What Possesses Me?

The Back Story of No Certain Home.  

More than two decades ago I began researching and writing a historical novel for which  no one showed the slightest interest.  During the five years between 1991 and 1996, without encouragement from anyone —in fact, with active discouragement of agents and publishers—I not only researched the life and times of an early twentieth-century American journalist, but physically traced her path through America, Europe, and China.  I spent cash and time away from a paying job to prepare the groundwork for No Certain Home.

Did I say spent cash and time?  The verb spent is pale.  Squandered wouldn’t be right, either, since I didn’t feel I was wasting my resources.  Ultimately the right word is possessed.  I was trying to possess the historical Agnes Smedley.  More accurately, Agnes Smedley had begun to possess me.

Since she had been dead for years, it was unlikely she could be brought back to life.  Why did I want to try?  And why did I think anyone would want to watch the exhumation?  Why was I so certain that others would be possessed by the same white-hot heat I experienced as I wrote about her?

Surely, I thought, everyone would want to learn about a woman who turned personal defeats into tools for improving the world: Friends for the Freedom of India, for instance, who were trying to separate from Great Britain.  Communists separating from elitist, corrupt China.  Peasants and slaves everywhere separating from their masters.

It never occurred to me that the book would have to wait twenty years to be published.

Did I attach myself to Agnes Smedley because I needed to write about a woman who questioned, prodded, criticized, and was not comfortable?

As a once-comfortable woman myself living out the traditional woman’s role, I had turned maverick and nonconforming.  There were my three divorces.  There were the years lived away from my children.  My writing life was no more successful than my personal life; there were those four earlier novels, unknown, unread, unpublished.

In writing No Certain Home was I making friends with someone to whom I could confess my perceived failures?  Someone who might understand my existential void?  In addition, was I perhaps trying to give life to my mother who died in the same month and year as Agnes (May 1950) and was seemingly forgotten?  (There was that hasty second marriage and the stepmother who remained a stranger.)

Still, like Agnes, I forged ahead with high spirits and rocky optimism.  Unlike my other books, No Certain Home would be bought, published, and read, I thought.  Widely read!  People could not fail to be fascinated by the Missouri woman who so fascinated me.  And who could fail to be fascinated by my writing?

Many, it turns out.  Much water had to flow under the bridge before Robert Peett of Holland House Books would publish the book.  And truth to tell, in the years that I waited and worked on other books, I was becoming a better writer.  I was gaining time and maturity.  No Certain Home was jelling.  So was I.

What would I have done if Holland House had not published the book?  I would have closed my laptop, reopened it, and begun the next book.  Working through an overheated,  possessed mind is not necessarily a bad thing.  It might even lead to art.

But let others decide how artful a book is; how worthy of being put to public view.  My job is to clarify, dramatize, and answer the burning questions that, if allowed to fester, would leave me floating in a becalmed drift toward nothingness.

In writing No Certain Home, I didn’t give new life to Agnes Smedley.  I gave life to myself.

Holland House Books

Literary Fiction

Marlene Lee

Writing From Where I Live


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