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Discussion Questions: The Promise of Home by Darcie Chan

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

The Promise of Home_Chan1. The Promise of Home rotates among the perspectives of several different characters: Karen, Claudia, Emily, and Father O’Brien. Were you drawn to any one of their storylines more than the others? Why do you think that is?

2. A significant portion of the narrative includes flashbacks to Father O’Brien’s youth. Why do you think the author chose to include those flashbacks when the rest of the novel takes place in the present day? What would the novel be like without them? How might the other sections change?

3. “The very hands that rested on his knees, the hands that were suddenly unable to do what he wanted them to, had held a rifle and ended a man’s life. Up until now, he hadn’t allowed that realization to sink in. . . . The weight of it, regardless of the man’s actions toward his mother, was immense” (page 70). This quote is from the moment Michael O’Brien begins to process what he’s done. Do you think he is too hard on himself, considering the circumstances? How do you think you would react in a similar position?

4. After deciding that it’s best to conceal what happened with the intruder, Frank says to a young Father O’Brien, “This is one of those tough situations, Michael, where there are no good solutions. It isn’t possible to do something right without somebody else getting hurt or paying a price. These situations will come up every once in a while during your lifetime, and you need to recognize them and choose which solution does the least harm and who should suffer that harm” (page 197). Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

5. After reading one of the letters from the briefcase, Emily learns that Father O’Brien killed a man and ultimately finds his actions, under the circumstances, to be “perfectly justified and understandable” (page 148). How do you think some of the other characters would react to the news? Why?

6. When Claudia goes in for a wedding dress fitting, Pauline offers her this piece of advice: “Falsehoods and little white lies never lead to anything good. And be careful when you decide what’s false and what isn’t. Sometimes things and even people aren’t what they seem” (page 82). How is this advice relevant at different points throughout the novel? Are there any moments in The Promise of Home when you would disagree with it?

7. Mill River is clearly a unique place to live. Why do you think so many people are drawn to it from other places, and why do you think so many people return after years away?

8. When Emily first meets Matt, she is offended by his advances and pushes him away. Do you think she is too quick to judge him based on her past experiences, or is she justified in her reaction?

9. When Father O’Brien suspects the worst has happened to Karen, he rushes to find her, putting his own health at risk. Can you think of other times when he acted selflessly? In what way(s) is he a pillar of the community? Give examples.

10. Throughout the novel, Karen struggles with suicidal thoughts and even acts upon them, but she is ultimately given a second chance. In what way do you think some of the other characters were afforded second (if less obvious) chances?

11. Claudia tolerates Misty, the rude girlfriend of her future brother-in-law, with a smile on her face, and she even bites her tongue when she realizes Misty is making inappropriate passes at Kyle. Where do you think she finds the strength and faith to stay out of the situation? What do you think her silence on the matter says about her character and her relationship with Kyle? Could she have made her concerns known to Kyle in a constructive way?

12. Frank makes some difficult decisions to help spare Michael and Anna more pain and difficulty. Do you agree with his decision to tell them that Grace died as an infant? Given his opinion of orphanages, were there any other reasonable options for him at the time?

13. What do you think of the title, The Promise of Home? In your opinion, does it fit the novel? Why or why not?

A Conversation with Darcie Chan

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

The Promise of Home_ChanIn The Promise of Home, Darcie Chan, author of the Mill River Recluse, returns readers to Mill River, the charming town whose residents experience surprises and sorrows, witness acts of goodwill and kindness, embrace family love and friendship–and uncover age-old secrets and heartaches.

Random House Reader’s Circle: The fictional town of Mill River, Vermont, serves as the setting for all of your novels, and many characters overlap across all three books. What was the biggest challenge in creating and maintaining such an interconnected community?

Darcie Chan: Strangely, when I was writing the first Mill River book, I had no inkling that it would become the first of at least three novels with a common setting and many common characters. It was simply my first novel, one that I hoped would be published someday.

When it became clear that I would have the opportunity to write more books set in Mill River, I had to think carefully about how to proceed. Consistency is key. Characters who appear in more than one book must be consistent across, not just within, the books. At the same time, I think it’s vital that I continue to explore and develop those characters.

I also view the town of Mill River itself as a central character in my books, if not the heart of each story. It’s important to keep the details of the town consistent—-not only the physical details, such as the location of certain buildings and streets, and their positions in relation to others—-but also the town’s safe, cozy, and welcoming feel.

The residents of Mill River play a large part in achieving that latter goal. As I plan each story, I’m constantly focused on which of the townspeople should be involved, which would have some connection to or know about the events taking place, and what kinds of people I might like to meet were I to actually visit the town. Should I involve a character who is already known to my readers, or should I introduce someone new? What kinds of things might happen in a small town that would involve and intrigue the people there? And why would the people of Mill River want to live there in the first place?

In a way, building the Mill River series and maintaining its interconnectedness are much like trying to re–create the structure of a hurricane. The town itself, calm and peaceful, is at the center, with the actions and stories of the town residents swirling around. Everything is held together as part of a single, consistent system. And as with the path of a hurricane, what happens in a small town like Mill River can often be unexpected or unpredictable, as my readers well know.

RHRC: What is your writing process like? What helps you when you get stuck?

DC: Before I start writing a new book, I need to have the main characters and a central plot in mind. I must also know how the story will begin, how it will end, and a few “main events” that will take place in the middle. Unless I have that bare minimum of information, I don’t feel ready to put anything on paper (or my computer screen, as is more often the case).

Once I’ve planned out the basics, I try to do a brief chapter–by–chapter outline to serve as a roadmap. Some chapters start in that outline completely blank—-as was the case with my most recent novel—-and I end up filling them in as the plot unfolds and ideas come to me while I’m writing.

I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t yet had a serious case of writer’s block. I do two things to try to keep that from happening. First, I end each writing session knowing what it is that I’m going to write next. That’s hard to do sometimes—-stopping when I’m on a roll—-but knowing exactly how I’m going to start the next writing session makes doing it much easier. And second, before I start writing for the day, I read over and edit the pages I wrote the previous day. Doing so helps refine the draft and helps me to coast into writing whatever comes next in the story.

RHRC: Who was the first Mill River character you ever came up with? What was the inspiration behind him/her?

DC: Mary McAllister was the first character I developed, and she did indeed have a real–life inspiration.

In the 1940s, a Jewish gentleman named Sol Strauss fled Nazi Germany and settled with his mother in my hometown of Paoli, Indiana. There, he opened a dry goods store on the town square. Even though his business was successful, Mr. Strauss quietly lived alone above his shop and never seemed to be fully embraced by the town’s predominantly Christian population. Still, he considered Paoli his adopted community and its people his people. When Mr. Strauss died, the town was shocked to learn that he had bequeathed to it millions of dollars, which were to be used for charitable purposes to benefit the residents.

The Sol Strauss Supporting Organization Fund is still in operation today. Among other things, it provides clothing and additional necessities for needy children and an annual supply of new books for the high school English department. Residents of Paoli may also apply to the fund for assistance in carrying out a project that would benefit the town. The fund is the legacy of Mr. Strauss, who continues to be remembered for his extreme and unexpected generosity.

I had Mr. Strauss in mind when I was brainstorming ideas for a first novel. I thought it would be interesting and challenging to build a story around a character who is misunderstood or different in some way, and to show that even someone who is seemingly far removed from his or her community may be more special and loving than anyone could imagine. I liked the idea of an older woman peering down at a small town from her window and knowing that she was helping the people who lived there—-her people—-even though most of them knew little or nothing about her. This woman, of course, became the character Mary McAllister, and her life story became The Mill River Recluse.

RHRC: Do you have a favorite character? Why?

DC: I really love the character of Father O’Brien. Writing scenes involving his “spoon problem” are such fun! I also like the fact that he is an incredibly kind and gentle person, and that even at his advanced age, he’s an active and beloved member of the Mill River community.

I’m also fond of the character Emily DiSanti, first introduced in The Mill River Redemption. I suppose it’s because Emily shares some personal qualities with my youngest sister, Molly. Both love dogs—-Emily’s dog, Gus, is based on a dog my sister used to have. Molly has a degree in landscape architecture, so she’s very artsy and outdoorsy, with a skill set to match. I think it’s really cool that she can drive a dump truck and refinish furniture, and she has her own hip waders for trout fishing. Molly can also grow anything. She somehow managed to raise perfect artichokes during the short, cool summers in Green Bay, Wisconsin! I really admire my sister’s self–reliant, can–do attitude, and I wanted the character of Emily DiSanti to have that same state of mind.

(I should add that my other sister, Carrie, is also a fabulous person with her own set of unique talents . . . which might be borrowed for a future character!)

RHRC: Readers have met Father O’Brien before, but in The Promise of Home, they find out so much more about his backstory. When did you first start to think about the details of his personal history?

DC: Over the years, many readers have written to me wanting to know why it is that Father O’Brien is so obsessed with spoons. Once I was able to turn my attention to developing the plot for my third book, I realized that I wanted to give my readers an answer to that question. Gradually, a story took shape in my mind—-Father O’Brien’s story—-and it seemed it would make a good addition to the two Mill River books I’d already written. I wanted to let my readers see a bit of his childhood and learn what experiences shaped him into the priest they know. And, I wanted to contrast that historical portion of the book with events in the present to reveal how his past still had the ability to change his life.

I was fascinated by my research into living during the Great Depression. It was a time of struggle, when little was taken for granted. Children grew up much more quickly and were expected to do more at a much younger age. Father O’Brien, or Michael, as he was called back then, certainly would have experienced this, and I think that reality is borne out in this third book.

RHRC: How did you decide which Mill River residents you wanted to focus on in The Promise of Home?

DC: Once I came up with a story and plot for The Promise of Home, I knew that Father O’Brien, both as an elderly priest and as a teenager, would feature heavily. Since this book was to be crafted as the third in a series, I thought it was important to continue with certain previously established plotlines and characters. Kyle and Claudia appeared in the first two Mill River novels, and their relationship continues to evolve in this one. Both DiSanti sisters from The Mill River Redemption are put through an emotional wringer in that story, and I wanted to follow their journey—-especially -Emily’s—-in this new book.

Of course, I am always striving to further develop the town of Mill River itself. New characters help expand and enrich the fictional community and play important roles in this new story. And I always like to let established characters make cameos in new books, even if they’re not heavily involved in the plot. My readers like to find out how and what they’re doing, and so do I!

RHRC: Do you think of your novels as having any overarching messages or themes?

DC: Although I can see certain themes—-particularly emphases on the importance of kindness, family, and community—-in the finished books, I don’t sit down to write a new story with any particular message or theme in mind. Rather, they seem to take shape along with the story.

I’ve often wondered why these themes have emerged in my writing. Each of them is important to me personally. But I think the real reason is my feeling that our society has changed over the years, and is continuing to change, in a way that isn’t good. I think an argument can be made that in many places, kindness, family, and community are under siege. Crime and racial tensions are often in the news. Families of all kinds are struggling economically and socially. At school or neighborhood events, people who manage to leave work early to attend, and who might once have struck up conversations and gotten to know each other, now sit silently glued to their smartphones. For all the digital and electronic interconnectedness in our current society, I sometimes feel as if we’re actually disconnected from one another and from a focus on human qualities and in–person relationships. Even in Mill River, life is neither easy nor perfect, but an effort to be kind, to help families thrive, and to develop relationships that foster a strong sense of community could make life more meaningful and enjoyable for many people.

RHRC: What is your favorite thing about Mill River?

DC: My favorite thing about Mill River—-other than its wonderful residents—-is the way it offers a sense of safety, comfort, and community. If I close my eyes, I can easily picture its quaint houses and shops and its neat, quiet streets. I can imagine peering out the window of one of those houses, listening to crickets and tree frogs singing on a summer night or the howling wind of a blizzard during the winter. I would feel cozy and safe, surrounded by neighbors I knew in a community steeped in kindness and caring. Mill River really is the little town of my dreams, a place I wish existed in real life. I would move there in a heartbeat!

Thanksgiving Recipe: Cranberry Salad from Darcie Chan

Friday, November 21st, 2014

9780345538239This week, we’ve invited a few of our authors to share Thanksgiving staples, family recipes, or dishes that somehow always make it onto their holiday tables! Today’s recipe is from Darcie Chan, author of The Mill River Recluse and The Mill River Redemption.

The beauty of this cranberry salad isn’t just in how fabulous it looks and tastes, but also in the fact that it is best prepared a day ahead of time, before the real crush of cooking gets underway.

Growing up, my mom and two sisters and I would sit around the dining room table the evening before Thanksgiving. We didn’t have an electric chopper back then, so each of us would get a knife and cutting board and start chopping up one of the main ingredients — cranberries, walnuts, celery, or apples. Inevitably, we’d get bored with the work and start telling stories and jokes, which would then degenerate into making faces across the table and otherwise acting like idiots. Once we finally had everything chopped and ready to combine, our faces and sides ached from laughing. My mom usually ended up pulping the oranges (since we hated doing that and she was best at it, anyhow) and getting everything into the pan and then the fridge. Finally, the four of us would totter off to bed, often still giggling, and always happily anticipating snitching some of the finished cranberry salad for breakfast!


1 can whole berry jellied cranberry sauce
2 large boxes sugar-free cherry Jell-O
2 cups walnuts, chopped
2 apples, peeled and finely chopped
1.5 bags whole fresh cranberries, finely chopped
2 cups celery, finely chopped
Pulp of 2 large oranges


Combine all ingredients except for the jellied cranberry sauce and the Jell-O in a large bowl and stir until well-mixed. Set aside.

Boil water for Jell-O. In a glass 9″ x 13″ pan, stir Jell-O powder into boiling water per instructions on the box until Jell-O is completely dissolved. Add the canned cranberry sauce to the Jell-O liquid and stir until it, too, is dissolved.

Add the combined ingredients in the bowl to the liquid in the 9″ x 13″ pan, as well as the remaining water called for in the instructions on the Jell-O box (or as much of the water as will fit in the pan) and stir gently until evenly mixed.

Place pan in refrigerator for several hours until Jell-O mixture is firm and set.

Reader’s Guide: THE MILL RIVER REDEMPTION by Darcie Chan

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Screen shot 2014-08-27 at 3.04.15 PM Have you read the book everyone is raving about?

An enchanting storyteller, Chan is one of those rare authors who make you feel more fully alive.”
—Elizabeth Letts, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Eighty-Dollar Champion

Like Elizabeth Letts, you’ll be drawn into Chan’s Mill River series. Dip in with your book club, and enjoy these discussion questions from Random House Reader’s Circle!

1. In the beginning of The Mill River Redemption, Josie DiSanti is traumatized and frightened. Over the course of the story, however, she becomes strong, self-sufficient, and confident. What do you feel is the single biggest factor in her transformation?

2. As a single parent, Josie tries to be everything to and provide everything for her daughters Rose and Emily. Given her situation, what do you feel were her greatest successes and failures as a parent? What might she have done differently?

3. Josie has to deal with an unpleasant boss in her first job as a single parent. Have you encountered a “Ned Circle”—i.e., someone who intentionally tried to make things difficult for you—in your own life or career? If so, how did you handle the situation?

4. As young adults, Rose and Emily DiSanti experience a terrible tragedy and become estranged, and Josie spends many years trying to help them reconcile. If you were in Emily’s position, could you forgive Rose for what she did? If you were in Rose’s position, could you ask Emily for forgiveness?

5. In your experience, is trying to forgive someone easier or more difficult if you love the person seeking the forgiveness?

6. Daisy Delaine repeatedly seeks to apologize to Rose for her perceived transgression at Josie’s wake. Do you think Rose’s response to Daisy is an expression of personal animosity or a result of the influence of alcohol?

7. How does Rose evolve from the moment she arrives in Mill River for the summer to the end of the story? Did your feelings toward her change over the course of the book?

8. Emily returns to Mill River to honor her mother’s wishes and also to confront her own past. Despite all that has happened, do you think she still loves her sister? Does she change as a person as events unfold? At the end of the story, do you believe she will really be able to forgive Rose for what she did?

9. Claudia Simon struggles with feelings of insecurity, even though Kyle gives her no reason to doubt his feelings until she sees him coming out of Emily’s house. If you had been in Claudia’s position, what would you have done at that point?

10. Ivy’s little bookstore is a labor of love and her life’s work. How does it reflect her personality?

11. Josie is desperate to see her girls’ estrangement end. Does she go too far in her efforts to force their reconciliation? Do you think that what she does is worth it in the end? What would you have done had you been in her position?

12. As a “recovering spoon addict,” Father O’Brien manages to keep his compulsion under control in this novel. Do you think that he will continue to refrain from stealing spoons, or do you think he will eventually relapse? Does his grief over Mary McAllister’s death have anything to do with his newfound self-control?

13. Sheldon sees Rose at an experimental theater performance and is taken with her immediately. Do you believe in love at first sight? If so, is it the kind of love that can withstand the challenges inherent in most marriages?

14. Near the end of the book, Josie refers to Father O’Brien as “a priceless antique that’s still functional.” Is there, or has there been, an elderly person in your life who fits that description? Who is or was it, and what made the person so special to you?

Join the conversation with Darcie Chan on Facebook and Twitter!

Author Spotlight: Darcie Chan’s 6 Favorite Books

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Screen shot 2014-08-27 at 3.04.15 PMWe asked New York Times bestselling author Darcie Chan, author of The Mill River Redemption, to share her 6 favorite books with us. She returned with a great list!

Darcie Chan’s Top Six Favorite Reads

I have loved reading all of my life. I found it very difficult to choose only six books as my favorites, as there are so many more that I could have included here! But, each of the following books is simply wonderful, and I hope that you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

Slow Way Home by Michael Morris

This gorgeous novel is variously funny, gut-wrenching, frustrating, and uplifting. Like all the books on this list, I thought it was beautifully written. The characters are utterly real and compelling, particularly eight-year-old Brandon, from whose perspective the story is written. The plot focuses on his grandparents’ struggle to protect him from their daughter, who runs off with her latest boyfriend and abandons him at a bus station. I’m the mother of a little boy, and Brandon’s plight touched me deeply. My heart ached for him and cheered with him at the end. Also, I was impressed by the author’s skill at pulling the reader into the story. The emotional resonance of the story is great, and I could almost feel the humidity of the South settling against my skin.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

There are very few books that completely blow me away, but this first novel did. Apparently, it had the same effect on many other people, as it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize! In this story about a childless couple in 1920s Alaska, the author’s choice of language is exquisite, and I was surprised at how skillfully the author wreaked havoc with my sensibilities. First, I was convinced that a wild little girl seen by the couple was a figment of their imaginations. But then, I started to believe the girl was real before being slung once again in the opposite direction. The answer is revealed in a moving, surprising ending. This story is unforgettable.

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer

I tend to read mostly fiction, but this is a nonfiction book that I absolutely loved. It is a captivating story of the lifelong bond between a boy and a female Asian elephant. The story takes the reader from Europe, through the exotic teak forests of India, and then to the circus in the United States. It’s an amazing testament to the intelligence of elephants and of their ability to form lasting friendships with people.

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

This story has so many wonderful aspects: a clever, creative plot, a cast of mostly lovable, oddball characters, and great humor, all wrapped up with a touch of whimsy. I had such a strong desire to pack up and move into the old Owens house—I could see it so clearly in my mind’s eye—and to get to know its inhabitants. And, having two younger sisters myself, I could truly appreciate the bond between Sally and Gillian. This is their coming-of-age story, one that ends with each sister finally finding happiness. I’ve reread this book several times, which is unusual for me, and I’ve come to think of it as an old friend.

A Gift of Magic by Lois Duncan

I first read this story as a preteen and it captivated me, so much so that I reread it as an adult and enjoyed it just as much! After all, who hasn’t wondered what it would be like to be able to read other people’s minds? This is a story about three children, each of whom is blessed with a special gift. I love the relationships between the siblings in this book, too, and I was constantly guessing about what would happen next. This is a suspenseful story with a heartwarming ending.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This is my all-time favorite book. It was first published in 1943, and it provides a fascinating, in-depth look at a slice of American society in the early twentieth century. It is written with unflinching honesty, and many of the situations described are difficult to read emotionally, but the rewards of the story are just as great. Francie, the protagonist, is an incredible role model. This is her survival story, one with lessons that are still relevant today. What Francie achieves in the face of poverty and adversity is inspiring and exceptional.

Stay in touch with Darcie on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE by Darcie Chan

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Chan_MillRiverRecluse This sensational New York Times bestseller and hot read of the summer keeps getting bigger! We have the questions and topics for discussion for Darcie Chan’s page-turning novel, The Mill River Recluse.

Don’t forget to stay in touch with Darcie on Facebook and Twitter!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The Mill River Recluse is not written in a single timeline, but instead uses alternating timelines that link near the end. What did you think of this structure? Was it effective in driving the story forward, or was it disorienting? Did you prefer one timeline over the other?

2. Of all the characters in The Mill River Recluse, with which one did you most identify, and why? If you could meet one of the characters for coffee, who would it be and why?

3. The opening scene of the book is of Mary McAllister taking her own life to avoid having to suffer further agonizing pain and certain eventual natural death resulting from her metastatic cancer. Do you think Father O’Brien knew Mary planned to take her own life when he left the marble mansion that last night? What do you think about Mary’s decision to take things into her own hands? Did this scene give you pause?

4. How does Mary McAllister evolve from a shy teenager into a woman held prisoner by social anxiety and agoraphobia? Do you agree with the way in which Father O’Brien tried to help her? Would you have done anything differently had you been in his position?

5. Patrick McAllister is shockingly cruel, particularly toward the most vulnerable people and the animals in his life. Do you think that Patrick became the person he did because of his parents and their relationship with him?

6. Unlike Patrick McAllister, Leroy Underwood had a very underprivileged upbringing. During Leroy’s visit with Father O’Brien in the hospital, he sheds tears. Do you think his tears were a sign of remorse? Are he and Patrick McAllister different kinds of “bad people,” or do you think their character defects are of a similar nature?

7. Despite his animosity toward Leroy, Father O’Brien visits him in the hospital to offer him support and comfort. Can you describe a time in your own life when you had to put aside your feelings to do something that you knew was right?

8. Of all the potions Daisy concocts, is there one that you believe you could drink if you had to? How would you react if Daisy showed up at your door peddling her wares?

9. Father O’Brien has been obsessed with spoons his entire life, but the reason for his attraction to those particular objects is never discussed or revealed. Do you have any theories as to why he is so drawn to spoons—so drawn, in fact, that he is willing to break his vows and steal them—as opposed to some other kind of item? Do you believe he has truly kicked his “spoon habit”?

10. Claudia Simon’s struggle to eat healthy food is almost sabotaged by a box of Entenmann’s powdered sugar doughnuts. Is there a food that you have trouble resisting?

11. Jean Wykowski struggles with middle age and a life that seems to have settled into a predictable routine. Instead of “borrowing” Mary’s ring, what advice would you give her to add a little excitement and variety in her life?

12. Near the end of the novel, the people of Mill River learn that they have actually had a kind of relationship with Mary McAllister for years, and that Mary is a very different person than many of them had imagined her to be. Are there other relationships in the novel in which one of the characters learns something new or unexpected about another?

13. Which character do you feel experiences the most personal growth throughout the course of the story, and why?

14. How did you feel upon finishing The Mill River Recluse? Did anything about the story or characters linger in your mind or change the way you view certain people or situations?

Join the conversation with Darcie on Facebook and Twitter!

A Letter to Readers from Darcie Chan, author of THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Chan_MillRiverRecluse Author Darcie Chan writes a letter to readers to share her experience moving from self-publishing her e-book to hitting the New York Times bestseller list to scoring a book deal with Random House. She also reminds us that you should always expect the unexpected,” and we couldn’t agree more! Her sensational story certainly reminds us of that.

Dear Reader,

The Mill River Recluse is my first novel. For most authors, writing a first novel is a learning experience and a labor of love. Trying to get a first novel published is quite another matter. Frustration and disappointment abound. The paths to traditional publication are paved with rejection letters from agents and publishers. Self-publishing these days also presents a host of difficulties. Producing a quality story on one’s own is just the first step; an author must then get that story noticed in an ever-expanding ocean of content. The Mill River Recluse has taken me down both paths, culminating in an amazing, roller-coaster ride that I never expected to experience.

My central story idea for The Mill River Recluse had a real-life origin. The basic concept for the book was inspired by a gentleman named Sol Strauss who lived in Paoli, Indiana, the small town in which I lived during high school and where my mother was born and raised. Mr. Strauss, a Jewish man who fled Nazi Germany, operated a dry goods store in Paoli in the 1940s. Even though Mr. Strauss lived quietly alone above his shop and never seemed to be fully embraced by the town’s predominantly Christian population, he considered Paoli to be his adopted community. When he died, the town was shocked to learn that he had bequeathed to it a substantial sum, which was to be used for charitable purposes to benefit the people of Paoli.

The Sol Strauss Supporting Organization Fund is still in operation today. Among other things, it provides clothing and other necessities for needy children and an annual supply of new books for the high school English department. Residents of Paoli may also apply to the fund for assistance in carrying out a project that would benefit the town. The fund is the legacy of Mr. Strauss, who continues to be remembered for his extreme and unexpected generosity.

I remembered what Mr. Strauss had done when I was brainstorming ideas for a first novel. I thought it would be interesting and challenging to build a story around a character who is misunderstood or different in some way, and to show that even someone who is seemingly far removed from his or her community may in fact be more special and integral than anyone could imagine.

I began writing for a few hours after work most evenings, and it took two and a half years to complete a first draft. I polished the manuscript as best I could, and I was ecstatic when Laurie Liss, an agent with Sterling Lord Literistic in New York, agreed to shop it around for me. Despite Laurie’s valiant efforts, though, my novel didn’t sell. I put the manuscript in a drawer and resolved that someday, I would write a second book and try again. Life went on.

I didn’t write much during the next several years. My job grew increasingly demanding, my husband finished his residency and accepted a position necessitating a move to a different state, and we had a baby. (I’m still trying to catch up on sleep missed for all those reasons!) But, when my son was a toddler, I started reading articles about how e-books had exploded in popularity. Even more interesting was the fact that apparently it had become very easy for an individual writer to self-publish a book in electronic form. I thought of The Mill River Recluse languishing in my drawer. I figured I had nothing to lose and released it as an e-book in May 2011.

Soon, I realized that no one would find my novel among all the other e-books out there unless I did some sort of marketing for it. After all, publishing companies invest in marketing and publicity for their books. As an individual with a modest budget, there was no way I could fund a major marketing campaign, but I arranged for a few inexpensive online ads to get my novel on readers’ radar screens. I kept the price of my book very low, to encourage people to take a chance on a story by a completely unknown writer. I also set up a website, Twitter account, and Facebook author page. And then, I waited.

Sales started to trickle in. During the first month, I sold around a hundred copies. I was so thrilled! To think, a hundred people had bought my book! My husband, Tim, and I grabbed up our little boy and did a happy dance in the kitchen. “Wow, maybe you’ll be able to sell a thousand,” I remember him saying. I doubted that, but I thought perhaps a few hundred more sales might be possible.

In late June, a feature of my novel popped up on a large website that recommends e-books to readers. Within two days, another six hundred copies sold! After the feature ended, the pace of sales accelerated. Reviews from readers started coming in—and most of them were the kind of glowing, positive reviews that authors dream of receiving. I was hearing directly from those readers, too.

One gentleman sent me an email to tell me that he loved the book, but that he had had to wait until his wife had left the house to read the last few pages. The reason? He didn’t want his wife to see him become “a blubbering mess.” Another woman wrote to tell me that she had read my book aloud to her mother in the hospital, and it brought her mother great comfort during her last days of life. Both of those messages, as well as many others I received, left me in tears. And the emails and Facebook messages kept coming from readers of all ages throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

By mid-July, I knew something extraordinary was happening. I kept my agent in the loop, of course, but I was shocked when she called me in mid-August and left a cryptic message on my answering machine.

“Darcie, it’s Laurie. Check your email.”

I scrambled around and got to my computer. She had sent me an advance copy of the latest New York Times bestseller list.

The Mill River Recluse appeared on it at #12.

To this day, there are no words that are adequate to describe everything I felt in that moment. My novel remained on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists for the next several months, and the wonderful notes from readers kept coming. I thought that surely, finally, things had peaked, but I was wrong.

In late November 2011, I was contacted by Alexandra Alter, a book reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She wanted to interview me for a feature story about my writing journey up to that point. Alexandra was cheerful and pleasant when she came to my home on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I didn’t feel at all nervous or odd about speaking with her until she told me that, during the previous week, she had gone up to Maine to interview Stephen King.

I am still mortified when I envision how far my mouth must have dropped open before I regained control of it.

The Wall Street Journal ran Alexandra’s article on December 9, 2011. It appeared on the front page of the Friday magazine, with a full-color photo spread inside and additional teasers on the front page of the whole paper. By late afternoon, the online version of the story had been picked up by Yahoo! News, and my photo was among those circulating on the Yahoo! homepage. Pandemonium ensued.

My phone began ringing off the hook. Other writers were calling, wanting advice or simply to get together for coffee. Other reporters were calling, wanting interviews. (I changed my number to an unlisted one immediately!) My website email inbox was accumulating emails faster than I could scroll down the page. My colleagues were incredulous, as most of them had no idea I’d written a novel years before and had recently, casually decided to self-publish it. Several of my clients emailed, sending me links to the article and saying things like, “Oh my God, is this you?” Laurie was fielding phone calls from publishing companies and film studios. My family and my closest friends, scattered in a half dozen states across the country, were calling and emailing ecstatic messages of support.

I was a quivering mess. All I could do was sit and hug my son. I knew that things had changed permanently for me at that point.

Within a few weeks, I received an offer from Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, to write two new novels. It was an offer to make my childhood dream a reality. The question was, could I continue to work as an attorney and write books in my spare time? Or, did I have to choose between the two?

I loved my legal career and the many colleagues with whom I’d worked for more than a decade. But I knew that I couldn’t live the rest of my life wondering whether I could have had a successful career as a writer, and there was no way I could give writing my best shot if I was constrained by the restrictions that applied to me as an employee of the federal government. It was a difficult decision, but I resigned my attorney position to write full-time in March 2012.

To date, The Mill River Recluse has sold more than 700,000 electronic copies and has been or will be published in nine foreign languages, in addition to its publication in English. The story of its self-publication as an e-book was featured in a documentary film called “Out of Print,” which was directed by Vivienne Roumani-Denn and narrated by Meryl Streep. But now, finally, I feel as if the roller coaster has slowed, and my life is returning to normal. A new normal.

In the short time that I’ve been a writer—which is a description of myself that I’m still getting used to—I’ve learned a few things. First, you should always expect the unexpected. And, there is sometimes more than one path that will enable you to achieve a dream. For me, being able to get my first novel in front of readers changed my career and my life. I will always be grateful for every person who reads The Mill River Recluse, especially those first e-book readers who gave it a chance and took the time to review it, mention it to a friend, or send me a note of encouragement. Those readers—my readers—made my dream of being an author come true. I only hope that this first novel and my future books return to them—and to you—the same great happiness and enjoyment I have experienced in writing them.

My very best wishes,
Darcie Chan
May 2014

Bertelsmann Media Worldwide