By Rachel Sugar
Emily Gray Tedrowe has found her form. The Chicago author started writing fiction in grad school—short stories, mostly, the existence of which she “barely acknowledged,” even as she began to rack up publications. As the drive to tell stories displaced her fears about Becoming A Writer (“I was scared to admit to myself that this is what I really wanted,” she confesses in an afterword), she noticed her “short” fiction growing longer and longer. The stories “were always spilling over the boundaries,” Tedrowe says, “so making the switch to writing a novel…came as something of a relief. I just love the sense of having that wide of a field to explore—space and time to wander off track a little, and not always know where you are headed.”
“Commuters,” Tedrowe’s newly released debut novel, is a quiet, domestic drama, a family story told by a trio of alternating voices. There’s Winnie, newly remarried into money at 78; her daughter, Rachel, a cash-strapped mother of two trying to rebuild her life and marriage after her husband’s near-death accident; and Avery, Winnie’s step-grandson, a brooding romantic with culinary ambitions and model good-looks. Against the backdrop of an increasingly upscale New York suburb, the unexpectedly reconfigured family navigates money—family finances propel the plot—but also love, aging and, ultimately, loss.
Tedrowe says the novel came to her “in one very cool moment of daydreaming.” “I glimpsed the entire thing as a whole and spent years writing my way to what I’d imagined in that split second,” she explains, adding, with a hint of good-humored anxiety, “Wouldn’t it be nice if that happened again?!” With the basics of the story worked out from the get-go, alternating between the three voices proved “a way to keep myself engaged and pushing forward.” “I loved to have each of [the characters] reflect on the same event in completely different ways,” Tedrowe says. And bouncing between perspectives provided a sense of relief: “After finishing one character’s chapter, it was a delight to get to move on to another person’s way of thinking, his or her actions and decisions, in the next.”
Like Rachel, Tedrowe herself is a mother of two daughters. Motherhood, she says, has been good for her craft. “That’s either because I wasn’t ready to do real work until later on in life… or because, as the saying goes, if you want something done give it to a busy person.” With limited time to write, Tedrowe’s a fan of a fixed writing schedule. “When I’m in the throes of writing a first draft, I do love to write every day…for an hour or two early each morning.” When the sun rises, “I clear the decks and hope that the magic shows up,” she says.
With a novel under her belt, Tedrowe’s wasting no time getting started on new projects. (When I ask her how she knows when a piece is finished, she suggests it’s when “I’m just aching to start on something new.”) There’s another book in the works, “about a group of musicians,” and, in a somewhat daring move for a new author, Tedrowe’s started a book blog. “Maybe I felt some sense of duty or responsibility to get into the mix…I know now, in a way I didn’t before, what it takes to put your work out there.” For now though, Tedrowe says she’s focused on trying to enjoy the publication of “Commuters”—“this is my first novel, and I want to be present as it makes its way into the world!” she says.
Emily Gray Tedrowe reads from “Commuters” at Sandmeyer’s Bookstore, 714 South Dearborn, (312)922-2104, on July 1 at 6:30pm.
By Emily Gray Tedrowe
Harper Perennial, $13.99, 400 pages