Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Page Out of Life

One of my favorite characters in Kathleen Reid’s delightful new novel, A Page Out of Life, is Libby Marshall, a retired elementary school teacher and member of a group of women who gather each week to create scrapbooks, bonding over old memories and current dramas.

As it turns out, Libby is one of the results of a spiritual journey Ms. Reid began around the same time she started researching and writing the book.

“The message my book sends is a direct result of my faith,” said Ms. Reid, 43, during a telephone interview from her home in Richmond, VA. “The importance of unconditional love. That’s the strongest message I send in my writing.”

She hadn’t been aware that her spiritual exploration was influencing her writing until she finished the book and saw the parallels between what she was learning and the character she had created.

“it was affecting my work, but I didn’t realize how much,” she said. “As I grew and changed, it was definitely influencing my writing.”

In the past, the intersection between life and writing had been more obvious to her. Her children’s book, Magical Mondays at the Art Museum, has art at its center, and art features in her first novel, Paris Match, as well, reflecting Ms. Reid’s love of fine art and art history and her five years as a guide at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.

Her interest in art also plays a small part in A Page Out of Life. Tara, another of my favorite characters, is working on her doctorate in art history and the work of Miro, and the scrapbooking itself becomes an art form. But the women in this book must deal with some soul-trying experiences, just as their creator had been doing her own soul-searching. Libby’s crisis comes when her son is arrested for financial improprieties at the large investment firm where he is an executive. She stands by him every step of the way. Tara is considering an affair with her married thesis advisor and Ashley must cope with her husband’s infidelity.

“One’s strength helps another’s weakness. Isn’t that what life’s all about, helping each other out,” Ms. Reid asked.

It’s a story of female bonding, but it is far removed from popular current examples like “Sex and the City.”

“I hate pop culture,” Ms. Reid said emphatically. “Don’t even get me started. My goal is to write beautiful stories that don’t rely on sex and violence to get you to want to turn the page. I’m weary of all that stuff. I write stories that are character-driven, not driven my sex scenes, and that are fun and uplifting.”

A Page Out of Life is fun and uplifting, and it did make me want to turn the page. I wasn’t interested right away because the first chapter is about Ashley, an overwhelmed mother of four, and I couldn’t relate. As soon as Tara and Libby were introduced, however, I was hooked, and I began to warm toward Ashley as she started waking to the truth in her marriage and taking an interest in herself.

While the book is finished, released by Berkley Books at the end of April, the soul journey continues, Ms. Reid says. It’s not that believing was new to her, she had grown up Catholic, a member of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament parish in Chevy Chase, MD, and continues to consider herself a Catholic even though she now worships at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.

What changed several years ago is that she began to explore her faith more deeply through classes on Christianity. And while faith doesn’t factor into the lives of the characters in Page, it might in her next book, she says. Several years ago she and her family toured Turkey and the experience touched her deeply, walking the paths that St. Paul had and seeing centuries old fresco of the life of Jesus.

“Walking on all that history was incredible to me. That’s got to go in there.”

The women and their scrapbooking will again likely be back. Ms. Reid has heard so many stories from people who create scrapbooks that she is keeping a folder of them to draw upon. She will most certainly hear more as her novel gets out there because scrapbookers are numerous -- the Craft & Hobby Association estimates it to be a $3.3 billion industry.

Before researching for her book, Ms. Reid had no idea it was that popular. She began to get an inkling when she took her daughters to craft stores and saw all the supplies. Then she heard about classes and clubs and had her first aha moment.

“I realized it had become an art form and I thought, ‘That’s right up my alley.’”

Building a novel around scrapbookers seemed like a good idea, especially when she realized it was wide open territory.

“I realized it hadn’t been done, and it was aha again. I thought I could start with my story-building skills and see what I could do with a group of southern women.”

Along the way , she caught their passion.

“It’s incredibly addictive,” she said. “I’m making a scrapbook of my characters. It’s like playtime for adults. Scrapbooking is a tradition, similar to storytelling, but with a visual focus.”

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