I started writing Lydia’s Party with the idea that it would be interesting to write about a group of friends who gather annually over many years. The book would be about friendship, also art, ambition, secrets, what changes over time and what stays the same. I would write (more) about food and dogs. Partly, I was fueled by momentum generated by my first novel, A Year of Cats and Dogs, which was about to be published that fall. By the time I finished the new manuscript, or thought I had, I’d sold two more books.
This book was different, though: More complicated, harder to gather into a shapely form, and I can see now that I was overeager to put it into the world. And it was confusing, written in first person from seven points of view. I’d written my second novel in multiple first person voices, too, but these characters were more alike, harder to tell apart. Frankly, it didn’t work.
So, after a period of mourning for the book I thought this would be, I rewrote it in third person. As big a job as that was, I found it satisfying, too. Having inhabited each character had allowed me to know them in a way I might otherwise not if I’d taken a more conventional tack. I felt privy to insider information.
One revision led to another and I ended up rewriting the book a few more times, for good measure. By now, years had passed. By the time I had a manuscript I felt might be ready to send around, my agent had moved on.
Everybody gets to this point sometime, I suppose, when the project you’ve spent an ungodly amount of time (love, hope) on looks like it’s going to die despite your best efforts. What to do then is a hard choice. Let it go, one part of my brain said. I’d written four books and gotten three published; .750 is not a bad batting average, I told myself. What else I was going to do with my life, I wasn’t sure, but maybe here was the end of this particular story.
Deep in my stubborn heart, though, I didn’t give up. I kept tinkering with the manuscript, and trying to figure out how to get it published.
Then I remembered—though, strangely, not right away—that I had another option, one I’d buried, maybe because it involved asking for help. Two years earlier, a lovely review of Cats and Dogs had appeared on Amazon. I’d looked up the reviewer—Jo-Ann Mapson—to email her saying thanks. She turned out to be a novelist (with Bloomsbury; look her up and buy her wonderful books), and she offered to put me in touch with her agent. I was awed and grateful. But I had an agent, so I said no thanks.
Now, what was there to lose? So, two years after her offer, and three-and-a-half years after I’d started the book, I emailed Jo-Ann. No answer. I emailed again—same results. This went on for a while. Fearful I’d done something to alienate her but now unable to stop, I wrote a letter, explaining my belated change of heart and including my email address. Then I gave up. I’d done everything I could.
Three days later I got an email reply. She’d been hacked, she said; she had a new address now. Of course she’d put me in touch with her agent.
After that, things happened pretty fast, and four months later I had a deal with Viking. (Though let it be noted: The launch date for Lydia’s Party is one day, two weeks, and five years after the day I started the manuscript, and until the day I turned in the final draft to my editor at Viking, I never stopped rewriting.)
A lot of my story can be chalked up to luck, or that’s one way to look at it. But mysteries abound. Looking back on how Lydia’s Party came to be published, I see now the cascading effect of a single generous act. A fellow writer took a chance on me, extended an offer of friendship without asking anything in return and in so doing changed the direction of my life. It wasn’t until later that I realized this: The book she made possible—though she hadn’t read it yet—takes as its subject exactly that kind of friendship.
Margaret Hawkins is the author of two previous novels, A Year of Cats and Dogs and How to Survive a Natural Disaster, as well as a memoir about her sister, After Schizophrenia: The Story of My Sister’s Reawakening. She has also written for the Chicago Sun-Times and is a senior lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.