A Brand New Novel
Josephine Baker, the early-20th-century African-American dancer, comic, and singer–hugely famous in Paris. Did you know that she was also a spy for the French Resistance during WWII?
I learned to read at my mother’s knee when I was four, and I’ve been an avid book lover ever since. As a child I read widely and indiscriminately — the Trixie Belden mystery series, all the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books, Archie comics — and by the second grade I knew I wanted to be a novelist. “If you ever write a book,” a teacher said to me that year, “keep your real name so I’ll know it’s you.”
When I was in the sixth grade, I began the piano lessons I’d wanted since age six, and dreamt of being a concert pianist someday.
As a teen, I wrote poems and short stories on my electric typewriter and wrote humorous articles for the South Lenoir High School newspaper in North Carolina. I also kept a copious, angst-filled journal. And I continued to read: Jane Austen, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Jerzy Kosinski, the Bible, “Catcher in the Rye,” Ray Bradbury, Victoria Holt, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty.
Although I was valedictorian of my high school class, I delayed college, uncertain about which path my life should take. Should I study journalism and write for a living, or should I take the practical path to success through engineering? I decided on engineering and enrolled in the local community college, declining a scholarship to another college that didn’t offer engineering. Soon I discovered that engineering wasn’t my cup of tea, but it was too late for that scholarship and my parents couldn’t afford to send me to a four-year college. So I landed a typist’s job at my local newspaper, the Kinston, N.C. Daily Free Press. In weeks my editor discovered that I couldn’t type, and I convinced him to give me a reporting job.
My father was in the military, and so I grew up moving around: Germany, Texas (where I was born), New Mexico, North Carolina. As an adult I’ve continued the itinerant life, living and working in Philadelphia, Montana, and Washington state. In Montana I worked as a reporter for twenty years, writing for nearly all the state’s dailies and freelancing for national and regional magazines including CMJ, Newsweek, Southwest Art, Rider, and various agriculture magazines. Later I freelanced for BNA, an international news agency in the Washington, D.C. area, and for Women’s eNews, before the success of my first two novels — international bestsellers! — allowed me to turn my attention to writing fiction full-time.
And I’ve continued to read, voraciously, although no longer indiscriminately. “War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Brothers Karamozov” during my Russian literature era. “The Hidden Hand” and “House of Mirth” during my 19th-century women’s literature era. Ellen Gilchrist. Nicole Krauss’s “The History of Love.” Debra Magpie Earling. Matt Pavelich. Rick diMarinis. James Welch. Rose Tremain. Susan Sontag. Iris Murdoch. Salman Rushdie. Alice Hoffman. Anne Tyler. And historical fiction, of course, by such talented authors as Isabelle Allende, Hilary Mantel (“Wolf Hall” is a favorite), Gillian Bagwell, C.W. Gortner, Kate Quinn, Debra Magpie Earling, and many others.
I remember lamenting, when I was in my early 20s, that I wanted to write novels but I had no idea what to write about. Someone told me then that Hemingway (whose work I don’t care for, but whose greatness I accept) said no one should try to write before the age of 30. I tried many times to write fiction, but the process was a mystery to me. Then, when I was forty, I discovered the stories of A’isha bint Abi Bakr and I knew I had found my inspiration. Then the perspiration part began: For five years, while working part-time and (finally!) finishing my college degree, I researched A’isha and Muhammad and seventh-century Arabic life, and wrote and re-wrote “The Jewel of Medina” for a total of seven drafts.
Now I’ve published two novels, and 2012 brings a novella, “White Heart,” and a novel, “Four Sisters, All Queens,” both from Simon & Schuster.And I have a contract with S&S for a fifth project, about Heloise and Abelard, those star-crossed 12th-century lovers whose tale of passion and tragedy still touches hearts today.
Writing isn’t all I do. I’m a gourmet cook, a classical pianist (or at least I try to be), mother of a terrific daughter, and a student of languages. I believe in human rights, peaceful solutions to conflict, protection of the environment, freedom of speech, and a spirituality whose only tenet is that God is love. And, after all the turmoil surrounding “The Jewel of Medina” in 2008, I’m an impassioned believer in the power of the written word. I hope to use this power, as the old saying goes, for good and not evil.