Coming To: A Woman Re-Imagined
And the Making of a First Novel
FlaglerLive | October 15, 2011
Caren Umbarger, the artistic director of the Flagler Youth Orchestra for the last two years and occasional contributor to FlaglerLive, has just published her first novel. Here’s the backstory. The first chapter of the book appears at the foot of the column.
By Caren Umbarger
My favorite novels are stories about women – set in other lands and earlier times. I have learned so much about other cultures by reading about the lives of their women as told from the women’s point of view. So, it isn’t a huge surprise that I would write a novel that tells the story of a young wife and mother and her quest to better her own life.
My true inspiration for the story came from the lives of my grandmothers. I have deep convictions against gender inequality in the world and about the struggles that women and all oppressed people face, and I wanted to write a story that not only women could relate to, but also anyone who has struggled out of oppression to make a better life for themselves.
The Live Commentary
Coming To is set in Mason City, Iowa, in October, 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression. Lillian Scharf is a college-educated actress who seeks open communication, love, and creative fulfillment within her marriage. Her businessman husband Morris, however, is primarily concerned with order, predictability, and maintaining his reputation in town. As the pressure caused by these personal differences builds, Lillian’s desire to act in a local play is met by Morris’s attempts to thwart her self-expression, creating a dangerous environment. Determined to develop her own identity, Lillian acts upon her desire to be loved and appreciated fully – with cataclysmic consequences.
As archaic religious dogma collides with the desire for a marriage of equals in an explosive moment of rage and physical violence, Lillian seeks the help of friends to carry out a plan that could change her life forever. What she has no way of knowing is how far she is truly willing to go.
I had always harbored a secret desire to write a novel, so imagine my surprise when I found out that one of my adult violin students was a famous author who taught creative writing at the college level. Four months after he started lessons, I finally got up the nerve to tell him that I was a writer. When he asked me what I had written lately, I had to admit that it had been nearly twenty years since I had really done any creative writing, but I had always dreamed of writing a novel. He coached me on some writing prompts and encouraged me zealously, and after some months went by, I found myself writing Lillian’s story (Coming To), and being mentored by the teacher of my dreams.
I wrote the book for so long (five years) that it began to feel like it would never, ever get finished. But I continued to work on it with the hope that it would some day make it into the Library of Congress, and remain behind as a way for me to help make the world a better place.
During the writing of the book, my husband Paul and I moved from Minneapolis to St. Augustine. After we moved, while on a road trip together from Maryland to Florida, Paul read all the chapters to me from my laptop and I was astounded to realize that I was nearly finished. With a couple more weeks of work, I was able to produce and print-out my first manuscript. Several friends read it and offered critiques and support, and my son Charley even made me a beautiful, handmade edition of my book.
But after I sent off the first chapter to several agents and publishers, it became apparent that I could spend years trying to get the attention of someone in the publishing business long enough for them to give my book a read. So, Paul and I investigated the self-publishing option, which allowed us to produce a book for very little money down and have complete control over the cover design and content of the book. (Paul designed the cover you partly see in the illustration above.)
The process of self-publishing was very much like giving birth: you know going into it that it’s going to be intense. While you’re in the middle of it, you can’t remember why you thought you wanted to do it in the first place. Now that it’s finished, all the hard work was worth it.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the women writers who have come before me to champion gender equality (Alice Walker, Marge Piercy, Flannery O’Conner, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, Barbara Kingsolver, Carol Bly, and many more…) and to make women’s voices heard. They have inspired me to bring forth Lillian’s story. I hope my book reaches far out into the world to give hope to people who find themselves in relationships that fail to provide them with love, compassion, kindness, respect and personal freedom.
Lillian says it best: “Boy, you really do get to see what someone’s like once you marry them… I want love. I want a man to make me feel loved, not used. Listen, Flo. I know there’s more inside of me waiting to come out. I know it. I’m a really good actress. Maybe I’m even great. And, it’s all waiting inside of me. I want to be an actress….”
Indeed, Lillian gives the performance of her life in the suspense-filled climax of Coming To.