SANTA FE, NM–Author Jessica Kingley expressed regret Monday that she had "pretty much used up all the hardship" from her early life in her recent first novel Bitter Root, leaving her nothing to write about for her follow-up book.
"In writing Bitter Root, I drew heavily on my experiences growing up poor and neglected by my alcoholic parents in an economically depressed small town in southern Oklahoma," the 36-year-old Kingley said. "Apparently, I drew a little too heavily, because I don't have any personal trials and tribulations left for the next one."
Bitter Root, the fictional story of a young woman named Jessie Strong growing up in the desolation of an economically depressed small town in southern Oklahoma, was heralded by The Chicago Sun-Times as "a searing, painfully honest portrait of a young girl's hardscrabble adolescence on the plains."
The success of Bitter Root, which climbed to #16 on the New York Times bestseller list, netted Kingley a second-book deal with Viking Press worth a reported $450,000. Kingley said the prospect of writing a follow-up seems daunting.
"I've already used the time my dad, in a drunken rage, burned down the house," Kingley said. "I used the time my grandmother died and everyone in my family missed the funeral. I used the stuff about the summer the river dried up. I even used that corrupt police officer my cousin dated, even though I only met him once. I just don't have any more memories with that kind of dramatic heft."
During her painful years growing up in Oklahoma, "where oppressive heat bears down on chained dogs longing to run–run!–and never look back," Kingley experienced a number of other hardships firsthand. At 16, she ran away from home the night her father threatened her with a gun. At 18, she fell into a string of unhealthy relationships that led to a near-fatal bout with bulimia. At 19, she underwent the physically and emotionally wrenching experience of having an abortion.
Unfortunately, the protagonist of Bitter Root underwent every last one of these tragedies, as well.
"Jessie is a troubled spirit," Kingley said. "She's the type of person who's too strong-willed to listen to others. She's a woman who has to make her own way in this world. So, what happens after she survives her traumatic childhood and, at 20, finally leaves Oklahoma behind to create a new life for herself in New Mexico? A bunch of stuff way too boring to write about."
Kingley has already taken several unsuccessful stabs at a second novel. First, she tried writing about a young woman facing adversity growing up on the Louisiana Bayou. Discovering she knew little about Bayou culture, Kingley changed the setting of the book to an economically depressed town in Appalachia, but ultimately found she had a hard time identifying with the characters she created.
"After those false starts, I thought maybe I needed to branch out and try something totally different," Kingley said. "I started a sci-fi novel about a young woman and the hardships she faces growing up in a uranium-mining colony on a sparsely populated planet in the Andromeda Galaxy. It didn't really pan out."
Kingley also attempted, without luck, to find inspiration in her more recent struggles.
"I thought I could get at least a short story out of the time my car broke down last year," Kingley said. "The opening paragraphs about the smoking, stalled car sitting on the shoulder of the highway were pretty good, but it kind of lost momentum when I got to the part about being approved for a loan and picking out a Saturn with my friend from grad school."
The experience of trying to finish "Curls Of Smoke On A Highway" made Kingley realize her recent life may not be suitable for novelization.
"Pretty much everything after 1990 is a wash," Kingley said. "That's when I landed my writing residency at the University of New Mexico. After that came my book deal. Then I got married, and my husband and I bought a house. So, right now, my only hope is giving birth to an autistic child. I'll keep my fingers crossed."