The Lake of Dreams by Kim Edwards, author of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

This months Women’s Weekly book club title is…

The Lake of Dreams by Kim Edwards

At a crossroads in her life, Lucy Jarrett returns home to upstate New York from Japan, only to find herself haunted by her father’s unresolved death a decade ago. Old longings stirred up by Keegan Fall, a local glass artist who was once her passionate first love, lead her into the unexpected. Late one night, as she paces the hallways of her family’s rambling lakeside house, she discovers, locked in a window seat, a collection of objects that first appear to be idle curiosities, but soon reveal glimpses of a hidden family history. As Lucy explores these traces of her lineage—from an heirloom blanket and dusty political tracts to a web of allusions depicted in stained-glass windows, both in her hometown and beyond—a new family history emerges, one that will link her to a unique slice of the suffragette movement, and yield dramatic insights that will free her to live her life to its fullest and deepest.

With revelations as captivating as the deceptions at the heart of her best-selling phenomenon, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards now gives us the story of a woman’s homecoming to the lake of her childhood, and the discovery of a secret past that will alter her understanding of her heritage, and herself, forever. A powerful family narrative and a story of love lost and found, The Lake of Dreams is an arresting novel in which every vibrant detail emerges as an organic piece of a puzzle. With her signature gifts for lyricism, suspense, and masterly storytelling, Kim Edwards’s new novel will delight those who loved The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and mesmerize millions of new fans.

Kim Edwards offers us the backstory:

Writing is often a little like dreaming, and I can’t pinpoint a particular moment when The Lake of Dreams began. It’s a book I’ve been imagining, on and off, for a very long time. I was a student when Halley’s comet returned in 1986, and I remember being disappointed by how faint and unspectacular it was for its only appearance during my lifetime. I also remember thinking that the comet, with its regular return every 76 years, would be a great way to tie a multi-generational novel together.

Though this story is fictional, I certainly drew on my six years living and traveling in Asia while writing it. Likewise, the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York is the landscape of my childhood, one I’ve returned to often as an adult to explore its many facets, and its beauty. Seneca Falls, with its rich history, is half an hour’s drive from the place I grew up, and the more I read about the social reform movements of the early 20th century, especially the women’s suffrage movement, the more intrigued I became about those events, and about the way they continue to shape the present. In my lifetime, too, dramatic social changes have happened, including the ordination of women after centuries of exclusion from the priesthood. I spent several intriguing days in glass studios while researching this book, and even tried my hand at glass blowing. All these elements, and many others, found their way into The Lake of Dreams.

And an extract -

The Lake of Dreams

Prologue

Although it is nearly midnight, an unusual light slips through a crack in the wool, brushing her arm like the feathers of a wing. In the next room her parents sleep, and the darkened village is silent, but she has lain awake all these hours and now she climbs out of bed, the floorboards rough against her feet. For weeks people have talked of nothing but the comet, how the earth will pass through clouds of poison vapors in its tail, how the world could end. She is fifteen, and all day she and her brother helped seal the house—windows, doors, even the chimney—with thick black wool, hammers tapping everywhere as their neighbors did the same.

The narrow triangle of strange light touches her here, then there, as she crosses the room. She is wearing her blue dress, almost outgrown, the worn cotton soft against her skin. In this room, a low space over the shop that is hers alone, the wool is only loosely fastened to the window, and when she yanks a corner the cloth falls away, pale comet light swimming all around. She pushes the window open and takes a breath: one, and then another, deeper. Nothing happens. No poison gas, no searing lungs—only the watery spring, the scents of growing things and, distantly, the sea.

And this odd light. The constellations are as familiar as the lines on her own palms, so she does not have to search to find the comet. It soars high, a streaming jewel, circling the years, thrilling and portentous. Distantly a dog barks, and the chickens rustle and complain in their coops. Soft voices rise, mingling, her brother’s and another, one she knows; her heart quickens with anger and yearning both. She hesitates. She has not planned this moment—the turning point of her life it will become. Yet it is also no impulse that pulls her onto the window ledge, her bare feet dangling a few yards above the garden. She is dressed, after all. She left the wool loose on purpose. All day she has been dreaming of the comet, its wild and fiery beauty, what it might mean, how her life might change.

The voices rise, and she then leaps.

And Penguin Australia presents:

A CONVERSATION WITH KIM EDWARDS

Q. Your first novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, sold more than four million copies and was a #1 New York Times bestseller. What was your experience writing a follow-up to such a spectacularly popular debut?

I’ve always written, and knew from the time I was learning to read that I wanted to be a writer, so it was completely natural for me to embark on another novel once The Memory Keeper’s Daughter was complete, even before it was published. Each story begins with fragments, images, a glimpse, and in those early days with The Lake of Dreams I was doing a great deal of writing outside the narrative-character sketches and histories, writing exercises, lots and lots of free-writing of all kinds. I set myself a goal of 1,000 words a day, but I put no other constraints on the work I was doing. Very few of these early pages ended up directly in the novel, but this underlying work was necessary for me to understand the characters and the narrative. I was also reading a great deal about myths, in particular about the hero’s journey and quest narratives, thinking about structure and Lucy’s experiences. I read Thomas Mann’s tetrology, Joseph and His Brothers, and started reading contemporary theologians, too.

Thus, by the time all the excitement began over The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, I was already deeply immersed in The Lake of Dreams. I had to put writing aside altogether for a couple of years to respond to the astonishing events-The Memory Keeper’s Daughter became a bestseller internationally, and won the British Book Award. When I finally came back to my desk, it was very satisfying, as well as very grounding, to return to writing in general, and to this story in particular, with so much already begun. Gradually, I was able to block out the world with all its clamor and demands and reenter the fictional world I’d been creating. Again, this shift felt quite natural and gratifying. Through times of great obscurity and times of great recognition, the constant for me, and the greatest satisfaction, has always been the writing itself.

Q. How-if at all-has success affected your job as a professor of creative writing? What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

I’ve been on an extended leave in order to focus on writing, so I haven’t been in the classroom much lately. The advice I’d give to beginning writers remains the same, however. First, write. Every day, in a disciplined way. Read as much as possible, read everything. Take writing classes to deepen your understanding of narrative structure and character development. Find a group of other aspiring writers and exchange manuscripts-becoming a close reader of the work of others will ultimately help you turn a clear eye on your own, and the community will help sustain you through the years it takes to master aspects of craft. Be patient, and take pleasure in the joy of writing.

Q. In The Lake of Dreams, you give a subtle nod to The Memory Keeper’s Daughter when Lucy looks at the book her mother is reading and “glimpsed an ethereal baby dress against a background of black” (p. 143). Both novels have abandoned children at their heart. What draws you to explore this theme?

That’s a good question. It’s not personal, at least not directly-my parents have been married for fifty-five years and still live in the house they built in 1958, where I grew up with my two brothers and my sister. Both my grandmothers lost their mothers at young ages and ended up in difficult situations, so perhaps hearing those stories of loss did influence me obliquely.

I think, however, that there are deeper and more interesting underlying reasons. Both of my novels deal with situations in which social structures and mores affect the individual lives of my characters. In The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the assumptions and expectations about Down’s syndrome that were prevalent in the 1960s allowed David Henry to believe he was doing the right thing to give his daughter away. He acted from a position of power, but for Rose, in The Lake of Dreams, the situation was much different. Although Rose lacked rights we’ve come to take for granted, such as the right to vote, to own property, and to have an education, she understood her own integrity as a human being and stood up for what she believed to be right, carving out a life for herself against difficult odds and opening the path for those who would follow, even when that meant leaving her child in the care of others. What connects the two situations, in my view, is the pressure that dysfunctional aspects of society put on individuals, even on the bonds we tend to think of as being the strongest and most inviolate of all-that of parents with their children.

I’ll add to this that variations on the situations in these two novels happen all the time, all around us. Several years ago I started an ESL program to meet the needs of the growing Hispanic community in my city. We worked with a literacy organization; the classes were held at a church. I taught in this program weekly for five years, and during that time I heard again and again stories that broke my heart: the couple who took turns sleeping in their car between shifts at McDonalds so they could send money home to their families, including the toddler they’d left behind; the woman who had not seen her two older children for seven years, not since they were eight and nine years old and she’d left them to try to work her way out of poverty and provide them with food and education. These were gentle and loving people who had been forced by circumstances to make choices no parent should ever have to face.

Q. Whose story did you envision first: Lucy’s or Rose’s?

Actually, I started with Evie’s story. Before my story collection The Secrets of a Fire King was published, I finished a draft, some 400 pages long, of a novel that was a precursor to The Lake of Dreams. Some familiar elements were in that book-the comet tying an intergenerational novel together, a complex family history, and the thematic concerns with regard to the land-but the draft was a youthful effort, and it ended up in my desk drawer. I tried again, a few years later, using a different voice, but hit a wall about 200 pages in and put the book aside to write The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.

By the time I returned to The Lake of Dreams I knew it was Lucy’s story. I had her voice, which is always the crucial discovery. Still, as I wrote more deeply into the narrative, another voice, this one from the past, just kept persisting. I finally started writing it down, thinking I could simply understand the back story and how it had influenced Lucy and then put aside the pages I was writing. Gradually, however, the story of Rose Jarrett took on its own life, weaving its way into the contemporary narrative in ways I could not have imagined when I started.

Q. Where  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is a very intimate family saga about a child with Downs syndrome, this novel is crafted against a much broader socio-political backdrop (e.g. the American suffrage movement, Native American rights, and wildlife preservation). What inspired this shift?

First, I disagree with this distinction. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter does focus on individual lives, but it also takes place over several decades, and against the backdrop of the quite dramatic cultural shifts that happened in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. The possibilities for women changed, and parents launched an extraordinary grassroots movement to gain greater acceptance for children who had disabilities, to name just two. Likewise, The Lake of Dreams is also the story of particular characters, living their lives in particular times. As a writer, I’m interested in the way that historical events and social mores influence the way we understand the world and the decisions we make. I don’t think it’s possible to isolate individuals, or characters, from the eras and cultures they inhabit.

Q. After you earned your graduate degrees-an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and an MA in linguistics-you lived and taught in Asia for several years. Like Lucy, you spent time in several countries. Are any of her experiences based on your own?

Not really, not in more than a general sense. My first summer in Japan was full of earthquakes, which was unsettling, and that made its way into the novel because it struck me as a perfect way to presage the unsettling to come in Lucy’s personal and emotional life. I traveled a bit in Indonesia, but didn’t spend time there, though I did draw generally on my years in Malaysia to imagine what Lucy’s life would have been like there. Cambodia was a moving and important experience for me, one I’ve never been able to write about directly, so certainly having Lucy go there was a way of remembering my own connection to the country and to its incredibly strong people. One thing I did give Lucy from my own experience is the shift in her perspective. In total, I spent nearly six years living away from my own country and culture, and that has necessarily changed and shaped the way I see the world.

Q. You include incredible descriptions of both the art of glassmaking and technical details about hydrology-not to mention information about the suffrage movement. What were some of the more interesting things you discovered in the course of your research?

It was very interesting to read about the “Silver Ghost,” which was the name given to the first Rolls Royce, and to imagine a world before the automobile. I spent time at glass studios and even tried my hand at blowing glass, as well as reading about glassmaking and the art of stained glass windows. Since I grew up very near Seneca Falls, N.Y., the research I did on the women’s suffrage movement was very real and alive to me-the authors were talking about events that happened on streets I had walked, in places that I knew. Also, I was intrigued to realize, at a point far into the narrative, that all the imagery of the book was working together in a harmonious but unplanned way. The motif of the circles was in this draft of the book from the beginning, and wheelwrights resonated with that image quite directly; that was a conscious choice. Yet much later, long after I’d written the scenes, I learned that early stained glass windows were modeled on the shapes of wheels-they were called ‘wheel windows’-and that the word orbit comes from the Latin orbita, meaning a rut or a track, like that left by a wheel, traced in the sky. Also, of course there are the many relevant associations with roses, from circles to chalices. I didn’t plan this, not at all; in order to have any power or authenticity, images have to arise from the work itself, they cannot be imposed. So I was fascinated as I began to realize how everything resonated, how deeply and intricately all the imagery was connected.

Probably the most interesting thing, however, and perhaps the most sobering, was to realize how many of the issues the early feminists faced are still under discussion today. Only within my lifetime has the church begun to ordain women, for instance, and many denominations still exclude women from positions of authority. I was writing and researching this novel during the 2008 election, which meant that I was reading about the events and debates of the early 1900s while arguments about women’s reproductive health, access to information, and even, extremely, the 19th amendment, swirled around me in the present, too. It was a compelling reminder that the rights I take for granted haven’t always been there.

Q. You write about Keegan’s work and Frank Westrum’s stained-glass windows with such passion. Have you always been interested in this medium, or is it more of a metaphorical vehicle?

Early on in the writing of this novel I had a sense that Keegan was a stained glass artist. I was drawn to the beauty of the process, the way glass moves between liquid and solid states, and the idea of shaping glass with breath. While I took notes and kept extensive journal entries about the experiences, it was a year or more before I began to write the scenes in the novel involving glass. I had to understand the characters first, and allow time for the experiences and information I’d collected to distill into the imagery and metaphors essential for this novel.

Q. Who are some of the writers that you most admire?

There are so many that it’s hard to choose. Virginia Woolf is a favorite, and I always look forward to Alice Munro and William Trevor. Seamus Heaney, too, and Mary Oliver. I enjoyed Susan Cheever’s biography of Louisa May Alcott, both for Cheever’s writing as for the chance to reacquaint myself with Alcott, whose books I loved as a girl. Recently, I’ve also started to read the collected works of Thomas Hardy, and have discovered several contemporary theologians, including Teilhard de Chardin, Dorothy Soelle, and Elizabeth Johnson; their work is brilliant and thought-provoking.

Q. What are you working on now?

I’ve had the first glimpses of the next novel, and I understand something about its characters and concerns, but it’s far too soon to say more; it’s still a secret, and will be for years.

One Response

  1. [...] Edwards has been on my mind recently since her new book, The Lake of Dreams, looks equally haunting and [...]

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