Laura Moriarty reads from her new book
- When: Monday, August 27, 2007, 7 p.m.
- Where: Lawrence Public Library, 700 New Hampshire St., Lawrence
- Cost: Free
- More on this event....
In the thick of writing her second novel, Laura Moriarty's life got complicated.
Her infant daughter's father left town unexpectedly. Then she and her baby came down with chronic bronchitis that nagged them for six months.
Still, the Lawrence author felt relatively fortunate.
That's because the daughter in her book, "The Rest of Her Life," had struck and killed a classmate with a Suburban. The tragic accident heaves the fictional family into turmoil, widening the rift already dividing the teenage girl and her mother - not to mention robbing another parent of her only child.
"Frankly it was kind of a nice reality check," Moriarty says of writing the emotional work. "I'm in the drama of my own life - 'Oh, we've got bronchitis' - but this story that I was writing was much harder than my own life."
It's Moriarty's knack for crafting such raw, honest stories with realistic yet sympathetic characters that has gained the budding novelist a national following.
Her first book - "The Center of Everything," which focuses on a precocious young girl growing up with her single mother in small-town Kansas - has sold some 100,000 copies since its release in 2003. "The Rest of Her Life," which hit shelves Aug. 7, promises to exceed that mark; Hyperion printed 80,000 copies based on early interest from booksellers and libraries.
"We really haven't had any publicity or reviews to speak of yet, so the sales we've had so far you can really only attribute to people knowing her from 'The Center of Everything' or having booksellers recommend it to them," says Robert Miller, president of the New York publishing house.
"It's hard to do these days, but the most gratifying thing you hope for an author is to watch a career build over time, book by book. I think that's happening here."
As further proof, "The Rest of Her Life" is set to debut on The New York Times Best Sellers list at No. 23 on Sept. 2.
Moriarty, 36, plucked the idea for the book's central event from the pages of the Journal-World, which routinely reports car accidents. In fictional Danby, Kan., 18-year-old Kara Churchill takes her eye off the road for a mere moment while pulling out of a parking lot and hits Bethany Kletchka, killing her instantly.
Even before the wreck, Kara's relationship with her mother, Leigh, the book's protagonist, is distant. Faced with tragedy, the girl clings to her father, Gary, and Aunt Pam for support. Try as she might, Leigh can't figure out where things went wrong.
As the book proceeds, the third-person narrator reveals that Leigh, who had a rough childhood, resents Kara for having an easier life - repeating a cycle of blame that her mother started and Leigh vowed to avoid.
"Even for someone with the best intentions, something can go awry," Moriarty says. "Nobody sets out and says, 'I'm going to be a bad parent or a mediocre parent.' You think you're going to be great. A lot of times you think you're going to do the opposite of what your parents did, and then you do the very same thing.
"I've always seen that in psychological texts, but I wanted to explore it in fiction."
The phenomenon fits well with the book's car accident, says Moriarty, who researched similar real-life calamities and found that the drivers often never see the victims until they're on the pavement.
"That's just like parenting," Moriarty says. "You do it because you don't know you're doing it. You have this blind spot, usually because you're distracted by something else."
Fans of Moriarty's work often point to the authenticity of her characters.
"The way she would go into people's heads and the things that they said were so true, so real," says Alice Lieberman, a Kansas University social work professor who taught Moriarty en route to the author's undergraduate degree in the subject. "She has the clearest voice."
Moriarty also has a propensity, Lieberman says, for putting herself in situations where she can learn more about unfamiliar aspects of the human condition. For instance, when she was studying to be a social worker, Moriarty asked the field coordinator to send her to a place where she'd meet the poorest clients.
"And boy was she obliged. They placed her at (a clinic) in Kansas City where you work with extreme poverty," Lieberman says. "She really wanted to know about experiences that were different than hers."
Jane Dutton, director of the Gale Free Library in Holden, Mass., wrote Moriarty and admitted to kissing the cover of "The Rest of Her Life" when she removed it from the shipping box. She's a big fan of "The Center of Everything" and had been waiting anxiously for a second book.
"She creates complex characters and puts them in situations that simply make you hold your breath," Dutton says. "I think that no matter what your life is, you can relate to her characters because they are drawn so realistically. You know you know someone like that."
Moriarty, who moved around a lot as a child, considers Lawrence home. She got her master's degree in creative writing at KU and moved back to the city when she found out she was pregnant with her daughter, Vivian, who's now 3.
Local readers will notice lobs to the burg in the novel, including references to the farmers market, roundabouts and the daily newspaper.
Moriarty says she felt more confident writing "The Rest of Her Life" with one novel already under her belt. That self-assurance helped her dig in her heels when her editors kept suggesting she warm up Leigh, an admittedly prickly protagonist.
"But I thought, 'If I warm her up too much, then the novel isn't about anything.' This is about Leigh being cold; this is about Leigh not being able to express her love," Moriarty says.
"One reviewer said, 'It's a great book, but what's with this wooden protagonist?' And I think, 'Well, turn off the television while you're reading and pay attention.' It's so funny how you change. I think with the first book, anything a critic wrote was law. And now I'm like, 'Oh, you just don't get it.'"
Writer to watch
Moriarty will have plenty of opportunities to explain her work as she travels across the country on a 20-plus-city book tour. She's excited about the publicity push and early positive reviews.
After the release of "The Center of Everything," which was selected as last year's Read Across Lawrence book, Moriarty was named one of the writers to watch in Book magazine's special "Newcomers" issue.
But you can't take that kind of praise too seriously, she says.
"Every young writer - if you're female and you write a coming-of-age novel, then you're Harper Lee. If you're male, then you're J.D. Salinger. You've kind of got to stop and say, 'Wait. I'm not, and it's OK.'
"The good thing about it is that you can never really get too caught up in yourself as a writer because if ever I start getting a big head, all I have to do is go to the library and get the big guns out. You start feeling pretty insignificant pretty quickly."