Nora Raleigh Baskin has been writing about the same character, "a sad, motherless little girl," since she was in the sixth grade, but it took the 40-year-old author almost three decades to find the right "story" for her heroine, who, she admits, is a younger version of herself.
It wasn't until 1999, after many unsuccessful writing attempts, that Baskin began transforming her sometimes humorous, often painful childhood memories into the novel What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows (Little, Brown), which traces sixth-grader Gabby's quest to discover the "special knowledge" about being a woman that girls with mothers seem to have. Like her protagonist Gabby, Baskin (now married and the mother of two boys) grew up in New Paltz, N.Y., with a father and older brother, and like Gabby, she sorely missed having a mother to guide her through her adolescence.
Acutely aware of past mistakes she'd previously made in autobiographical writing, Baskin approached her new manuscript with a fresh attitude. "This time, I was going to write what I wanted to write instead of trying to please an audience," she says, explaining that in a former (unpublished) chapter book, she made her characters too "generic" and avoided addressing any "real issues" because she was trying too hard to reach all children.
"I realized I could use my life but I didn't have to be tied to it. This was a huge breakthrough for me," she says, noting how, nearly 20 years ago, when she was a student at SUNY Purchase, her writing teacher told her she could "choose and edit" what she wrote and she "didn't necessarily have to tell the truth." Not able to fully appreciate his words, she "burst into tears" at the time, but now she was ready to apply his advice to her writing.
"When creating What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows, I was able to alter my life, make it turn out the way I would have liked it to be," Baskin states. "It allowed me to let go of a burden [her mother's death] I'd been carrying all my life. I gave Gabby knowledge it took me years to learn—that all people suffer insecurities." One of the more touching moments in her novel is when Gabby, struggling to come to terms with her mother's suicide, discovers she is not the only one feeling isolated and vulnerable among her friends, two of whom also carry sad family secrets.
Since Baskin was already well acquainted with her protagonist (variations of whom had already appeared in her college creative-writing thesis and previous chapter book), she was able to complete her novel in only five months' time. While she wrote, she kept a copy of Ruth White's Belle Prater's Boy by her side for inspiration, hoping to mirror White's ability to "write about a tragic incident with insight, humor and hope."
When she finished, Baskin showed the story to her good friend and staunch supporter, novelist Elinor Lipman, who, Baskin says appreciatively, "really stuck her neck out for me." Baskin considers what happened next to have been an "act of serendipity." Lipman found the name of an editor, Maria Modugno, whom she contacted by phone. Coincidentally, Modugno had just read one of Lipman's books and was therefore well acquainted with the author, and more than willing to read her friend's manuscript. She asked that it be sent to her through overnight mail. The only problem was that the book did not yet have a title. Lipman offered a list of suggestions; from that list Baskin chose What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows.
"The first clue that the title was going to be a hit came at the little post office in my town [of Weston, Conn.]," Baskin says wryly. "As the postmistress packed the book up to mail, she glanced at it and said, 'What a great title!' "
As it turned out, Modugno and her colleagues at Little, Brown were as enthusiastic about the novel as Lipman had been, and agreed to accept it for publication. Baskin and Modugno worked on the manuscript together for the next year and a half. "I trusted her [Modugno's] opinions and she allowed me to be the one to make final decisions in revisions," Baskin states. "You expect editors to be hard-nosed, but Maria was always kind and generous."
Having people actually read her book after its publication was the "icing on the cake" for Baskin. She's had a chance to talk to some of her readers at book signings and local schools, and has also heard from many fans through e-mail. The positive response she has received makes her even more grateful that Modugno "took a chance" with her. Mulling over the positive aspects of her writing and publishing experience, Baskin concludes, "It's magical how writing about a tragedy in my life has allowed my greatest dream to come true."