Therese 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.
And 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.