I have had so much fun reading KEEPING THE HOUSE and corresponding with author, Ellen Baker, on our interview and receiving her guest post for Planet Books. At the end of the week we will learn whom she will be sending a signed copy of her breakthrough novel to. Ellen has been so generous and that is even more apparent when I received her awesome, revealing and thoughtful guest post this morning. I hope that you enjoy reading it and hearing what she has to say about herself and her experiences writing KEEPING THE HOUSE as much as I did. Enjoy!
KEEPING THE HOUSE evolved out of my experiences and fascinations over a period of about ten years, beginning when I was going into my junior year of college. I’d always loved stories and loved to write – in fact, by this time, I’d already written two novels. (Of course, I have to add the disclaimer that all writers add about their first works – they were awful – but I only mean to illustrate that I really loved writing and had a definite degree of stick-to-it-iveness. As it turned out, it was all good practice!) So, that summer when I was 20, I got an internship at a local historical society in a beautiful little town on the shores of Green Bay in Door County, Wisconsin, and I began to write a novel about a family called the Mickelsons who had lost a son in World War I. It was 1919, and the family came to their summer home in “Stone Harbor, Wisconsin” for the first summer after the war and tried to pretend nothing had happened.
I worked on this novel for several years, but meanwhile, the life that was unfolding for me would ultimately inspire – in bits and pieces – KEEPING THE HOUSE. For example, after college, I spent a year working at a living history farm, where I learned how to quilt by hand, and spent many hours gathered around the quilt frame with my co-workers trading stories and gossip. Dolly’s quilting experiences are loosely based on mine – though no one ever pulled out any of my too-big, beginner stitches!
Then, in March of 2000, I met Jay Baker, a soldier in the 101st Airborne, stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He was only 21 (I was a worldly 24) and told me before I left to drive back north – I was living in Door County again by this time – that he had fallen for me. “Head over heels, I think is the term,” he said, with an endearing humility and a little laugh. Three months later, we were engaged, despite the 700 miles between us. We spent hours on the phone, and counted down to our usually monthly visits. Each time we were together, the pain of separating became more extreme. “One of us is going to have to quit our job,” he said. “And if I quit mine, I go to jail!” So, in the summer of 2001, I did. I got hired back on at The Homeplace and moved down on Memorial Day, just three months before the wedding we’d already planned. Jay was scheduled to get out of the Army that December, so I planned to live with him in Kentucky for six months, doing a lot of writing (plus, I had finished the 1919 novel and was trying to get an agent for it) and getting married in the midst of it.
Well, the “getting an agent” part didn’t happen – I collected a folder full of rejections – and the writing part didn’t work out much better, because we were married on September 8, 2001, and, after 9/11, we waited for word that Jay would be sent to Afghanistan. And I learned that pinning my hopes to a soldier in a time like that was a bit like running myself back and forth through an old wringer washer, day after day after day. Though I didn’t make a conscious choice to write about this experience, both Dolly and Wilma experience the same sort of helplessness – Dolly in the unwanted move to Pine Rapids and her consequent difficulties, and Wilma when her sons go off to war.
But I had one more stop before KEEPING THE HOUSE would come to be. In 2002, just after Jay got out of the Army – it was an anticlimactic, near-miss of an ending, as he got out just about a week before his unit was sent overseas – I became the curator of a World War II museum in northern Wisconsin. Part of my job was to conduct oral history interviews with veterans, and they told me things they hadn’t spoken of in sixty years. I was honored to be the one that these men trusted with their stories, and I felt a real bond with them, or at least with the boys they’d been during the war (I often didn’t find out anything about what they’d done for the rest of their lives). I would never have been able to write about the troubled JJ Mickelson without having known these veterans – though I should clarify (due to JJ’s frequent bad behavior!) that JJ is purely a product of my imagination.
Meanwhile, I was trying hard to fulfill my role as a newly-married homeowner! In 2002, Jay and I moved into an old colonial-style house, and, much to my dismay, I suddenly began to imagine that I had to be a perfect “housewife.” I found myself more concerned with whether the dishes were washed and the grocery shopping done than with any of my other goals. Dust had never bothered me before, but now, seeing it gathered in corners seemed to me a representation of my personal failures. As a person who had always enjoyed the life inside my mind more than real life, homemaking was decidedly not my cup of tea. Yet, some women I knew were appalled by my lack of interest in cleaning, and Jay’s co-workers would comment disparagingly on the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the lunchbox he’d packed – gasp – for himself. To his credit, Jay would scoff at those who scorned me for not cooking and cleaning for him appropriately. But, like Dolly, I tended to listen too much to what other people said, and couldn’t help but take the criticism somewhat to heart.
Ultimately, I never got an agent for the 1919 novel, and that turned out to be a good thing, because I decided to shelve it and start something new – a novel that would concern my beloved Mickelson family during WWII (so I thought – of course, as it turned out, I would write about fifty years of their lives). I also decided to give up my full-time job at the museum in favor of part-time work at a bookstore. This allowed me to really pursue writing – I attended workshops, read, studied, researched, and met other writers who would read my work and give me feedback. And, of course, I wrote and wrote and rewrote and rewrote. Three years later, I had finished KEEPING THE HOUSE, plus gotten an agent and a two-book contract with Random House. Those were probably the hardest three years of work of my life, and they were absolutely the best and most rewarding, too.
Now, I’m working on my next novel, also historical fiction – my main characters are women shipbuilders during WWII. They’re very strong women, but, like Dolly and Wilma, they’re conflicted about many things. Every day, I look forward to seeing what they’ll do next!
You can read my review of KEEPING THE HOUSE and enter the giveaway that ends this Friday night HERE and catch up with Ellen Baker in our interview HERE. Also, be sure to check out her website at http://www.ellenbakernovels.com/ as well as her MySpace page HERE. She also created a MySpace page for her main character Dolly and you can check it out HERE. Ellen has upcoming appearances through October and you can check out her schedule HERE.