Having your work published seemed the ultimate reward, but I had surprises in store for me. The publication of a book is like tossing a stone into still water and watching the ripples spread until they tickle your toes on the shore.
My first novel, Over The Moon, brought the renewal of old friendships, reunions with high school and college buddies I hadn't seen or heard from in years, and the making of grand new friends. On a book signing tour I stopped in my childhood home, Fairmont, West Virginia. The signing was at Waldenbooks on a deadly dull Mother's Day Sunday, and the mall was as empty as an elementary school on Saturdays. Though my cousin had placed an announcement in the newspaper, sales were slow, and I had little to do but make conversation with my husband, my cousins, and the sales staff. Unless you're Nora Roberts, Pat Conroy, or John Grisham, book signings are notoriously painful. (Did Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald have to subject themselves to this hideous form of water torture?)
Thirty minutes into this boring episode, I noticed an elderly white-haired woman making her way across the mall in my direction. Inexplicably, my heart caught and I fought tears. Though this beautiful woman looked familiar, I had no idea who she was. I only knew instinctively that she was important to me.
I got to my feet and met her in the center of the mall. We hugged and I drew back to look at her.
"Do you know me, Linda?" she asked.
"I think so."
"I'm Mary Olive Jones," she said, and the tears I'd been fighting burst forth.
The giver of cookies and soother of scraped knees, the neighborhood piano teacher, the kindergarten teacher of my brother, the lady with long, lustrous black hair and a delightful laugh that we heard clear across the street on Benoni Avenue on open-windowed summer days had grown eighty-five years old. I hadn't seen her in forty-five years. Mary Olive Jones had just spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from hip replacement surgery. She'd driven herself to the mall in her ancient, lumbering Buick, and brought with her pictures from my childhood that I'd never seen before. I seated her next to me and the rest of the afternoon passed in a happy blur. Animated conversation and poignant memories were interspersed with brisk book sales as business picked up, and she stayed with me the whole day. There is, of course, more to the story, but not enough space to tell it as I have another tale to tell you. On a tour for The Secrets of Sadie Maynard, I had a signing in Highlands, North Carolina at Cyrano's, my favorite bookstore in the whole world. When I arrived at the store that day, a petite elderly lady was sitting next to the table where I was to sign books.
"Hi. I'm Sadie Maynard," she announced, "and I have a drivers license to prove it."
To say that I was taken aback would be an understatement. Was this woman here to accuse me of using her name unlawfully, or was she here to have a book signed? There was a twinkle in her eye, however, and I knew she had come in fun. Like Mary Olive Jones, Sadie Maynard stayed with me for the rest of the afternoon and we formed a mutual admiration society. I've saved the book she signed for me.
Sadie delighted in telling the customers that she was the real Sadie Maynard, and though the steamy sex scenes were a bit embarrassing, she wouldn't mind having an adventure like the fictional Sadie. The newspaper heard of the excitement at the bookstore and sent over a reporter and photographer. The next day Sadie and me were on the front page of The Highlander. Sadie is a summer resident of Highlands, and the 4th of July weekend was coming up. She bought ten books for her visiting family, and informed all her friends in Belton, S.C. that they should run to Wal-Mart and buy a few, too.
The next day I had a book signing in Charleston, W. Va. It was enough of a coincidence that I should meet a real Sadie in the small town of Highlands, but I was really knocked for a loop when her granddaughter showed up in Charleston, unaware of what had happened in Highlands. She had come to the store to buy another book, saw The Secrets of Sadie Maynard and me, and wanted to know how I'd come up with her grandmother's name for the title of my book.
Later in the year I received a zippy invitation to a birthday party for Sadie Maynard. My real Sadie went to her party in the local sheriff's car, sirens blaring, and stepped out dressed in a gaudy dress, feather boa, bright red sunglasses, waving a mile-long cigarette holder.
A thank you letter I received from a fan really knocked me to my knees. A friend brought her Sadie to read to help her while away the hours as she sat with her terminally ill husband in the hospital. Her words were, "I want to thank you for getting me through the worst hours of my life. I was able to lose myself in your story until the wee dark hours of the morning. I finished it about thirty minutes before my husband died."
My rewards are always tenfold and unexpected. They ripple to me in amazing ways, and I receive them gratefully. I await with wonder the publication of When Night Falls in October.
Here are the answers to questions I've been asked in letters from fans.
Having an opportunity to talk about myself is fun.
I can now reveal the reason I write such heart-wrenching novels is because I've had a heart-wrenching life. My five children put me through every torment God created when they were growing up, and so did my husband, whom I considered my sixth child for many years. Seriously though, I like to say that if it weren't for all the things my children taught me about human nature I would be a smug pompous "you know what." They are now great adults and my best friends. I'm a better person because of my children. My husband finally grew up, too, and we love each other more now than we did when we met thirty-five years ago.
I tell you all of this to let you know that I'm not writing from the seat of my pants. When I write of deep sadness or pain, or great elation, it's because I've been there.
I'm not one of those writers who wrote her first book when she was seven, or wrote under the sheets by flashlight after lights out, but I was always a voracious reader. My favorite Christmas gift as a child was a book, and while everyone else was playing with dolls or trying out new roller skates, I was reading. In high school and college I wrote editorials for the school newspapers. But I didn't start writing seriously until my older children started leaving for college.
After reading so many, many books, I decided that, by God, I could write one, too. It took me five years to complete my first book. I worked in the summer time when the younger children were away at camp. I started it as a project to see if I could write a chapter, and before I knew it the chapters came rolling out one after the other. Five years later I had written a gargantuan book of one hundred and seventy five thousand words, which translates to about nine hundred pages. The agent I acquired told me I'd written a romance novel. We didn't sell that book, but we did sell the next one, which took much less time to write.
My ideas come from everywhere and everyone. The idea for The Secrets of Sadie Maynard came from an old murder mystery that I'd heard about as I was growing up. Friends brought up the story while I was on a book tour through West Virginia for my first book Over the Moon. The story in my new release, When Night Falls, due out in October '00, came about because of my love of the North Carolina mountains and a fascination with its wild reaches.
Developing characters is my favorite thing about writing. So far, Nelsey, in The Secrets Of Sadie Maynard, is my favorite character. I love all my characters, but some of them are special, and I have two very special characters in the new book I just started. One is a man, and the other a child, but I can't tell you about them yet. I would spoil the story. Look for the book that I've wanted to write for a long time. I don't even have a working title yet, but the story is pushing me like crazy. Someday you will read it.