You have to understand that I am a perfectionist. Also, like most writers, I cannot stand rejection.
When I was twenty-seven, working as an international banker and hating it, I decided not to wait any longer to write the book I had conceived when I was twenty: an epic historical novel about a woman living in Vienna from 1913 to 1938. I had never written a book before, but had taken advanced creative writing at Stanford (a bad experience). Do you think it ever occurred to me that this might be a bit of an ambitious project? Of course not. I am convinced that if people knew how hard it was to write fiction, no one would ever do it!
I had lived in Austria and studied its history, politics, architecture, paintings, food, and music. The story of the end of the Hapsburg Empire and Austria’s struggle with democracy between the wars had never been told in an American novel. So, I figured I was the one to tell it. Ah, the hubris of the young.
I outlined the book and created character sketches during my hour and a half bus ride into Los Angeles and back home every working day. Amazingly, those elements remained unchanged. But when I attempted to write the story, I felt inadequate. I decided I needed to understand the history better in the context of the rest of the world. After I changed to a much less demanding profession, I would spend whole days researching in Churchill’s six volume history of World War One, Barbara Tuchman’s August, 1914, Erich Remarque’s All Quiet On the Western Front, Frederick Morton’s A Nervous Splendor. I was overwhelmed. The hubris died, and I realized how young and inexperienced I was.
I began to study writing instead. I have a whole bookcase full of books on writing. Eventually, writing during my children’s naps, I had a draft. I was working with an editor by then. She had an agent that she knew would be interested. I said, “No. It’s not ready. It’s only a romance, and I know it needs to be so much more.” I could not bring myself to tell her that it was an unrealized epic. On and off over the next twenty years I would work on my intended masterpiece, while I wrote “what I knew” and published a book on genealogy and a five volume mystery series.
I knew what was wrong and did not see how it could be fixed. I was an American and I was too inexperienced in dealing with sorrow and grief. How could I expect to understand the terrible realities of World War One? It was the worst, if not the most pointless, war in history. It changed the world forever, eventually leading to another horrible war to “fix” the terms of the peace treaty. It paved the way for Hitler. It destroyed empires that had existed for a thousand years.
I had set myself quite a challenge, for I did not want to write a bleak book. What was the point of that? I wanted to write something that inspired hope, but I did not know how I could get inside the mind and heart of a heroine who would suffer the loss of everything, but come out whole herself. I had to find the understanding and the words to draw the reader into her heart and mind. I needed to know more about suffering and surviving before I could write the book I envisioned. What philosophy, what beliefs would pull my Amalia through all her tragedy? At this point, I started re-reading Tolstoy and I was more discouraged than ever.
Then, my life changed. For years I had been suffering with clinical depression. Spiraling down with no cure in sight, I finally hit bottom and stayed there for six long years. I no longer had the ability to write, but that was the last thing on my mind. I was in a fight for survival. My world was darkest black. I could only live one hour at a time. The pain I felt was intense beyond words to describe. My heart physically hurt. I could not even take care of myself, much less the last child left at home. When I was in the deepest part of my illness, he was sent off to his best friend from childhood for the summer. I learned about sorrow. But the only thing I knew about survival was that it was becoming more and more improbable.
I had a treatment where they put me under anesthetic and shocked my brain every other day for a month. It did not cure my depression, but it robbed me of my memory. My short term memory was gone. I did not know basic things, like the streets in my town, or how to put on my make-up. Whole years were missing from my long-term memory.
Somehow I learned to survive in this state. That was an achievement.
Eventually, there was light. And for me this light came from my Savior. It pierced the darkness. It invited trust and hope. And it was accompanied by a miracle in my medical treatment.
When I became stable, I knew that I had paid my dues. I now understood what I needed to know about suffering. I knew the darkness and I knew the light. How could I impart this to my readers? How would my heroine experience this? I wanted this book to have a universal appeal, and yet I could not deny the spiritual reality of what had happened to me.
I had several vivid metaphors imparted to me. Eventually, truth just flowed out of me onto the paper. It is what it is. If I tried to change it, it would not have any power. But describing that power in terms of darkness and light was very effective. And it was true. It was exactly what it felt like.
Because of my own suffering, I was finally able to write the book I had long wanted to write: The Last Waltz. It was a journey I would never want to repeat. And more came out of it than a book. I am fundamentally changed. And, looking back, it is a price I was glad to pay.