Stories have always been important to me,” says Esther Ehrlich. Her attraction to stories led her to become an oral historian, first with the Regional Oral History Office at the University of California, Berkeley, where she conducted a project on performance artists and dancers with disabilities. She left to found her own oral history business, Story Lines, intended to help individuals and families capture and preserve their stories.
For Ehrlich, stories and oral history are deeply linked. She says that when she’s writing, “I just dive into this world. I feel like I’m listening to the characters. It’s the same skills I use as an oral historian: listening and paying attention and trying to suss out what’s going on behind the story.” Ehrlich’s ability to listen contributed to her debut novel, Nest (Random/Wendy Lamb, Sept.)—about an 11-year-old girl named Naomi “Chirp” Orenstein, her teenage sister, her psychiatrist father, her dancer mother (who is diagnosed with MS), and Joey, the boy who lives across the street and has family troubles of his own. Her unpublished memoir had problems of its own as well. She spent 10 years writing and workshopping it.
To those who ask if Ehrlich is Chirp, she responds, “The book comes from my life, but also my imagination. It’s fiction. What I hope and think is that it’s an emotionally true story. I was raised by a mom who had a chronic disease. She first got sick when I was in second grade and was diagnosed with MS when I was in fourth grade.” Ehrlich was also influenced by a suicide in her family.
Ehrlich set the book in a time and place she knows well: she was Chirp’s age in 1972, grew up in Boston, and spent summers on Cape Cod. “Though it wasn’t a conscious choice,” she says, “I like that the story takes place at a time when kids had more freedom and weren’t tethered to their parents by cell phones and texting. They were able to range around, explore, create their own world separate from the adult world.”
When Ehrlich wrote Nest, she wasn’t thinking about the audience. “I just wrote the book I wanted to write. And then the industry decided what it was.” She began with a single image: two sisters dancing in the rain while their mother, a dancer, who isn’t feeling well, watches from the porch. She started the book after her husband, Neal Davis, gave her a copy of Ian Chorão’s Bruiser, which has a nine-year-old protagonist.
If the writing was easier this time (it took just one year to complete), so was selling Nest. “I think I’ve had an unusually positive experience,” says Ehrlich, who ended up being represented by Susan Golomb, the agent of a friend’s partner. It took eight months from Ehrlich’s initial query for Golomb to accept the book in summer 2012. Golomb tried placing it at major adult publishers, although she warned Ehrlich that Nest might be perceived for a younger audience. Publishers responded favorably, but agreed that it is a children’s book.
Two children’s editors wanted to publish Nest. After talking with each on the phone, Ehrlich says, “I realized I wanted to work with Wendy [Lamb]. It felt like a perfect match.” With Lamb’s help, Ehrlich made some minor changes to appeal to middle-grade readers, including expanding the ending and strengthening the book’s message of resilience in the face of loss.
Ehrlich says her next book is about “a brother and sister in early 1970s Boston. It’s the same genre as Nest. It’s still too early to know if it will work. I work carefully and slowly so I don’t know where this is going until I get there.” She is also thinking about writing a story from Joey’s point of view. “I miss Chirp and Joey,” she says. Ehrlich also misses the East Coast and the Cape; writing another book would give her a chance to spend time there, in her imagination.