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One of the pleasures of living in Wisconsin is its bounty of delights for locavores, from hoppy microbrews to rich cheeses and brilliantly colored produce at farmers' markets. But why limit yourself to just eating locally? It's rewarding to be a literary locavore, too. There's a fresh crop of books by Madison authors out this summer, including new titles by Susanna Daniel and Kelly Harms.
For insight into their novels and the writing life, I spoke to Daniel, whose second novel, Sea Creatures, hits shelves July 30, and debut novelist Harms, whose The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane was released July 9. Both books feature main characters who leave the Midwest to restart their lives near the Atlantic Ocean.
Harms' two lead characters both believe they've won a dream home in Christmas Cove, Maine, through a TV contest. Daniel's protagonist is a wife and mother coping with a toddler who won't speak and a husband whose serious sleep disorder has resulted in a job loss. Her character, Georgia, hopes to regain some normalcy by moving her family to her hometown of Miami.
If you've been searching for worthy additions to your summer reading list, look no further. Though very different in subject and tone, both Daniel and Harms offer page-turning prose and characters you'll want to spend time with.
Returning to Stiltsville
Daniel's Sea Creatures revisits territory from her first novel, Stiltsville, which was published in 2010. Stiltsville earned Daniel the 2011 PEN/Bingham Prize, which honors "exceptionally talented fiction writers whose debut work...represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise."
"Stiltsville" refers to a cluster of houses perched on pilings above the waters of Biscayne Bay, one mile south of Cape Florida. While many of the stilt houses were destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 — the fateful year in which Daniel's new novel is set — about seven remain today.
It's an area that Daniel, a Miami native herself, knows well. Growing up, she spent countless weekends with her family at a stilt house her grandfather had built in 1954. Regrettably, it was among those lost in the 1992 storm. Now living on Madison's west side with her husband and two young sons, Daniel realizes what a special retreat the stilt house was, but she didn't always see it that way.
"As a teen, I hated it," she says with a smile, since the stilt house meant being cut off from such staples of teen existence as parties with friends, the phone and TV. "I'd take books. In my life, I can only point to a few times when I've had time to read a book from start to finish [in a sitting]. I didn't realize how great it was.... I thought I'd always have this escape, and I didn't realize how lucky we were."
In Sea Creatures (HarperCollins), Georgia and her husband, extreme-weather researcher Graham, wind up fleeing a cottage in Illinois for a houseboat in Miami. It's not by choice since an incident precipitated by Graham's severe sleeping disorder, not to mention Georgia's failed business, has left them desperately needing to start anew.
"They become neighborhood outcasts [in Illinois] and are forced to find a new place for themselves," Daniel says. "One of the things they're embracing is a little anonymity. When your private stressors become public, how do you handle that?"
Georgia's life becomes even more complex when she takes on an odd job in Stiltsville. She becomes a runner for a reclusive artist her father's age who lives, sans a boat of his own, in a stilt house. Using a borrowed motorboat, Georgia is his lifeline to both the gallery selling his work — exquisitely detailed drawings of sea life — and the mundane supplies that keep a life humming along. Charlie, the artist, also befriends Georgia's young son, a toddler who has stopped speaking and communicates with his mother through sign language.
While Daniel's first book examined a marriage across a span of 30 years, Sea Creatures takes place during a single year. Yet Daniel retains an interest in our most intimate relationships and the nuances of feeling they contain.
"I think there are endless possibilities in domestic fiction. To write about a woman in a marriage is as interesting to me as cops and robbers.... Georgia has to make choices that pit herself against her son or her husband. The family as a unit becomes unviable for reasons that are revealed, [but] she loves her husband."
Daniel's writing is rich in description — of both its lush Florida settings and her characters' emotional landscapes — that draws the reader in. While she remains proud of Stiltsville, she's particularly happy about the new novel's "narrative pull." And though she's no longer a first-time author, she is "just as excited as if it were a debut."
Daniel is gearing up for author events at the Wisconsin Book Festival, Iowa Book Festival and Arcadia Books in Spring Green, and also for a series of workshops she'll teach starting this fall with fellow Madison author Michelle Wildgen (see sidebar).
She'll get a respite from this flurry of activity to tackle a different kind of work: getting her third novel off the ground at the MacDowell Colony, the prestigious New Hampshire retreat for writers, artists and composers. (Writers who have done MacDowell stints include James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Michael Chabon and Jeffrey Eugenides.) Daniel's three-week MacDowell residency begins in late December.
"At MacDowell, I'll be able to put on the blinders I keep tucked away, keep my head down, and work, work, work!" she notes with relish.
A seasoned debut author
While The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane (Thomas Dunne Books) is Kelly Harms' debut novel, it's not the work of a newcomer to the literary world. An Iowa native, Harms moved to Madison in 2009 after spending years in New York City, moving from an editorial position at HarperCollins to a boutique literary agency serving a roster of best-selling authors.
In addition to having a wealth of experience in the publishing business, Harms describes herself as a "secret writer" who'd already labored over other manuscripts of her own.
"This particular book I wrote for myself," she says of Good Luck Girls over scones at Lazy Jane's Cafe. "Nobody's first book is really their first book. I just let myself go and had a good time with it. Then, after I was done, I didn't show it to anyone for a while. It took a lot to get up my guts to show it to my former colleagues."
That worry, however, doesn't show through on the pages of Good Luck Girls, which seems as assured as it is charming and quirky. Two young women from Cedar Falls, Iowa, both named Janine Brown (one goes by Janey, the other by Nean), believe they are the winners of a dream-home contest run by the Home Sweet Home Network. While Janey is a quiet bridal-shop seamstress obsessed with cooking elaborate meals in her free time, Nean is a fast-food worker with a hardscrabble past.
Their surprise encounter at the million-dollar home in Maine, and the friendship that ensues, set the book in motion.
"It's a buddy book, a book about friendship," says Harms, who lives near Olbrich Gardens with her toddler son. "When the idea for the book came to me, the characters were fully formed. It was their story, and details of the plot were mine to work out. Janey and Nean came to me in whole cloth."
While Janey and Nean are at the heart of the story, Janey's plucky, 80-something Aunt Midge is memorable as well. Harms used this character to imagine what it might have been like to have an especially pert relative.
"I have a small German family on one side, and an even smaller Swedish family on the other. It's no wonder that I make up these outrageous families," she says.
Harms balances writing with freelance editing of fiction manuscripts (she works with a select list of clients on big-picture editing in terms of character, plot and pacing) and a Saturday gig moonlighting at Happy Bambino, the Monona Drive store for expectant and new parents.
"I am passionate about supporting women as they enter into the challenges of motherhood," says Harms, who found the store an invaluable resource during her pregnancy and as a new mom. "When they needed someone to work on Saturdays, I couldn't raise my hand high enough."
What ties Harms' pursuits together, she says, is "the business of being a woman." The Jane Rotrosen Agency, where she worked in New York, is "owned and run by women, and a powerhouse of literary talent." She also cites her editor and Happy Bambino's ownership as strong, positive female role models. "I think what really defines me as an author is that I'm interested in the lives and challenges of women."
Good Luck Girls melds that female-centered viewpoint with a light, witty and highly accessible style. (Fitness magazine included it in a list of recommended summer reads with "spunky leading ladies that you can take to the beach.")
For Harms, though, perhaps the highest praise has come from a surprisingly tough critic: her own mother. "When my mom read it and said she liked it, I cried tears of joy."
Harms explains that her mother is a terrifyingly well-read librarian who finished the complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while nursing her. "I watched the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Harms says of her time nursing her son.
Bringing Janey and Nean from her imagination to local bookstores has been rewarding for Harms, who received an advance copy of her own book in June.
"I've sent out hundreds of [books] in my career to other authors, and I still didn't know what it would be like," she says. "It's been an absolute thrill to see the book in print."