It could have gone either way, really.
Susan Wiggs was handing over her latest novel — a timely tale shaped in part by rage, she said, written “in a white heat” — to her new editor. The reception was uncertain. Hers is a bonafide bestselling fiction brand with an enthusiastic readership, but this one was a little different, a little darker.
“It’s kind of a new focus for me,” Wiggs said. “I turned in the first draft and I thought, she’s either going to go running for the exit door or she’s going to really love it — and she really loved it.”
She’s wasn’t the only one.
Excitement about “The Oysterville Sewing Circle” is clearly evident. Though it doesn’t even hit stores until Tuesday, Aug. 13, the first print run has already sold out. Even the author herself didn’t get an advanced copy.
“They’re already back to press and it’s not even published yet,” Wiggs said. “I was very surprised.”
Wiggs said the preemptive excitement is no doubt the combination of several factors: effusive early reviews, the timeliness of the issues addressed, and also an interest on the part of many libraries and independent bookstores to make it a group reading selection.
“They thought it would be a good book club book,” Wiggs said.
That’s perhaps not surprising given the novel’s very title is the name of a similar gathering, and its main concerns are the importance of community and friendship.
At the break of dawn, Caroline Shelby rolls into Oysterville, Washington, a tiny hamlet at the edge of the raging Pacific, a home she hasn’t seen in a long time.
Ten years before, Caroline launched a career as a designer in the glamorous fashion world of New York City. But her success has now imploded on a wave of scandal and tragedy, forcing her to flee back to the only safe place she knows.
And she’s not alone.
In the backseat of Caroline’s car are two children who were orphaned in a single chilling moment: 5-year-old Addie and 6-year-old Flick. She’s now their legal guardian — a role she’s not sure she’s ready for.
And even the Oysterville she left behind has changed.
Her siblings have their own complicated lives and her aging parents are hoping to pass on their thriving seafood restaurant to the next generation. And there’s Will Jensen, a decorated Navy SEAL who’s also returned home after being wounded overseas. Will and Caroline were friends as children, with the promise of something more until he fell in love with Sierra, Caroline’s best friend, the most beautiful girl in town.
With her modeling jobs drying up, Sierra, too, is on the cusp of reinventing herself.
So Caroline returns to her favorite place: the sewing shop owned by Mrs. Lindy Bloom, the woman who inspired her and taught her to sew. There she discovers that even in an idyllic beach town there are women living with deep secrets. Thus begins the Oysterville Sewing Circle — where women can join forces to support each other through the troubles they keep hidden.
Then, just as Caroline regains her creativity and fighting spirit, and the children begin to heal from their loss, an unexpected challenge tests her courage and her heart.
This time, though, Caroline is not going to run. She’s going to stand and fight for everything — and everyone — she loves.
The author will mark the debut of her latest novel with a special appearance at Liberty Bay Books (18881 D Front Street NE, Poulsbo) at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 13.
Visit www.libertybaybooks.com to learn more or to pre-order a copy.
Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor Book Company also has signed pre-order copies available at a special discount price.
Visit www.eagleharborbooks.com to learn more and purchase.
Wiggs said craft at the heart of the book was inspired by her husband, Jerry Gundersen, a designer, and the scandal that sends her heroine home was ripped from the headlines — and personal experience, her own and others’.
“When you’re starting a new book, for me the first thing I like to think of is, what does she do all day?” Wiggs said.
“What does she do for a living? I’m looking at Jerry and he’s way more interesting than most people. He’s a designer. And I thought, ‘Oh, she’s an apparel designer!’ But then I started talking to people in the business, mostly by email, and there’s so much workplace harassment and dirty deals. So that started to be a focus.”
The public toppling of tyrants in the wake of the #MeToo movement could not help but seep into the story.
“There was some real energy behind that and I kind of put the energy into the drama of the book,” Wiggs said. “I thought I want to write about women finally getting real and not standing anymore for what we’ve put up with for years.
“I had so much anger when I was writing that book.”
Thus, in addition to her usual rigorous research — a characteristic for which her work is quite renowned — Wiggs found herself hearing some rather unhappy stories.
“The sewing circle is actually a support group for domestic violence survivors [and] each individual in that group is very loosely based on conversations I’ve had,” she said. “I think back to my summer jobs when I was in college and the guys in offices were being creepy, but back in the ‘80s you didn’t feel, there wasn’t even a vocabulary for it. It was like, ‘OK, this guy’s going to be creepy and I’m going to brush him off and do my job.’ That was decades ago and as I was writing the book I thought this is a moment. This is a story for women telling their story.”
Before mining the real experiences of women in the fashion/design industry, through, there was her husband. Gundersen’s work was more than just research, too. One of his most popular creations, a kid’s T-shirt/attachable cape combo sporting the slogan “We Can Be Heroes,” also found its way into the book, where it again proved popular (visit www.j-stitch.com to learn more about the Hero Shirt, the Backpack Vest and other Gundersen designs).
He said he knew very well what he was undertaking when he became his wife’s unofficial first technical advisor.
“Everything is fair game for a book,” Gundersen said. “It doesn’t matter what it is. So, if she asks me questions, I automatically think this could end up in a book; anything she asks me about.”
But the writer has plied her trade. Though based heavily on reality, the events and people — and the titular place itself — of the book are more fancy than fact now.
“It always morphs into something so different that people don’t recognize themselves,” Wiggs said. “[Jerry] might recognize a situation or a nickname or something like that, but for the most part it kind of takes on a life of its own.
“I actually changed [Oysterville], I fictionalized it a lot,” she added. “It’s a cool place to set a novel because it’s so remote and it’s such a tiny enclave.”
Despite the sometimes unpleasant subject matter, Wiggs said “The Oysterville Sewing Circle” was an especially fun project.
“That book was a pleasure to write,” she said. “ A lot of times it’s like passing a kidney stone [but] it was cathartic. It’s not really an angry book, it’s more of a tender book.”