Writer Kim Edwards

Author of the best seller The Memory Keeper’s Daughter discusses her new novel and the mysterious process of writing.

Award-winning writer Kim Edwards not only has had stories published in numerous periodicals, but also saw her debut novel, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, become a word-of-mouth best seller. The critical favorite spent 122 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list—20 of them at #1. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Edwards taught for five years in Asia, where she began publishing short fiction. She returned to the U.S. and taught writing at several institutions, including the University of Kentucky. Her newest text is The Lake of Dreams.


Tavis: Kim Edwards is an award-winning novelist whose first book, “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” became a number one “New York Times” best seller. She’s out now with her much-anticipated second novel. It’s called, “The Lake of Dreams.” Kim Edwards, good to have you on this program.
Kim Edwards: Thanks so much, I’m so glad to be here.
Tavis: Honored to have you. I saw somewhere where you were quoted as saying that while you loved “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” you think “The Lake of Dreams” is even stronger. How do you come stronger than “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter?” Pretty good, number one.
Edwards: Well, you always want to challenge yourself as a writer, as an artist, and I felt I had started this book before “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” and then I learned from “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” so I really feel like I moved forward as an artist with this one.
Tavis: How does that work, when you start a book like “The Lake of Dreams” before “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” which goes on to be a number one best seller, as I said a moment ago? How does that – process-wise, how does that work that you started this one first but it comes out second?
Edwards: Well, I started it and I wasn’t quite ready to write it, I guess. Well, actually, I had started it before “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” was published, not before I finished it. So I was well into “The Lake of Dreams” before all the excitement happened about “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.” So it was really nice to be able to come back to it when I was done.
Tavis: This is inside baseball, but I’m always fascinated to get inside the heads of artists and authors. When you say at the time of writing “The Lake of Dreams” you weren’t ready to do it, unpack that for me. What do you mean by that, you weren’t ready to do it at that moment?
Edwards: Well, I think that stories – Flaubert has this great quote where he says, “Talent is long patience,” and I think you have to be patient to let the story sort of ripen. I’d been having this idea for “The Lake of Dreams” for a long time, and in fact when I saw Haley’s Comet in 1986 I had this idea that it would be a great way to tie an intergenerational novel together.
So I collected that and I collected a lot of other ideas along the way, but they hadn’t quite accrued and formed that critical mass to become the novel yet.
Tavis: When you mentioned Haley’s Comet it makes me want to ask, and I will, what your process is. Is that how you go about this? You’re collecting things in the real world and then you spin those real-world items and interests into fiction? How does that work for you?
Edwards: Yeah, it is kind of like that. It’s kind of a mysterious process, but something will catch my attention and I’ll make a note about it. I may even write a few pages about it and then I’ll put it aside, but I’ll sort of keep it in mind. Then as time goes on other things will gather to it as if it’s a magnet, almost, and eventually there’s enough to make the story.
Tavis: Before we get into the text a little bit deeper, so the news yesterday all across the country – actually, I saw it last week, saw that last week they started promoting that on Monday Oprah was going to unveil this big family secret. So we now know that yesterday she unveiled on her show that she has a half-sister, so I guess people will be talking about that for a while now.
But whether it’s Oprah or “The Lake of Dreams,” what is it about family secrets that so pulls not just family members but all the rest of us into family secrets? What’s that about?
Edwards: I think it’s kind of a universal. I think that it would be hard to find a family that didn’t have a secret in it somewhere, and sometimes we know about them, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we have an inkling that there’s something hidden, but I think that it touches everybody’s life.
Tavis: I’ll let you do the honors, because these fiction books are always fascinating to talk about because you don’t want to give away too much.
Edwards: Right.
Tavis: So I’m glad you’re here as the author of the text. (Laughter) So you set up the storyline here then.
Edwards: Okay, the novel is about Lucy Jarrett, it’s told by Lucy Jarrett, who when it opens is in Japan. She’s –
Tavis: With her boyfriend, Yoshi.
Edwards: With her boyfriend Yoshi, yeah. She’s about 29; she’s at a crossroads in her life. She’s not employed at the moment, although she’s a scientist and has been employed. She’s not sure where things are going with Yoshi.
She gets a call that her mother’s been in a minor accident in her hometown of The Lake of Dreams, and so she goes back. Now, Lucy hasn’t spent much time there since she left at 18. It was the summer that her father drowned when she went to college too, and so she has these unresolved feelings of grief and guilt about that.
So when she goes back to The Lake of Dreams one of the first things that happens is in the family house, which her family has owned for generations, she finds in the cupboard some pamphlets that have to do with the suffragette movement, and within them she finds scraps of letters that she has an ancestor she’d never heard about – a relative that has never featured in the family stories.
So this sense Lucy on a quest to discover who this person is, and over time she does discover it. She looks through archives and some of the clues are in stained glass windows that she finds. She finds this a very compelling and heartbreaking story that informs Lucy about her own life and helps her resolve some of the things that were unsettling to her and to move forward.
Tavis: You’ve said a number of things now I want to go back and unpack, if I can.
Edwards: Sure.
Tavis: In no particular order, number one, what is it about her father’s death that she feels guilty about?
Edwards: Well, the night before he died, the night he died, actually, she ran into him in the garden and he invited her to go fishing with him, and she declined, and she declined in a very kind of teenage way, sarcastic teenage way. So that was the last time she ever saw him.
So she feels both bad about the way she interacted with her father, but also as if if she had gone, maybe she could have changed things.
Tavis: What is it about Lucy – I suspect that this character could have been written a couple of different ways; of course, it would have been a different kind of book. But why for Kim Edwards does Lucy find this stuff and get compelled, almost obsessive, about having to go on this journey to find? Just because you find something doesn’t mean you take the tack that Lucy took to really start digging. Why did Lucy feel, again, compelled, pulled into having to take this journey?
Edwards: I think there are a couple of things. I think she’s at this point in her life where she’s a little bit restless, and this helps her eventually sort of redefine who she is. One of the ways it redefines who she is is that she discovers these very strong women in her background that she never heard about and whose lives can serve to teach her in some ways how to live her own life, and she can glean things from them for her own life.
Tavis: You mentioned these strong women; you mentioned earlier the suffragette movement. Why was that important for you to factor that particular issue into the storyline?
Edwards: Well, I didn’t initially intend to do that, but the book is set in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. The Lake of Dreams is fictional, but the area is real. That’s the area where the women’s suffrage movement started, at the convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls.
So as I was going back, and I know that area well because I grew up there, and as I was researching it and looking into it and seeing it from adult eyes instead of a child’s eyes, I became very fascinated with the history there, the very rich and interesting history.
The more I learned about the suffragette movement, it resonated, first of all, with the time period of the early story that I was writing, but the more I just – I became fascinated by those women and their strength.
Tavis: Beyond the suffragette movement being connected to Seneca Falls, and this may be the answer, are there other reasons why this fictional Lake of Dreams, built around this real area, makes for prime real estate for this story?
Edwards: Well, I wanted to set it – the water imagery is really important in the book, and I really wanted to set the story by a body of water for that reason. The water imagery courses throughout the novel in different ways, and so that’s one of the other reasons I wanted to set it there.
Tavis: You mentioned earlier it was fictional, but why, how did you come up with this beautiful title, “The Lake of Dreams?”
Edwards: That was a title – I found it when I went back to some of those early notes that I was talking about earlier, that I was writing before I really knew what the story was, and that was a phrase that was in one of those notebooks that I had kept, and I thought, oh, that would be a great title for this book.
Tavis: You’re on leave from your day job – the University of –
Edwards: Kentucky, yes.
Tavis: – Kentucky. I went to IU, so –
Edwards: Ah.
Tavis: Yeah, we’re not going to talk about –
Edwards: No, we won’t go there. (Laughter)
Tavis: (Unintelligible) the Kentucky-IU relationship. Tell me how you – again, given that you have a day job where you’re teaching other young people, how do you end up stepping out on your own to do these novels?
Edwards: Well, in a way it’s symbiotic, the teaching and the writing, because when I teach I use exercises for my students that I use myself in, for instance, writing “The Lake of Dreams.” So I feel like I can offer that to my students, but it’s also very exciting to watch students grow and learn as writers and experiment and test their voices and test their range. So I really enjoy that and feel like I gain a lot from it as a writer myself.
Tavis: What does that give you, in terms of sharing, to the students, and what do you think the students take away from having a professor who is now as acclaimed as Kim Edwards is?
Edwards: Well, I always talk to my students about the need to write for the joy of writing. I try to sort of disaggregate the acclaim from the act of writing. It has to have its own intrinsic value, because it’s hard to do it and it takes a long time, many years, before you’re ready to write a novel at all and to venture out into the world in that way.
Tavis: Was this, speaking of dreams, was this part of – I say “this;” I mean now these two best-selling novels that you have out – was this part of your dream, or were you comfortable and settled with the fact that you were going to be a college professor and that was cool for you?
Edwards: I had a great life even before “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” took off. I really enjoy teaching. My first book is called “The Secrets of a Fire King: A Collection of Stories,” and it had done well. Nothing like “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.”
So I considered my life a great success. I was very happy. It’s been wonderful to have the kind of readership and to be able to go around the country and to meet people and to talk to readers. It’s been great. But it’s sort of icing on the cake; it was good before, too. (Laughter)
Tavis: It is icing on the cake, which leads to the final question – whether or not, even though you’ve laid out the chronology of how this book came to be, you felt much pressure after the success of “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” where “The Lake of Dreams” is concerned.
Edwards: It would be hard not to.
Tavis: The sophomore jinx, they say.
Edwards: Yeah. That’s one of the reasons it was such a great gift, really, that I had already started this book, and by the time “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” took off in paperback I was very deeply compelled by this story. So it did take me a few months. When things began to settle down with “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” I had to really search to find that calm, contemplative place from which I write.
I had to turn off the Internet and I had to take away all the computer games. But gradually, the story itself had captivated me so much that I just really wanted to go back to it, and I sort of forgot about all the hoopla and was able to relax into the narrative.
Tavis: Well, you did it.
Edwards: Thank you.
Tavis: Lucy’s on a fascinating journey in this new text called “The Lake of Dreams,” written by – we shall say now perennial “New York Times” best-selling author Kim Edwards. Kim, congrats and good to have you on the program.
Edwards: Thank you so much, it’s been great.
Tavis: I’m honored to have you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm