Line-edit Stage of The House of Dead Maids

Flower from the Canadian Rockies

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt starts on page 395. Elena was in treatment at Clove House all day long, seven days a week. I was living with her in a small room in a former orphanage and driving her back and forth to treatment. Elena was so drugged out from all the medications they gave her that she couldn’t stay awake. She could barely even speak. I was lonely and beside myself with fear over whether Elena would survive. It was a horribly depressing time for us both.

During this dark time, I was working on a dark book, doing final edits (line edits) on The House of Dead Maids. It’s worth noting that I first wrote The House of Dead Maids back in early 2006. I blogged about its beginning here. That manuscript was finally going through line edit in early 2009, three years after I’d written it. It had been sold first to Simon & Schuster and then, when my editor there left, to Holt. Seeing a book make it all the way to print often takes years in the trade publishing world.

That night, I tossed and turned. My head hurt, and I felt horrible. My peace of mind was gone, and so was my comfort.

“I don’t feel good,” I told Elena the next morning as she smoked and we watched the Canada geese. “I’m getting a cold. I couldn’t sleep last night.”

Elena flicked the ash away. There were big bags under her eyes, and her face looked puffy. “I feel like s***,” she groaned, in agreement or in competition. “My head is killing me.”

“It’s going to rain again,” I ventured after a minute. “More thunderstorms on the way. No wonder those great big peripatetic geese don’t need a pond.”

Elena rested her aching head on her hand as smoke dribbled out of her lips. She didn’t bother to come up with a reply. And when she went to treatment, she didn’t bother to change out of pajamas, either.

“Why get dressed,” she muttered, “if I’m just going to sleep?”

The next day, or maybe a day three days later, or maybe a day a week later (they all felt the same), I dropped Elena off at Clove House and went back to the room to read manuscript printouts.

The Wuthering Heights manuscript full of ghosts that I had written when Valerie ran away was back again, all grown-up like she was. It had reached the line-edit stage, the very last stage before my editor passed it along to the art department and it got made into a book. All I needed to do at this point was to make sure that every single word sounded perfect.

That was good because it distracted me from the fact that I had no other writing to do. Since bringing Elena to Clove House, I hadn’t found the time or courage to start another new manuscript.

Now I carried the printout to the bed, picked up my red Sharpie fine-point pen, and got to work.

I was not the first girl she saw, nor the second, and as to why she chose me, I know that now: it was because she did not like me. She sat like a magistrate on the horsehair sofa, examining me for failings.

“I mustn’t take a half-wit, though,” she said reluctantly, as if she would like to do it. She seemed to consider idiocy the greatest point in my favor.

“Oh, our Tabby’s no half-wit,” countered Ma Hutton. “She just has that look. You did say you wanted to see an ugly one, miss.”

Miserable and sick, blowing my nose until tissues littered the bed, I lingered long and lovingly over this manuscript. The descriptions were so firm and decisive. The characters—even the dead ones—were so vivid.

Could it be true? Was this really my writing?

In the safety of my room, I stood for a while and stared out the window. Thunderclouds massed behind the suburb and rolled in over the deserted playground. Rain hissed down on the gray sidewalk outside, and then hail tapped and rattled on the glass.

The chipmunks and the geese were gone.

If I were at home, Joe would be making special runs to the grocery store to bring home medicine and snacks for me. And Valerie wouldn’t let me hold baby Gemma with this cold, but she would bring me cups of tea. She might even show up at my bedroom door and say, “Get dressed, woman! Dad called and got you an appointment. I’m driving you to the doctor.”

But Valerie and Joe weren’t here, and I didn’t have the strength to go down the hall to the kitchenette and make that tea myself. So I huddled under the blankets and shivered and reached for my line-edit printouts.

Soon I was safe in familiar scenes I’d plotted three years ago, watching two little children play with their dolls by a crackling fire while ghosts crouched in the shadows nearby. I let myself get lost in the story, as if it weren’t my work at all but an old book I’d found in a forgotten corner of a library.

Did I really write this? It sounded so confident—so unlike the person I’d become.

Would I ever have the nerve to write like this again?

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a flower from the Canadian Rockies copyright 2010 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

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