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Kim Edwards Doesn’t Choose Stories; They Choose Her

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The Memory Keeper's Daughter

by Kim Edwards

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“An exclusive Authorlink intervie with Kim Edwards
Author of The Memory Keeper's Daughter (Penguin Group (USA) 2006)

by Ellen Birkett Morris

September, 2006

All stories feel a little bit like gifts. I don't choose stories as much as they choose me. Certain ideas, overheard snatches of dialogue, or images, linger and deepen over time, and eventually demand to be told. The crucial moment, the moment when an idea starts to become a story, is when I find the voice for the narrative," said author Kim Edwards.

For Edwards THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER was one of those stories.

Her first book, THE SECRETS OF A FIRE KING, an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award, was already out and receiving good reviews when her pastor approached her with a story idea.

The story dealt with the true case of a man in his 40s who discovered he had a brother who had been born with Down’s syndrome, institutionalized at birth, and kept a secret from the family (including the mother). He died alone in the institution.

"The stories I am driven to tell are the stories that linger, that pose a problem that I have to explore . . ."

 

—Edwards

“I thought immediately that would be a powerful novel, but I also thought I wouldn't write it,” noted Edwards. But, the idea stayed with her. After teaching a writing workshop with adults with developmental disabilities she found herself thinking of the novel idea again.

“The stories I am driven to tell are the stories that linger, that pose a problem that I have to explore and that set up a narrative challenge for me to meet,” explained Edwards.

That story became the springboard for the novel that centers on the lives of Dr. David Henry and his wife Norah. After assisting his wife as she gives birth to their twins, a boy and a girl, David realizes immediately that the girl, Phoebe, has Down’s syndrome. In order to protect Norah, he orders the nurse to take her away to an institution, and tell his wife that their daughter died at birth. But the nurse, Caroline, cannot bring herself to leave Phoebe at the institution and instead chooses to run away to another city and raise the baby as her own.

"It was important to me that Phoebe’s character be realistic and not sentimental . . ."

 

—Edwards

The reverberations of this secret are explored in the novel which spans the lives of the characters over a 25 year span.

Edwards has thought a lot about the nature of story and which stories are “hers to tell.”

While teaching English as a Second Language in Cambodia in the early 1990s, after the war, genocide and an embargo that plagued the region, people would often come up to Edwards and share stories about life under Khmer Rouge. “The imperative of narrative, the importance of sharing our stories, became evident then. But I knew those stories were not mine to tell and to tell them would be exploitative,” observed Edwards.

After careful research and meeting with a Down’s syndrome support group, Edwards felt ready to take on the story of Phoebe.

“The parents were eager to tell me about their joys and struggles. Their stories, although I did not use them in the book, gave me a deep sense of the landscape. It was important to me that Phoebe’s character be realistic and not sentimental or patronizing,” said Edwards.

"I’ve always written, even as a small child."

 

—Edwards

 

She drew from the experience of watching friends who were photographers to portray David Henry’s obsession with capturing moments in time through photography. She read Susan Sontag’s ON PHOTOGRAPHY, which explored photography as metaphor.

Writing as a discipline is nothing new for Edwards who has made up stories ever since she can remember.

“I’ve always written, even as a small child. Before I could write, my mother would write the stories down for me and I would illustrate them,” said Edwards. She focused on poetry from grade school to high school and returned to writing stories in college.

She attended community college before enrolling in Colgate University and connecting with her mentor, the late Frederick Busch, who was a professor of literature at there. Bush advised to her attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

“I learned a tremendous amount very quickly at Iowa. It was a total immersion in the works of various serious writers,” she noted.

"I took more risks because I wasn’t going to be showing the piece to someone the next day."

 

—Edwards

Having earned a second degree in theoretical linguistics, Edwards and her husband left the country to teach English as a Second Language in Asia. She is currently an assistant English professor at the University of Kentucky. Being apart from her culture and not able to readily send work out allowed Edwards to focus more intently on the craft of writing.

“I took more risks because I wasn’t going to be showing the piece to someone the next day. I gained confidence in my ability to shape the story on my own,” said Edwards.

It took her three years to write THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER and another year to edit and shape it.

Edwards didn’t use an outline. She relied on revision as a way to develop characters more deeply and compared the act of revision to archeology.

"Writing is a process of discovery. The first draft lays out the narrative landscape . . ."

 

—Edwards

“Writing is a process of discovery. The first draft lays out the narrative landscape in which one does a narrative dig. You need to allow time and patience to fully discover a book,” explained Edwards.

She said one challenge in writing the book was creating dramatic action that would sustain the motion of the book over time and keep the narrative momentum going over the 25 year time span in which the story takes place.

After she established the narrative arc of the book, which is written alternately from the point of view of four different characters, she read each character’s chapters in succession to make sure the story made sense and information was not repeated.

Once the manuscript was complete, Edward’s agent Geri Thoma auctioned the book. It sold in a matter of days.

Edwards worked with Penguin editor Pamela Dorman, who sent her thoughts in the form of a long letter that explored areas that needed more thought. The end result was a riveting story of family lost and found.

After having sold 30,000 copies in hardcover, THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER made it to the top of The New York Times list of bestsellers for paperback fiction this summer. Edwards is now working on another novel, the premise of which, in keeping with her first novel, she would like to remain secret at this time.

  Kim Edwards is the author of The Secrets of the Fire King, an alternate for the 1998 PEN/Hemingway award, which will be reissued in the next year. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and an assistant professor of English at the University of Kentucky.
About Regular Contributor

 

Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.

 

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