me an e-mail: KLCzepiel at att.net
This way to the back door
At readings and events, I often meet people who are aspiring writers themselves. They have lots of questions about what they "should" be doing, so I thought I would share the story of my journey to publication and all the things I didn't do that I "should have." This essay originally appeared as a guest post in bestselling author Meg Waite Clayton's 1st Books
Many writers have done things the way they were supposed to. Somehow, they knew in college that they should find a mentor. Because they had a mentor, they knew to apply to MFA programs. Because they earned the MFA, they then had other mentors, who introduced them to agents and wrote beautiful blurbs for their first books and bought them champagne. I wrote fiendishly as a child and had my first publication in Cricket
magazine at the age of ten. I took a couple of creative writing workshops in college. But I never got the memo about How to Become a Writer (though I did read Lorrie Moore’s story
of the same name). Instead, as often seems to be the case in my life, while all the people who are appropriately dressed are drinking cocktails in the ballroom, I’m sneaking in the back door, hoping no one will notice how I got in.
Aside from doing the MFA, I could have taken one other “supposed to” route: move to Manhattan (if you’re younger than me, substitute Brooklyn), slave away at an entry-level job at a publishing house, write in an unheated railroad flat, and subsist on ramen noodles until being discovered by The New Yorker
. But I didn’t do that either. In fact, I was forty-six years old when A Violet Season
came out. Instead of spending my twenties writing, I took an uncharted, random course. I followed a guy to Buffalo, ran back home, worked as a reporter, earned an MA in literature, took a job in public relations, married a different guy (the right one), and embarked on a road trip to Colorado that lasted six years. In those six years, I turned thirty, taught public high school, bought a house, and had two kids. All that time, I hardly wrote at all. To be honest, I wasn’t ready to say anything. It wasn’t until we had relocated back east and my kids were out of diapers and I was settled into the part-time teaching job I have now held for an astonishing ten years that I began to write again. Little by little, my short stories were published, first in a very small online magazine when no one was reading online. Then in a very small print journal, then one with a slightly larger circulation, and so on, until I’d had enough encouragement to decide it was time to write a novel.
One can work on a short story for a very long time without feeling it’s “finished,” but short stories have at least one thing going for them: they generally run somewhere between ten and twenty-five pages. When you are working on a story, it’s all there in front of you, in one whole piece. A novel is not like that. A novel is a big, floppy thing with sleeves and trouser cuffs and socks hanging out of the suitcase of itself, and even when you sit on it you cannot tuck it all in. It cannot be written in fits and starts. It cannot be abandoned for several days or weeks and returned to, not easily. The point at which I decided to write a novel was the point at which I had to confront yet another thing I was “supposed to” do: write every day.
I am here to tell you—at this point, you will not be surprised—that I did not write every day. Not nearly. What I did was write every day for the whole summer of 2006. I wrote the first draft of my novel from beginning to end (all the while trying not to cringe at how terrible it was, just to keep going). It was my own personal NaNoWriSum. Then my teaching year began, and I filed and backed up my first draft and returned to making a living. I kept writing, every Saturday morning, but mostly short stories.
In the summer of 2007, I wrote my second draft. In the summer of 2008, I wrote my third, which was supposed to be my last, but I realized I needed one more draft. Summer of 2009. Then I spent a year pitching my manuscript to agents. I had no personal referrals (was I supposed to?). In November of 2010, an agent called to say she wanted to represent me and my book. She sold it quickly to Simon & Schuster, and then we were in production for eighteen months. Twenty-four years after graduating from college with my BA in English literature, I finally saw my first book in print. I don’t regret having taken that journey. It was the way I had to do it.
Maybe you are still young enough to be called a “young writer.” Maybe you have figured out how to salvage an hour or two out of every day to write. Maybe you have the right degree or a friend at a New York agency or a famous mentor who will pave your way. That’s wonderful! But if you don’t, come on around the corner with me. The back door is here, up these chipped cement steps. Watch out for the sharp edge on that iron railing, and don’t trip over the garbage can—sorry, the lighting isn’t so great back here. One more step… Do you have the doorknob? Let’s go!
Photo credit: "Framed in Blue" by Pam Morris, Flickr
I just read. . .
George Eliot's 19th-century classic Middlemarch. At 700-plus pages, with historical footnotes on the English Reform Bill of 1832 and that beautiful but dense 19th-century prose, this might not be the first novel you'd think of picking up for summer reading. When we hear "summer reading," we think "beach books," but in my mind, summer is the perfect time to try something bigger and, perhaps, more daunting. I've read Middlemarch before, but as happens with any great book, it impressed me in new and different ways this time around. George Eliot (a masculine pen name for Mary Ann Evans) tells the story of an entire English county at a very particular time. The novel offers a rich, interconnected, entertaining story of love and marriage, birth and death, aspirations and disappointments, greed, envy, immorality, generosity, compassion... You name it, pretty much all of human nature is represented in these pages. In fact, what I was most struck by was how often I jotted down a note something like, "Still true!" or "That's so familiar" in the margins. (Yes, sometimes I write in my books!) While Middlemarch offers a rich historical chronicle of the English countryside in the early 1830s, don't be put off by that. It can be read without a care for the history and the footnotes, simply for its story. If it's not Middlemarch you pick up this summer, try a book you've been meaning to read for awhile, something that the often slower pace of July and August will allow you to give yourself to with greater attention and ease.