I began this book 15 years ago, in 2004. I was reading my way through Laurie Colwin’s books, most of which are about family, marriage, and parenthood. I finished Happy all the Time, which tells the story of two couples through their courtships and early wedded lives. As soon as I closed the book I thought, “I could write a book like that,” and Lily Barrett entered my mind’s eye fully formed, elegant, guarded, and suspicious. Charles, James, and Nan followed quickly after, and I based their lives in the church I had known as a child.
I’m often asked why I wrote about ministers, and the answer is fairly simple: because ministers think deeply about life. But, really, the book is about the kind of community in which I grew up: a community of friends committed to one another’s wellbeing, interested in each other’s lives, joyously celebrating the good times and supporting each other through the bad—a community of people searching for the meaning of life in their relationships with one another.
I wrote the first draft of the book in two weeks. I revised it off and on for 13 years, with gaps of multiple years between edits. Each time I went back to it, I found a different spot to write: first at Dean and Deluca on 11th Street and University Place, then at Think Coffee on Fourth Avenue between 12th and 13th streets, then at Le Pain Quotidien on Broadway and 11th (I like to eat while I write). I completed the final draft at a Starbucks on the corner of Court and Dean streets in Brooklyn while I waited for my daughter to finish her rehearsals at Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
What happened after that was kismet, fortune, providence—choose your own word for something more than luck. I went to a mom’s night out and sat next to Wendy Levinson, my elegantly expert agent. I spent the cab ride home trying to figure out how to ask her to read my book—she spared me quite a bit of agony by emailing me the next morning to ask for the manuscript. We cleaned up the typos and sent it out into the world, where it found its perfect editor, Marysue Rucci, who challenged me by asking for three full rounds of edits that deepened it into the book it is today.
The relief and elation I feel about the process of publishing this book has almost erased the memory of the affliction of writing it. Writing, itself, is my very favorite thing to do. But making myself sit down to write is my very least favorite thing to do (hence the reward of cookies and hot beverages). The rhythm of words and sentences comes easily to me, but structure does not. I am not a linear thinker, and the year I spent putting scores of discrete scenes into a chronological order that could be called a story was one of the most mentally exhausting of my life--since I write by hand, it involved scissors, poster board, rubber cement, and tiny scraps of paper in every crevice of my home. When, in the official copyediting process, my copyeditor pointed out holes in the fabric of this book’s spacetime continuum, I had to call Wendy to come to my house and walk me through the corrections, because the thought of correcting them on my own made me want to cry. To those of you writing—or pursuing any other monolithic dream--right now, I say not “Just Do It” but “just do it”--lowercase with a little shrug at the end. Do it in your own time, in the time you have, in the way you can get yourself to do it. Like laundry and emptying the dishwasher, it will get done when it needs to get done. And it will feel just as good as it would have if you’d finished it earlier.
One of the questions I’m often asked is if there is a sequel to this book. I don’t think so. I’ve lived with these characters longer than I’ve lived with my child, and I know everything about them that I need to know. (Trivia tidbit: the original title of this book was Everything There is to Know. Marysue came up with The Dearly Beloved, which is infinitely better.) They haven’t come knocking on my door, lately, or woken me up at night with new scenes for me to take down. It’s nice to see them all grown up. And it’s nice to be moving on to something new—a book I’ve been living with for just as long as I lived with The Dearly Beloved. In fact, the prologues for both books were part of my application to The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It’s incredibly strange to be inhabited by characters I don’t know very well yet, but it’s exciting, like waiting for another child to be born. Even knowing how much hard hard work it’s going to be, I can’t wait to see who they will become.