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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Overcast
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Susan Gloss and Gayle Rosengren make an impression from Madison
Authors grab publishers' attention with novels set in Wisconsin
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Susan Gloss and Gayle Rosengren write for very different audiences, but both authors call the Madison area home. Their characters live nearby, too. What the Moon Said, Rosengren's recently released novel for middle-grade readers, takes place on a Wisconsin farm. Gloss' novel, Vintage, revolves around three women who spend time in a vintage clothing boutique on East Johnson Street. The book comes out on March 25, and there will be a launch party at the High Noon Saloon on March 29.

The similarities don't end with Madison. Both books are first novels, and both involved an epic search for either an agent or a publisher. Vintage was eventually picked up by William Morrow, and What the Moon Said found a home at Putnam. And now both authors have contracts for second novels. With major publishers releasing books by fellow local novelists Michelle Wildgen, Susanna Daniel, Kelly Harms and Dale Kushner in the last year, one has to wonder if Madison's fiction-writing community has discovered a trade secret.

If it has, Gloss and Rosengren aren't spilling the beans. Instead, they say diligence is the name of the game. Gloss' active imagination sparked Vintage, and her impressive work ethic helped the manuscript come together while she worked as an attorney and prepared to give birth to her first child.

"When I'm in drafting mode, I squeeze every minute I can out of the day," she explains. "I bring my computer everywhere. Even if I'm waiting at the doctor's office, I'm putting words down."

Before that, Gloss was spending much of her spare time at thrift stores, especially St. Vinny's on Willy Street

"I'd find myself there on the weekends, looking for things," she says. "Then I realized I wasn't necessarily looking for things for myself. I was looking for items with a story so I could think about how they'd come in and out of people's lives."

This idea kicked Gloss' imagination into high gear. Before long, she'd invented three central characters: a vintage shop owner named Violet who's enamored of the stories behind decades-old garments; a super-smart teen named April who discovers she's pregnant after her mother dies; and an Indian woman named Amithi who gave up a fashion-design career to move to the U.S. with her husband. As these women get acquainted, they help each other solve impossible-seeming problems.

While Amithi emerged in Gloss' mind fully formed, Violet appeared as an image.

"Right away I pictured her tattoos and her style, but her backstory evolved. She's got a lot going on in her past that still affects her life years later," Gloss says.

In addition to crafting teen, thirtysomething and middle-aged characters, Gloss made sure to include elders. A plucky senior on the city's arts board mentors Violet and pushes her to do the same for April.

"I really wanted the story to be about friendships between women that are multigenerational," Gloss says.

Home sweet home

Though the Madison portrayed in Vintage is fictional, it bears a strong resemblance to the real thing. Violet's shop is near the location of Good Style Shop, and she recalls going to the King Club, a former downtown nightclub. The book also features a fashion show at a place that sounds like the High Noon Saloon.

"[Local secondhand shop] Re:Threads was also a big inspiration, especially the 'Rags in Drag' fashion show it had at the High Noon a few years ago," Gloss says.

Vintage is also about people who've been discarded. Violet has escaped a violent marriage, Amithi discovers that her husband's a cheater, and the father of April's child heads to Boston for medical school after his parents encourage him to leave her behind. All three women want to find a place that feels safe and comfortable, a real home. Perhaps this is because Gloss moved around so much as a child.

"My dad's a retired surgeon, so he was doing residencies all over the country when I was a kid. I must have lived in 10 different houses before I was 10 years old," she says.

Eventually the family settled in Green Bay, and Gloss went on to attend the University of Notre Dame and the UW Law School. In 2006, after two years at a Chicago law firm, she "fell in love" with Madison and moved back. So Vintage is also an ode to local adventures, from a trip to a specialty cheese shop to a night on the Capitol Square where "music spilled out from bars and people dined at sidewalk cafes." It also features places like Agrace HospiceCare, where nurses patiently provide comfort in times of need.

Likewise, patience played a big role in Vintage's voyage to William Morrow.

"Finding an agent who wanted to represent me and was a good fit was the longest part of the journey," Gloss says. "That took me over two years, but after I signed with her, she sold the book to William Morrow within a few months."

One day, a New Yorker purchased a 1970s Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress from Gloss' Etsy shop. Within an hour, HarperCollins, William Morrow's parent company, had made an offer for Vintage. If Gloss accepted the offer, one of the company's highest-ranking editors would oversee the project.

As it turns out, that editor was also the fashion lover who bought the dress. She green-lighted Gloss' manuscript before she'd finished reading it.

"I saw it as a sign that my editor was invested in the book and excited about the concept," Gloss says. "I knew it had found the right home."

Timing is everything

Rosengren will tell you that timing can be everything. What the Moon Said made its first pass at the publishing houses 15 years ago. She had an enthusiastic agent, but the story of a 10-year-old girl whose family moves from Chicago to a farm in rural Wisconsin during the Great Depression had little appeal to publishers before the American economic bubble burst.

When the manuscript finally fell into the hands of Putnam editor Susan Kochan in 2009, the themes of Rosengren's story had gained a whole new resonance.

"Fathers losing their jobs, kids having to move -- these things were happening again in our new economic times," Rosengren says.

And perhaps it was that fresh interest in the novel's subject matter that allowed other jewels in the writing to become more apparent.

"She told me she just couldn't get Esther out of her mind," Rosengren says of Kochan's response to the main character, who yearns for more affection from her mother.

It's a reaction the author commonly gets. "Readers seem to love Esther," she says with a smile. "They say they want to give her a hug."

What the Moon Said is also an emotionally complex look at the immigrant experience. Esther's mother is a Russian immigrant whose choices are regularly guided by the superstitions she was raised with. The move to a Wisconsin farm is a hardship for the family, but through Esther's eyes, it is also an adventure.

Rosengren says the bones of her story came from the experiences of her own grandparents. Her grandmother was a woman of strong superstitious beliefs, including the one most significant to Esther's story, that loving a child "too much" will only tempt fate.

'One for all, all for one'

Fifteen years is a long time to wait for a manuscript to find its home. Many writers would simply give up. So how did Rosengren manage not to?

"Stubbornness," she says, grinning. "Writing feels like such a selfish pursuit when it appears not to be going anywhere. And there were often times when I wondered if I was ever going to quit."

Rosengren grew up in Chicago. She majored in creative writing at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., where she edited the literary magazine. After working as a copywriter for an advertising company, she married, and as a stay-at-home mom began to write again "when the baby was happy."

As her three children grew, Rosengren found her own writing influenced by the books she read with her kids. She sent some of those efforts out, getting published in such children's periodicals as Ladybug and Cricket, but she wasn't confident that she'd adopted the right approach. She took a job in the children's department at the local library, eventually becoming the young adult librarian.

Rosengren's life took a big turn in 1992, when her husband, who worked for Oscar Mayer, was transferred to Madison. Another local children's writer was putting together a writing criticism group. A few members had already been published, while others were getting good feedback from editors and going through the process of acquiring agents.

"I met the most wonderful women through that writing group," Rosengren says. "They are my dearest friends today. My sister-friends, I call them."

When Rosengren's husband died in 1996, she still had an 11-year-old at home. Her writing group rallied around her. Though she didn't write for a year, she continued to go to meetings.

"You are a partner to the others in the group," she says. "Our philosophy was always 'One for all, all for one.'"

As time passed, she found that reading other people's work was a great way to spark her own creativity. Writing also became a huge part of her healing process.

By 1995, Rosengren and her group had organized the first of their spring retreats. The writing group's members wanted more opportunities to get criticism and advice from professionals working closer to the acquisition, editing and marketing of children's literature.

"What I really wanted was time to work with an editor who'd be willing to read more than 20 to 50 pages of a manuscript," Rosengren says.

Editors and agents would read several manuscripts before spending a weekend with the group in Madison. The writers received personalized critiques and more specific advice related to the children's book market.

Rosengren credits the retreats with helping her sharpen her craft, and also with helping four members of the group find publishing contracts. It was at a recent spring retreat that What the Moon Said got into Kochan's hands.

Smart marketing

What the Moon Said has received praise from Publisher's Weekly and Booklist, and it was named a Junior Library Guild selection for grades three through eight. Even so, Rosengren is aware that the way books are sold has changed since she finished her manuscript.

While she appreciates Putnam's promotion of the book, she also joined the marketing collective Class of 2k14. Its 20 members are all children's authors debuting a book through a major publishing house in 2014. Their annual dues help establish and maintain a website; provide each other with lists of conferences, book fairs and other marketing venues; and buy advertising in journals and on websites that market children's literature. They also support each other's work through social networking.

Due out in 2015, Rosengren's second middle-grade book will be about a young girl with a brother in the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Rosengren has no regrets about the long road to publishing her first book.

"The process has always given me joy," she says. "And I'm proud of the fact that my children will see me as someone who never gave up."

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