Frustrated novelists often self-publish their first books, hoping a reviewer or commercial publisher will notice them-and that's what's happened to Melanie Jeschke (below), a pastor's wife and homeschooling mom.
Mrs. Jeschke majored in English literature in college and thought of writing, but she produced babies-nine-rather than books. In 1998, after a trip to Oxford for the centenary celebration of C.S. Lewis' birth, and with her youngest child ready to start formal homeschooling, she started writing travel articles for a local newspaper.
Mrs. Jeschke had a second chance to visit Oxford when her eldest daughter went there to study and her church, King's Chapel in Fairfax, Va., sent the Jeschkes to England as a pastoral appreciation gift. When they returned, Tom Freiling, a fellow church member who owns a business for self-publishers, Xulon Press, asked her to consider writing a novel about Lewis. He promised either to find a standard publisher to put it out, or to pay to publish it himself.
Given that encouragement, she decided to write a historical romance because that's the kind of fiction she and many other women like to read. "I wasn't brave enough at first to develop Lewis as a living character," Mrs. Jeschke remembers, so she began the novel at his funeral and created a group of his students trying to carry on his legacy.
Her daughter at Oxford helped her to flesh out details of student life, but it was Mrs. Jeschke who had to "sit down every night at 10 and start writing." She wrote the first book in three months, and Mr. Freiling asked her to try making the book into a series: Before she knew the future of the first novel, she began writing the second.
When Mr. Freiling could not find a regular Christian publisher for the first book, Xulon published it in 2002, picking up all costs and sending a copy to WORLD, which probably had never before reviewed a book from a self-publishing company. But this one was exceptional, and WORLD featured the book in its July 7, 2002, "In the Spotlight" column, noting that "we had to dip down all the way to book No. 847,466 on the Amazon.com bestseller list-bypassing much garbage-in order to come up with this."
Apparently that review helped sell some copies of the book, which eventually reached the No. 2 spot on the Christian romance list and caught the eye of Publisher's Weekly. It still took over a year for a Christian publisher, Harvest House, to agree to publish the novel-on condition that Mrs. Jeschke expand it beyond its original 55,000 words. In July 2004, Harvest House published a new edition of Inklings, which contained its sequel, Intentions. A year later came Expectations, and this August another book, Evasions, is due.
The series revolves around newlyweds David and Kate MacKenzie, who in the first book are courting while remaining sexually pure. The second book has the newlyweds in Paris, while several of their friends still at Oxford carry on with the Inklings Society; J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife make several appearances in the novel as mentors to the friends. The third book jumps back in time to World War II, with David MacKenzie's father as a fighter pilot and his mother a nurse. This time Lewis appears in the story.
All three books have a sense of place stemming from Mrs. Jeschke's intimate knowledge of Oxford. This past year Rick Steves asked her to write the Oxford chapter of his latest, popular guide to Great Britain.
Although Mrs. Jeschke knows she'd get more respect if she'd write a nonfiction book about Lewis, she's resisted the temptation because she hopes to reach people who don't read history. Besides, she says, "Some of the greatest writers of all time wrote romances. Think Jane Austen."
And Mrs. Jeschke can boast of something that most Lewis scholars cannot: The Harvest House edition of Inklings made it to Wal-Mart-and that's a long way from self-publishing.