I heard the nicest story last night.
Decatur author Amanda C. Gable read from her new novel, “The Confederate General Rides North,” and I was glad to be carrying the book home after hearing passages about the an 11-year-old Civil War buff on a journey with her mother in the 1960s.
But the nice part was Gable’s own story. Like Katherine, the book’s main character, she grew up in Marietta in the 1960s with a pony and freedom to roam the woods, she told the crowd at the Georgia Center for the Book event. Gable went on to a Ph.D. from Emory, 14 years of work at Georgia Tech and a life in Decatur — a whole life of stories that have nothing to do with being a novelist.
In the late 1980s, she concocted the character, a young girl obsessed with the Civil War. In 1990, she published a short story about the girl. Over time, Gable created enough stories about the girl to believe she could write a novel about her. By then, it was 1998. (At this point, Gable sounds exasperated by her own pace. The audience at Decatur Library was having none of it.) Piece by piece, she edited, tweaked and rewrote at retreats and in a library office, using notes from writing groups and advice from agents that rejected the manuscript.
In the months before her 50th birthday, she made one final push at the novel, and a non-fiction book about independent bookstores. She took a leave of absence from her job at Georgia Tech.
“It was kind of a crazy thing to do,” she said. “No salary for a year.”
She took off in mid-September 2007. But by the end of January, she’d gotten an agent. In early March, the manuscript was on its ways to publishing houses. By March 21, she had a book deal. Now, a book.
“I had a great 50th year,” she said, to a burst of applause.
To keep the story going: Gable is now a student in the MFA program at Georgia State University. She’s still working on the non-fiction book about indie bookshops, and another novel, this one set during the Civil War. She expect it will go a little quicker.
Gable and I talked on the phone earlier in the day, but it was better to hear the story in person. Below is a mix of quotes from the interview, and the live event.
On getting the novel written over a 15 year period: “It was really up and down. I had a lot of moments where I thought, ‘This is going to be the first novel, and I’m going to put it in a drawer, then write the real one next.’ I think I kept getting those little nibbles — you apply to a residency program and they accept you and you think, ‘Oh boy, I’m a writer!’”
On mixing personal details into fiction: “Even though the book is not autobiographical, I used a fair number of my memories. They’re kind of sensory details — very brief memories, not full-blown kinds of things — that would spark a whole scene I could work around. I was trying to capture that feeling that lots of really important and tumultuous, really disturbing and also bad things, were happening, but she’s 11, so she can’t quite understand them, although she’s hearing them.”
On the wider audience, outside metro Atlanta: “If I’ve done it well enough, it will be something anyone can relate to. Anyone has that experience, whatever time they grew up or wherever they grew up, of the complicated relationships they had at 11, the difficulties they had negotiating that.”
On the book title: “The working title of the book was ‘Running Away’…in the end, it really didn’t convey what it was about, so I came up with something else. (She loves the cover art, too.)
On writing Civil War fiction: “It’s kind of surpreises me. I didn’t read Civil War history much till doing this current novel; I wanted to know as much as Kat knew. Now, I’m really interested in the subject matter, read new books coming out. I’m very happily absorbing myself.”
Want to see her? Gable will read with Jim Grimsley during the Decatur Book Festival at 10 a.m. Sept. 5 at the Decatur City Hall, 509 N. McDonough St. www.decaturbookfestival.com
She’ll give another reading at 7:15 p.m. Sept. 23 at Blue Elephant Bookstore, 2091 N. Decatur Road, Decatur. www.blueelephantbookshop.sibaweb.com