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Surprised at the Summit
It starts quietly, almost placing you at a frost-haloed window peering out at a winter storm: The snow started to fall several hours before her labor began. A few flakes first, in the dull gray late-afternoon sky, and then wind-driven swirls and eddies around the edges of their wide front porch. He stood by her side at the window, watching sharp gusts of snow billow, then swirl and drift to the ground…
Then Kim Edwards has you, drawn into her world of mid-1960s Lexington where a doctor makes a tragic decision about one of his newborn twins.
And you’re not the only one Edwards has ensnared in the web that is “The Memory Keeper's Daughter.” The University of Kentucky creative writing assistant professor found herself swept to the top of paperback-fiction bestseller lists across the country this summer.
She’s still there, listed anywhere from No. 1 to No. 7, depending on the list you consult.
“It's amazing,” Edwards says of the sales of her first novel. “It's beyond anyone's wildest dreams.”
The book's success is especially surprising, considering the publisher did not try to push the book when it was released in hardcover. “There was no big publicity campaign, no big ad campaign or media event, though it got very good reviews nationally.”
But sales grew.
“This happened by word of mouth,” she says, obviously still awed.
Then the publishers, Viking Penquin, realized they had a potential phenomenon on their hands and planned a bit more marketing support for the paperback edition released earlier this year.
Suddenly, Edwards found herself in demand, called to book tours and interviews – not the activity that she was accustomed to in her usual writer's solitude.
“I do have the discipline of writing every day, from 8 a.m. to 1 or 2 p.m. I work in my office, a room set aside in my home for me, a room my husband built. I write at the same time, in the same place; being there is essential to being receptive to what's happening in the book.”
“Some days the characters take on lives of their own, and that's wonderful,” Edwards says.
She was drawn to writing from an early age, loving the stories her mother would read to her. “I had no way of imagining how one became a writer. It was an elusive, faraway dream.”
The native of upstate New York went to a local community college, initially majoring in business before switching to English and transferring to Colgate University. Later, she entered a master's degree program at the University of Iowa, which is known for its fiction-writing courses. After earning her Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing, she spent five years teaching in Malaysia, Japan and Cambodia, then came back to the States and, eventually, came to teach at UK.
One day, a friend mentioned a situation where a man had discovered a long-lost sibling, born with Down syndrome and institutionalized, kept a secret from his family all his life. The seed of “The Memory Keeper's Daughter” was planted, though it was several years more before she began to write.
“That first chapter, for me, has an organic wholeness about it… The snowstorm was there from the beginning,” she says.
Then, as she created her characters and their situations, the writing process took over.
“The whole book surprised me. I didn't know what was going to happen until it came out. There were directions I thought it might go, but those became possibilities that just fell away,” s he says.
Now, the book is a major bestseller, and there’s talk of movie rights.
“I’m trying to catch my breath right now. I’m much more in the limelight in the literary world than I ever expected to be,” Edwards says.