“If I don’t sell this novel, I’ll open a shoe store.”

That’s what I told my husband, and I meant it. Shoes were easy and fun -- I quested for them on an intuitive level only a shoe lover would understand -- whereas my career as a novelist, another passion, had been a struggle. My first two novels, published by a small press, had lasted a few weeks in bookstores before vanishing into the backlist. I was a published author but still had to do office work to survive. Then my publisher died and I couldn’t find a home for my newest novel. My career was a bust before it really began. A dozen years, a marriage and two kids later, I was eager to dig into work again. The question was, do what?

Like many mothers who temporarily detour out of the workforce to care for their families, I found that going back to work meant making choices. I did not want to be in a full-time job that kept me away from my children, and I didn’t want to write another novel that wouldn’t sell.

Outside motherhood, there were four things I was good at: typing, teaching, novel-writing, and knowing a good shoe when I saw one. Typing for a living was definitely a last resort, avoidable so long as my husband had work. I was already teaching fiction writing as an adjunct, and had been since my first baby was ten months old; it was satisfying work, but paid poorly. Novel writing was what I felt fired-up to do. It’s an esoteric skill, relegating you to long hours alone, inventing characters and worlds that you manipulate to your liking; you might say it’s on par with insanity. You churn out hundreds upon hundreds of pages, which you then discard and rewrite, revise, polish, and change some more. After all that, there may be a very slim possibility you’ll sell the thing -- probably for less than a secretary’s starting salary. Then, when it finally gets published, the usual reaction is that nothing much happens . . . and then it disappears.

I decided to take one more stab at it, but this time I would make it commercial, hopefully improving its chances of getting published. A writer with many unpublished manuscripts lining my closet shelves, I undertook my last attempt as a novelist with as much reservation as determination. I really meant it when I said this would be the last novel I ever wrote if it didn’t sell. And I kind-of secretly wanted to open that shoe store.

It would be a special place where owner and customer would recognize each other’s inexplicable desire for the perfect shoe. I could see them perched on narrow, tilted shelves: soft suede, gleaming patent leather, rounded toes, square toes, pointed toes. High heels, low heels. Buckles, straps and beads. Boots, sandals, autumn loafers. They glittered and gleamed in my imagination, which would be free to lay down the burdens of invention; I would be an impresario of fine footwear, a mother, a wife and a reader. It sounded kind of nice.

I turned my mind to the new novel, figuring I’d go down in glory with my sinking ship -- no one could say I didn’t try before giving up my dream -- and then I would go shoe shopping.

Suspense was a fictional element I felt I had never mastered, so I decided to try it. In the past, I’d tackled plot, character, voice, linear versus abstract narrative structures, multiple point of view, single point of view, interwoven stories, humor, mystery, young adult, children’s stories . . . each with a novel devoted to its understanding and mastery. (I was insane.) I enrolled in a one day how-to-write-suspense course, hoping to jump-start the learning process.

That Saturday morning, my son woke up with a fever, my husband had had insomnia and slept not a wink, and it was pouring rain. I couldn’t leave my delirious husband to drag our baby daughter and her feverish brother through the deluge to the pediatrician’s office, so I stayed home. The conspiracy of deterrents seemed fraught with warning: What made me think I could undertake this project, or any project, when I had small children? A few days later, I realized that I could probably learn from a book everything the class would have taught me, plus I could read a book at home. I went to the bookstore and bought Writing the Thriller by T. Macdonald Skillman.

It was excellent. I read it cover to cover, took notes, and read many of the novels she recommended. Then I outlined the idea that had been swimming around in the back of my mind. Thrillers are about fear and anxiety, and as a mother, I had many. I would write about what would terrify me more than anything, in a two-pronged approach: the sudden loss of a child, and a mother’s inability to protect him.

It was just over a year from the first to last draft of Five Days in Summer, the story of a mother who vanishes at the grocery store, and whose seven-year-old son vanishes four days later. Their family is plunged into a desperate search for a serial killer whose pattern is to complete a horrific pair of crimes within five days. I scared myself writing it. Meanwhile, I kept my eye on vacant storefronts in my neighborhood, imagining how nice it would be to have a business out of the house but close to home. A business in which I could meet new people while helping them choose a perfect pair of shoes. A business I could close for an hour when there was a school play. I would be my own boss, make my own decisions; I was organized and a hard-worker; this would be fun.

My agent approved the novel (I had signed on with him during my first pregnancy, unaware of how dramatically my life would change, and he had stuck by me during years when I didn’t write at all). He called me on a Thursday to go over his cover letter and list the publishers who would receive a manuscript the next day. I was prepared to wait weeks for a reaction. Six days later we were hot into an auction that would play out for five more days and leave me with a six-figure two-book contract with a major publisher.

When I recovered from the shock, I read through my new list of deadlines. I was expected to publish once a year, and had a month to deliver a proposal for book number two . . . and I hadn’t even thought about another novel. But as I had been thinking a lot about shoes, I solved the problem by giving myself the store after all. That is, I gave it to Alice, the protagonist of my second thriller, Seven Minutes to Noon. Alice, a fictional Brownstone Brooklyn mom, owns a shoe store called Blue Shoes, just a few blocks from my real-life home. The store is home base for Alice and her partner Maggie as they search for their very pregnant friend Lauren, who disappeared before picking her son up from school. As Alice digs under the surface of her quaint neighborhood, she finds a dark underside to gentrifying real estate; where there’s money, there’s murder, and soon Alice realizes her own life may be in danger.

To my surprise and delight, I have reinvented myself as a suspense author, just as the fictional mothers in Seven Minutes to Noon opened Blue Shoes as an act of personal reinvention, shedding stressful careers for flexibility, independence and, well, shoes. Needless to say, theirs is the best shoe store in town. If only it existed in real life -- I would be their best customer.

Copyright © 2005 Kate Pepper

Author's Bio: 

Kate Pepper is the pseudonym of author Katia Spiegelman, who teaches fiction writing at New School University and lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two children. She is the author of Seven Minutes to Noon (Signet; May 2005; $6.99US/$9.99CAN; 0-451-21579-6) as well as Five Days in Summer.

For more information, please visit the author’s website at www.katepepper.com.