It's Never Too Late to Write That Novel
Lisa Williamson Rosenberg has been making up stories since she was three years old. It just took another five decades and a haunted house in the Berkshires for her to nab her first book deal.
Lisa Williamson Rosenberg was three years old when she began dictating stories to her mother. “I went nuts,” she said, “spinning out the adventures of Picky the Penguin and his sidekick Retanya.” While neither Picky nor Retanya ever made it into a published novel—I mean, yet—Lisa held fast to her dreams of becoming a published author. But life and her skills as a professional ballet dancer and family therapist got in the way.
As a child, Lisa trained at the Joffrey. She then took time off to get her degree at Princeton before dancing professionally at some of the most prestigious companies in the U.S.: Boston Ballet and Philadelphia Ballet, just to name two. Not that she told any of her dancer colleagues about Princeton. “Back then,” she said, “it was frowned on in the ballet world to go to college right out of high school rather than auditioning for companies and deferring college, so I kept my education to myself.”
She also kept her dreams of becoming a professional writer if not a secret then at least on hold.
I love writing this newsletter, introducing you to new authors, inspiring stories, the latest science about living in a woman’s body. Today’s missive is free, because I want everyone to read Lisa’s book, but if you enjoy my work, your subscriptions are what allow me to keep doing it. Think NPR but at a slower pace and without the annoying pledge drive. :)
Fast forward a few years. Lisa went into teaching first, then, realizing teaching wasn’t her thing, she applied to grad school and got her master’s in social work at Hunter, followed by a post master’s in Family and Couple’s Therapy at the Ackerman Institute.
But all along, her desire to write and publish a novel never died. This wasn’t a pipe dream. It was real! She knew such a thing was possible, that it could actually happen to anyone who put in the sweat equity, so why not her? “My father was an art director at Viking Press,” she said, “so I went to a lot of book parties as a small kid and thought it would be really great to have one of those for myself!”
So in her spare time—at this point she had two little kids as well as a thriving career as a therapist—she wrote. And she wrote. And she wrote and she wrote some more. She then submitted her work and got rejected several times—as we all do, yours truly included, and dozens upon dozens of times at that—but she never stopped writing. She never gave up.
Her story of getting a book deal at 55 before becoming a published novelist at 56 was so inspiring, I asked Lisa to first tell me about that before digging into questions about her novel. Without giving too much away, Embers on the Wind is a poignant, moving, and at times frightening ghost story, spanning several generations, about the legacy of generational trauma and slavery on three women. The main character in the novel is Whittaker House, once a stop on the Underground Railroad in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts but also a real place where Lisa would wander the halls, haunted by ghosts of the women who came before her, whose battles for freedom paved the way for her own.
But first: Lisa’s story, in her own words.
Deborah Copaken: So many women I know in middle age are wondering how to make a massive pivot in their lives: to live abroad, change jobs, learn a new skill, or write that book they've always been meaning to write. What gave you the courage, at our age, to sit down and write this book? How did you find the time with your other job, and what would you say to others wishing to do the same?
Lisa Williamson Rosenberg: I’ve actually been writing for quite a few years: essays, stories, attempted novels. But there were always other things—parenting, my work as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker— that squeezed that passion over to the side of my life. The first time I took myself seriously as a writer was after a talk I gave at a synagogue about being a multiracial Jew. I had been invited to speak because of the work I had done with transracially adopted kids who were growing up Jewish. The talk resonated with so many people, especially with multiracial Jewish families. Best of all, I published it as an essay in New Jersey Jewish News! This gave me the motivation to dust off the novel I’d started ages prior, during a pre-wedding bout of insomnia.
Very slowly, over the course of the next few years, thanks to a writing coach, a few workshops, and my youngest child finally attending full-day school, I was able to start querying agents.
In terms of courage, it was freaking scary to send out those early query letters. I didn’t know what I was doing but I had this sense that I needed to try, that in trying I would learn. I encouraged my therapy clients to do this very thing: explore their passions and confront the fears holding them back.
My best advice for beginning a writing career “later in life?” Hold fast to two words: Patience and Humility. While striving to become a published novelist, I read a lot and wrote a lot. I shared my work with seasoned writers, many of whom gave me good, solid advice that was often devastating to hear. But I swallowed my pride, internalized as much wisdom as I could, and plugged away—amid the parenting and working and dealing with life’s curveballs, monkey wrenches, fires, dead gerbils and other bigger losses.
That first novel did not get me an agent, but the second one I wrote did. My agent did not sell that second novel, but he did sell the third—which was Embers on the Wind. When I started, I’m glad I didn’t know how many years it would take, but it was absolutely worth the journey.
And now, here’s my Q&A with Lisa about the novel itself. While I obviously want you to read it, I might suggest saving this part of today’s missive until after you finish the book. But also, I always read the last page of a book first, so who am I to tell you what to do? Go ahead, dig in!
DC: Embers on the Wind addresses the impact of slavery’s legacy on current Black women and mothers. Why did you choose the format of interlinked stories rather than focusing on one woman, Kaye for example, and her own relationship to the past?
LWR: I actually began with Clementine, who is based on a real freedom seeking woman who had died on the Underground Railroad in Monterey, Massachusetts. I thought of making the book about Clementine and her descendent, Galen, jumping back and forth between 1850 and 2018—an expanded version of The Story of the Birthing Room, which is now the 7th chapter. But Galen and Clementine’s story felt complete to me. I had told enough about them and wanted to leave the reader wondering, imagining what had happened and what might come next for each of them. But the birthing room story made me curious about Maxine, the Airbnb proprietor, who later led me to Michelle, the young woman modeling for Maxine’s life drawing class. The vignettes fed one another like that, minor characters inspiring new stories.
All the stories feature women, with the exception of Girl With the Cloud Hair—which is kind of a psychological duet between two children—Birdie who escaped enslavement in 1850 and Timothy, who is growing up Black in a very white Connecticut suburb in 2015. But motherhood is a thread throughout the book. I was curious about mothers and their evolving relationship to Whittaker House from its safe house days to its vacation home present. I wanted to show how the house’s purpose for these traveling women has shifted over the centuries. It took quite a few revisions and back-and-forths with my editor to sequence the stories, linking them into a novel.
DC: Whittaker house is the central character as it ties all the characters and all the vignettes together. Is there a real Whittaker House?
LWR: Yes! The woman who inspired Clementine died in my father-in-law's Berkshire farmhouse, which was a former stop on the Underground Railroad. The legend was that this woman's spirit haunted the house. I knew nothing about her—not her age, her story, or which plantation she'd fled—beside the direction she was running: North to Canada, along with the fact that she didn't make it. What, I wondered, as I walked the halls at night, would she make of me, this free 21st century Black woman? What would she think of how I was using the freedom I owed in part to her? These questions led me to flesh her out in my mind, to tell my imagined version of her story—and the stories of others who might have passed through the house.
DC: Embers on the Wind addresses the historical wounds inflicted on Black mothers. Little Annie’s boys are sold away from her. Clementine’s child resulted from the rape by her enslaver. But something that stood out for me was that the modern day black mothers, Kaye and Galen, despite living in the 21st century, being educated, affluent, are still parenting their children under a critical, potentially unsafe white gaze. What of your own parenting experience inspired theirs?
LWR: Though the age of enslavement is behind us, there is something in the DNA of Black mothers, a subtle awareness that your child could be arbitrarily taken from you. You are always under scrutiny, even from people who don’t realize they are scrutinizing you. As a mother of color your biggest vulnerability is being deemed a threat to your child, the person you cherish most in the world. As a black woman whose children were visibly lighter than I was, I’ve had those fears. Might someone question whether or not they were mine? If one of my kids threw a tantrum in public, would someone think I was harming them in some way? That’s one reason I always handled my kids’ grocery store tantrums by remaining good natured and slightly amused, using a sing-song voice to reassure strangers who probed. “Oh, we’re okay here. Someone is just having a difficult time accepting the word ‘no’ today.”
I put this all into the mothering experiences of both Kaye and Galen, who each have biracial children who look different from them, and can be visually separated from them. On the other hand Maxine, who is white, makes it all the way across the country with baby Olivia, whom she has basically abducted. Kaye, literally nursing her light-skinned baby is told by Lexi, “There’s no way you can be that child’s mother.” That did actually happen to me at a Music Together class. I didn’t think as quickly as Kaye. It was my friend Geeta who came up with the “wet nurse” line, which I had to put into the book.
I wanted to show both Kaye and Galen as emblematic of women who have class privilege but who must grapple with racism in their approach to motherhood and family life. Galen chooses a photograph of her white husband Rob as her family’s Airbnb profile. I have been guilty of this kind of racial bait and switch myself. If one of my children ever needed to go to the emergency room, I’d send my white husband with them rather than take them myself and risk what might be sub-par treatment.
Again, Kaye owns her own brownstone, has leisure time to create a business and space enough to house her sister. Her children are involved in expensive extracurricular activities to which she is able to personally escort them. But a chance twist of the ankle lands Kaye in the gutter, literally, and the very realtor who sold her the beautiful brownstone steps over Kaye with disgust, commenting to new clients that one “rarely sees that sort of thing in this neighborhood.” Meaning, a black street woman in a now smudged Michael Kors coat. Kaye, in that moment, lost who she was— along with every gain made by blacks since emancipation. She ceased to be an individual and became a snapshot of her race.
I attended an Ivy League university which was full of wealthy white people who dressed down in order to be discreet about their wealth. Like my white friends, I wore baggy sweatshirts, scuffed boots, and jeans with holes. Few of my black friends did this; most dressed for class as if they were going to a job interview or at the very least, a nice lunch. Being raised by a white mother, I didn’t see the need for that. One day, I arrived in Penn Station on my way to visit my parents. Someone approached me to ask if “I lived there.” It took me a while to realize that this person thought I was homeless. My white roommate could slump through the station dressed as I was—hair falling out of a ponytail, ripped jeans, stained sweatshirt—and easily be taken for a college kid too engrossed in her studies to fret about grooming. I was taken for a panhandler. I believe if I’d had a black mother, I would never have left my dorm room looking like that.
DC: As the product of an interracial marriage as well as being interracially married yourself, how did those pieces of your background impact your messaging in Embers on the Wind in terms of race and gender?
LWR: I was very aware of presenting the historical white man/black woman power trope and then turning it on its head. In 1850, Clementine is at the mercy of her sadistic enslaver, Master Durham, as well as that of his son Tom. More than 2 centuries later, Kaye and Galen are both married to white men in loving, egalitarian marriages. If anything, the women in those unions are more likely to be decision makers while the men defer to their wishes, at least in terms of parenting and vacationing. For Kaye and Andy the dynamic is more ambiguous seeing as Andy is Jewish—like both my mother and my husband—with relatives who fled Europe in the 20th Century. Kaye views Andy’s ancestry as distinct from enslavers, exempt from that stain on history.
Galen on the other hand, influenced by the spirits of Whittaker House, confuses her husband Rob with a white enslaver. As husband and wife, Galen and Rob see one another as full, three-dimensional people, one another’s soulmates, but in a flicker of candlelight, they become stand-ins for the most brutal chapter of our country’s racial legacy.
DC: Throughout Embers on the Wind, whether through the visions of Kaye or the appearances of Birdie and the cellar spirits, we are never far removed from the paranormal. Are you a believer in ghosts? Have you ever encountered one?
LRW: Short answer, I never have, despite longing to. When my father-in-law still had the Berkshire house, I would walk through the old, un-renovated rooms at night, searching for my Clementine—though I’d yet to name her or imagine her story. But I’d look for her, calling to her in my mind, hoping to meet her so she would see how “okay” I was. After all, my relationship to this house, could not be further removed from hers. I had free access to the whole place, I slept in one of the prettiest rooms. She hid in the dank, dark root cellar until being brought inside to die.
For her it was a forbidden place, not even a true refuge, but merely the home of someone who had the power to either save or expose her. I drank wine on the patio, curled up with books on the sofa, enjoyed long, lively dinner discussions with my husband and family in the dining room. I remember being pregnant there, which may be why birth and motherhood are so prominent in the book. I remember being tired the way you get in your second trimester, sitting in an enormous, overstuffed chair, feet up on an ottoman, commanding my husband to bring me water from the kitchen because I could not possibly get up to get it myself. He complied. I drank. Then wondered: did the ghost take in our exchange? What did she make of it? What did she think of me? I wanted to know so badly. That wondering gave birth to Embers.
What a great story! And now I have another book to put on the reading list! Deb, thank you so much for bringing such interesting people and stories forward!
Your recommendation and Q&A sound wonferful. Born and raised in Massachusetts, I have been learning about the Underground Railroad since elementary school. I can hardly wait to get my hands on this book.
p.s. hope you are feeling better.