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This article by Tricia Fagan was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 19, 1999.
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A Fifth Reunion, A First Published Novel
A five-year college reunion is usually a casual gathering
— the training wheels reunion, if you will — for young adults
who have just started to get their feet wet in the "real"
world. Former classmates exchange stories, check out what kind of
jobs they have gotten — who is in grad school, who has been traveling,
and who has married whom. But once in a while, there is that one classmate
who has entered post-college life with a big splash.
This May, as Princeton alumni P-rade through town, Kate Morgenroth,
Class of ’94, — with a newly-published novel and a two-book contract
under her belt — is sure to be a standout. She will give a reading
from her debut novel, "Kill Me First," on Saturday, May 29,
at 4 p.m. at the Princeton University Store.
"Kill Me First" has been appropriately described as a psychological
thriller. It explores the dark relationship that develops between
a 51-year-old woman, numbed emotionally and physically by a tragic
car accident — and the terrorist who kidnaps her in the aftermath
of a massacre at a nursing home. It’s a clever novel with short, well-constructed
chapters that keep you turning the page in spite of the brutal nature
of much of the action.
The book raises many questions — not the least of which is to
wonder what kind of person writes a debut novel like this at the tender
age of 27. Speaking by phone from her Lower East Side apartment in
New York, Morgenroth quickly establishes herself as a remarkably sane,
pleasant, and lucid young woman. So, where did the book come from?
"In some ways, it’s probably unrecognizable from its origin,"
Morgenroth says. "I was interested in the idea that at a specific
point in a person’s life — some time in middle age — most
people think that their life is set — that it’s not only difficult,
but almost impossible to change. My thought was that this is really
an illusion. Chance could come in any time and whack you into a new
life. Not only might your life change, but you might, yourself, become
a different person. I wanted to explore those dynamics and I guess
I decided to do it in an extreme way.
"I’m fascinated by the unpredictability of human beings. In a
given situation, you never know how you’re going to react. You’d like
to think that you’d be the hero — like the Patty Hearst quote
at the front of the book, about people wanting to think they’d say,
`Kill me first,’ in the face of a crisis. But I think the truth is
that you never really know what’s going to happen when your survival
instincts kick in."
Morgenroth has been fascinated since childhood by stories that had
a surprise, but believable, ending. As the youngest of three children
in Harrison, New York, where her father was a township civil engineer,
she was "absolutely a bookworm," she says. "I’d go to
the library every few days and come back with a stack of books up
to my chin. To this day I read at least a book or two a week."
Her mother, for years a librarian and now working in a bookstore,
introduced Morgenroth to many of the great classics of childhood.
"I loved all of them, `Island of the Blue Dolphins’ and `Julie
of the Wolves’ [by Scott O’Dell], `Carry On, Mr. Bowditch’ [by Jean
Lee Latham], Lloyd Alexander’s fantasies, and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia
Morgenroth believes it was her grandmother, however, who helped instill
her great love of reading. "My grandmother read aloud to me all
the time when I was a child — which is why my book is dedicated
to her. I’d go visit at least one weekend every month, if not more.
Listening to her read those stories out loud reinforced for me that
reading books is just the greatest pleasure."
High school years were spent at Fieldston, a private school in the
Bronx, where her mother was working as the librarian. "I almost
consider myself a half-breed — half Westchester kid and half New
York City kid. It was a little difficult with all of my high school
friends in the city. But I don’t think I would want to have changed
it in any way. It was great to have both perspectives."
Morgenroth does not recall wanting to be a writer when
she was younger — but family and friends remember otherwise. "This
gets hazy for me," she says. "I didn’t do a lot of writing,
but I guess I was saying that I was going to be a writer, so no one
was surprised when I wrote this book. Recently I was looking through
my high school yearbook. The little prediction they had written for
me said I’d be writing the secret biographies of other Fieldston grads!"
She laughs, "I certainly wasn’t like Joyce Carol Oates — I
mean, she finished her first book when she was, what, 14? That wasn’t
me. I guess I had a big mouth, but not enough to back it up."
When Morgenroth came to choose a college, Princeton University’s strong
creative writing program was the deciding factor. "It’s a fantastic
program," she says. "Even though you can’t major in it, you
can apply for permission to concentrate in creative writing. And if
you get accepted, you can write something creative for your senior
thesis. Some people did short stories, for example. I did a novel."
Although she was not accepted into the program during her freshman
year, she used the same writing sample to gain admission to John McPhee’s
fabled non-fiction writing class. "His class is actually considered
to be much more selective, but for whatever reason I got in,"
she says. "This was actually my first lesson in the subjectivity
involved when people read your work. It was an fabulous lesson to
learn so early, and it’s been reinforced over the years."
It was in McPhee’s class that Morgenroth first seriously considered
writing as a profession. "This one writer from New York, Mark
Singer, said, `Oh, I hate writing. What I love is having written.’
Now I had always hated the process of writing — it was so painful.
So when an established writer said he hated writing, but still did
it — well, it made me think maybe I could be a writer after all."
By her sophomore year, she was in the creative writing program, working
with professors including Joyce Carol Oates and Russell Banks. In
her junior year, while taking Toni Morrison’s course in long fiction,
Morgenroth realized her direction. "That’s how I began writing
my first novel," she says. "I started it in the long fiction
course. In my senior year, Professor Morrison chose to advise me,
and I was able to work with her that year to develop the novel as
my senior thesis."
Morgenroth describes her thesis novel, "Detour," as being
a "bit more literary, but still very dark." Morrison’s guiding
hand as both an author and an editor was invaluable. "She taught
me how to revise, challenged me to look at things from a different
angle. She had an amazing ability to draw out the gem in your writing,
to help you focus on what worked and what didn’t work."
After graduation, Morgenroth spent a year teaching English in a middle
school in Guangzhou, China — a major city about three hours from
Hong Kong — through the Princeton in Asia Program. It was while
there that she began working out her ideas for "Kill Me First"
— although her first attempts were short lived. "My computer
broke," she recalls. "I tried to write it out on paper, but
found I was one of those people who can’t write stories in long hand."
On her return from Asia in 1995, Morgenroth moved to New York City,
in need of employment, but increasingly determined to write her book.
She found a position as an assistant in the marketing department at
HarperCollins Publishers. "I struggled to write it nights and
weekends," she says, "but it was almost impossible. I soon
knew that if I was going to write this book, I would have to find
a way to do it full time."
With that in mind, she worked for a year, scrimping all the while.
She also struggled to get some of the story down while still at HarperCollins.
"When I left, I had about 50 or 60 pages." she says. "I
think it was important that I had gotten at least that much down.
It would have been really hard to leave a job to work on a story if
I hadn’t already had a good idea of what I wanted to write about."
Barely two years out of college, at age 25, Morgenroth took the dive,
leaving HarperCollins to devote her time to the novel.
When congratulated for having the nerve to make this drastic a move,
Morgenroth reflects for a minute. "You know, I’ve talked to people
a lot about this. It does definitely take some guts to take off to
write — but for me, honestly, it also came from having a lack
of other options. If I had really been serious about being in publishing,
for example, I would have gone into editorial to begin with. In putting
myself into marketing, I think I put myself into a position where
I knew I wasn’t going to be staying on there — and I really couldn’t
think of anything else I’d rather be doing than writing."
It took Morgenroth six months to finish a first draft.
"I actually ran out of money, and had to move back home to finish,"
she says. "I ate spaghetti, walked everywhere, debated with myself
about whether I could afford a Danish. Being that tight with money
was pretty exhausting." She returned to HarperCollins as a temp,
and began a year-long process of editing. "It was such a relief
to have a place to go in the morning! And to have money coming in
— I never thought I’d be so grateful to be in a nine-to-five job!"
When Morgenroth finally began looking for an agent, she was surprised
at the lukewarm response to "Kill Me First." With some hindsight,
Morgenroth says, "I think the darkness threw them — and the
fact that the book didn’t fit easily into one genre. Also, some of
them were very bothered that the main character, Sarah, was 50 years
old. I actually had one agent who was interested in working with me
if I would make her 28."
She finally asked Larry Ashmead, a senior editor at HarperCollins,
for his advice. Instead of advice she received a generous two-book
world rights deal. "I’ve been very lucky. And since I already
knew the people that I have to work with at HarperCollins, it makes
everything much less frightening. Unlike many other first-time writers,
if I have a question, I feel comfortable calling them up and asking
`What’s up with this?’"
The book was officially released this year on May 1. Morgenroth had
her first signing and reading at a New York Barnes & Noble a week
later. "A few people I didn’t know showed up," she says, "but
it really seemed to be more of a party, in a way, because a bunch
of family and friends came out." The publisher has only set up
a few additional readings for now in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland
— which is fine with Morgenroth. "I’m not an actress. I spend
my time sitting in a room and staring at a computer, so getting up
in front of crowds is not my favorite thing. I like question and answer
periods, but I’m not confident enough to think that I’m so interesting
that everyone is going to want to sit there and listen to what I have
Morgenroth is now on her third novel. "It probably won’t be quite
as violent, but it will probably still be pretty dark. If it doesn’t
sound too cliched, I find the duality in human nature way more interesting.
It’s fascinating when you read a book and you’re thinking a character
is a certain way and all of a sudden that character makes a 90-degree
turn. You see them in a completely different light when they don’t
fit neatly in a little box. People can always surprise you."
At the same time, Morgenroth aims to spin a tale that engages and
entertains. "The highest compliment to me is when people find
my book a page turner," she says. "Of course I want to write
well, but in terms of writing a book, I want to write a good read."
With her reunion weekend just around the corner," Morgenroth is
remarkably unassuming. "Anybody can do it if they want it badly
enough. You figure out a way. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I’m saying
that if you want to do this, you should try."
— Tricia Fagan
University Place, 609-921-8500. Free. Saturday, May 29, 4 p.m.
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