The Book of Life

PhotobucketTherese here. Today’s guest is an author I personally admire, Margaret Dilloway. Margaret’s latest novel, The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns, is a beautifully written character-driven story about the struggles of a woman riddled with kidney disease–and an abrupt personality–and how her life as a rose breeder is disrupted by the arrival of her teen-aged niece. Said thorny Kirkus about the book, “[An] exquisitely written novel about love and redemption.” Library Journal also loved it, submitting this review: “Believable situations with well-drawn characters make this novel as lovely as the roses Gal tends. Dilloway’s second novel is a captivating study of how love and understanding nurture our lives. Engaging, enlightening, thoughtful, this is a winner.”

I’m so glad Margaret’s with us today to talk about the challenging evolution of her book, and how in the end it mimicked much of what she had personally experienced–and what she needed to learn. Enjoy!

The Book of Life

The instant you hit SEND on the final draft of your manuscript, everybody asks one question, “What are you working on next?”

And you want to say, “Can’t I lie on the beach for a month before I answer that question?”

In 2010, I actually did have the option of beach-lying. We were living in Hawaii, and I’d spent the spring and summer after I finished How to Be An American Housewife furiously working away on a new project—not lying on the beach, but locked away in a small room with the blinds drawn and a room-sized air conditioner blowing on the back of my head. The new book was out of my genre a little bit. Different in tone than Housewife. I finished the book, sent it to my editor, and began daydreaming about roses.

My editor was interested in buying it. But then, she left the company to pursue a different line of work. My new editor read the manuscript and thought it wouldn’t be such a good follow-up, business-wise. Instead, she wanted to purchase something that was a mere seed of an idea I’d run by my agent at the time: a book about a rose breeder.

Of course, I took the news cheerfully, shelved my completed novel, and got back to work, drafted up a whole new outline, punched out some research, and turned in a whole new novel in two months.


I went back into my dark room and rocked back and forth and muttering, “I can’t write a whole new book. I can’t write a whole new book.”

On top of it all, in the fall, my husband took another job back in San Diego, and suddenly we had to move within a month. We’d only been in Hawaii for eighteen months. We’d planned on living there longer and were just getting comfortable, but it looked like the company where he worked was probably not going in a great direction for his career. And we missed the mainland. This time, he promised to not leave me behind with the kids—we were all going together.

The fast-impending move, with its requisite shucking of nearly all worldly possessions, presented a real-world dilemma far greater than the problem of working on a novel. So instead, I sat around rocking myself and muttering, “I can’t move again. I can’t move again.”

But we did, because we had to. We returned to San Diego, furniture-less and without a place to live. My computer broke permanently, perhaps reflecting my mental state. We had to buy warmer clothes. We had to enroll our three kids in their new schools. There were a few other things going on besides my book. Yet, slowly, I began doing some rose research, surfing the web from my daughter’s laptop, on a peeling vinyl folding table. I tried writing the novel, but it came so slowly and painfully that I kept putting it off.

As it happened, my sister-in-law with the kidney problems had also just moved back to San Diego. We’d never lived in the same town as she. I took a notebook over to her house and interviewed her extensively. If I didn’t understand a medical procedure, she explained it. Again, and again.

Still, when it came to writing the book, I did not get underway until February 2011 or so.

PhotobucketAnd when I finally sat down to write it, now with a deadline of July, Gal’s voice and the other characters all flowed out, as if they’d been marinating in the witch’s potion of my brain and were ready for their release. I wrote the book in about six weeks, writing every day, even on weekends, completely immersed. I had an outline to guide me, but the ending turned out to be completely different, and many of the other subplot lines varied, too. My editor loved it and had fairly minor suggestions. By May, I turned in my approved manuscript.

Sometimes, the best decisions are not the easiest ones to execute. Our return to San Diegowasn’t stress-free, but it’s been better for us in many ways. For example, I got unlimited access to my sister-in-law, and she had the chance to read the book in its loose-leafed form, before she passed away last Christmas. Writing a whole new book and sticking a completed one in a drawer was not easy, but now, I can see my editor’s judgment was brilliant. The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns is the best thing I have ever written.

I generally don’t write with intended themes; I only see them after the book is written. The book’s message of appreciating all that you have—in relationships and materials—instead of mourning what you don’t, turned out to be exactly what I needed during that tumultuous period.

Readers, you can learn more about Margaret and The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns on her website and blog, and by following her on Twitter. Write on!

Photo courtesy Flickr’s  puuikibeach



  1. says

    A story of grit and fortitude, Margaret. I’m so sorry that your sister’s passing is part of the story.

    A lingering question: will the completed MS come out of the drawer? I hope so.

  2. says

    Great to see the process of another writer writing about a real-life character! My book required knowing the people who were archetypal for the main characters, falling in love with one, and gradually becoming another.

    Life hands you your characters. Anna (who will become Gabriella in the final edit) is described at her very best in my other post here. I may describe her collapse to the very bottom of the bottle.


  3. says

    Margaret, you give me hope for my slowly (s-l-o-w-l-y) simmering ms that waits patiently for me to revise while I pursue artistic projects, photography, poetry, etc.

    What a wonderful post. Cannot wait to get the book!

  4. says

    What an amazing story. Life often gets in the way for writers, but we have to struggle through. In your case, you showed tremendous perseverance in the face of daunting circumstances to complete your novel. Your story is an inspiration to all of us. Best wishes for success for your book. Thanks for sharing your story with WU.

  5. says

    Thanks for the peak into your sometimes difficult journey. Like Alex, I’m sorry that your loss was part of it (and curious about the finished ms). Stories like this are inspirational to those of us coming along the road to publication behind you.

  6. says

    Margaret, Thank you for the lovely post. It is reassuring to see that even established writers go through this kind of process. I am an inspiring writer and am working on a novel based on a real life case I had. For almost twenty years I was a social worker in the field of child welfare. I have been dragging my feet on being disciplined about writing the book and have started wondering if there isn’t more than just being lazy behind all that. I suspect there is. It was a hugely traumatic case for me and in my fictionalization it becomes even more traumatic for the main character.

  7. says

    Thank you for sharing a lovely post. It reinforces to me that our creative selves will make the best of any situation. I’m sorry for the passing of your sister-in-law, but am awfully glad you got to spend time with her and maybe memorialize a little of her in your book.

  8. says

    How uncanny! We ourselves had to recently shelve a newly completed novel, as well! After our first book, Tales from the Kingdome: The Knight in Screeching Armor, was published, we decided, instead of writing from the hip, we would work on our second novel with a complete and detailed storyline. As it turned out (and this we only discovered after completing our second novel) we do not work well with a storyline as detailed as what we had. After months of hemming and hawing and not showing anyone our manuscript, we decided to put it out of sight for a time. Happily, we have now begun our new “second novel”, and have discovered once again the freedom of a blank page. How wonderful it is to escape the confinement of a storyline so detailed as to leave one suffocating, and to dive into the unlimited freedom of writing from the hip!

  9. says

    Margaret, was all that going on when you were hanging out with me Jamie Ford? Crazy! And inspiring. Thanks so much for sharing the story behind your story, and congrats on all the great buzz about your second book. Can’t wait to check it out. :)

  10. says

    I love this post because it tells me that I can look at my life experiences and though they may seem like things that just happen to me to remember and work with, they could potentially be “fodder” for a book that others might want to read. And it may teach my reader a life lesson that s/he wouldn’t otherwise have enjoyed.
    Thank you.