Wisconsin author talks debut novel
We all know the feeling. It's New Year's Eve, and there are seconds left on the clock for what has been a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad year. Midnight comes, the champagne is popped, and we feel born again. We get a clean slate.
But what if we woke up the next morning and had to relive that awful year all over again? Is it a second chance, or a neverending cycle?
That's what Olive Watson has to decide. The protagonist of Wisconsin author Andrea Lochen's debut novel "The Repeat Year" wakes up on Jan. 1, 2012 in her ex-boyfriend's bed – only to realize that he isn't her ex-boyfriend at all, because the day is actually January 1, 2011.
She must relive the year and all the trials it brought – including a major breakup, her mother's remarriage, disintegrating friendships and the loss of patients in her job as a nurse at an intensive care unit in Madison.
And most difficult of all, she has to decide the answer to this question: "If you wronged someone in a year that you had lived through, but the year seemed to exist for no one else, had it really happened?"
Beneath its breezy, engaging narrative, the novel offers a compelling study in the collective effect everyday choices have on a person's life. One mistake here, one burned bridge there – it really starts to add up. Olive encounters a veteran "repeater" Sherry, an acquaintance of her mother's who has had to repeat several years of her life, some of them twice over.
The novel is released today by Berkley Books, a Penguin imprint. Lochen, who is an English lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, wrote the first draft of the novel in 2006 while getting her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The school awarded her manuscript the prestigious Hopwood Novel Award.
"I think it's a premise that most people find compelling," Lochen says. "The idea for 'The Repeat Year' came to me several years ago – there's just something to me that resonated about having a character that had the opportunity to redo her previous year, because it was a really bad year."
The challenges that Olive faces in her repeat year are intentionally relatable – family and relationship issues. It was important to Lochen that Olive's struggles be something the reader can easily connect with.
"She has quite a few challenges and none of them are, like, superhero challenges," Lochen says. "I wanted to avoid that because I feel like that's been done before, the character who has some sort of premonition or foreknowledge and they can save the day and they can stop presidents from being assassinated and they can stop a meteor from hitting the Earth. I wanted readers to be able to resonate with Olive as a character and wonder about themselves – if I was reliving a year, what would I do differently, what would I change?"
Wisconsin readers will especially enjoy Lochen's use of the Madison geography to complement her story. A University of Wisconsin alum, Lochen knows her way around the city and there are several references – the Beltline and the farmer's market in Capitol Square are just a few – that locals will love. The city's "campus town" culture also provides a point of tension for Olive and her friend Kerrigan, who, though not a "repeater," is stuck in perpetual adolescence.
Lochen says she was pining for Madison when she wrote the first draft of the novel in Ann Arbor. "It was the Madison of my memories, the Madison of my imagination," she said.
"On some level, it makes the setting come to life when you write about a place you've been and you know the little ins and outs and you can kind of bring the setting to life, almost like it's a character in the story."
Born in Fond du Lac and raised in West Bend, Lochen says she is "totally a Wisconsin girl" and isn't surprised that the state makes a frequent appearance in her fiction.
"I love it here," she says. "(But) I don't think Wisconsin is written about enough. One of the things the editor who acquired my book said was that she loved that it was set in Madison. She herself was from Ohio and she said that she loved that it was set in the Midwest, that so many books are set either in New York or California and it was nice to read about somewhere in between."
Though a reader of any gender could appreciate Olive's journey, the novel is clearly marketed toward women. Lochen gave a talk at UW-Waukesha earlier this month on the curious nature of "chick lit" marketing, exploring the strategies utilized by the publishing industry (which she pointed out is itself dominated by women) and what it indicates about public perceptions about women as consumers.
"If they (the industry) think that women are just compelled to buy a book because it has a cute dog on the front of it or it has an attractive woman wearing a cute pair of shoes, I do think they're underestimating us somewhat," Lochen says.
"That being said, as a writer, one of the reasons you have an agent and an agent and editor is because we're not on the business end of things. We don't understand that. That's why they act as our intermediaries for us. What I think maybe sells is not what actually sells. I feel like as an author you have to kind of put your trust and faith in them that they're going to do what's best for your book."
It's been a long journey getting "The Repeat Year" to print, and Lochen says she would never want to suffer the same fate as her protagonist.
"I would never want to relive a year of my life," she laughs. "I think it would be really exhausting and frustrating. There may be days I might want to redo, but a whole year?"
Lochen will be celebrating the launch of "The Repeat Year" tonight with a reading and book signing at UW-Waukesha at 5:30 p.m. She will also be visiting Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., on May 16, for an appearance and reading with Dale Kushner, author of "The Conditions of Love."
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