How a question, a memory and a three-legged dog inspired my debut novel

IMG_4892I am thrilled to be the first blogger of the Debutante Ball class of 2016! And before I get started, let me say thank you to all of the creative, bright, honest, funny and generous Debs of 2015. It’s an honor to be carrying on the tradition.

 I carried around the two sparks that would inspire my first novel, THE CITY BAKER’S GUIDE TO COUNTRY LIVING, for years, but it wasn’t until my elderly dog had his leg removed that I pieced them together.

The first spark was a question I had been wrestling with for years–could I live in the country? When I was twenty-three, one of my oldest and dearest friends moved to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and invited me to visit. I had never spent time in the country before, and Vermont became a magical place for me–the green mountains, the grange hall dances, the long, nameless dirt roads that cut through farms and fields. I felt different in Vermont, more myself somehow, and I wondered if that feeling would last if I made the move up there. But I was used to being a city kid, never more than a walk away from a good cup of coffee, a subway stop away from a play or an indie movie or an excellent restaurant. Year after year, season after season I would go back to Vermont, only to return to Boston–once with a puppy–still asking myself the same question.

 The second spark was an image I couldn’t shake. Partially inspired by my love of all things rural, I became obsessed with county fairs. Giant pumpkins! Dairy goats! Fried dough! Racing pigs! In 1999 I plunged in and entered the Topsfield Fair Apple Pie Contest. I dropped my pie off at the exhibition hall the afternoon of the judging and went to find some sheep to pet. I was told to return when the winners would be announced, around seven. I had no idea how competitive the pie contest was until I returned. The hall was filled with bakers, scores of them, all silently watching three judges eat pie in a glassed-in kitchen. It was a mesmerizing sight. There were so many pies that year that the judging went on late into the night. When the winners were finally announced, I was shocked to be among them.

During this time, in between pie baking and trips up north, I dreamt about being a writer. I was an early reader, and had been devouring stories since I was little. Novels were a refuge. I longed to be able to create a world for other people, but I didn’t know where to start, and lacked the confidence to try. I made excuses about not having enough time or money to take classes, and let the dream lie dormant.

The puppy I had brought from Vermont, Carver (yes, named after Raymond) grew up tocarv be an extraordinary dog. He was my constant companion. When Carver was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of twelve, I was told that with surgery, he would have three to four months left to live. Knowing that we didn’t have much time, I pared my life down as much as I could, cutting back my work hours and opting out of any social plans that couldn’t include him. Carver loved to be outside, so we would take long, slow walks. I am lucky to live in one of the greenest neighborhoods of Boston, and we spent many hours outside, sitting in parks. We were resting in the tall grass one afternoon when the character of Olivia emerged. What if she moved from the city to northern Vermont? And what if she were asked to enter a pie contest—one where there was more at stake than winning a blue ribbon?

Carver lived for fifteen months. It was through taking care of him I realized that if something meant a lot to me, I could make the time. We walked and we sat and I daydreamed about my novel. I made a vow that when he passed I would take the time and resources that I had devoted to him and put them towards writing,

Carver died in April of 2009. That August I entered my first creative writing workshop, where I wrote the first chapter of The CITY BAKER’S GUIDE TO COUNTRY LIVING.

 

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Louise Miller

Louise Miller is the author of THE CITY BAKER'S GUIDE TO COUNTRY LIVING (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking/August 9, 2016), the story of a commitment-phobic pastry chef who discovers the meaning of belonging while competing in the cut-throat world of Vermont county fair baking contests. Find out more at louisemillerauthor.tumblr.com.

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This article has 38 Comments

  1. Welcome to the Deb Ball Louise! And I can’t wait to read the book — I grew up on a farm, in a tiny community and entered many baked goods and roosters into fall fair competitions (my rooster won the crowing contest more than once!), so books that have these themes are some of my faves 🙂

  2. What beautiful inspiration for your novel! And I love that you had a dog named Carver. I’ve always imagined if I had a dog (and I won’t, but that’s a fight between me and my kids) that I’d name him/her Gatsby.

  3. Wonderful Louise! I can’t wait to read your novel! I just came back from four days in the magical Northeast Kingdom and look forward to visiting it again in your story.

    1. Thanks so much, Chris! I was just working on a scene that mentions Lake Willoughby and thought of you. so happy you made it up there this summer!

    1. Amy! It was following you and your beautiful Coincidence of Coconut Cake that made me aware of this wonderful community! Thank you so much! Can’t wait to see what happens next.

  4. Great post, Louise! Way to start off our Deb tenure. As an owner of a 13-year-old Golden Retriever whose back legs don’t seem to want to do as she commands anymore, this story really got to me.

    1. OMG, Heather, we could spend hours talking elderly dog!
      my daydream is to buy land in Vermont and open a senior dog sanctuary.
      Thank you so much for your note, and I am so excited to read your post!! xo

  5. Great post, Louise! For ten years we spent a glorious August week in the Northeast Kingdom, going to the Caledonia County fair, Bread and Puppet, a garden store/tea house, among other fun things. I love that part of New England and have many fond memories of it. Can’t wait to relive them in your book!

  6. I came across this post through a Grub Street connection, and I think I remember hearing your description of this novel in a one-day seminar there a while back. How cool that you’ve stuck with it and it’s being published! Congratulations!

  7. Oh Louise, as a lover of Vermont and old dogs, your post makes me want to smile and weep at the same time. What a perfect beginning to a wonderful book that I can’t wait to read!

  8. I love that it was making time for Carver that made you realize you can make time for things that are important. Dogs are always such great teachers.
    Excited for you and inspired by your post!

  9. Louise, I’m so excited about your book. And you’ve certainly set a high bar for the quality of the writing in this year’s Debs class *pulls up draft of her Friday post*

    I’m also a major lover of all things pie-related. Funny enough, my agent is a big foodie & reps a lot of cookbooks. I suspect I may have a cookbook in me. If you won that pie contest, I’m sure you have at least one in you…

    Can’t wait for the book!!

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