In the late ‘90s, Edwards was making a major splash on the literary scene. Her recently published short story collection would soon be pegged for a Whiting Award and the Nelson Algren Award, and would also be an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Around this charmed time, Edwards heard a story that would ultimately propel her toward a career as a bestselling novelist.
"A few months after my story collection, The Secrets of a Fire King, was published, one of the pastors of the Presbyterian church I'd recently joined said she had a story to give me," she explained in an interview on the Penguin Group web site. "It was just a few sentences, about a man who'd discovered late in life that his brother had been born with Down syndrome, placed in an institution at birth, and kept a secret from his family, even from his own mother, all his life. He'd died in that institution, unknown. I remember being struck by the story even as she told it, and thinking right away that it really would make a good novel. It was the secret at the center of the family that intrigued me. Still, in the very next heartbeat, I thought: Of course, I'll never write that book."
Despite Edwards's quick dismissal of the idea, it would not unhand her. She let several years slip by without going to work on the story, but she never forgot it. When she was invited to run a writing workshop for mentally disabled adults, the experience affected Edwards so profoundly that she started mulling over the pastor's story more seriously. It would be another year before Edwards actually began working on The Memory Keeper's Daughter, but once she did, she found that it came quickly and surprisingly well-developed.
In The Memory Keeper's Daughter, a man named David discovers that his newly born son is in fine health, but the child's twin sister is stricken with Down Syndrome. So, the distraught father, who harbors painful memories of his own sister's chronic illness, makes a quick but incredibly difficult decision: he asks the attending nurse to take his daughter to an institution where she might receive better care. Although he tells his wife that the child was stillborn, David's decision goes on to affect the lives of himself and his wife for the following 25 years.
Haunting, dramatic, and moving, The Memory Keeper's Daughter went on to become a big seller and a critical favorite. The Library Journal hailed it as "an enthralling page-turner" and Kirkus reviews declared that Edwards "excels at celebrating a quiet wholesomeness..."
Now that Edwards has broken into novel-writing in a big way, she is hard at work on her follow up to her smash debut. "I have begun a new novel, called The Dream Master," she says. "It's set in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York where I grew up, which is stunningly beautiful, and which remains in some real sense the landscape of my imagination. Like The Memory Keeper's Daughter, this new novel turns on the idea of a secret -- that seems to be my preoccupation as a writer -- though in this case the event occurred in the past and is a secret from the reader as well as from the characters, so structurally, and in its thematic concerns, the next book is an entirely new discovery."
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Although Edwards had been interested in writing ever since she was a little girl, she didn't actually write her first story "Cords" until she was in a fiction workshop while attending Colgate University.
Among the many fans that Edwards has won with The Memory Keeper's Daughter is beloved novelist Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees), who said of Edwards's first novel, "I loved this riveting story with its intricate characters and beautiful language."
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Edwards:
"My first job was in a nursing home -- a terrible place in retrospect. It was in an old house, and the residents were so lonely. People rarely visited them. I only stayed there a couple of months, but it made a strong impression on me. Just before I left I went to get one woman for dinner, and discovered that she had died -- a powerful experience when you're 17."
"Though my stories aren't autobiographical, I do sometimes use things from my life. ‘The Way It Felt to be Falling,' a story from my collection The Secrets of a Fire King, uses sky-diving as a metaphor. Like my character, I did jump out of the first plane I ever flew in. It was an amazing experience, but I've never had the urge to do it again."
"One of my greatest times of inspiration is when I'm traveling or living in a new country-there's a tremendous freedom that comes from being unfettered by your own, familiar culture, and by seeing the world from a different point of view. "
"I love to swim, and I love being near water.
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In the winter of 2007, Kim Edwards took some time to tell us about some of her favorite book, authors, interests, and life as a writer.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Well, there are so many. It's hard to choose. But I think I'd have to go with a very early influence, which was Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I read this book several times when I was quite young, and I was particularly drawn to the character of Jo, who of course was the writer, the story-teller. I'm sure it also was important to me, though perhaps not consciously so, that the novel was written by a woman.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
This is a harder question than it seems. My house is full of books I've read and loved, books I can't give away because of what they contain, and also because of how they are woven into the fabric of my life in a given moment. The list that follows is hardly comprehensive, but they are books that immediately came to mind. These are books that influenced me deeply for one reason or another when I read them, and they are books I often go back to reread.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- A beautifully written and magical novel, new every time I read it.
The Bone People by Keri Hulme -- This striking novel is full of wisdom and risk, the stories of ordinary people interwoven with myth. Set in New Zealand, it transported me. I read this first while in graduate school, and was impressed by the fact that Hulme was true to her own vision, breaking "rules: when she needed to do so. The story is not always easy to read, but its power -- and finally its beauty-is impossible to forget.
"The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot -- I memorized "The Waste Land" as an undergraduate, and on study group in London I got to see copies of the manuscript in progress, with the editing marks all over the page. It was my first real glimpse of the hard work that must go hand in hand with moments of inspiration in a writer's life. I still return to this poem, as well as to "The Four Quartets" for the imagery and mythic resonance.
Felicia's Journey by William Trevor -- This novel is a literary page-turner, impossible to put down. Yet rereading it slowly reveals language used with the precision of poetry. Trevor is a masterful writer.
The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro -- Really, I read everything I can by Munro, another master, and I learn something new each time I return to a story of hers. This was the first book of hers I read, while I was still a graduate student, and I remember it as an astonishing moment of discovery.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf -- I must like writers who break with convention-I admire Orlando for its beautiful images and the risks it takes. Woolf writes with lyricism and experiencing the range of her mind is always a great pleasure. Orlando is simply one of my favorites; I admire all her books.
A Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai -- When I lived on the rural east coast of Malaysia, I used to drive to Singapore and spend hours in a spending used book store there. That's where I discovered many, many writers from a wealth of other countries. Desai's work was among my favorites, and even now reading her work evokes the lovely slow days I spent reading in the tropics, with the ceiling fans clicking overhead.
Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi -- This is such a powerful and beautiful book, which explores the intersection of history with individual lives. The sweeping sense of time and the relentless march to war resonates in the lives of characters that are real, memorable, imperfect, and wonderfully human. This is one of those books that holds up a mirror, letting us contemplate our lives and place in time, even as we're swept into the story.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson -- Perhaps the most beautiful book I've ever read-another book, like Trevor's, whose prose on close examination reveals the cadences and structures of poetry.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee -- A nearly perfect book, one I've taught and reread many times.
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris -- I read this book, an account Norris's experiences staying in a Benedictine monastery, at a time when I had started going to church again after a couple of decades away. I was uneasy about finding myself in church, even as I was drawn back to the rituals. This book helped me to see beyond the surface of our cultural dialogue, where religious life so often becomes tool of politicians or those with restrictive personal agendas, and to glimpse instead the enduring beauty, sustenance, and creativity of spiritual practice.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I can't answer this question, because I so rarely go to films.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I tend to be pretty eclectic with music choices. I like classical music-right now I'm listening to Segovia. But I also like U2, any great dancing music, and Gregorian chants.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
The Sea by John Banville, which is the book I'm reading now.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Books can be such wonderfully personal gifts. I like to give books that I've enjoyed and that also reflect something about my relationship with that person-a book that speaks to their interests.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
My husband was a carpenter before he became a professor, and he built beautiful offices in our house for us both. I write there, in the mornings, with a cup of coffee and a small bowl full of water-smoothed stones from the lake where I grew up.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I was drawn to books and stories from the time I was very small, but although I wrote, I didn't imagine becoming a writer -- I didn't know any writers, and the path one might take to become one was a mystery to me. A crucial turning point came in college, when I studied with Fred Busch, the first practicing writer I'd ever known, and learned that it was possible to earn an M.F.A. I went to Iowa after that, where learned a tremendous amount, and then I spent five years in Southeast Asia and Japan, traveling and teaching and writing all the time, always learning.
I didn't think much about publication in those years -- it was simply too hard to send manuscripts out, for one thing-and so I wrote with a tremendous sense of freedom. Gradually, I did begin to publish stories and win awards. My story collection, The Secrets of a Fire King, which Penguin will reissue in the summer of 2007, largely grew out of those years of travel and discovery. What sustained me during those years still sustains me: the pure pleasure and challenge of writing, discovering a story for its own sake and sending it out into the world.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't worry about being discovered. Write for the pleasure of writing. It's impossible to control the reception of your work -- the only thing you can control is the experience of writing itself, and the work you create. Writing is a journey into the world and into the self at the same time-a way of being, more than a profession or a quest for external recognition.
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