It doesn't happen that often, really, but last month, when Kim Edwards was buying herself an iPad at the Apple store and the salesperson asked her name and she responded, the young man stopped and politely remarked, "My grandmother loved your book."
Then he continued to explain her new device, the one she'll need as she goes on a 17-city tour that starts Tuesday with the publication of her new book, The Lake of Dreams, the follow-up novel to her smashingly successful 2006 debut novel, The Memory Keeper's Daughter. It sold more than 4 million copies in the United States alone, spent 122 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, including 23 weeks in the No. 1 spot, and was translated into 38 languages and made into a TV movie. Word on the street is that Penguin is launching a six-figure marketing campaign for the new book.
Lexington's Edwards laughs, though without conceit. She is fully aware of the difference between her first novel, which no one saw coming, and this one, which arrives with the words "one of the most anticipated novels of the year" attached to it.
The reserved writer is genuinely still "astounded that what happened" to her debut book happened. Luckily, she says, she had started The Lake of Dreams before The Memory Keeper's Daughter was published. Her first novel, she says, didn't hit big until it was in paperback. It was one of those "word of mouth" things, Edwards says, almost apologetically, that caught on because people were reading it in book clubs and passing it around, conveniently, while she was quietly at home, on leave from her job teaching writing at the University of Kentucky, working on other things.
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When The Memory Keeper's Daughter finally gathered so much steam and acclaim that Edwards was sent on tour to publishing events and garnering awards, the second book was living in her head.
Which is a complicated thing to explain. It isn't as if a plot is planned out and proceeds accordingly. Edwards says she works without a structure and without a map, or even an outline. For her, a novel starts with lots of possibilities. Then one of the stories, as unspecific as it might be, chooses her, she says, and compels itself to be investigated and told.
"That is part of the discovery process," she says.
That is why the job of writing is not a chore for her, she says. It is with the utmost pleasure that she begins her day tending to her children, then she sits down to write.
"Every time I finish a story, I think, this time I'll remember how I did it. Within a few days, though, I don't," she says, smiling. "I think it's intuition."
With Memory Keeper's Daughter, she chose Lexington as her physical landscape. With The Lake of Dreams, she goes back to her childhood home in upstate New York.
"This is the landscape of me. It's the one I carry with me. Most people when they think of New York, think of New York City. This is my New York."
The Lake of Dreams is about a successful young woman, unexpectedly unemployed, in the midst of a complicated relationship and halfway around the world, who goes home to New York and finds a shred of a long-ago past that she unravels, revealing hidden family secrets that change everything she thinks she knows about her life.
Writing in Smithsonian magazine in late 2008, Edwards explains: "I grew up in Skaneateles, a small town in New York's Finger Lakes region, where parts of my family have lived for five generations. I can walk the streets there and point out my father's childhood home, the houses my grandfather built, the farm where my great-great-uncle worked after he emigrated from England in the 1880s. I know every inch of that town, and being there helps me remember who I am, where I came from and what I once dreamed."
Many of the touchstones of her protagonist, Lucy Jarrett, are Edwards' own.
"I love the cold, cold water," she says of glacial early morning dips in the Finger Lakes that she unfailingly takes when she goes home once a year to visit. "You get a piece of your childhood back."
It was a familiar place, one she loved returning to, if only in writing. But The Memory Keeper's Daughter's demands intruded on that. Edwards took as many opportunities as she could to travel to promote the book, but a lot of opportunities were lost as she felt she had to get back to Lake of Dreams.
"It's very consuming, the publicness" of being a best-selling author, she says. And she had a deadline to make.
"I needed a couple of months to regain some psychic space," she says, "to gather the silence.
So, she says, she became a hermit. She took her games off the computer and turned off the Internet.
And she decided that she couldn't or wouldn't think about the expectations of being the author of Memory Keeper's Daughter. She would just write her next novel, and "whatever happens to it, happens to it."
A private writer, she says she has "to understand it in its wholeness before anyone else can read it."
When the book left her hands finally, when it was bound and sent to the publisher and she could change it no more, she felt a profound sense of emptiness, she says.
Edwards has a sense of where she wants to go with her next novel. No, she hasn't started writing it. She wants to move slowly this time and, frankly, enjoy what there is to be enjoyed, to take every opportunity offered by it.
Her mother called last week after finishing the last page of the new book.
She told her daughter that she thinks it's better than her first book.
But that's what mothers do, Edwards says.
And, then, she says, her mother wanted to know when the next one was coming out.