By Bobbie Stewart
A fictional tale of a Swedish family’s unraveling secrets began with one Flagler grad’s unlikely creative muse: an antique rotary phone.
After graduating in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in English, Jessica Lidh briefly managed a Swedish antique shop — located in a 19th-century farmhouse — in Maryland and often found herself inspired by its nostalgic contents.
“One rainy day when working alone, I stumbled upon the antique rotary phone,” she said. “I kind of spooked myself into believing it would start ringing, and I was faced with the dilemma of if I would answer it or not. I ran home from work and started writing the story that day.”
Motivated by her vivid imagination, those words became paragraphs, then chapters and eventually a novel titled “The Number 7,” which was published in December by Merit Press.
Lidh’s interest in her own Swedish history inspired the lessons that surface in her book.
“I really wanted to focus on this idea of lost family stories,” she said. “I’ve grown up in a family of storytellers. My grandparents have blessed me with stories of their lives, but I know that when they're gone, so, too, will their stories. When people read 'The Number 7,' I hope they take away a new appreciation of their family ancestry and family stories. Those stories are so important to share, whether you're on either end of the telling/receiving experience.”
It took Lidh about eight months to complete her first draft, and three months later she secured a literary agent, who worked with her for years on refining her drafts before submitting the story to publishers.
“There was writing, rewriting and more rewriting,” she said. “Sometimes it felt like getting published would never happen. But I have to say, the book in its final form now is light years away from my original draft, and I'm so thankful to my agent for working me through all the rewriting.”
One piece of advice that has remained with Lidh through her years of writing came from Flagler Associate Professor of English Darien Andreu who said to “write about the day something different happened.”
“I've always kept that as my driving force, and it hasn't ever led me astray,” Lidh said.
Andreu remembers the Flagler alum’s creativity, specifically a “smart, funny and clever” play she wrote.
“Jessica’s joie de vivre spills into her work,” Andreu said. “I look forward to reading her fiction.”
The greatest difficulty for Lidh has centered not on the writing itself, but on character development, in which she is emotionally invested: “Writing the book itself was somewhat easy, though I remember when Dennis Lehane came and spoke at Flagler and talked about having just come from his hotel room where he was sprawled on the floor in a fetal position, struggling to write a chapter in his latest novel (at the time, he was writing 'The Given Day'). I definitely had days like that, where it was a struggle to write — not because the ideas weren't coming — but because you feel your characters' pain in the same way you do your child's.”
Writing, now Lidh’s passion, has not always come easy. She is also a busy wife, mother and English high school teacher. Finding time to write has required effective time management and discipline.
“I write best in the morning. That's why it's so hard juggling being a high school teacher and a writer at the same time,” she said. “I have to report to work by 7 a.m., so writing in the morning is pretty much impossible unless I wake up at 4 a.m. or earlier. By the time I come home, I'm too exhausted to find my muse.”
But despite the inconveniences of a busy life, Lidh approaches her writing as if it were a full-time job, “clocking in” daily and riding on the pure passion of the craft.
“Sure, it sounds cliché, but it feels so good to sit down and get words on paper,” she said. “Kind of like how athletes' bodies crave physical activity on days of rest, my brain craves writing when I go too long without it. Maybe that sounds more like an addiction … whatever it is, I thrive on it.”
That addiction, on good days, can be a productive one, with Lidh writing up to 8,000 words (or roughly 10 pages) a day.
“Those days are when I feel like I'm doing what I really want to do with my life,” she said.
Next on the horizon for Lidh and her family is a big move, from Maryland to the mountains of North Carolina. And like any writer seeking their next muse, Lidh doesn’t disappoint — viewing the change of scenery as a source of inspiration.
“I love Appalachia, American history and bluegrass,” she said, “so in a very romantic way, I feel like we're embarking on some great nouveau-Pioneer adventure.”