Jennifer Haigh's first novel was a surprise hit. With her second, she hopes to build on that momentum.
HULL -- For the would-be novelist, the road to publication usually includes treacherous potholes, wrong turns, even a few dead ends.
It didn't happen that way for Jennifer Haigh of Hull. Just the opposite. A literary agent came looking for her. Instead of earning a pile of rejection slips, her first novel was quickly snapped up by a major publisher, got great reviews, and sold more than 100,000 copies. And now, her second novel, "Baker Towers," is poised to become one of the hit books of 2005.
In response to huge interest from booksellers, "Baker Towers," the story of a Pennsylvania coal-mining family, starts out with a 100,000-copy first printing by publisher William Morrow. It's the No. 1 pick for January on the American Booksellers Association's Book Sense recommended list. New England booksellers are enthusiastic, but they're not the only ones. "This is one we heard from a lot of booksellers about," said Dan Cullen, editor of the Book Sense list, "from Montana, Ohio, California, Michigan."
"We are very excited," said Margaret Maupin, book buyer at Tattered Cover Book Store, a local chain in Denver. "The people who have read it here loved it. It's one of those books that seems to have a momentum behind it." Nicola Rooney of Nicola's Books in Ann
It's a publisher's and author's dream: a book that booksellers already loved and craved, even before the book's Jan. 4 release date. Early reviews have been strong. It's not certain to be as big as Morrow hopes, of course, but the outlook is bright.
Jennifer Haigh (pronounced with a hard "g"), 36, has an intense gaze, lively features, and a confident, clear, and reflective manner. In an interview at her home a few blocks from Nantasket Beach, it became clear that she has thought long and carefully about life and writing. She is where she wants to be, doing what she wants to do. She is also ready to get out there and face the public, and has just begun a 40-city author tour, with enough appearances to make any writer sick of her own book.
Haigh was born in Barnesboro, a coal-mining community in western Pennsylvania that resembles Bakerton, home of the fictional Novak family. She has one older brother. "Growing up, I didn't know anybody who didn't have a miner in the family," she said. "Both of my grandfathers were miners. It was typical to go to someone's house to play and have to be quiet because someone's father was sleeping off a [night] shift."
It was a reading family. Her father taught junior high school English, and her mother was a high school librarian. "I've always felt that writing can be learned but not really taught," Haigh said. "The best thing somebody can do for you is to put the right book in your hands at the right time. I grew up in a family where the right book was always being put in my hands."
She went to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where she began to write fiction, and graduated in 1990 with a degree in French. She had spent an undergraduate year in France, and after college, returned there on a Fulbright scholarship. Besides her studies, she taught English to inner-city French kids. She returned to the United States in 1991 and lived for a time in Tampa, Fla., writing some, but mainly leavening her knowledge of life with ordinary jobs: secretary, waitress, cleaner of offices at night. She didn't try to publish.
After a few years, she took a job with Rodale Press in Pennsylvania, eventually becoming an editor at Men's Health magazine. Then she shifted to New York to become senior editor at Self, a Conde Nast lifestyle magazine. She had a nice career going, "a comfortable life," she says, with an apartment on the Upper East Side. But in 1998, "I turned 30, and I came to the realization that this wasn't what I wanted to do with my life, wasn't the person I wanted to be. So I quit my job, broke my lease, and moved to Baltimore and started writing again. I could afford to live there."
She taught yoga, which brought in some money, spent almost the rest of her time writing, and began to publish short stories in literary magazines. She began "Mrs. Kimble," her first novel, about a mystery man who marries three women in succession, in the spring of 1999. Her application to the Iowa Writers' Workshop was accepted and she began her two-year MFA program in the fall of 2000, where she finished "Mrs. Kimble."
The famous Iowa program helped her, she says, but not in the way she expected. The feedback she received on her own work didn't help much.
However, "I spent hundreds of hours reading other people's misshapen or ill-conceived first drafts. It sometimes feels like a waste of time that you'd rather spend on your own work. But week after week in these workshops, you are forced to articulate what is wrong with this chapter or story. Other people's errors are so apparent. Your own never are. In the process, you acquire the skills to do that with your own work. It's a brilliant system." She finished the novel in 2001, then met New York agent Dorian Karchmar, who, like many other agents, regularly visits MFA programs such as Iowa, trolling for talented writers. Karchmar was impressed by the stories Haigh first gave her, but was blown away by "Mrs. Kimble."
"I read it and felt my heart start to race," Karchmar said. "You feel a certain tingle with true talent, with a capital T."
She took Haigh on as a client, and after a little revision, "Mrs. Kimble" was sold within a couple of months. It proved to be such a hit with booksellers -- who began pressing it on their book clubs, which in turn spread the word of mouth -- that it sold 50,000 in hardcover and 60,000 more (so far) in paperback, fantastic sales for a literary first novel. It also won the PEN/Hemingway award for first fiction. "It was lightning quick and utterly painless," Haigh says. "I was amazed."
Morrow had signed her to a two-book contract, and "Baker Towers" is the second. Convinced that the new book could rival or exceed "Mrs. Kimble," Morrow ran off 6,000 advance reader's editions -- not the cheap coverless bound galleys sent to review editors, but a glossy edition that looks much like a finished paperback. Stacks were delivered to regional bookseller's conventions last fall, and more copies were sent to individual booksellers. They became so excited that Morrow printed a total of 12,000 reader's editions to meet the demand for more copies.
"There's a huge push for it here," said David Weich, director of marketing and development at Powell's Books, a six-store independent chain based in Portland, Ore. " 'Mrs. Kimble' was very successful for a first-time author. I don't think 'Baker Towers' will be everybody's favorite book, but it will appeal to a wide audience."
The tale of the five Novak children takes place between World War II and the 1960s. It's told mostly from their successive points of view: Dorothy, Joyce, Georgie, Sandy, and Lucy. Neither they nor their lives are extraordinary. The novel's one external cataclysm, a mine accident, is as quietly narrated as its repercussions in the characters' lives. Haigh's writing style is straightforward, without pyrotechnics. The novel's structure, with many short episodes, makes it easy to put down and pick up.
Haigh acknowledges that Bakerton is much like her hometown. She says that place's social and economic atmosphere is so personal to her that she could not have used it in a first novel. "This is a book I couldn't bear to screw up; it was too important to me, too personal," she said. "I felt too much obligation to those people and that region to get it wrong."
After she received her MFA from Iowa in 2002, Haigh cast about for a place to live. She chose Boston, and lived at first in an apartment in Jamaica Plain. But it was noisy, which she says interfered with her writing. An acquaintance had mentioned Hull, and one rainy March day she drove down to look at the South Shore beach town, busy in the summer, but quiet and out of the way in winter. "I thought, 'Yeah, this is great,"' she said. "It was dormant -- this is when I love it best. I like gray days." She bought her small house in 2003.
Haigh is at work on another novel, and though she will say no more, she does say that "Mrs. Kimble" and "Baker Towers" are her kind of book. "The novels that most attract me, the thing I work toward in my own," she said, "is how people's lives turn out. I am attracted to stories that unfold over a generation, because you need some time to see how people's lives are going to turn out."
It might seem a long way from Barnesboro to Hull, but to Haigh, in life as in fiction, things work out the way they must. "I was in Pennsylvania at Christmas," she said, "and was around my mother [her father died in 2003] and a bunch of cousins my own age, and I remember having this feeling that our lives have all turned out the only way they possibly could have."
David Mehegan can be reached at email@example.com.