- Roy Gumpel
This June, when the nation was riveted by the escape of two convicts from a maximum security prison in the Adirondacks, Phoenicia author Jenny Milchman was astounded: her third novel, As Night Falls, (Ballantine, 2015) has the same storyline, right down to the physical size of the pair and their plan to cross uncharted woods into Canada.The high-stakes manhunt grabbed headlines for weeks, coming to a grim close just two days before As Night Falls's June 30 launch date. Milchman's editor fired off a deadpan, "Thanks for the wonderful publicity stunt, Jenny."
The award-winning author of North Country thrillers Cover of Snow (Ballantine, 2013) and Ruin Falls (Ballantine, 2014) is mystified by the coincidence. Though it appears ripped from the headlines, her adrenaline-pumping new novel was written, printed, and packed into shipping cartons long before the real-life story emerged.
"Where do stories come from? What do we tap into?" Milchman asks, sipping a cup of vanilla-scented London Fog tea at Woodstock eatery Joshua's. She'll address the same questions again in a couple of hours at an event called "A Conversation Among Creatives" at The Golden Notebook Bookstore.
Jenny Milchman is good at author events. Very, very good.
By anyone's lights, she's had plenty of practice. Between January 2013, when Cover of Snow was released, and this fall, she and her family will have logged more than 70,000 miles in what Shelf Awareness has dubbed "the world's longest book tour."
This crisscross-country ultramarathon, with 450 events for three different books, was inspired by the road trips she loved as a child and fueled by a burning determination to connect with booksellers and readers. Cheerfully parrying questions of sanity on her website—one fellow author declared "I would rather eat rats"—Milchman calls touring "just about the sheerest fun I ever experienced. Drive up to a bookstore, be welcomed by someone who has devoted his or her life to books, have a delicious latte, then walk into a room and talk to one person or three hundred about the stories that compel us. What could be better than that?"
This satisfied glow was a long time coming. As Milchman told a rapt Golden Notebook audience, "It took me 11 years to get published. Eight novels, 3 agents, 15 almost-offers." When Ballantine made an offer on novel number eight, she was so elated she drove to her kids' elementary school at lunchtime, taking them both out to share the big news.
They would soon share much more. The World's Longest Book Tour is a family affair, with Milchman's husband Josh telecommuting to his IT business in the front of the SUV and their daughter and son, now 12 and 9, getting "car-schooled" in back. In fact, their first road trip inspired her next book: When a motel upgraded their weary group to a suite, Milchman went to tuck in the kids and realized that their sleeper sofa was against a wall, right next to the exit door. Her brain went into "What if?" overdrive, and Ruin Falls was born.
Milchman was a precocious reader. She remembers her father handing her books by Charlotte Brontë and Andre Gide when she was eight. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, she says, "I was a shamefully big reader. Other kids didn't understand why I wouldn't come outside and play." As a teen, she devoured Jack London stories, Victorian novels, and chillers by authors like Stephen King and Ira Levin.
She discovered the Adirondacks at girl scout camp; many years later, she and Josh would attempt a backcountry canoe honeymoon—during black fly season. Milchman shudders. "I'm getting itchy just talking about it."
She attended Bard College, eventually transferring to Barnard and graduating with a double major in English and psychology. The latter was "not my own thought. My parents sat me down and said, 'So what's the plan, Jenny?' I had a really good plan," she says wryly. "I was going to be a poet and live in a cabin I'd built myself." Her parents pointed out that she'd never picked up a hammer, urging the young poet to choose a fallback career.
"I was never supposed to be a poet," Milchman says now. "If you want to write, you should write the kind of book you curl up with at night. Which was not poetry, and not the Victorians, much as I loved them." Suspense was what made her heart beat.