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Midway native releases debut novel

Author Heather Clay left the Bluegrass when she was 15 and has been "desperately homesick ever since," she says.

The daughter of the owners of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Clay left to go to Groton, a boarding school in Massachusetts, and then to Middlebury College in Vermont. She earned a master's degree from Columbia University in New York and stayed there.

Three Chimneys is where Seattle Slew lived out his elegant days and where Smarty Jones and Big Brown now share the fields that Clay could walk in her sleep.

Clay married a man in 1998 whose family is deeply rooted in the East, through politics and business, so maybe there is no coming home for good. In June 2003, when Clay was 32, her short story, Original Beauty, made The New Yorker magazine's debut fiction issue. She lives on the Upper West Side. Her daughters, ages 3 and 6, are so thoroughly Manhattan that they are already handy at hailing cabs.

Still, those 15 years in the Woodford County countryside that launched Clay are "so deeply idealized that I sometimes want to repeat them with my girls," she says.

Every year, the Kentuckian comes home and brings her husband and two daughters with her. It is usually June, when the air is freshly spring-cleaned, the colts and fillies are growing and the land is fertile enough for everything. In recent months, Clay's 6-year-old, Amelia, told her mother that she is "not a city person," Clay says.

Clay thinks horse fever is kicking in, and along with it, a not-unfamiliar "desire to be in a place where everything, the landscape, the history and the stories, expand you."

From that desire, Clay has written her debut novel, Losing Charlotte. To be released Tuesday by Alfred P. Knopf ($24.95), the book is getting some notable buzz and is on dozens of Web and reader group watch lists.

It's done, at last

The book was a long time coming: nine years from start to finish. That's nine years of people asking her, "When's your book going to be done?," she says, enjoying the moment at last when she can say, "It is."

She has always been busy, she says, laughing softly. And, no, she did not write steadily on the book that became Losing Charlotte; instead, she worked on short stories and magazine pieces and her life.

"Unless you're very centered, there is a sense in so many of us that we have to be all things to all people," she says during an interview scheduled around her children's busy lives.

"It's not War and Peace," she says, trying to assure the potential Losing Charlotte reader, but "I did have babies and a few choppy years."

She thinks the time it took might also have to do with her melding of an old-fashioned plot — a widower courting a surviving sister — with the demands of a present-day sensibility.

She also spent some time writing "around things," she says, deleting sections and worrying about trying to avoid what she knew she had to do with the characters, and worrying about botching it when she finally got around to it.

What is that saying? she asks, and she pauses, before she lilts: "Dying is easy; comedy is hard. Well, so was this."

In Losing Charlotte, Clay came home, metaphorically at least, to begin her fictional story of the complicated unfinished business between two sisters who chose vastly different paths. It is the story, too, of how one sister must shoulder the grief of the other's death and the burdens she left behind.

It is a book split between lives lived in the Bluegrass and in Manhattan, managing what cleaves us from and binds us inextricably to our siblings.

Clay laughs and says she has spent a lot of time recently assuring people that her brother, Case, is alive and that they remain close.

She also tells them that she is neither of Losing Charlotte's two main female characters. If she had to pick one, Clay says, she most easily identifies with Knox, the sister who stays in Kentucky, rather than Charlotte, who flees to New York.

It was Three Chimneys, she reminds, that "fed my temperament and helped me create a relationship with nature on my own. I can return there in my mind, and it is joyful."

Go and find your passion

The Clay children have not always stayed down on the farm. Heather's brother, Case — president at Three Chimneys since their father, Robert, retired — was once a stand-up comic.

Heather Clay describes herself only as "a cheerleader and observer." And, she is quick to note, her love of the farm has nothing to do with its success. It has to do with its soul.

In the acknowledgements section of the book, Clay gives thanks to her parents, Robert and Blythe, "who have made every good thing possible, and who I'm just plain crazy about."

Her parents' advice to her and to her brother, she says, was always this: Go and find your passion.

Her parents, she says, came from very different places. Her mother was an Army brat whose family moved "every two years and throughout Europe. I think she considers herself rootless.

"There were skills that came with that. She can enter a situation and suss it out quickly. She can bloom anywhere. She gave us that."

Her father was rooted in Mount Sterling. His stories of that small town were always a part of Clay's life, she says. And although his grandfather had been successful in tobacco, her father thought making his own way was important.

"He put a lot of value in being your own person. He certainly gave us that," Clay says.

And so as a child and boarding school student, Clay wrote as a way to connect to home.

"Just because your childhood has given you everything doesn't mean you have to stay there," she says.

And yet, she and her husband, Nick Frelinghuysen, are talking about moving out of New York in the next few years.

Maybe they'll get a place in the country.

On to the next novel

Nine years is a long time to spend with people and situations you have created. Clay grew attached to certain voices in Losing Charlotte, especially the father's, but she eventually had to give them up to move the story in the direction it had to go.

She says she had to focus the book on the two characters — Knox and Charlotte's husband, Bruce — who had the most to lose when Charlotte died. And she had to continue to have them bump up against each other in the aftermath of Charlotte's death.

Clay says she would regularly send chapters home to Three Chimneys to let her parents see what she was doing. In the book, the farm becomes Four Corners, and the owners of the farm — Knox and Charlotte's parents — are vividly drawn, and not far from the original models.

"I appreciate that my parents are so cool" about inspiring the characters, Clay says. "I knew they would recognize some of their mannerisms. I didn't want that to be an elephant in the room."

There is some rough language in the book and some sex, a section of the book from which Clay says she will not be reading when she comes to Lexington in April and her mother is in the audience.

"I get it," she laughs.

She also gets how grateful she needs to be about her flat-out good fortune.

"I am so lucky I got published," she says. "I've had every lucky break. I want to make myself worthy of that."

Her deal with Knopf calls for a second book, which she has started tinkering with, she says. It's conceived as an ensemble. "It's about a matriarch of a certain age," she says, "and a summer house and a family reunion returning to populate it and what ensues."

She hopes, she says, "it will pour out of me. You should know I'm rolling my eyes right now."

After nine years, it was surprisingly easy to let Losing Charlotte go. It was a relief, in fact. "It was a sad place to be dwelling for a long time," she says, and besides, there are so many short stories that Clay has been waiting to tell.

At its simplest, she says, Losing Charlotte was "informed by a sense of longing for home."

That might be shifting, too. She says she is enjoying her life in New York more than she ever has. Maybe that comes with being 39.

"I used to be that girl who walked through Washington Square Park with my head down and not say hello to anyone, protecting myself."

Now, she says, with her children in tow, everyone smiles and comments on the day and the baby and the weather. "It's forced me outward."

Living away, she says, has expanded her, just like the endless rolling green of home used to.

Expanding is good. It makes for good stories.