While working on her first novel, author Janis Robinson Daly ’84 reached out to her contacts at Wheaton for research assistance, copy editing, publishing advice, sensitivity readers, marketing, and more. Her historical novel The Unlocked Path, just published by Black Rose Writing, follows Eliza Pearson Edwards as she enters medical school in the early 20th century. Eliza battles sexism and, as a young intern, provides medical care to poverty-stricken patients. She even finds a bit of romance as she works through the 1918 influenza pandemic and the chaos of World War I.
On September 20, Janis is offering a reading on campus in Mary Lyon Hall, the Holman Room, from 7 – 9:00 p.m. You can register for the event online.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this novel?
During a genealogy search on my great-great-grandfather, William S. Peirce, Esquire, one return hit featured a snippet from FamousAmericans.net: He took an active part in founding the Woman’s Medical College (WMC) in Philadelphia. As a 1984 graduate of Wheaton, then a women’s college, this piqued my interest and sent me down the rabbit hole of research. As I learned more about the graduates of WMC, I discovered similar supportive relationships established between students, faculty, and alumni, as I had found at Wheaton. Among the graduates, one woman spoke to me through her application letter. Written by 17-year-old Anandibai Gopal Joshi from India, she states in part, “The voice of humanity is with me, and I must not fail. My soul is moved to help the many who cannot help themselves.” I was moved to write The Unlocked Path to spotlight the courage and determination of the early graduates of Woman’s Medical, bringing them forward from the shadows of history. For as the National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman says, “The way forward isn’t a road we take, the way forward is a road women make.”
How did you sustain that inspired feeling throughout the writing/editing process? Can you share a story (or two) about the composition process.
Although I spent two and a half years researching and writing The Unlocked Path, I revised and finessed the story as other pieces of information popped up or occurred. For example, I typed THE END in December 2019 only to attend a writers’ workshop in February 2020, where the workshop leaders advised my fifty-year time period was too long for a debut novel. Cut it off after twenty years and set readers up for a sequel. As I worked on those edits, a life-changing event hit our world: COVID-19. Since the story spans 1897-1920 with a main character employed in the medical field, it was paramount that I include the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic. Watching daily news reports directed my revisions for a deeper emotional response, similar to ones I saw on the nightly news of doctors separated from their families, exhaustion, and a feeling of hopelessness.
As an undergrad at Wheaton, were there professors who helped you develop your writing skills?
I recall my advisor, Dr. Paul Sprosty in psychology, with his Freud-styled beard, pushing me to explore through research and analysis the motivations behind a subject’s actions. This background served me well as an author who depends on research skills in writing historical fiction, as well as the need to develop authentic characters with depth, complete with flaws and failings.
Can you talk about how the Wheaton network supported your writing (research)?
Thank you for this question, as my intended hope of connecting with the Alumni Relations department was to share my story and my success in working through the Wheaton network. I hope other Wheaton graduates will learn from my experience and see the possibilities of leaning into this powerful and empowered community. All it takes is one of the simplest things we can do as we travel our paths of careers and personal endeavors: ask for help. And, if you’re on the receiving end of that ask, just say YES. Through my outreach to Wheaton students, faculty, and alumni, without fail, they answered with a YES from a position of support and solidarity. A commitment of a connected sisterhood continues.
April 2018 – Research Assistance: By contacting the chair of the Biology department, I secured two recent Wheaton graduates, then in medical school, to take part in a survey and interviews as I collected input into the life of a female med student. (Rochelle Clarke ’18, Allison Cox ’18).
January 2019 – Publishing Advice. Within the fall 2018 Wheaton Magazine issue, I noticed an announcement that Ashley Sweeney ’79 had published her first historical fiction, entitled Eliza Waite. I contacted Ashley, requesting any advice or tips she may have for a first-time writer and hopeful author in the historical fiction genre. She immediately replied with not only a few tips but has become a mentor, trusted advisor and cherished friend throughout my process. Today, we’re working together to support each other’s work with cross-promotion and marketing activities as her third novel, Hardland, releases three weeks after my novel.
August 2020 – Copy Editing: Copy editors offer a trained eye to identify typos, grammar errors, overused phrases, inconsistencies in the prose, and more. Their attention to detail surpasses the realm of a developmental editor and writing critique partners. Through the algorithms of LinkedIn, the name Lisa Goodrich ’89 popped up in my feed. Lisa’s profile highlighted her skills in copyediting, and she lived on Cape Cod, less than 20 minutes from me. We met over coffee at an outdoor café during the height of a pandemic to discuss my project. She delivered my manuscript back to me marked with edits at least ten other readers had never spotted.
March 2021 – Sensitivity Readers: One publisher I spoke with requested confirmation I had addressed any issues within the novel that feature a character with whom I do not identify (race, sexual orientation/gender identity, ethnicity or cultural background, ableism). The Unlocked Path includes two secondary characters in a gay relationship. To feel confident, I portrayed that relationship in a respectful and thoughtful manner, I reached out to classmate Kerin Stackpole ’84 and asked that she and her wife read the manuscript. They returned the highlighted areas in question with a couple of suggestions to strengthen and further normalize the relationship.
Fall 2021 – Marketing. With the announcement of a publishing contract in hand, several Wheaton ’84 classmates reached out to me, asking how they could help. Armed with bookmarks and preliminary information on the novel’s synopsis, they assisted with a variety of pre-launch marketing projects (Anne Tafe Graw, Emily Johnson Goode, Mariellen Mooney O’Hara).
June 2022 – Pre-publication Readers: Once my publisher confirmed my publication date, my social media and email inboxes lit up with congratulations from classmates. Subsequently, I have booked author appearances with two classmates (Emily Johnson Goode ’84, Irja Sheppard Finn ’84) who run local book clubs. They each contacted their local libraries requesting copies of The Unlocked Path be purchased, so book club members will be able to check it out from the library.
You have quite a full slate of readings and book-talks to help market your novel. What has it been like to meet your readers and talk with them about your novel?
When I set out to write The Unlocked Path, I knew I wanted to connect with readers by presenting characters and issues which would settle into their minds and psyche. Writing within the historical fiction genre also holds a responsibility to teach and provoke questions of how we can learn from our past. I believe I achieved this goal when one of my early readers shared the affect one of my chapters had on her. In 1969, she was 19 years old, a college freshman, thousands of miles away from home, when she discovered she was pregnant. As she read about a young woman who suffers at the hands of an untrained abortionist, my chapter which deals with abortion in 1908 brought this reader to tears as she relived the choices she faced in 1969. We shared tears together as she shared her story.
Another early reader contacted me through social media when she learned the novel centered on the graduates of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Her mother attended WMC, receiving her nursing degree in the 1940s, went on to serve as a U.S. Cadet Nurse during WWII and practiced until her retirement in 1992. We swapped notes about WMC, and I was happy to give her an advance copy of The Unlocked Path signed with an inscription in memory of her mom. This reader sent me a thank you note and gift, an embroidered handkerchief her mom had worn in the pocket of her nursing uniform. I was beyond words with this thoughtful gesture that my novel “so deeply touched her heart and that on so many levels it is priceless to her.”
Other early readers also offered the reactions I strove to achieve with my characters: “I cherished Eliza’s ability to surround herself with a community of strong, independent and interesting women, including Russian-born Olga who is the kind of pull-no-punches, straight-talking best friend that we all need.” Learning that this reader accurately described the Olga character made me smile; Olga is based in part on my Wheaton roommate of four years, my maid of honor, and longtime friend, Jean Sylvester ’84.
You can learn more about Janis Robinson Daly’s The Unlocked Path at her website.