“In America,” the French writer and celebrated feminist Simone de Beauvoir wrote about the work of artists not yet shocked into popular recognition, “such efforts always take place in austere solitude: there’s no step between obscurity and success. The artist toils either in isolation or in the clamor of crowds. It takes luck to make the jump, and a lot of strength to survive it.”
Caren Umbarger doesn’t need to be told. She spent five years writing her first novel, Coming To, and the better part of the past year editing, publishing and marketing it. She’s had to do it in her spare time. She is the artistic director of the Flagler Youth Orchestra, a 280-student universe with gravity laws of its own. She maintains a music studio in her St. Augustine home, where she lives with her husband Paul. The couple relocated from a lifetime in Minneapolis a year and a half ago. Not that full-time writing would necessarily have made a difference. It’s thankless being a writer these days, and a self-published one at that: literacy isn’t exactly a national virtue in the land of the Tweet and the home of the $5 billion Facebook IPO. Even if reading anything longer than three lines isn’t a subversive act, the novel is increasingly getting lost beneath flabs of diet books, how-to’s, hagiographies and faith-turners.
But every good novel has its great twists. For Umbarger, that happened Saturday morning. She was at her computer, checking email. “And there, sent from the Florida Book Awards, it said congratulations with a big exclamation point,” Umbarger said. “I couldn’t get my cursor on it fast enough. I clicked it open and I think I started screaming. I don’t know, I was laughing and crying.”
The Florida State University Libraries, along with the Florida Center for the Book, the Florida Humanities Council, the Florida Literary Arts Coalition and about a dozen other cultural organizations established the Florida Book Awards six years ago to recognize the very best in Florida authors in fiction, non-fiction, Florida non-fiction, children’s literature, poetry and—cover your eyes, you English-only fanatics—Spanish-language books. Some 139 books were submitted in this year’s competition. The full list of the 2011 winners hasn’t been announced yet. In the fiction category, Mark Mustian’s The Gendarme (Amy Einhorn/Putnam) won last year. N.M. Kelby’s A Travel Guide for Reckless Heart (Borealis Books), a collection of stories set in Florida and the Midwest, won in 2009.
Umbarger and other winners will be hosted by Florida’s First Lady, Ann Scott, at a luncheon at the Governor’s Mansion on March 21 (the first day of spring, and J.S. Bach’s birthday). The annual Florida Library Association Conference will also honor the winners with a banquet at the Wyndam Orlando Resort in Orlando the evening of April 19. And Forum, the quarterly magazine of the Florida Humanities Council, will feature the authors in an upcoming issue.
There’s also the inevitable sense of validation, if not vindication. “I’m honored to be recognized and to have my book recognized and grateful for all the people who’ve helped me to get here,” Umbarger said. “This award is a huge confirmation not only of my ability to write a novel but a huge confirmation that the themes of this novel are timely, even though it’s set in the 1920s. I hope this novel can be translated into many languages and shared in many different parts of the world because it’s a message I hope to get out to women and people everywhere.”
Coming To: A Midwestern Tale is about Lillian Scharf, a Jewish woman finding force and fortitude against her husband Morris’s imperiousness in Depression-era Mason City, Iowa (where Umbarger grew up). “Her soul,” one reads at one particularly brutal point in the novel, “gasped for breath, clung to the edge of her being.” Spoiler alert: she smokes as much as a character in a Joe Eszterhas movie, though she doesn’t quite display the lethal appetites of the man-devouring Eszterhas woman. (The Umbargers are working on optioning movie rights, though Eszterhas is busy writing a script for Mel Gibson’s atonement for his anti-Semitism.)
Coming To is a story of concentric circles either narrowing or enlarging (depending on your perspective) around the notion that “the struggle for self-determination and the pursuit of happiness belongs to every human, not just men,” Umbarger says. “Women have a right to self-determination and a happy life, too. I know that there are women in the world who suffer at the hand of men who use religion to dominate them. I don’t believe in that. I know that three women won the Nobel peace prize for their work in the world to further women’s right and to improve gender equality. That’s one of my issues also.” Umbarger was referring to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, Leymah Gbowee or Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, who won the 2011 prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
“I’ve known a lot of men like Morris in my life,” Umbarger, 57, says, referring to Lillian’s husband in the book.
Umbarger’s husband quickly corrects the understatement: “She’s got a Ph.D. in Morris,” he says.
He’s not among them. Caren credits Paul for centering her work—or rather, her ability to work, though he’s a considerable hand, beside designing the book cover, at the production end of the book since it was close to completion. He read the entire book to her during a long road trip about a year ago, which led to the final major editing work and its preparation for publication through Create Space, the self-publishing concern. That was after the “morass” of trying to go through established publishers, Caren says, which led nowhere. Publishers are risk-averse, and they seem to be battling cataclysms on every front, from the transformation of the book as a physical object to the death of the bookstore to—yes, the emergence of the writer as an independent publishing house of one, like Umbarger.
“It’s really interesting,” Paul, himself a musician and a painter, says. “During the first five years of writing, it was truly just Caren’s project. Then when it came to go like from manuscript to actual book, then it became our project. It’s really funny because I realized about last August that the best thing I could do is stop hammering so hard on my own projects and start focusing on how I could help Caren. As soon as I did that, we really started coming together and we really started getting some traction to go from manuscript to published book. In this world it’s really an uphill climb to go present yourself as an unknown author and to get a publishing deal.”
The award is one big payoff. “It’s an enormous boost,” Paul continues. “We’re going to get visibility throughout the state of Florida now. It’s validation that this is good work. I think people by virtue of having the book win this award will consider reading it now, where they wouldn’t have had any knowledge of it before. Let’s be frank, we have no marketing muscle at all. It’s just Caren and me.”
The duo, incidentally, often plays together—Caren on the violin, Paul on the guitar—and will be performing at the Beachhouse Beanery the evening of Feb. 10 (next Friday). Meanwhile, Caren is at work on her second novel. She’ll only let on that it’s about a violin manufactured in 1782 in Nuremberg, Germany, and that the violin has had its travels and trials. The novel may be one of those intersections that Umbarger finds difficult to explain between her work as a writer and her work as a musician, which she simply sums up this way: “I’m an artist. I just am. I have many gifts, I hope to be able to use them to help make the world a better place.”