The Birth of a Novel

by Shelley Thrasher

As a kid, I preferred to stay with my dad’s mother rather than my mother’s. After all, she had a big black Cadillac, loved to drive as far away as Shreveport to shop and eat out, and had plenty of free time to devote to me. I’d spend the night with her, and we’d lie in bed and read raunchy historical novels such as Forever Amber. Occasionally, she even told me a dirty joke.

My other grandmother didn’t drive. Instead, she stayed home and took care of her huge family, some of whom always needed a place to live until they “got on their feet.” Her outside activities consisted of playing the piano for the nearby Methodist Church and teaching a long line of students to play hymns. Boring!

When I decided I wanted to learn the piano, at least this grandmother didn’t make me play hymns. Instead, she introduced me to classical music and helped me master Tchaikovsky’s melodious “Waltz of the Flowers” and Chopin’s passionate etudes, which I adored. I also recall her mentioning the opera Aida for some reason, as well as the fact that her younger brother taught at SMU and wrote books of poetry. He was even the poet laureate of Texas once. Still, none of that made her seem very interesting.

The years passed, and I went to college, hitchhiked through Europe and the Middle East, and experienced some of the adventures I’d read and dreamed about.

After I finally settled down to teach English to college freshmen and sophomores, I attended a feminist writers’ workshop in Aurora, New York, and my attitude toward my grandmother began to change. (Having Judy Grahn there as our featured writer certainly didn’t hurt.)

I began to write poetry, discovered that my grandmother’s poet brother was gay, and started paying attention to the stories my mom and aunts had long been telling about my grandmother’s difficult early married days on the farm. They said her music had kept her sane. Then I discovered a letter she wrote to my granddad before they were married in 1912, and the closet door creaked open.

In this early poem about her, I quote from her letter to my granddad. He’d proposed and given her an engagement ring, and she wrote him to explain why she was returning it.

In 1912

My grandmother wrote,

“I can’t understand why I yield to you,

believe that I love you and say so, act so,

then doubt my own heart,

wonder at my actions when you are gone.”

He courted more ardently.

She yielded.

Fifteen years older, he plucked her

from her world of girls’ boarding school,

daily piano practice,

ice-cream socials, singing in a quartet,

university education.

He deposited her on a small farm in Texas

with onions to plant in her garden,

cornbread to cook on a wood stove,

five cows to milk each morning and night,

a black washpot to make lye soap in.

She bore him nine children,

which thickened her 18-inch waist;

bore with her mother-in-law who called “frivolous”

her thirty outing diapers,

her subscriptions to Ladies’ Home Journal and Etude

declared “Pshaw” about her frequent washing

of babies and ammonia-smelling diapers in #3 washtubs—

who let her,


take care of the chickens

and the flowerbeds.

No wonder she doubted her own heart.

After I wrote that poem, I dug around in the family archives and uncovered some letters from my grandmother to her college roommate. I’d read about romantic friendship by then, in Lillian Faderman’s classic work, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, so I didn’t immediately consider my grandmother gay. But something about the phrasing in her letters gave me pause and spoke to me in a language I understood.

My grandmother no longer seemed boring. I began to imagine what her life was like and what it could have been, and my novel The Storm was born.

23 Responses to “The Birth of a Novel”

  1. 1 Justine March 20, 2012 at 8:16 AM

    Wow, if the spirit of your grandmother is hovering about, reading your manuscript over your shoulder, she’s going to have a fit. Don’t be surprised if things begin to fall over in the night, and for the dogs to growl a the apparently empty air. But give her a while to see how happy you and Connie are, and she’ll begin to wonder how things might have been even for her.


  2. 2 Martha March 20, 2012 at 8:35 AM

    I really loved your blog Shelley, it reminded me so much of how I found out that an aunt of mine and her ‘best’ friend had been in a secret lesbian relationahip all her adult life! She passed away at 84 and her family only found out when sorting through her effects. Oh how I wish she was still here to talk to me now, as I am still ‘in the closet’ to the family too, and now at the age of retirement.
    My best to you and Connie and I am so looking forward to reading ‘The Storm’.


  3. 3 Shelley Thrasher March 20, 2012 at 8:39 AM

    Oops. She’s already pitching a fit. It’s lightning and thundering up a storm around here. An impressive display.


  4. 4 Carsen Taite March 20, 2012 at 8:51 AM

    Fascinating story. I often wonder how many people have a complex story lurking beneath the smiling face they present to the world. Thanks for sharing this one with us. Can’t wait for The Storm.


  5. 5 KI Thompson March 20, 2012 at 10:09 AM

    Absolutely lovely, Shelley. Sometimes those things that seem dull and boring on the surface, with a little more digging, prove to be the most interesting of all. KI


  6. 6 Mary March 20, 2012 at 10:33 AM

    Good blog. Families are always interesting after we reach s certain age. It is great that you still have other family members & things to tell you those stories after you reach that age. I am eagerly awaiting “The Storm”.


    • 7 Shelley Thrasher March 20, 2012 at 9:12 PM

      Mary, your comment makes me thing of May Sarton’s novel Kinds of Love, an old one that I’ve finally gotten around to reading.

      She says essentially the same thing about becoming more interested in families as we age. She also says that older people feel even more deeply than they did when they were young.

      Thanks for your remarks.


  7. 8 Ali Vali March 20, 2012 at 10:41 AM

    Thanks for sharing that with us Shelley. What a great story, and I’m really excited about the book. Can’t wait to read it.


  8. 9 Kathleen Knowles March 20, 2012 at 10:48 AM

    I read the Faderman book as well. Who knows how many stories are still lurking out there, waiting for someone to find them. As I love history, I will be certain to read your book. I didnt get a chance to tell you at Palm Springs that i loved the reading and knew right away I would have to have this book


  9. 10 lynchly March 20, 2012 at 1:28 PM

    We can never have enough of our stories in print. I am very grateful you are putting yours out there for the enrichment of us all! I love your work, poems and fiction!


  10. 11 connie ward March 20, 2012 at 2:09 PM

    I love you, and am proud that you are following & living your dream both as an editor and author with the best publishing house around.


  11. 12 Cate Culpepper March 20, 2012 at 3:53 PM

    A most worthy incubator for our distinguished doctor! I can’t wait for The Storm.


  12. 13 VK March 20, 2012 at 8:06 PM

    Sorry I missed your reading in Palm Springs, Shelley, but based on this teaser of a story, I can’t wait to read your book.


  13. 14 Shelley Thrasher March 20, 2012 at 9:14 PM

    I’ve really enjoyed and appreciated everything you’ve said, guys. You’re the breast and your support means the world to me.


  14. 17 Kim March 21, 2012 at 2:13 AM

    Thanks for sharing your story. As evidenced by all the cmments here many of us have wondered or discovered interesting stories about our relatives. I look forward to The Storm.


  15. 18 Sheri Campbell March 21, 2012 at 3:00 AM

    I love family stories, Your blog has certainly wet my appetite for The Storm.

    After the (rain) storms of last night and this morning I can wait for your Storm to come in December.

    Question With your lovely southern Texas drawl…..could you just read (record) your story?


  16. 19 Sheri Campbell March 21, 2012 at 3:07 AM

    Dear Blog/Vlog Manager,

    Why does Carsen get her picture in her little square instead of these ucky colors?
    I still want to be bright blue, green, or red. Please

    I do love this site…look forward to it each week.


  17. 20 Devlyn Sixtyseven March 22, 2012 at 3:07 AM

    WOW what an amazing family story, I enjoyed it very much so thank you for sharing.
    I look forward to The Storm even more now.


  18. 21 Gun Brooke March 28, 2012 at 6:18 AM

    Amazing blog – and if I was dying to read your novel before (which I think I already expressed in an embarrassingly gushing way) – I am no tapping my foot impatiently, biting my nails, and generally thinking about that time machine that would come in so handy. Brilliant, Doc!!!


  1. 1 Link Round Up « The Lesbrary Trackback on March 22, 2012 at 12:25 AM

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