Tag Archives | Ariel Lawhon

Pin It To Win It

The amazing publishing team at Doubleday has created a fun giveaway to celebrate the release of this month’s book club selection, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS. If you’ve not had a chance to pick up your copy, fear not! They are giving away ten copies of the novel, along with a gorgeous Tiffany necklace from the Jazz-Age inspired Ziegfeld Collection. (See below)

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* Email readers click here for the image.

See entry official rules here.

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January 2014 by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

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Book Club Recipe: The Wife the Maid and the Mistress

Today’s post by Ingrid of Edible Tapestry | @EdibleTapestry

mint julepwtrmk

The Volstead Act and Prohibition, speakeasies, flapper girls, and bootleg operations held a fascination for me before I read Ariel Lawhon’s The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress. You can imagine my excitement when I learned that her book was the She Reads February selection.

It was the ways in which Prohibition affected American cuisine that I was particularly interested in learning when I first began researching the era. As it turns out, the Constitutional amendment that brought about the banning of all alcoholic beverages changed our country’s cuisine dramatically. Some culinary experts believe that Prohibition and the Great Depression permanently altered, if not ended, fine dining in our country.

Alcohol was no longer readily available for cooking or serving, and money for purchasing exquisite ingredients by the average American was even more scarce once the Depression hit. Whole cookbooks were written with alcohol substitutes included so the ordinary cook could still be successful in the kitchen. Extracts became popular for flavoring cakes and pastries where spirits, such as rum, were previously used.

It was still legal during the years that the Volstead Act was in effect for citizens to produce their own home brews and fermented fruits, but wineries converted their vineyards to table grape and other common fruit production. Cooking sherry was a wine that was produced for use in cooking with excessive amounts of salt added to discourage consumers from drinking it. Alcohol laden medicines were still available by prescription, which led doctors and pharmacies to dole out much more to individuals than was necessary, until a limit was imposed on its distribution, as well.

Another adaptation that was made to beverages during Prohibition, though high alcoholic content brews and distillations were still being produced on the sly, was the proliferation of the non-alcoholic cocktail. Strong flavors and colors were added to ordinary ingredients, such as fruit juice, to give the drinker a simulation of the bold spirits they were previously accustomed to.

The non-alcoholic mint julep could have been one of them. Here is a simple recipe for making a legal Prohibition Era mint julep, but feel free to add whatever spirits you like, such as bourbon, peppermint schnapps, whiskey, or even gin…simply because you can, thanks to a repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933.

My favorite thing about this non-alcoholic mint julep? It’s absinthe green! Maybe Ritzi, my favorite character from Lawhon’s novel, would have preferred it to the abominably strong concoction she was pressured to drink at Club Abbey.

Prohibition Mint Julep

Ingredients:

3 cups ice

1 cup fresh mint leaves

The juice of 1 lime

Simple syrup made from 1 cup of granulated sugar and 1 cup of water, and added flavoring ingredients, if desired. Adjust the amount to suit your tastes.

1 to 2 cups seltzer water. Adjust this amount according to how thick you want your drink to be.

Method:

A simple syrup is made by combining one part sugar to one part water and simmering them until the sugar dissolves and a sticky liquid is produced, but not long enough so that the sugar caramelizes. Aromatics, such as citrus zest, vanilla pods, or spices, can be added for flavor. Here is a honeysuckle simple syrup that I made when honeysuckle flowers were in bloom this past summer. Fresh mint could be added to the mint julep simple syrup to enhance the mint flavor and deepen the intensity of the blended beverage, but these flavoring agents should be steeped in the syrup after it has cooled a bit, then strained out.

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Place all ingredients in a large blender and process until the ice is crushed and the mint is pureed throughout.

Pour or spoon into tall glasses and garnish each with a mint sprig.

Yield: 2 servings

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January 2014 by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

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Books And Music: The Playlist For The Wife The Maid And The Mistress

Today’s post by yours truly | @ArielLawhon

Confession: despite the title of this post, I did not, in fact, have a playlist for THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS. Not exactly. What I had instead were three songs, one for each of the main characters. As the book progressed and the word count piled up, I found that I needed these songs more and more. Unlike many writers, I don’t “hear” my characters. They don’t talk to me. They’re all mute. Stubborn, frustrating creating.  Finding the voices for each distinct narrator was one of my greatest challenges in writing this novel. So instead I found a theme song for each woman, something that would summon her individual “mood” when I sat down to write.

We begin with Stella. Because really, the story was hers all along. Of all three women she was the hardest for me to pin down. I struggled the most with her sections. She was so elusive. Controlled. Strong. It felt as though she was both hiding things from me and challenging me to discover her secrets. So it made perfect sense that her theme song was “Rolling In The Deep” by Adele:

Ritzi. I shouldn’t play favorites. I know that. But truly, she was my favorite. I loved everything about her character. She had spirit but she was vulnerable. She was conniving and tender. She was scared and angry and she’d messed her life up beyond recognition. In the end there was only one possible song for her: “Love For Sale” by Cole Porter. It’s her audition song for The New Yorkers, the one she knocks out of the park early in the novel:

Maria was the most soulful of the three women to me. She was so devout and so devoted. And yet she had this edge to her as well, like she could lie to your face and you’d never know. As the story progressed Maria became the glue that held everything else together. The story would not have worked without her. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was the only song I ever considered for Maria. You can find dozens of versions out there but the one I listened to was by K.D. Lang:

To this day I can hear those songs and feel my characters. I’ve still never “heard” them, not the way many authors talk of hearing their characters. But I know them nonetheless. The music made that possible for me.

* Email readers can click this link to hear the music/watch the videos.

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January 2014 by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

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A Trip To Old New York: Four Novels That Will Take You Back In Time

Old New York is one of the most compelling periods in history. It’s magical. A time of grit and glamour, populated by iconic characters and unforgettable moments. It’s no wonder storytellers regularly mine the speakeasies and theaters, workhouses and brothels of this era for inspiration. And today we’re featuring four new, distinct novels, all them different in tone and content, but linked by this one period of history. So add these books to your reading pile. You won’t be sorry.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

THE MUSEUM OF EXTRAORDINARY THINGS by Alice Hoffman

(Publisher’s summary) Mesmerizing and illuminating, Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is the story of an electric and impassioned love between two vastly different souls in New York during the volatile first decades of the twentieth century.

Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father’s “museum,” alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River.

The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father’s Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor’s apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.

With its colorful crowds of bootleggers, heiresses, thugs, and idealists, New York itself becomes a riveting character as Hoffman weaves her trademark magic, romance, and masterful storytelling to unite Coralie and Eddie in a sizzling, tender, and moving story of young love in tumultuous times. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is Alice Hoffman at her most spellbinding.

Belle Cora

BELLE CORA by Phillip Margulies

(Publisher’s summary) “I had crossed all the lines they you say you can never cross without being destroyed, and here I was, alive and strong.”

In the grand tradition of Moll Flanders and Vanity Fair, this is the story of a good girl who became a bad woman. At the old homestead her name is never spoken and her picture is turned to the wall, but in the vast world beyond everyone remembers her as the celebrated madam of the finest parlor house in San Francisco. Now, at the end of her life, after half a century of successfully hiding the details of her scarlet past, Belle has decided to reveal all her secrets.

In 1838, Arabella Godwin and her beloved younger brother, Lewis, are orphaned and shipped away from their home in New York City to live on their aunt’s desolate farm upstate. The comforts she has always known are replaced with grueling work and a pair of cunning enemies in her cousins Agnes and Matthew. Amid this bleak existence, there emerges light in the form of a local boy, Jeptha Talbot.  He is everything good that Arabella craves. His love saves her and becomes an obsession that will last her whole life.

Time and again she will be broken and remade. She will bear a gambler’s child, build a fortune, commit murder, leave a trail of aliases in her wake and sacrifice almost everything—though perhaps not enough–for the man whose love she cannot bear to lose.  At last her destiny will take her to Gold Rush California, to riches and power.

Until the day she mysteriously disappears.

Told with unflagging wit and verve, Belle Cora brings to life a turbulent era and an untamed America on the cusp of greatness. Its heroine is a woman in conflict with her time, who nevertheless epitomizes it with her fighting spirit, her gift for self-invention, and her determination to chart her own fate.

A Fall Of Marigolds

A FALL OF MARIGOLDS by Susan Meissner

(Publisher’s summary) A beautiful scarf, passed down through the generations, connects two women who learn that the weight of the world is made bearable by the love we give away….

September 1911. On Ellis Island in New York Harbor, nurse Clara Wood cannot face returning to Manhattan, where the man she loved fell to his death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Then, while caring for a fevered immigrant whose own loss mirrors hers, she becomes intrigued by a name embroidered onto the scarf he carries…and finds herself caught in a dilemma that compels her to confront the truth about the assumptions she’s made. Will what she learns devastate her or free her?

September 2011. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, widow Taryn Michaels has convinced herself that she is living fully, working in a charming specialty fabric store and raising her daughter alone. Then a long-lost photograph appears in a national magazine, and she is forced to relive the terrible day her husband died in the collapse of the World Trade Towers…the same day a stranger reached out and saved her. Will a chance reconnection and a century-old scarf open Taryn’s eyes to the larger forces at work in her life?

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THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS by Ariel Lawhon

(Publisher’s summary) A tantalizing reimagining of a scandalous mystery that rocked the nation in 1930—Justice Joseph Crater’s infamous disappearance—as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best.

They say behind every great man, there’s a woman. In this case, there are three. Stella Crater, the judge’s wife, is the picture of propriety draped in long pearls and the latest Chanel. Ritzi, a leggy showgirl with Broadway aspirations, thinks moonlighting in the judge’s bed is the quickest way off the chorus line. Maria Simon, the dutiful maid, has the judge to thank for her husband’s recent promotion to detective in the NYPD. Meanwhile, Crater is equally indebted to Tammany Hall leaders and the city’s most notorious gangster, Owney “The Killer” Madden.

On a sultry summer night, as rumors circulate about the judge’s involvement in wide-scale political corruption, the Honorable Joseph Crater steps into a cab and disappears without a trace. Or does he?

After 39 years of necessary duplicity, Stella Crater is finally ready to reveal what she knows. Sliding into a plush leather banquette at Club Abbey, the site of many absinthe-soaked affairs and the judge’s favorite watering hole back in the day, Stella orders two whiskeys on the rocks—one for her and one in honor of her missing husband. Stirring the ice cubes in the lowball glass, Stella begins to tell a tale—of greed, lust, and deceit. As the novel unfolds and the women slyly break out of their prescribed roles, it becomes clear that each knows more than she has initially let on.

With a layered intensity and prose as effervescent as the bubbly that flows every night, The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress is a wickedly entertaining historical mystery that will transport readers to a bygone era with tipsy spins through subterranean jazz clubs and backstage dressing rooms. But beneath the Art Deco skyline and amid the intoxicating smell of smoke and whiskey, the question of why Judge Crater disappeared lingers seductively until a twist in the very last pages.

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January 2014 by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

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Picture This: A Visit With Ariel Lawhon

Today’s post by our very own Ariel Lawhon | @ArielLawhon

Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon

I’d never heard of Joseph Crater until I read an article about him in The New York Post nine years ago. I didn’t know that his disappearance was the biggest missing person’s case of the twentieth century or that he was a household name for almost fifty years. But in all of that, what intrigued me most was his wife Stella, and her strange yearly ritual. Starting on the first anniversary of her husband’s disappearance, she would go to a bar in Greenwich Village and order two drinks. She’d raise one in salute, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are!” Then she’d drink it and walk out of the bar, leaving the other untouched on the table. She did this every year for thirty-nine years. After reading that article Stella Crater took up permanent residence in my mind. I’d close my eyes and she’d be there, in that corner booth, a glass of whiskey in her hand, practically daring me to tell her story.

The wonderful thing about writing historical fiction is that there is often an existing record of the people you are recreating. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, there are pictures as well. Little glimpses into the past. After reading that article I began digging into the Crater story. I read Stella Crater’s memoir, THE EMPTY ROBE. And I read as many articles and biographies on Joseph Crater as I could find, namely VANISHING POINT: THE DISAPPEARANCE OF JUDGE CRATER AND THE NEW YORK HE LEFT BEHIND. And slowly the pieces came together. Three women. One missing judge. And secrets none of them were willing to tell.

These are the pictures I kept on hand while writing THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS. Real people. Real events. Real places. Because sometimes the truth makes the best fiction after all.

Picture This WMM

* Starting top left and going clockwise: Stella Crater holding the missing person’s circular decades after her husband’s disappearance, the only known photo of showgirl Ritzi, Maria and Jude Simon (as I’ve always thought of them–no pictures of them actually exist), Governor Al Smith, Owney Madden, and Joseph Crater the year he disappeared.

You can see all the real characters in the novel on this Pinterest board.

There’s still lots of time to enter this month’s book club giveaway. And don’t hesitate to let Ariel know if your book club plans on reading THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS. She’s available for Skype chats and local in-person visits.

About Marybeth Whalen

Marybeth Whalen is the co-founder of She Reads, mother of six, and life-long reader. She is also the author of two novels with a third out in July: The Mailbox, She Makes It Look Easy, and The Guest Book.

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February Book Club Selection

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For most of us, February means the last pass through winter, highlighted by Groundhog Day, the Superbowl, and Valentine’s Day. But otherwise, as CS Lewis said, “Always winter but never Christmas.” So how can we beat the winter blues that inevitably set in this time of year?

With a great story.

And at She Reads this month, we’ve got one for you, and by one of our own no less!

THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS is a romp through New York in 1930. Populated by gangsters and crooked politicians, society ladies and dancers, this story is nothing like your day-to-day life and yet… you will find the three women mentioned in the title strangely recognizable. At the center of this book is a real-life missing judge, Joseph Crater, who to this day has never been found. What happened to him the world may never know. But author Ariel Lawhon has cleverly re-imagined what might have happened if three women in his life really did know… but for their own reasons chose not to tell.

We invite you to join us this month to hear from Ariel, co-founder of this site and the mother of four little boys she fondly refers to as ”The Wild Rumpus,” about how and why she wrote the book, and how she balances writing, reading and life with her passel of sons. Snag a copy of the book (signed copies are available at Parnassus Books in Nashville and Foxtale Book Shoppe in Atlanta–both stores are happy to ship) and join us in discussing this great story. You might just forget how cold it is outside.

In celebration of the true events that inspired this novel, we have a special giveaway this month. One book club will receive five copies of THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS and a set of commemorative shot glasses so you too can participate in the famous toast found in its first pages. (See the entry form below for details)

WMM Book Club Prize

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wifemaidmistress (1) (1)A tantalizing reimagining of a scandalous mystery that rocked the nation in 1930—Justice Joseph Crater’s infamous disappearance—as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best.

They say behind every great man, there’s a woman. In this case, there are three. Stella Crater, the judge’s wife, is the picture of propriety draped in long pearls and the latest Chanel. Ritzi, a leggy showgirl with Broadway aspirations, thinks moonlighting in the judge’s bed is the quickest way off the chorus line. Maria Simon, the dutiful maid, has the judge to thank for her husband’s recent promotion to detective in the NYPD. Meanwhile, Crater is equally indebted to Tammany Hall leaders and the city’s most notorious gangster, Owney “The Killer” Madden.

On a sultry summer night, as rumors circulate about the judge’s involvement in wide-scale political corruption, the Honorable Joseph Crater steps into a cab and disappears without a trace. Or does he?

After 39 years of necessary duplicity, Stella Crater is finally ready to reveal what she knows. Sliding into a plush leather banquette at Club Abbey, the site of many absinthe-soaked affairs and the judge’s favorite watering hole back in the day, Stella orders two whiskeys on the rocks—one for her and one in honor of her missing husband. Stirring the ice cubes in the lowball glass, Stella begins to tell a tale—of greed, lust, and deceit. As the novel unfolds and the women slyly break out of their prescribed roles, it becomes clear that each knows more than she has initially let on.

With a layered intensity and prose as effervescent as the bubbly that flows every night, The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress is a wickedly entertaining historical mystery that will transport readers to a bygone era with tipsy spins through subterranean jazz clubs and backstage dressing rooms. But beneath the Art Deco skyline and amid the intoxicating smell of smoke and whiskey, the question of why Judge Crater disappeared lingers seductively until a twist in the very last pages.

You can read an excerpt of THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS here.

You can add the book to your Goodreads list here.

You can view photos of the real people who inspired the book on this Pinterest board.

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Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (whom she calls The Wild Rumpus, except on the days when she calls them The Barbarian Horde–if you ever visit her you’ll know why). Her novel, THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS, is based on the still-unsolved disappearance of a New York State Supreme Court Judge and was published by Doubleday this week. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart, that marrying her best friend was the best decision she ever made, and that a good nap can cure all ills. And coffee. She really, really believes in coffee.

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About Marybeth Whalen

Marybeth Whalen is the co-founder of She Reads, mother of six, and life-long reader. She is also the author of two novels with a third out in July: The Mailbox, She Makes It Look Easy, and The Guest Book.

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A Moment With Our Founders

Today’s post from our co-founders, Marybeth Whalen and Ariel Lawhon | @MarybethWhalen @ArielLawhon

There’s only so much you can know about a girl by her preference in books so we decided to crack the door a bit and give you a glimpse into our personal lives and peculiar oddities. It’s a toss-up whether you’ll be entertained or scared away.

Marybeth Whalen

What’s going on at your house: I’m in denial about those back to school commercials on tv and school supplies taking centerstage at the local Target. Summer is my favorite season and I really hate to think of it ending for another year. In the meantime, we’ve got another few weeks of days in the sun at the pool, sleeping in, and the slower pace of summer that I love. And I intend to savor every moment. We’ve got our 21st anniversary and two of our kids’ birthdays this month. So it will be a little busy.

What’s the last song you bought on iTunes: “Come Over” by Kenny Chesney. None of my children can believe that I actually bought a country song voluntarily. I’ve actually bought two this summer. I also bought “Springsteen” by Eric Church. I blame it on the fact that our good ole southern neighborhood pool blasts country music over the loud speakers so I’ve been forced to reckon with it. And admit that there are some songs (very few) that I actually like.

One lame fact about you: I can’t sleep unless I have perfect hospital corners on my bed.

Any weird food preferences or aversions: I have been known to dip my dill pickle in ketchup. Sweet and sour– what’s not to like? And also, I don’t eat cheese. Of any kind.

Bad habits: Launching spit bubbles off my tongue. It might impress (and simultaneously horrify) my kids, but it doesn’t exactly go over well in public.

My four swim team swimmers celebrating their championship season

Ariel Lawhon

What’s going on at your house: We just got back from the beach (a million thanks to my in-laws who rented a house and invited our crew to join them!) and we’re getting ready to move back to Tennessee. What this means is that in addition to all the normal activities starting up again (school, swim team, etc.) we will have to put our house on the market, pack, and move across country. We’re so ready to live close to family again but lugging four children, all of our worldly belongings, and a shedding dog over eight hundred miles in one day isn’t exactly my idea of fun.

What’s the last song you bought on iTunes: “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt. (Maybe I needed a compliment that day. Who knows.)

One lame fact about you: I end every workout with “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. Yep, I’m an 80′s child through and through.

Any weird food preferences or aversions: I could drink balsamic vinegar straight from the bottle.

Bad habits: I eat ice. So bad for the teeth!

The men in my life, picture ready and in love with the beach.

Your turn! Answer any of the above questions and let us know a bit about you!

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January 2014 by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

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Rich In Books


Photo courtesy of stock.xchng

My sister and I had this conversation the other day about how, despite growing up dirt-floor-poor, we were always rich in pets. We had dogs. We had cats. Chickens. Goats. Ducks. Rabbits. And the occasional hitchhiker that my father would bring home (Remind me to tell you about the time that I woke up at 2:00 a.m. to find a stranger throwing up in our living room. Pets and hitchhikers have equal consideration for indoor etiquette)

And while I only have a dog these days, I am rich in another way. Books. Here are just a few titles of the books in my to-be-read-pile:

  • WILD by Cheryl Strayed (Oprah just picked it for her newly reinstated book club)
  • The Underside of Joy by  Seré Prince Halverson
  • So Far Away by Meg Mitchell Moore
  • The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier
  • Sea Change by Karen White
  • A Good American by Alex George
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (I’m late to this party but I was busy having a baby at the height of its success)
  • Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I also have an undisclosed, no-way-I’m-telling-you-what-it-is, biography that I’m using as research for my next novel. Mums the word on that for now.

What about you? What literary riches are sitting on your night stand or book shelf? Anything you think I must read to live a full and happy life?

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January 2014 by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

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The Impatient Character

My biggest reading surprise of 2011 came in the form of Diane Setterfield’s gothic masterpiece, The Thirteenth Tale. Though published in 2008, I somehow managed to miss this novel until last summer when my family took a 1500 mile road trip. I packed five novels in the hopes that one of them would be good. I never made it past the first. And I’m not entirely sure if I spoke to my husband at all during that trip. I was consumed.

In her novel Diane Setterfield introduces us to Vida Winter, a prolific, reclusive author who chooses to tell her life story to a young biographer by the name of Margaret Lea. Vida Winter is one of the most memorable literary characters, and certainly the strongest female character I’ve ever read. She says something in the novel that felt so familiar to me that I’ve never forgotten it:

My study throngs with characters waiting to be written. Imaginary people anxious for life, who tug at my sleeve, crying, 'Me next! Go on! My turn!’ I have to select. And once I have chosen, the others lie quiet for ten months or a year, until I come to the end of the story, and the clamor starts up again.

I have experienced that demanding character, but never so intensely as while finishing my recent novel, The Rule of Three.

For months a new story had been nagging at me, creeping in during those moments when my mind was quiet. A long shower. That stretch of thought before drifting off to sleep. The dream that comes in the stillness before waking.

I recall writing a scene from my newly finished novel. It was a particularly tense argument between my Hero (her name is Stella) and Opponent that took place in an old, Jazz-era bar. There they were, leaning across the table in a dark, corner booth, both of them reaching for a tattered envelope containing a long-kept secret. I paused for a moment, fingers lightly touching the keyboard as I mulled a piece of dialogue. And then…

In the far corner of the bar was a woman delivering a baby! Of all the strange and bizarre things, the character in my next novel had walked into my current novel and set up shop. I could see it in my mind, like a fuzzy TV station that’s been caught between two channels, superimposing one face, one story, over another.

Vida describes that sensation best:

And every so often, through all these writing years, I have lifted my head from the page—at the end of a chapter, or in the quiet pause for thought after a death scene, or sometimes just searching for the right word—and have seen a face at the back of the crowd.

I knew who this character was, of course. Her name is Martha. She’s a midwife. A mother. A diarist. A strong and capable woman if ever there was one. But in that moment she was an intruder. So I gave Martha her own notebook. I scratched down what she was frantically trying to tell me, and I politely escorted her from the premises. Then I shook off her specter and went back to the bar, and my characters bent in heated conversation.

The scene turned out well in case you’re wondering. As did the rest of the novel. But now it’s done. My mind, so battered after wrestling that story to the page, is finally rested. And Martha has renewed her protests, filling all that recently vacated space. It’s her turn. Tomorrow I will open her notebook.

There are other faces in the shadows behind Martha of course. A carpenter. A hoarder. A tattoo artist. They are waiting patiently. For now.

Question for you: What was your biggest 'reading surprise’ of the last year?

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About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January 2014 by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

read more