Author and MFAC alum Jane O’Reilly* talks about her debut novel, The Secret of Goldenrod. Learn about her writing process for this mysterious new middle grade masterpiece. The images bellow are from the sold-out launch party at the Red Ballon, held earlier this month.
Tell us about your book.
The Secret of Goldenrod is a little bit of everything—mystery, fantasy and coming of age. The main character, Trina, almost eleven, travels the country with her dad, picking up odd jobs and house remodeling projects. When they are given a year to fix up an abandoned Victorian mansion named Goldenrod, in the town of New Royal, Iowa, Trina is excited. This will be the first time in her whole life she has ever lived anywhere long enough to make friends.
Do you have a favorite part of the book or a favorite character?
I love the chapter in which Trina goes to the library. It’s a massive, elegant library way too big for the town. But that’s part of the mystery. In addition to meeting wonderful Mr. Kinghorn, the librarian, Trina learns some secrets about the New Royal townspeople. Plus, something very special is in her pocket the whole time.
Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
I workshopped the first chapter at an alumni weekend at Hamline. I remember that Kendra Marcus, of Bookstop Literary, sat in on that workshop. I felt like Trina that morning—excited and nervous. Kendra made a suggestion that ended up in the book.
When did you first begin working on it? When did you finish?
I began working on the story in the winter of 2011 and felt I had a reasonable draft within a year and a half. Revising it, sending queries to agents, landing the marvelous Sarah Davies as an agent, revising twice for her, waiting as she found not one but two publishers (Egmont, the book’s first home, closed its doors just after I finished the first revision) and revising again for Alix Reid at Lerner, over a period of six months, added four more years to the process.
As the work progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?
Oh, man. The first draft had a prologue loaded with backstory. On top of that, because I always knew that the house was a character, the first draft handled the story in alternating perspectives—Trina’s and Goldenrod’s. Fortunately, I couldn’t keep that up. Better yet, very few people saw that draft. Once I started working with Alix at Lerner, all my effort to get an inciting incident into the first chapter went out the window and a major happening moved from page 12 to page 60-something. Alix suggested we see Trina more firmly in her world, dreams, problems, etc., before we saw her world change. I think her advice was spot on. Although that change was deemed by some as a “slow beginning,” plenty of stuff happens if you don’t know what’s coming.
What research did you do before and while writing the book?
Because of my real estate background and my childhood, I know a lot about old houses. Still, I was forever researching stuff from Victorian design elements to growing seasons— building codes, lights, radiators, girl’s clothing, and, of course, goldenrod. I also researched small towns in Iowa and distances between them and bigger cities. The first name of the town near Goldenrod was simply Royal. When I discovered there really was a Royal, Iowa, I changed the name to New Royal.
Where did you do most of the writing for this book?
In my writing room at the time—overlooking the garden. The revisions took place in my son’s old bedroom. So much time has passed from start to finish, our house has changed.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
The biggest, most rewarding lesson has been this: Don’t ever give up on your dreams. But sometimes you have to be prepared to change them.
*Jane O’Reilly grew up in a very old house in Fort Snelling on a Mississippi River bluff. She is the recipient of a McKnight Fellowship in screenwriting and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University (MFAC 2009). Today she lives with her husband, cat and dog in a very old house in the Tangletown neighborhood of Minneapolis. The Secret of Goldenrod is her first published novel.