"I'd written all through high school and college, but it had never occurred to me that I could get anywhere near writing as a profession," said Ellen Herrick, author of the upcoming novel The Sparrow Sisters. Due out September 1 from William Morrow Paperbacks, it's the story of three sisters--Sorrel, Nettie and Patience--who live and work together as gardeners and healers in the small New England town of Granite Point. It wasn't until just a few years ago, and at the urging of her daughter, that Herrick began writing again in earnest.
The novel, which is Herrick's debut, combines elements of magic realism with romance and a tale of a small community turning in on itself in fear and suspicion. A new doctor arrives in Granite Point and soon hears of the Sparrow sisters and the remedies that Patience, the youngest of the siblings, makes for the townspeople. As Patience and the doctor become attracted to each other, tragedy befalls a young boy. Patience's cures are quickly implicated, and a kind of witch hunt hysteria sets in. Before long, the women of Granite Point must work together with the Sparrow sisters to set things right.
"You should write the book you want to read," Herrick said. "I was in the mood for the Sparrow sisters--for a little New England town, for summer, for things to go wrong. I thought, if I don't sit down and write that, I won't be reading that anytime soon. I basically told myself the story."
Long before Herrick became an author, however, she was a publishing professional: she spent eight years at Warner Books/Time Warner Trade Publishing, where she eventually became v-p of marketing.
"I worked in book publishing because I wanted to read, and I wanted to be paid to read," said Herrick, who also sat on the editorial board at Warner. She recalled that the first thing she did when she arrived in the Warner Books office to interview for a job was to stop and peruse the books on the wall. "Reading for a living was my idea of heaven, and I did do a lot of that. I was around books all the time."
Herrick left publishing in the 1990s when her husband relocated to London for work. Once in the U.K., Herrick decided to put her career on hold and concentrate on raising a family. Close to 20 years later, a family vacation set Herrick writing again.
"The year before we moved back [to the U.S.], my children went off on a skiing trip and I stayed home," Herrick recalled. Before leaving on the trip, her daughter asked her what she'd do for 10 days while her family was away. Herrick had planned to spend most of that time reading. She then started to think about what she could attempt with 10 uninterrupted days. "I said, I'll write a novel. And my daughter said, 'Great, I can read it when I get back.' "
Herrick did in fact sit down during that break and begin writing. What she worked on was not The Sparrow Sisters, but the experience got her writing regularly again. Three years ago, she began working on The Sparrow Sisters intermittently. After moving back to the U.S., Herrick joined a writing program in Boston, and there she "dragged it back out." Prior to sharing The Sparrow Sisters in that workshop, she had never shown anyone her writing.
"I was taking a three-month course, and halfway through it the teacher said, 'I think maybe you know what you're doing,' " Herrick said. It was not long after that when she got into touch with an agent.
"It's much different now, but I do know what it's like to be on the other side," Herrick said. Given that past experience, she worried throughout the acquisition and editing process how she appeared to her publisher.
"I kept wanting to say, 'Don't hate me, I'm not one of those authors,' " she added, laughing.
Her book tour will begin with a pre-publication event at the Brewster Bookstore in Brewster, Mass., on August 26. On September 6, she'll sign books at a party in Orleans, Mass., with books for that event sold by Orlean's Main Street Books. She has a September 10 event at the Harvard Coop Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., and on September 19 she'll be one of several Cape Cod authors signing and reading at the Falmouth Public Library in Falmouth, Mass.
Said Herrick: "It's all something I've found wonderfully exciting." --Alex Mutter