Volume IX, Issue One | March 2014
St. Martin’s Press is issuing a 20th Anniversary edition of Sandra’s classic novel, The Persian Pickle Club. Following is part of Sandra’s introduction to the book:
When I wrote The Persian Pickle Club some twenty years ago, I didn’t know much about quilting. I’d hit upon the story of a Depression-era Kansas quilt group with a secret, by accident. Of course, I knew there were quilters out there, but not that there were 25 million of them and that reading was their favorite nonquilting activity. So it was a surprise to me how much the story of loyalty and friendship over a quilt frame resonated with them. Just like my characters, quilters bond with each other over their needles as they share joys and sorrows–along with fabric scraps.
The Persian Pickle Club didn’t start the quilt novel genre, but it was one of the first contemporary books to be set around a quilt circle. Actually, I don’t consider The Persian Pickle Club (or any of my other novels that include quilting) to be “quilt novels.” I think of myself not as a quilt novelist but as a novelist who loves quilts. I often include quilting in my books, but the emphasis is on people. That’s underscored by the fact that many of my readers have never picked up a needle. They are simply readers who like stories about relationships among women.
Their response to The Persian Pickle Club has been gratifying. For better or for worse, many readers have taken up quilting after reading the book. And a number of book groups have told me that because their closeness is like that of the characters in The Persian Pickle Club, they call themselves the Pickles. One group gave me their signature Heinz pickle pin, and another asked to photograph me holding the rubber pickle they take with them on excursions.
Writing about quilting wasn’t my goal when I hit on the idea for The Persian Pickle Club. I was lying in a hammock in Breckenridge, Colorado, watching my husband, Bob, chop and stack wood and decided that to justify my laziness, I had to come up with a plot for a novel. I got to thinking about a story my mother had told me about the first year of my folks’ marriage, during the depths of the Depression. That was 1933. Both Mom and Dad, who had been married in Moline, Illinois, lost their jobs at a Kresge’s dime store. Dad suggested they could move to my grandparents’ farm in Harveyville, Kansas, and earn their keep by helping Grandma and Grandpa Dallas.
One day, a neighbor offered Dad a day’s work in the field and said he’d pay a dollar. Dad worked so hard that he finished by noon and earned just fifty cents, the only money he made all that summer.
Mom loved my grandparents and enjoyed attending Grandma’s sewing circle, where she made a pink-and-green Double Wedding Ring quilt, the only quilt she ever pieced. But farm life was not for her, and one day, she told Dad she was going into Topeka to find a job and wouldn’t come back until she got one. That’s exactly what she did. Later, Mom was offered a temporary job with the newly created Social Security Administration in Washington, D.C., and when the position became permanent, Dad joined her.
The story of Mom and Dad’s summer in Kansas–along with a murder–could be the basis of a novel, I thought, lying there in the hammock. I could write about the Depression and how it challenged women. But I needed something to tie the characters together, and that’s when I came up with the idea of a quilt circle. Tom and Rita, of course, are based on Mom and Dad, although my folks were much nicer. Mrs. Ritter is Grandma Dallas, and the Ritter farm is the Dallas farm.
The Persian Pickle Club almost wasn’t published. I submitted the first draft to my agent, Jane Jordan Browne, who said, “Nice try, Sandra, but there’s no story here.” Not long after that, How To Make An American Quilt came out, and I thought someone had co-opted my idea. It never occurred to me there was room for more than one novel built around a quilt circle. A year or two later, I was in Chicago conferring with my agent and complaining I didn’t know what to write. She suggested I pull out that “quilt thing” and see if I could do something with it.
She was right. There was no plot. Mostly, I had Queenie, my narrator, saying, “Let me show you my quilts.” So I beefed up the main plot and added secondary plots and sent it back to Jane. Her assistant, Danielle Egan-Miller (now head of the literary agency), read the manuscript and liked it. So they sent it out to publishers. Nobody wanted it. The draft made the rounds for a year, and I nearly gave up writing novels. Then St. Martin’s Press took a chance on The Persian Pickle Club and published it in 1994. The book has been printed in several foreign languages and is slated to be made into a motion picture.
Along the way, of course I learned to love quilts. I love them as women’s art and for what they meant to their makers. For rural women, whose hands were never idle, quilting was a social activity, a way to justify getting together to share their lives. In her 1933 diary, Mom wrote, “Went to Club with Mom today. Sewed—gossiped & ate nuf for two men.” And again, “Went to Club with Mom—helped quilt. They are all good women.”
Like all quilt groups, Grandma’s club was practical. The members traded scraps instead of buying new fabric, and sometimes they ran out of a color and made do. I have a baby quilt of cheddar yellow, double pink, and brown with one tiny piece of blue where the quilter ran out of fabric. Despite the fact quilts were utilitarian objects meant to be used up, their makers were proud of their work. My indigo-and-white quilt, purchased at an antiques show, is embroidered on the underside with “CAC 1884.” I wish CAC knew how beloved this quilt is 130 years later.
My Grandma Dallas made this Nine Patch doll quilt
for my sister Donna in 1935.
I grew up with quilts. One of my first memories is waking up under a Sunbonnet Sue that Grandama Dallas made. But as much as I appreciate quilts, I am not a quilter, not much of one anyway. In Quilt That Walked To Golden, my history of quilting in Colorado and the Mountain States, I write that quilting pretty much died out during World War II. Women didn’t pick up their needles for a generation, and then they were often self taught. They did things we frown on today, such as quilting in the ditch (on the seam line) and using corduroy and polyester. And I tell the story of one woman who made a quilt for her sister Mary as a wedding present. It was one of those stuffed quilts made up of big puffs that you fill from underneath with cotton. She didn’t know when to stop stuffing. And the quilt weighed twenty-five pounds. But my sister Mary was touched by my effort.
Now I stitch with words instead of thread.
Readers have suggested that I write a sequel to The Persian Pickle Club. I would love to, but the truth is I’ve never come up with the right plot. All I can think of is having Queenie say, “Look at the quilts I’ve made since the last book.”
Still, those characters remain alive in my mind. I may not have been able to write a sequel, but I have written a prequel—A Quilt For Christmas, which will be published in October. I was part-way through the first draft of that novel, which is set in Kansas, when I realized that those Civil War-era women have much in common with the characters in The Persian Pickle Club. So they became the grandmothers of the Pickles. I hope their stories of friendship and of love lost and found will appeal to a new generation of readers and quilters, whose mothers and grandmothers consider The Persian Pickle Club a classic.—SD
Sandra Wins Frank Waters Award
Sandra has been named the 2014 recipient of the Frank Waters Award, presented by the Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado Springs, Colo. The award is named for the Southwestern author and Nobel Prize nominee of more than 20 books, including The Man Who Killed the Deer. It is given annually to “writers who exemplify not only excellence in writing but who write with insight and passion about the West.” It honors a body of work as well as current work. The award will be presented at a May 15 luncheon in Colorado Springs.
The Beautiful American
By Jeanne Mackin. Penguin.
If you liked The Paris Wife, you will love The Beautiful American. It’s a novel about Nora Tours, a young woman who goes to Paris in the late 1920s with her lover, an aspiring photographer, and becomes enmeshed in the glamorous Left Bank life. Nora is fictitious, but her best friend is not. The friend is Lee Miller, the mysterious model who was the mistress of Man Ray. Nora is on the sidelines of a panoply of Parisian luminaries from Picasso to Gertrude Stein, and this novel shimmers with descriptions of their brittle, sophisticated world. There is also a bit of mystery, since from the beginning (set just after World War II), Nora is seeking to find a daughter who has disappeared. The story is superb, but it is the evocative setting that transports us back to a bygone world, that makes this book the equal of The Paris Wife or How to Make An American Quilt —SD