I first learned of the notorious New London school explosion in March of 1987, when I happened to run across a newspaper article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the disaster. I was shocked and disturbed by the story of hundreds of lives lost—most of them children’s—in one deadly stroke. Immediately I felt certain that I would write about it in a novel someday.
“Someday” can be a very long time in the life of a novelist. My latest book, WIVES AND MISTRESSES, had been out for less than a year. I had recently finished a series of events promoting it; and I was now involved in researching THE CLEARHARBOUR TRILOGY, a work that would consume me for the next two decades.
Several years passed before I first visited the London Museum, in New London. The museum was fairly new then, and limited in scope; yet it was already on the way to becoming one of the most compelling museums I have ever seen, with a collection of memorabilia that continues expanding today.
There I purchased a special edition of the Henderson Daily News, devoted entirely to reporting on that fateful day of March 18th, 1937. Reading it was a fascinating, though heart-rending, way of becoming acquainted with the extent of the catastrophe that once had made this tiny community headline news all over the world; later the Henderson newspaper would prove a springboard for my research.
As I continued work on THE CLEARHARBOUR TRILOGY, now and then I would spend a day at the Houston Public Library reading on microfilm the Houston Chronicle’s extensive day-by-day coverage following the New London event. I began acquiring books and other materials that promised to be helpful.
In 2007, the final volume of the trilogy was published. I was thankful to have a new direction for my creative energies. Well aware that it takes a considerable period after finishing a novel before one has gained the distance to put it aside mentally and begin another, I forged ahead nonetheless.
Several of the major characters were already germinating—an encouraging sign; my novels always begin with character. The narrator Delys Lithingate was inspired, for the most part, by memories of a classmate during several years in elementary school, who vanished from the scene when we went to junior high. She was smart and very pretty, I thought with envy; and I was struck by the fact that she was being raised by an aunt and uncle. Where were her parents? I wondered. Was she lonely for them? Was there something a little sad and lost about her?
Even though I was starting to fall in love with Delys and other characters, several attempts at writing a story outline failed. I could not seem to figure out what story I wanted to tell. All I knew was that I wanted my words to illuminate and give meaning to the tragedy for readers. Alas, no ideas were forthcoming.
For some years I had been writing poetry now and then, though I never treated it with seriousness because I had no formal training. Like the fictional Delys, I would find myself writing a poem when there was an idea I was burning to express, and this seemed the most natural means of doing so.
Then one day during an East Texas Historical Association meeting, I sat down for a cup of coffee with my friend Fred Tarpley. Fred had championed my work since my first novel GALVESTON was published, and had read a few of my poems. After hearing my tale of writer’s block, he urged me not to give up on New London, but suggested I write a poetry anthology instead of a novel, in the tradition of SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY.
I had long been familiar with this famous Edgar Lee Masters work; in fact, his haunting poem, "The Hill", is admired and cited by one of the major characters in THE CLEARHARBOUR TRILOGY. I bought an annotated edition of the anthology and set about studying it, trying to find a way to put my impressions of New London into verse.
After much time and effort, I surrendered to a major disadvantage: since I had not grown up in New London, I did not feel capable of writing about life in that community as authentically as Masters wrote of life in Spoon River.
As matters turned out, I did eventually write poems for an anthology from the viewpoint of the character Delys. But for the moment I was stumped. Should I return to the idea of writing a novel, after all? Truth to tell, I was still exhausted from the years of work on THE CLEARHARBOUR TRILOGY; still emotionally bound to a group of characters whom I had lived with and loved for many years, and regretted parting from. Besides, to write a novel of New London, I would need to devote a great deal of time to further research, much of it carried on in that community, 200 miles from where I lived. It was time to drop the idea.
As fate would have it, within a year my husband and I had purchased acreage in Cherokee County and started to build a home. I would soon be living little more than an hour from New London. It seemed like a sign.
Finally, after moving up here and continuing to think on the idea for another year or so, I decided to shape the story around a question that had been teasing at the edges of my mind for a long while: What would it be like for a survivor who is hastened away from the community she knew and loved, and where schoolmates, teachers and friends could share in their grief and support one another, as the days went by and they inevitably found a path for moving on from the tragedy? Would this forced separation lessen the unbearable pain of loss? Or, rather, would she be denied her only chance to overcome her loss, and be healed?
The novel AFTERMATH would become a journey toward finding answers to these questions.