The genesis of Susan Schoenberger’s first novel A Watershed Year was a sad experience many years ago, just after the birth of her third child: the early cancer death of a former colleague and dear friend in Baltimore.
Her feelings went into a published short story called “Intercession” about the mixture of grief and motherhood. That story was adapted into the first chapter of the novel, which has just been published by Guideposts Books.
Schoenberger, a 1984 graduate of Dartmouth, is the editor of West Hartford Patch. She worked previously as a reporter and copy editor at the Register-Citizen in Torrington, The Day in New London, The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., The Baltimore Sun and The Hartford Courant.
She lives in West Hartford, her home for nearly 15 years, with her husband, three teenaged children and a dog named Jackson.
She started writing her novel in 2004, and finished a first draft in 2006. That year the manuscript won the gold medal for novel in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. With that door opened, Schoenberger spent the next four years finding an agent and a publisher, absorbing critiques and revising her work.
"During that whole process of getting the agent, going through the submissions, it's not like the manuscript stayed the same," she said. "It was constant rewriting and returning to the manuscript and working on all the parts that needed to be worked on."
The protagonist of her novel, Lucy McVie, is a 30-something professor of religion who has been in love with Harlan, a professor of early European history at the same school. Harlan has died of cancer, despite Lucy’s appeals to the saints she studies “because there’s so much genius in the idea that these humans somehow created pathways to God based on how they lived their lives.”
Harlan has written his own final chapter with a hypodermic needle, leaving Lucy with an e-mailed love note, his dining room table and a set of e-mails programmed to arrive on the 10th of each month. One of Harlan’s e-mails suggests that Lucy is “destined for motherhood,” and so she decides to adopt a baby.
A somewhat shifty Russian adoption agent steers Lucy into adopting a 4-year-old rather than the desired infant. The novel then gets into high gear with Lucy’s family’s reactions, the bureaucracy of adoption, travel to Murmansk and the problems with a Russian child from an orphanage.
Schoenberger bases her novel in reality. While her own children were not adopted, she has researched the process with all its ups and downs. And her characters simply come across as real, whether it’s Lucy’s Italian great-grandmother, the disoriented little boy, an annoying sister-in-law or the sometimes-dodgy Russians involved in the adoption.
This novel, Schoenberger hopes, is just the first she will publish.
"I definitely have another book in me and I have a complete first draft," she said. "So all I need now is a little time to go back to that and shape it up. And, hopefully, if this book does well, then I'll be asked to produce another one."
You can hear more about the book from Schoenberger and get a signed copy on April 4 at 7 p.m. at Bristow Middle School in West Hartford, on April 14 at 7 p.m. at Borders in Farmington, and on April 27 at 7:30 p.m. at the Tolland Public Library.
John Linsenmeyer was a commercial barrister for 40 years, the book critic for The Greenwich Time for 25 years, and now writes “Literary Lines” for Greenwich Patch. He lives in Riverside.