My novel A Useful Life was a quarter finalist for the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. It’s about a woman researching her dead husband’s family in search of answers to questions he left behind.
I’ve been a genealogist for more than twenty years. I began researching my husband’s family because he thought his father had no relatives. I took that as a challenge. I now have more than three thousand people in his family tree going back to the 1600s. So much for no relatives.
Along the way we’ve met many third and fourth cousins around the world and become quite close to many of them. Those are the living ones, but in a way I feel quite close to some of the deceased ones too. As I dug up information about them, I found myself thinking about the lives and stories beyond the dates and facts. I read their letters and obituaries and felt I knew them somehow. When my research turned up something puzzling, I imagined logical explanations for their actions. I felt sad when I saw their death certificates and happy when I read their wedding announcements. I began to make up life stories for them in my head. Then I wanted to tell those stories, but I didn’t want the burden of footnotes and academic rigor, so I took those imagined lives and mixed them around and created fictional characters. They have some of the life facts of real people and they share a historical context with real people in the Jewish community of Memphis between 1859 and 1893, but their personalities, their actions, their behavior, are made up.
This is all to say that the 19th century characters in my novel are not my husband’s ancestors, nor are they really based on his ancestors. They’re people I imagined lives for, based on what I learned about what it was like to live in Memphis in 1870 or 1880. The main character researching her dead husband’s family is not me, my husband is not dead, and her sons are not my sons. I created her and her genealogical journey to explore history, the meaning of family, and the surprising things we discover about ourselves when we embark on that journey.
Back in January, I entered my first unpublished novel, A Useful Life, in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) competition, along with about 5,000 other fiction writers (there is a separate competition for Young Adult manuscripts). I didn’t have high hopes for advancing to the next step because the judging was only on the 300-word pitch, but I did make the cut to 1,000. A few days ago I learned that I made the quarter-finals cut to 250. This was unexpected.
I have queried some agents with this novel. I had revised it and was about to start sending it out again when I entered the contest. I do have some ambivalence about the contest route versus the traditional agent-seeking route, which I’ll blog about at some later date. In the meantime, reviewers from Publishers Weekly are reading the entire manuscript and will decide whether it goes on to the semi-finalist round.
My novel did not make it to the semi-final round. I did get very positive reviews from the Amazon reviewers and the Publisher’s Weekly Reviewer. In the meantime, I’ve been rearranging and editing again, and I think it’s stronger now. I’ll begin querying agents once again soon. Thanks to everyone who reviewed my excerpt while it was posted on the Amazon website.
When I first started writing my novel, I made my main character several years older than I was. There were several reasons:
- People I know might be less likely to confuse my main character with me, the real person
- The main character would have grown up with a different set of ideas about how women should live their lives, which was useful in giving her the husband I gave her
- Her kids would be considerably older than my real kids and less likely to be confused in people’s minds with my own kids (see #1)
All that is now out the window. Technically she is still older than I am, because her birth date is before mine, but she is frozen in the present-day of the novel. I am, apparently, not. To my horror, I am now older than she is in the present-day of the novel and my children are rapidly approaching the ages of her children. It’s going to be more difficult to convince people this is not my life and my family if (when) my novel is published. Unless it takes another twenty years, in which case, no worries.