The Underside of Joy is my debut novel. But I have been writing fiction for decades, ever since I graduated with a degree in journalism and promptly realized that what I really wanted to do was make things up. I took a lot of workshops, wrote short stories, wrote a novel, wrote another novel, then wrote yet another. I worked as a copywriter, writing advertising and marketing and coming up with taglines for everything from potting soil to cities. I helped raise four incredible kids. I was married, divorced, a single mom for six years. I married again and became a stepmom. In between and around all of that, I kept writing fiction. I’ve even been known to write on the edges of napkins at Chuck E. Cheese.
Several years ago, I came home from a writer’s conference motivated to dive back into my novel, the one that was on its way to becoming The Underside of Joy. But soon after re-entry into the everyday chaos of my life at that time, I thought, if I were smarter and somewhat wealthy, I would have arranged to go on a writing retreat right after the conference. Conferences are inspiring, but social. What I needed was solitude, a chance to burrow deeper into the work.
I wrote in my journal, I wish I knew someone who had a cabin they weren’t using, maybe at the Russian River. A few days later, I was walking with my friend Kelly. I hadn’t mentioned anything about wanting a place to write, but out of the mystical blue, Kelly said, “You know, my family has an old, tiny cabin at the Russian River. No one’s used it for years.”
I love it when stuff like that happens.
Within a couple of weeks she and her brother and my husband, Stan, and I hauled a few loads to the dump, cleaned and scrubbed. I worked like a maniac to finish up my freelance copywriting projects early to clear the calendar.
And that fall, I stayed at the cabin for an entire month. I’d never had that kind of time alone. I walked my Lab under the redwoods and down to the river, stared out the window, stoked the woodstove, read, listened to the fire crack into the quiet; and I wrote and I wrote. I didn’t have Internet. I didn’t watch TV. I didn’t even once get into a car. Stan brought me delicious meals and clean laundry once a week, and kept track of our brood of teenagers (or tried to, at least).
Truly, a writer’s dream. With that kind of complete immersion, the novel came alive to me in a way it hadn’t before, and the town of Elbow on the river was born.
Photo Credit: Sere Prince Halverson
I had no idea that by the next summer, while our four kids headed out to find their places in the world and the economy continued to tank, Stan and I would move in and rent that cabin for six months. What began as an act of sheer necessity soon transcended into one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. He found new work he loved. I was able to do several more revisions on The Underside of Joy before sending it out, and it too finally, finally found its place in the world.
Seré Prince Halverson is the author of The Underside of Joy, published in January 2012 by Dutton and forthcoming in 13 other languages.
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