In The Lost Queen of Crocker County, Jane Willow, the former Corn Queen of Crocker County, returns to Iowa after a family tragedy—and finds a second chance in her Midwestern home. Author Elizabeth Leiknes imbues this tale with a breezy sense of humor and an abiding love of movies, and though her new novel proves that she knows how to tell a great story, she also has a serious bit of advice: Don’t become a novelist.
For those of you readers who are considering it, don’t become a novelist. Just don’t. I beg you. Because before you know it, years will evaporate. Your lofty dreams and Oprah-inspired vision boards will come and go. Your various muses will turn fickle. Then one day you’ll be sitting on the couch, balancing a hot-mess-of-a-manuscript on one knee and your own personal key lime pie on the other—and I mean the whole pie, not just a slice. That would be way too civilized. You will also have a can of whipped cream, so that each bite can act as a mere vehicle for the creamy clouds piled high, meant to sweeten the tartness of the often-sour, pride-swallowing work that is creating a novel.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Sure, there are ups and downs to writing, but the process . . . the PROCESS! It’s so magical. What must it feel like to give birth to a full-length story complete with an engaging plot, riveting themes and satisfying narrative arcs? It feels like giving birth. That’s what it feels like. It is a great deal of work, at first terrifying and painful and then joyous beyond belief. What happens after the book-birth? Pretty much, you’ll worry yourself to death about it. You’ll imagine what could go sideways. You’ll invent ways it will fail. You’ll make deals with the universe in exchange for its triumph.
All of what I’ve said is true, which is why I consider the birth of The Lost Queen of Crocker County to be a bit of a miracle. Sometimes the right thing happens at just the right time in life, and it makes so much sense that you must consider it divine. Five years ago, I’d silently decided to give up writing. I’d published three novels that I was proud of, but my writing career hadn’t become what I’d hoped it would. I am an English teacher by day, so I decided I’d continue the privilege of teaching writing rather than doing it myself.
But then one day, shortly after my I’m-not-going-to-write-anymore realization, something strange happened on my way home from school. I heard a slight thump while driving. In retrospect, it was probably something inconsequential like a rock on the highway or maybe even just the way the car reacted to a bump in the road, but at the time, my initial reaction was a series of emotions alternating between panic and denial. Did I hit something? You’re just tired, it was nothing. Oh, my God, what if it was a kitten? Why would a kitten be on the highway? I even pulled the car over to peruse the area and make sure I didn’t see anything. Then, as I resumed my drive home, I was struck with this: Is it normal to have those kinds of thoughts (zero to prison) in reaction to a small incident like that? Do other people see headlines in their heads—LOCAL TEACHER CHARGED WITH HIT AND RUN INVOLVING SMALL ANIMAL IN FRONT OF DAIRY QUEEN—or is this, perhaps, strictly a Midwesterner’s reaction? Does where we come from shape who we are? Are Midwesterners somehow programmed for guilt? By the time I got home, a story had formed about a woman, transplanted in the West, who returns to her Midwestern home to face her sins, and after being involved in a crime, has to make things right.
So I wrote the book. I had to. This is how it is for writers, or for me at least. If you don’t feel compelled to write stories, go enjoy your life. Work out. Ride a unicycle. Learn to make fancy cakes. Walk into a bookstore and get lost. Worry about normal things, like your beautiful family or gluten or plagues, rather than if your novel accomplished all that you wanted it to. For me, I really, really hope that The Lost Queen of Crocker County does justice to Iowa, to movies, to love. I hope that it reminds readers of the beauty of home, family and second chances.
If I still haven’t convinced you not to write novels, you’ve passed the test. You are doomed to the roller-coaster ride that is being a writer. But you are also blessed with leaving a legacy of stories for your children long after you’ve gone. And you are able to hand your husband a novel that is dedicated to him, dedicated to the fact that his exceptional dad-and-husband skills have afforded you the luxury of time so that you can put your dreams on paper. Last but not least, you are able to create a piece of work that proposes an alternate storyline, a kind of better you’d like the world to be.