I’m not sure how old I was the first time I tried to read Anne of Green Gables, but I must have been too young. I was vain as a reader, always showing off by trying to read far above my age level, reading classics with a view to bragging about having read them. I didn’t get very far with that first attempt. Anne has a long monologue right at the beginning of the book, and it bored me. I put it away. The next time I picked it up—a year later? two?—I was hooked.
I blazed through every book L. M. Montgomery ever wrote, and I didn’t just read them once—I reread many times, until I almost had whole paragraphs memorized. I wonder if part of me was drawn to Montgomery’s long line of heroines who were all painfully slender no matter how many goodies they ate. They seemed to be always baking cakes and pies and having each other over for tea. Since I associated the pleasure of reading with food, and could always be found either snacking while I read or bringing my book with me to the family dinner table, for many years I was a fairly chubby little girl. To be tall and willowy like Anne Shirley or Emily Byrd Starr, while eating as much cake as I pleased, was a fond dream of mine.
This might be an unpopular opinion, but I always preferred Emily of the New Moon trilogy to Anne. Although both eventually become writers, Emily is far more serious about it. But I think the real reason I love her is because she is so magnificently flawed. Anne always seems to be getting into her “scrapes” in spite of her desperate desire to be good. Emily is bad on purpose.
My love of Emily and her story eventually led me to write the book that is now my debut. Embedded in Emily’s trilogy is a ghost book, an idea that comes to her in Emily Climbs (book two), and which she actually writes in Emily’s Quest (book three). The book is called A Seller of Dreams (yes, I ripped this off, too, although I tweaked it because it was a bit high-falutin’ for my taste). All the reader ever learns is that it is sparked by an off-hand comment made by Emily’s love interest, Teddy Kent. The two are trapped with friends in an abandoned cabin, weathering a winter storm, when the subject of their night’s dreams comes up, and Teddy muses,
“I’ve a pocket full of dreams to sell. What d’ye lack? What d’ye lack? A dream of success—a dream of adventure—a dream of the sea—a dream of the woodland—any kind of a dream you want a reasonable prices, including one or two unique little nightmares. What will you give me for a dream?”
Emily is immediately inspired, and she spends the whole night lying awake spinning out the details of the story she wants to write. When she gets home, she jots down the outline but no more. At fourteen, she knows she’s still too young to do justice to the story.
In the last book of the trilogy, Teddy and Emily have parted ways, and she is spending most of her time with an older gentleman named Dean, who is secretly in love with her. She writes her first book, A Seller of Dreams. She sends it out to three publishers (this is before the days of agenting), and they all reject her. I laugh now at how disheartened she is by this, but that’s a story for another time (see: next week). Discouraged, she gives the book to Dean to read. Since he is older, worldly, and widely read, she asks him to tell her honestly if the book is any good. If he says yes, she’ll keep trying to publish it. Otherwise, she’ll burn it. Jealous of the book that took her attention away from him, Dean lies, tells her it’s not good enough, and breaks her heart. She carries out her threat, and apart from Dean’s brief description of it as a modern-day fairytale, the reader is never given any idea what the book was really about.
Maybe there was no hope, since I read these Emily books so many times, that this mystery would not make me crazy. It wasn’t that I expected a full description, but I always found it disappointing that we couldn’t know more…who was the seller of dreams? And what were the stories of his customers?
When my youngest child started kindergarten, I suddenly found myself with long stretches of free time. After carrying the seller of dreams question around with me for over twenty years, I sat down at my computer and started to write the book myself. He would have to be a traveling salesman, I imagined, the kind who used to appear in small towns selling all kinds of snake oils and tonics. I also knew, somehow, that the other main character would be a young woman whose son had gone missing. After that, well…suddenly I had more sympathy for poor Lucy Maude, who came up with a catchy title but probably had no idea how Emily’s book would have played out.
I started by trying to imagine the kinds of people who might be drawn to such a man, and what they would most want to dream. What it would feel like for them to approach such a person, a stranger, and share their secret hopes and desires. Character by character, the story grew from there. The dreaming life of the people began to affect their waking life and their relationships with each other. Eventually, the dream peddler’s wares had cast their spell over the town and woven a tangled, tragic web, and I found that I had written Emily’s book. Except it was mine.
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