Karen Kelly, who describes herself as an all-or-nothing type, made up her mind to write a novel in nine months.
At the time, her four children were “mostly grown up,” and she was seeking a creative outlet. The Edina resident, an avid reader, had studied British and American literature in college, though she hadn’t done any writing since then, nor had she ever tackled fiction. Nevertheless, it was something she’d long wanted to do.
The endeavor became “an exercise in productivity,” and she didn’t necessarily think it would go anywhere. A few years later, the resulting novel titled, “Prospice,” which is a Latin word meaning “to look ahead,” can be found at various bookstores, including some Barnes & Noble locations. The book also has gained momentum through book signings, launch parties, book club visits and magazine reviews.
Kelly, who wound up writing the 388-page volume in seven months, found a willing publisher in New York-based Vantage Point. However, just before the book was slated for release, the publisher folded. Like the characters in her book, Kelly marched on.
Her editor, Laura Ross, encouraged her to self-publish the book. They worked together to bring it to fruition, and “Prospice” came out through Kelly’s company, Legitur Books, in hardcover in June 2013. The paperback version followed a couple of months later.
The book begins with Caroline Hunt, a mother of two who has lost her husband in World War II. Caroline moves her family to her childhood home in Salem, Mass. After she remarries, things at home get especially complicated when stepsiblings Dinah and Tru develop romantic feelings for each other.
As a 13-year-old, Kelly learned that her mom once had stepsiblings. “The idea of suddenly living in the same house with a boy, and maybe a very attractive boy, must have taken root then,” though it didn’t happen in real life, she said. Her mom had no idea it had triggered her imagination, not until she read about it online, she added.
The story also weaves in a fictional love story between poet Nathaniel Hawthorne and his sister-in-law and publisher, Elizabeth Peabody. Kelly penned a make-believe correspondence between them using Victorian language, as the letters are meant to be a century-old find.
Kelly has been to Beaufort, S.C., many times, and she did some research in Salem, Mass. She drew from a beautiful old home on Chestnut Street. Although she took some creative liberties, she researched all kinds of period details. “I wanted to be faithful to the era,” she said.
Kelly diligently produced 1,000 words daily, “whether they were any good or not.” Then, she’d take a walk, often contemplating a certain phrase or a character’s course of action. In the evenings, she revised the manuscript. Her motto was “Write with coffee, revise with wine,” which helped her to overcome her inner critic, she said.
Kelly listened to “writing music” or playlists that she compiled, but once she got going, all she heard was her characters’ voices. She borrowed traits from real people around her. Her husband keeps asking about the old boyfriend Tru is based on, but “I’m not telling,” she joked. Actually, he’s a composite of several people, just as Dinah’s little sister, Jemima, does “a lot of things our kids said and did.” Like Kelly herself, Dinah is somewhat superstitious and introverted.
Throughout the writing process, her daughter Nina, then 16, gave her plenty of helpful feedback. After school she’d run up the stairs and say, “Mom, do you have any new pages for me today?” and when her 94-year-old grandmother seemed just as enthusiastic about it, “I started to think I might have something,” Kelly said.
Ross, a veteran of the New York publishing world, was impressed with “Prospice” from the get-go. She admires Kelly’s storytelling ability, along with the fact that she understands “the hard work of structuring and sustaining a multilayered story,” she said.
“The coming-of-age story about the teens is very touching, but so is the story of the parents’ later-in-life love,” she said. The characters are so real that “you can’t help but root for all of them.” At the same time, the book has plenty of playful and funny moments, she said.
Ross, who stayed with the project as a freelancer, was confident that once people read it, including reviewers, word would spread. “Quality is the best marketing tool there is, and you can’t fake it,” she said.
Daniel Slager, the publisher and CEO of the Minneapolis nonprofit publisher Milkweed Editions, said authors often ask him about whether they should secure an agent, contact a publishing house directly or self-publish. “There are merits to each approach,” and each has its cons, he said.
A publisher edits and promotes books, which brings great value to the process, Slager said. However, places like Milkweed receive thousands of submissions a year. It can only put out 15 titles a year, so some high-quality manuscripts get passed over, he said.
Going through the traditional channels, an author might wait a year for responses from agents and publishers. In the case of “Prospice,” which crossed his desk at one point, “it deserved to be published.” Self-publishing, then, can be a good option, he said.
Carleton College French Prof. Scott Carpenter, author of a novel called “Theory of Remainders,” said a bookseller recommended “Prospice” to him. Carpenter, whose novel riffs off the Minnesota and France countryside, recently organized a panel discussion about the “spirit of place.” He pulled Kelly in as a participant. Salem, which provides much of the scenery for “Prospice,” is comparable to the D-Day beaches he wrote about in his book, in that “the location comes with a lot of baggage,” he said.
That has some bearing on characters and the story lines, too, he said. “Prospice” “draws some of its energy from the fact that Salem is part of the American ‘mythological landscape,’ ” he said. The two eras in the book add another layer of interest, he added.
A popular book club read
Sandy Ryan, a Chanhassen resident who met Kelly many years ago, has always admired her powers of description. When she found out about Kelly’s novel, she jumped at the chance to read the in-progress draft.
As someone who’s had to reset her life after divorce, Caroline’s plight resonated with her, as she “attempted to move forward in her life after losing her husband,” she said.
At her book club gathering in November 2013, it was fun to get Kelly’s insights, and the back-story of “Prospice,” Ryan said. It led to a lively discussion. The club’s 20 members “felt so invested that the emotional impact was deep,” Ryan said.
Edina resident Jayne Emory, whose book club brought in Kelly in January, said, “It was hard to put the book down. I wasn’t the only one who admitted to reading all night.”
As for Kelly, she’s writing another novel. She didn’t want to reveal too much about it, but said it, too, will be grounded in a bygone time, and that a love story factors into it, but it has more of a mystery flavor.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.