Kathryn Simpson always knew she wanted to be a writer. When she moved from Colorado back to her home state of Missouri, and later to be near her husband’s family in Illinois, the drafts of several novels she had started went with her.
But unlike most frustrated novelists whose masterpieces sit in a desk drawer, or on a hard drive, never to be read by anyone not related to the author, Simpson saw her tenacity pay off last year when her first novel, The Farmer’s Story, was finally published, nine years after she wrote the first line.
“I started it in 2001,” says Simpson. “The first line of the story just came to me one day. I wasn’t even thinking about starting a book, I just had the thought: ‘The farmer stares at his two worthless children.’”
The 38-year-old theater major had done some writing for a newspaper and an alternative press magazine, but she always came back to the novel. “I started writing and then I would walk away from it for a period of time because we would move or I would be focusing on something else,” Simpson recalls. “I would convince myself that it was a ridiculous pursuit, but it was always there: ‘One day I’m going to finish this book.’”
The Farmer’s Story tells the tale of John Johnson, a southern Illinois farmer whose wife’s dying wish was that he reconcile with his estranged adult children, Marie and Johnnie. So the farmer travels to Marie’s home in St. Louis, then to Johnnie’s home in Chicago, where they confront the tragedies that had torn them apart. It’s a fast-paced, tightly-woven story that provides both funny and sad observations about human nature while keeping the reader wondering what will happen next. There’s not much that can be revealed without spoiling the many surprises that unfold along the way.
Johnnie lives in Lincoln Square, the neighborhood Simpson and her husband, Ryan Otto, have called home since 2004. “When we moved up from Missouri, we stayed with my mother-in-law [in the suburbs] for a few months while we looked for a place. We researched all the neighborhoods, and this is the one we wanted. We love the trees, the Square is awesome, the Brown Line is right there, and we have great neighbors.”
Simpson’s affection for the neighborhood inspired scenes at two area restaurants. Johnnie and his girlfriend take his father to the Chicago Brauhaus [a Welles Park Bulldog advertiser] for dinner and dancing. The next morning, the two men head to the Horseshoe for Sunday Bluegrass Brunch, where musicians from the Old Town School of Folk Music perform.
No, the Horseshoe doesn’t serve brunch anymore, and you can’t smoke inside like the Johnsons do after they’ve finished their meal. But the novel is set in 2002, long before the smoking ban.
It doesn’t seem like 2002 was all that long ago, until you notice other small details: Johnnie calls the Davis Theater to get showtimes, instead of checking their website. While riding the Brown Line to work, he listens to Dave Alvin on a Discman, not an iPod.
The novel is set eight years earlier than its publishing date, not because Simpson felt nostalgic for the good old days, but because that was when she began writing it. “Once I started writing about the farmer at that time, I felt like to change it would have been disingenuous,” says Simpson. “Which is interesting because I started my next book, Standing With Buffalo, even earlier – in 1996. But I’ve gone back almost to the drawing board with that one, so it’s set in the present day. Now there are cell phones and text messages.”
Where does Simpson find the will to keep working on a novel she started fifteen years ago? Last year, just as she was getting ready for her first book signing in Chicago, she began to experience extreme dizziness and nausea, which led to a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. “I’m still getting used to everything that goes along with this, but I’m much more fortunate than many people with MS,” says Simpson. Although she has started a drug protocol that should stop the progression of the disease, the incurable aspect of MS gives her a sense of urgency. “Since there are some cognitive and vision issues that go along with the location of my lesions, I’m very anxious that there’s a clock ticking.”
But even before the diagnosis, long before the symptoms began, Simpson was eager to find a way to become a full-time writer. “In 2009, I’m crabby, I’m frustrated, I just want to write. So my husband says, ‘I will figure out a way for you to just write, so give notice.’ And I did. I left my job as an office manager for two restaurants down in the [Fulton] Market District and he found a way to allow me to just write.” Otto, an office manger for the Chicago region of AFLAC, became the sole breadwinner. “He’s very supportive. I’m more fortunate than I probably deserve to be.”
Simpson gave herself a regimented writing schedule and a goal of finishing the novel in 2010. “I thought, we’re taking this tremendous risk by me being unemployed right now. We’re living off of the meager savings that we have, so I’m going to take as much advantage of this as possible.”
The book was finished in May. Simpson immediately started sending the manuscript to publishers. “I was trying to attract agents, I was doing all of the things that you’re supposed to do when you’ve finished a book, which was…”
“Exactly. I started doing more research, I started looking at all the options, regarding the traditional publishing industry. What were the odds? What was going to happen?” Simpson worried. “We’ve gone and done this. My husband sacrificed all these things to make it possible for me to finish it, so I have to get it published.”
Like most aspiring writers, Simpson had a prejudice against self-publishing. “I always thought, ‘If I’m going to do it, there’s going be a publisher. There’s going to be somebody who tells me that it’s good.’” But the longer the manuscript sat there, unpublished, the more Simpson started to think that self-publishing wasn’t such a bad idea. “I thought, now that it’s done, I can’t just sit and wait for someone to tell me it has value any longer.”
Simpson found a self-publisher in Indiana, AuthorHouse. “They came from the traditional industry and they didn’t like what was happening with it, and that’s why they started their own company,” Simpson explains. She believes working with AuthorHouse was the right decision. “I just felt a really positive vibe from them, and still do. I would use them next time.”
Now it’s Simpson’s job to sell the finished product. “It’s not like we’ve got thousands of dollars that we can invest in getting the whole PR push. So that’s why we’re totally doing it guerilla warfare over here,” she laughs.
Simpson’s been fairly savvy for an amateur marketer. She negotiated a book signing at Borders Books & Music in Uptown during Thanksgiving weekend (on one of the busiest shopping days of the year), gave a presentation to junior and senior high school students in Bismarck, Missouri and held a book signing at Bauhaus Kaffee in nearby Farmington. She has formed relationships with independent booksellers in the neighborhoods where the novel is set, and has sent courtesy copies to media outlets across Illinois and Missouri.
“All it would take would be for one copy to fall into the right hands,” sighs Simpson. “But forgive me, if one more person tells me that it needs to get to Oprah, I will stab myself,” she laughs. “Of course! I would love for that to happen, but that’s not how it works.”
Not that she’s complaining. Simpson is happy to finally be living her dream. “I’ve been very fortunate. It would be weird now if something suddenly came easily.”
In addition to Standing with Buffalo, which is about a sous-chef and the death of a father, set in Arkansas and Missouri, Simpson has started two more novels: Good Men, about some seemingly unrelated men who turn out to be related through strange circumstances, which takes place in the 1950s in northern Illinois and Wisconsin; and one more book set in Lincoln Square entitled The Brown Line, about young woman who steps in front of a train at the Western stop, the people who are witnesses to the event, and the ripple effects.
The Farmer’s Story is available locally in paperback at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square and at Women & Children First in Andersonville. Or it can be purchased online (hardcover, paperback or electronic) through AuthorHouse.com, Amazon or Borders.
For more information, see Simpson’s website, thewritersstory.com.