Rarely does a writer immersed in the world of academia publish a first novel that becomes an international success, but that’s what happened to Kim Edwards.
In 2005, the University of Kentucky creative-writing professor followed her award-winning 1997 short-story collection “The Secrets of a Fire King” with “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” which enjoyed 122 weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list and moved on to be published in 38 other countries.
Now she’s followed that with “The Lake of Dreams,” set in the heavily touristed Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where Edwards grew up.
After she graduated from Colgate University and the University of Iowa, she and her husband, professor of English Thomas Clayton, spent five years teaching in Asia. Back in the United States, they taught at the University of Pittsburgh for four years before moving to Lexington, Kentucky, 15 years ago, to take teaching positions there. The couple have two children, ages 12 and 15.
Lexington author Kim Edwards, pictured July 18, 2008, has sold 4 million copies of “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” in the last two years. She has gone from little-known UK professor and swim team mom to international literary superstar. (Brad Luttrell/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT)
I chatted with Edwards, 52, by phone from her home, where she had finished a breakfast of yogurt and mentioned that she “just took up oboe-playing again after 20-something years. I’m having a good time with that.”
Q. While researching “Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” you’ve said, you learned a lot about Down syndrome, photography and the prehistoric geography of Kentucky. What about “The Lake of Dreams,” with its interwoven mysteries involving images in stained-glass windows and the women’s suffrage movement?
A. For one thing, I went to a glass-blowing studio in Louisville, Kentucky. I watched the whole process for a couple of days, tried it myself. I gave that experience to Lucy. And I did a lot of library research about stained glass and its history.
I grew up a stone’s throw from where the suffragette movement had its initial impulse ― Seneca Falls in 1848. To read historical accounts and biographies as an adult and revisit familiar places (around the Finger Lakes) was an exciting thing for me to do. Knowing the geography of the area so well helped me make the leaps in time in the book.
Q. You have a full-time job and a family. When do you write?
A. I’ve been on unpaid leave from the University of Kentucky for the past 2 years, which has helped create writing time. I simply couldn’t handle everything. It got to a point where “Memory Keeper’s Daughter” became so successful, and I was so busy (promoting it) that I barely had time to work on “The Lake of Dreams,” much less to teach.
Q. “Memory Keeper’s Daughter” is still a favorite with book clubs.
A. It is, but I was totally in shock and awe (over its unexpected success). Of course, lurking in the corners of the minds of every writer is, “Wouldn’t it be nice if ...?” It was like being struck by lightning or hitting the lottery ― something you don’t really expect would ever happen to you in real life.
Before “Memory Keeper’s Daughter” became such a hit, I was happy and felt like a very successful author. “Secrets of a Fire King” had been published to great reviews and sold well, as far as story collections go (it won a Whiting Award, a Nelson Algren Award, and was an alternate for 1998 PEN/Hemingway Award). I’d written a novel, I had a good teaching position, so life was good. To have readers respond in such a passionate way to “Memory Keeper’s Daughter” was tremendous.
Q. What struck the chord?
A. Everyone would love to know the answer to that. Generally, I think it had something to do with the ways family secrets resonate with people ― things in the past that have helped define the present. (The notion) of people finding out information that changed the perception of who they are.
Q. Was there a lot of that during book tours?
A. Yes, people would often stand up in the question-and-answer periods and tell their own stories. Some related to issues of Down syndrome and some of them related more to having a secret within the family. People would linger after the events and tell me astonishing stories from their lives.
Q. “The Lake of Dreams” is also about family secrets, which every family has to varying degrees of drama.
A. That’s true, and it’s partly a matter of perspective. You see things differently (in the decades) between childhood and adulthood, and different family members see things differently within the family. You hear a story from another member of the family, and it’s a completely different story from what some other family member will tell.
Q. Have you discovered any secrets within your own family?
A. No. I wish I had fascinating ancestors, but I don’t.
By Allen Pierleoni
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)