Learning Lee Ann MFA

So what’s your book about?

May 1, 2023

People ask me this question all the time. The first person who asked it turned out to be a New York book editor. It was the first night of our MFA residency at Drexel University, and I could not coherently answer her question. Once I realized to whom I had babbled, I spent the evening beating myself up and not enjoying the Mexican buffet with my fellow students.

In my defense, I had only written about 18,000 words at that point, enough to get myself into the program, and the original nebulous synopsis in my head turned out to be way off. Now I have completed the first draft of the manuscript and have written 85,000 words. That’s almost 400 pages. It’s time to be able to tell people what my novel, “The Salt and Light Express,” is about. This is not the agent query version, which would include more spoilers and comparisons to similar novels and a bio; it would also be as tight and succinct as I could possibly make it. This is the random-question-from-friend-or-family version.

I will say that it has been categorized as “upmarket women’s fiction” by people who know what they are talking about.

Chris Lawler, 65, is unmoored after the death of Sally, her partner of 35 years. They were broadsided by a teen-ager who was drinking and texting, but Chris carries the secret that she contributed to the fatal accident through a typical lack of mindfulness. Grieving, guilty and in a downward spiral during the COVID pandemic, Chris eventually discovers a note from Sally among their legal papers urging her to use Sally’s savings to buy the small RV Chris had always wanted. Chris makes plans to leave her home on the East Coast and head out west with Sally’s ashes, intending to fulfill her wishes to be scattered at Bryce Canyon, their favorite place. In Moab, where the book opens almost a year after Sally’s death, Chris encounters a family of sorts among a campground community – including the contemplative Claire, a retired school superintendent who journeyed to Utah to find peace after the shooting death of her son. The two women become soulmates, but Claire eventually leaves to join her daughter and grandchildren in Denver. Chris wished she could have articulated her feelings, a regret that follows her throughout the book. Assertive in work and academic settings, she is a wallflower when it comes to relationships.

After scattering Sally’s ashes, Chris is lonelier than ever and decides to return to the Hill Country of Texas, where her mother grew up, to reconcile with her extended evangelical family. They are still judgmental and distant, but she strikes up an unlikely friendship with a Baptist preacher, Brother Jared, igniting discord with his church’s leadership. Between Claire and Jared, there are many discussions of spirituality and Chris’s foundering faith. Chris also volunteers at the local library, where a debate and ultimately a violent confrontation over history, politics and truth divide the community. She and Jared emerge as heroes from the confrontation. After being injured herself and confronting death, Chris finally gathers the courage to reach out to Claire.

So I have probably given too much away, but there is so much more to tell. There is backstory that explains why Chris is the way she is, and I hope there is humor. There are attempts to understand the polarization we experience every day, and there is (I hope) a discussion of faith in today’s world that will make people think about what they believe and why.

I have now been assigned a mentor, an accomplished author who already knows what her next four published novels will be. She has been very encouraging so far, as I send her pages in increments of 20 or so.

We are only in the third quarter of the program, so the fact that I have already completed my first draft (with many revisions to come) is sort of amazing to me. Hopefully, people will actually read it someday.

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