Emily Meier has never been one to do things by half. Back when she taught college English part-time, for instance, it was 50 hours a week. A few years ago, when she realized that her novel "Time Stamp" was deeply flawed, she took it apart, plucked a minor character from the ending, turned her into a secondary character, and recrafted the whole thing.
"She is driven," said author Paulette Bates Alden, who first met Meier in a 1990 writing workshop that Alden was teaching. She immediately recognized Meier as more peer than student. "She's very focused, a tremendous worker."
And now with time running out on her, Meier has aimed that laser focus at her life's work: six books -- four novels and two collections of stories.
For years, there had been nibbles from publishers in New York, but no bites. Now, with breast cancer metastasizing through her bones, she decided she didn't have time to wait; she would publish them herself. But because she was Emily Meier -- driven, focused, hardworking -- she didn't do this halfway. Instead, she started her own publishing company.
Sky Spinner Press of St. Paul, incorporated as a for-profit business and co-owned by Meier's son and daughter, has published all six of her books in record time, beautifully designed by Jeenee Lee (who also designs books for Graywolf Press) and edited by Mary Byers (a former managing editor of the University of Minnesota Press).
Six books in 8 1/2 months. Six books, all at once.
"Which I understand is kind of extraordinary," Meier said recently. "But I didn't know anything about what I was doing. If I had known how complicated it was, I probably would have found it more daunting than I did."
On Saturday, 14 writers -- including Alden, state poet laureate Joyce Sutphen and memoirist Cheri Register -- will gather at the Edina branch of the Hennepin County Library to read aloud from Meier's work and celebrate her books.
A writer of significance
Meier, 67, had long planned to be a writer. "But I don't think I really began writing seriously until my daughter was a baby," she said. "I put her on the floor on a blanket and started the first novel I ever started."
Over the years, she had stories published in Ploughshares and Threepenny Review and North American Review, and anthologized in collections. She won prizes, fellowships and grants. But publishing a book eluded her.
Meier's daughter and son are grown now, and she and her husband, Robert, live in St. Paul's Cathedral Hill neighborhood in a great old building with a brick walkway, a front garden and verdigris scrollwork above the door. The cancer has damaged her spine and hip, and she spends a lot of time in a wheelchair (and uses her "worst language," she says, when she navigates it around her sunny, pleasantly crowded study).
"When I was first sick, my son had said, 'Mom, maybe you ought to think about self-publishing.' And he actually looked into it and got me some stuff, and it made me unbelievably depressed," she said. "Because I was looking at an awful lot of things that looked not really professional. And I thought, I don't need to just see my name on a book. I want these to be actual books, if I do it."
So for a long time she did nothing. And then the breast cancer that had been diagnosed in 2003 returned. This time, the news was grimmer. Meier could get another agent, she could send manuscripts out again, but she had six books she wanted to see published, and maybe only a few years in which to do so.
She tried renewing old contacts -- agents and editors who had expressed interest before. "And I realized very quickly that things were even tighter in publishing than they had been," she said. "I didn't have time to fool around with it. I have a terminal diagnosis, and I had gotten to the point where I was maybe kind of a bit beyond the expire date. So I thought, 'Oh, I'm just going to do this.'"
Six books, all different
The six published books, her life's work, shrink-wrapped, are stacked on clean white shelves in her study.
"When I started, I was just going to have them available as e-books," Meier said. "But I realized that I just couldn't pass up the opportunity of at least doing the big Civil War book ['Suite Harmonic'] as an actual physical book. And as I got into it more and more, I thought, 'I've got to dig deep and find some financial resources,' because I really wanted to have all of them be physical books, as well."
She used money from an inheritance (after setting aside funds for her grandchildren's education), and took some from what she called her end-of-life fund. "Because I figured our supplemental insurance would be enough to cover whatever I needed, and if it wasn't, I'd rather spend the money on books. It was a lot more important to me to get the books finished."
The books cover a wide range. "Suite Harmonic" is a big, thick novel, the story of an Irishman in America during the Civil War. "The Second Magician's Tale" is set in the 1970s, the story of a woman who joins a group of traveling players. "Claire, Loving" is about the aftermath of a woman's affair with a priest.
Meier's work is reminiscent of that of Gail Godwin, Alden said, "solid novels that were quiet but still just so authentic in the sense of the characters and situations. You could relate to them and identify with them closely."
The books are done, but Meier continues to write daily -- her website (www.emilymeier.com) is an orderly maze of drop-down menus and essays and suggestions for book clubs and links to reviews and interviews. There's even a page of quotes from rejection letters she received over the years.
She works on the site frequently, diligently, sitting at her computer in the corner of her study.
"The questions and answers on that have become another book," she said. "It's like 70,000 words. I did not intend that to become a memoir of a writing life, but it became that way."
Of course it did. Just because Meier has published six books does not mean that she, a writer, will ever stop writing.