The Lake of Dreams: On Encyclopedias

The Christmas morning when I was eight years old, my younger brother and I got up before dawn, while our exhausted parents were still asleep, and crept out into the living room.  Presents spilled from beneath the tree.  We were most captivated by the series of huge boxes addressed to us all, and we’d torn away the paper from the corner of one box before my mother heard us and came to shoo us back to bed. 

We went to our rooms, and I tried to sleep, but I remember savoring the glimpse I’d had of what was in that big box:  books.  Many, many books.  For me, it was blissful to consider.  From the time I was small I’d loved stories, books, and language, and I couldn’t imagine then–or now–a better gift than big boxes full of books.

When morning finally came, we discovered that the boxes contained not just ordinary books, but a whole set of encyclopedias.  Compton’s Encyclopedia, in fact, which was an arm of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  The bindings were cream colored, with a wide maroon stripe across the front, and black letters labeling the spines. 

At first it was a little disappointing, because they all looked the same.  Yet on that morning and over the years that followed, I spent many hours exploring the pages of those books, which were not the same at all.  Under “Anatomy” for instance there were pages of transparencies, each one illustrating a different aspect of the human body–one for the skelaton, another for the circulatory system, another for muscles.  It was fascinating.  And each letter of the alphabet had a history, as well, tracing the shape of each letter as it evolved through time, and discussing how it appeared in different ancient texts.

The best part about the encyclopedias was that most of what I learned I found by happenstance.  I might go to look up a subject for a school paper, but soon I was flipping through the pages and stumbling on things I would never have discovered otherwise.  According to my Oxford English Dictionary, which I have in the many-volumned hard-cover set, the word ‘encyclopedia’ means ‘circle of learning’, the circle of arts and sciences that the Greeks considered essential to a liberal arts education. 

I love that idea–a circle of learning, endless and complete, at once.

Yesterday the Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it will cease to publish hard copies of its books.  It makes sense, I know–I didn’t buy encyclopedias for my own children, who have grown up with the internet.  The world is changing, and we are in the midst of a change as powerful as the introduction of the Gutenberg Press in 1450.  There are pleasures and advantages in the online world, power in the instant access to texts and information.  Yet I still love books, the feel of them in my hands, tangible evidence of richly imagined worlds.  I love browsing in bookstores and libraries, and the anticipation of discovery each time I open the cover of a book.

And I treasure that memory of my childhood self, tearing off the wrapping paper to find a whole set of encyclopedias, A-Z, which would take me to places I never imagined could exist.

The Lake of Dreams: On Women, Contraception and the Importance of History

 In October of 1916, just under a hundred years ago, Margaret Sanger opened a clinic in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, NY.  Sanger, who as a nurse in the poorest areas of the city had witnessed enormous suffering, was determined to help women take control of their own bodies and their own lives.  Sanger’s purpose with this clinic?  To pass out information about contraception and human reproduction.  Information, that was all, the sort of basic facts that might today be related in a high school health education class.  Yet in 1916, the distribution of this information was illegal under the Comstock laws.  Even doctors could not give such information to their patients.  Women lined up for blocks to get these pamphlets, but Sanger was arrested, along with her sister Ethyl Byrne and their associate Fania Mindell.  The clinic was closed, and and all three women were sent to jail.

Margaret Sanger eventually went on to found Planned Parenthood, but like the struggle for women’s suffrage (it took 72 years from the reading of the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848 until women earned the right to vote in 1920) the struggle to fully overturn the Comstock laws took decades.  As recently as 1968, birth control was still illegal in some states–even for married couples. 

All this history came alive for me while I was doing research for The Lake of Dreams

The Lake of Dreams is really two stories, the story of Lucy Jarrett in 2006, and the story of her ancestor Rose, who was exiled from the family, and excised from all the family stories, due to her involvement in struggle for women’s suffrage between 1910–1920.  Like many of the women of her time, Rose worked for the rights of women–rights we’ve come to take for granted–at great personal cost to herself.

In writing The Lake of Dreams, I was exploring what happens when the stories of women are silenced, within a family, within a culture, and within the church.  Now, as the 2012 election cycle heats up and the talk has turned to limiting access to birth control and access to health care for women, especially for poor women, the stories of our strong and courageous ancestors matter more than ever. 

The rights of women in this country were won only after decades of struggle, and they are more fragile than we want believe.  Indeed, in state after state, they are being eroded as I write.  It’s time to speak up, with our voices and our votes.  We owe it to ourselves, to the strong women who came before us, and to the future we dream for our daughters.

The Lake of Dreams: Debuts at # 4 in the UK!

The Lake of Dreams was published in paperback in the UK last week, and I got word this morning that it has debuted at # 4 on the best seller list!  Thrilling news, and a wonderful way to start the week!

The Lake of Dreams: On Jeopardy!

This morning my daughter called to let me know that people at school were talking about the questions on Jeopardy! last night.  I often watch the show, but missed this one, so I didn’t know that one of my books had appeared in the category Possessive Book Titles, under the $2,000 clue.  It said, “Kim Edwards:  The ________ _________’s Daughter.”  I have to say, it’s totally thrilling to find myself mentioned on Jeopardy!  You can check it out at the link below.



The Lake of Dreams: On Writing (and Dreaming)

John Gardner, whose novels and books on writing have been important to me as a writer and a teacher, talks about the need for the writer to enter the ‘fictive dream.’  I think what he means by this is that as writers we must create a world so convincing and compelling that we are able–and our readers will in turn be able–to remove ourselves the from the sensory world we inhabit to dwell for a time in the imagined world, instead. 

Writing isn’t exactly like dreaming, but it requires the same openness to surprises and the unexpected.  And stories, like dreams, grow from images and scraps of conversations overheard, from moments of inspiration and from details and fascinating facts that slowly accumulate.  I was still in graduate school when I went out to try and see Halley’s comet–a huge disappointment in 1986.  But driving home in my blue Nissan truck, the first vehicle I ever owned, I found myself fascinated by the comet, which returns every 76 years, once a generation, like clockwork.  I’d never see it again, but my descendents would.  My ancestors had.  What a good way to tie an intergenerational novel together, I remember thinking.  I made a note.  I read about comets, too.  The word comes from the Greek word kometes, meaning hair, in reference to the streaming tail of the comet as it travels through the sky.  I learned that in 1910, Halley’s comet was vivid and spectacular.  The earth passed through the comet’s tail that year, and many people thought it would be the end of the world.

I made more notes, collected other things–the history of the people and the land of the Finger Lakes, the mesmerizing arts of glass blowing and stained glass, the underlying structure of quest stories.  Gradually, over time, all these things and many others grew together, interweaving, and eventually transformed into The Lake of Dreams, a fictive dream, as Gardner calls it, a world I found so compelling that often, at the end of a writing day, I did not want to leave.

The Lake of Dreams: The Chalice Well, Borders, and the Vesica Pisces

Cover of Chalice Well Glastonbury, England
This is a photo of the cover of the Chalice Well in Glastonbury England.  Now the ruins of GlastonburyAbbey stand there, but it is also thought to have been a sacred site during pre-Christian times.  Some people claim that it’s a “thin place,” where the distance between the material and the spiritual worlds becomes narrow.  The pattern of circles is an ancient one, too, often called the Vesica Pisces (literally: fish bladder!) and I’m intrigued by the meanings associated with this archetypal image of overlapping worlds.
I had the Vesica Pisces in mind as I was writing The Lake of Dreams, and it was the inspiration for the pattern that Lucy finds woven into a baby blanket and illuminated as a border in a series of stained glass windows.  These objects contain clues to the past, but as Lucy discovers, the past is not contained in a separate sphere, but overlaps with the present, and sometimes overshadows it.  Here’s Lucy’s description of the border in one of the windows she finds:
“The interwoven spheres and vines ran along the bottom of the window.  I’d done some research, and I’d found this motif everywhere.  These overlapping circles were ancient, tracing ack to Pythagorean geometry–geometry, a measure of the world.  In more mystical terms, the shape had always evokded the place where worlds overlap:  dreaming with waking, death with life, the visible with the unseen.” 
The Lake of Dreams, p. 362
When The Lake of Dreams was finished, the wonderful book designers at Viking/Penguin created a motif that echoes this ancient image, and that incorporates imagery from the novel, too.  It’s beautifully done, and the border opens every chapter, giving readers a bit of the experience Lucy has as she uncovers this pattern and its meaning for her life.

The Lake of Dreams: St. Louis County Library and The Literary Guild

Last week was the launch of The Lake of Dreams in paperback, and I traveled to libraries in Louisville and St. Louis to speak.  These were wonderful events, with large audiences of passionate readers.  At the St. Louis County Library, I noticed a group of young people sitting together in the audience.  They were so engaged, and asked wonderful questions after my talk.  Later, I learned that they were high school students, all part of a club called The Literary Guild.  They had read one of my novels, and they had come to my reading with their teacher.  It was very moving to me, and I think to many in the audience, to see so many young people feel so passionately about books and about reading, and I have thought about those students–and their dedicated and inspiring teacher–a great deal in the days since.  It’s impossible not to feel hopeful and excited about the future of books after seeing such a response from a new generation of readers.  Thanks to The Literary Guild for sharing that energy–and wishing you joy in reading always!

The Lake of Dreams: The Penguin Edition

Today is the official launch of The Lake of Dreams in paperback. The Penguin cover is beautiful. I love the color, and I love the way the key beneath the water evokes a sense of mystery. Every time I glance at the cover, from across the room or across a bookstore, I find it compelling and mysterious all over again.

Authors rarely have much input into the covers of their books. The design is done by artists at the publishing house, and one day the cover image simply arrives, these days by email attachment. I always pause and take a breath before I open them–and each time, I’ve been thrilled. Im grateful to the artists for the thought and care inspiration they bring to their work, and for the ways they have managed to translate the thematic heart of each of my books into images both powerful and compelling.

Today I’m in Louisville, Kentucky, for an event at the Louisville Free Public Library. If you’re in the area, I hope to see you there!

The Lake of Dreams: In Malaysia

The summer after I finished graduate school, I got married, and then my husband and I moved across the world to teach in Kuantan, Malaysia, a small city on the rural east coast.  I remember traveling across the peninsula by car just after we arrived, marveling at the new landscape.  Everything was different from anything I’d experienced before, from the foliage to the language and culture, to the climate and the food.  I wondered, as we drove, how I would ever write in this new place, so far away from the familiar.

As it turned out, however, this move across the world was a wonderful gift for me as a writer.  Life in Kuantan was rather quiet, especially after the intense literary mileau of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but in that silence I learned to listen to my own voices, my own stories, and I had time and freedom.  Living in another culture was tremendously stimulating, and I wrote letters and journal entries, short stories and essays.  I didn’t worry about publishing in those days, because it was before email, and very difficult to send manuscripts overseas.  I simply wrote for the pleasure of writing.  I began to take risks and test my range, too.  On holidays, I traveled, throughout Malaysia, as well as to Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia.  We went snorkeling on islands in the South China Sea, and we hiked through the hill tribe communities on the border of Myanmar.  Each trip gave me something new to think about, inspired more writing, and expanded my perspective on the world. 

Earlier this week I came across a very smart and thoughtful review of The Lake of Dreams in a major Malaysian paper, The Star, which I used to read when I lived there, and it took me back to those tropical days of writing and travel:

The Lake of Dreams: On the Finger Lakes

Last week I had the pleasure of reading at Cayuga Community College in Auburn, NY, so I was back in the heart of the Finger Lakes.  I graduated from Cayuga before I went on to study at Colgate University, and I was editor of the yearbook in my second year.  It was so interesting to go through and see all the changes that have happened over the years.  People were complaining about the spike in gas prices back then, too-they had just spiked to 61 cents a gallon!

As always, it was beautiful there, though the weather was bad last week, with many tornado watches, thunderstorms, and torrential rains.  The lakes are nearing record levels.  Yet the forsythia was blooming and the daffodils were up, and just in the few days I was there I watched the trees go from bare to feathery green.

This beauty is what I carry with me from the area, and one of the pleasures of writing The Lake of Dreams was setting the book in this area that I know so well, and love.  The area was named because the eleven parallel lakes are long and narrow and very deep, formed as the glaciers retreated, digging out ancient river beds.  From the air it looks as if a giant hand has pressed itself into the earth.  The town of The Lake of Dreams is fictional, completely imagined, but woven with from my perceptions of all the lakes over the years.