Even those of you without children will probably understand this.
You want to be proud of your children. You want your children to be strong and go out into the world capable of standing against adversity. And selfishly, you want your children to represent you well, to bring honor to your name, and in doing so, pay you back, not in small measure, for all the time, effort, and love that you poured into their upbringing.
I have flesh and blood children, but I also have literary children, and in many ways I feel much the same way about my books as I do about my daughter and son.
I’m not prepared at the moment to talk about all my literary children, but I’m more than happy to discuss my first born: Iron Lake. I finished re-reading it last night, and I’ve got tell you, I love this kid. The first in a series is a dicey proposition for an author. You’re laying the foundation on which story after story will be built, and if any of the lines or levels are dramatically off, whatever it is you create is, at some point, going to collapse. In the Midwest where I live, pride is the second greatest sin, right behind murder. At the risk of putting myself beyond salvation, I’d like to say I’m really proud of this debut work. As a foundation for every book that follows, it’s pretty damn reliable.
It took me four years to write Iron Lake. The first three were spent in creating the first iteration of the manuscript, which I tried unsuccessfully to market to literary agents. (Thirty-six in New York City alone turned me down.) The final year was devoted to following the advice of a marvelous woman named Jane Jordan Browne. I’d sent the manuscript to Jane, who had a literary agency in Chicago. She and her colleague Danielle Egan-Miller read that early effort and saw promise in it. But Jane told me the novel, at 500 pages, was too long, and she wouldn’t represent it. If, however, I was willing to cut it by a hundred pages, she’d take another look. Although it sounded to me as if she was asking me to amputate my right arm, I took her up on the offer. Over the course of the next twelve months, I cut the manuscript by 120 pages. It was the best thing I could have done. I cut whole chapters, then scenes, then lines, and finally words. I merged characters so that one accomplished the work of two. I tightened everything, which kicked up the pace. And in the process, I learned that I didn’t have to spell out everything; I could trust the intelligence of the reader.
In my re-reading of Iron Lake, I had only vaguest sense of what I’d edited out. What I did see was a riveting tale, a story more complex and layered than I’d recalled, with solid, believable characters I cared about. And when Molly died, I wept all over again.
Children can sometimes disappoint you. I am happy—and very relieved—to say that this one didn’t.
Now on to child number two: Boundary Waters.