I grew up in California and Washington, D.C., the daughter of a naval officer who loved opera and a mother who taught me to sail. My father was often away at sea, and one time brought me a beautiful little doll from Norway. She was dressed in a bunad, a Norwegian folk costume with a blue dress and apron embroidered with flowers, a lacy white blouse, and red stockings. (She even had demure white bloomers beneath her skirt.) She was exquisitely made, with a delicate hand-painted face. What I loved best about her was her mischievous, sideways glance – as if she were up to something. I kept her on a shelf above my desk. Little did I know what she would come to mean to me.
I was always a storyteller, the kind of kid who needed an hour to describe the dream I’d had the night before. I studied English and Music at Colby College and wrote my first novel one summer after my father put me up to the challenge. When I first read Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House in college, I understood the heroine Nora Helmer was a bourgeois lady, a creature of the parlor rather than a milkmaid in folk dress. Still, my Norwegian doll reminded me of Nora, especially that sly glance. A few years later I saw Ibsen’s play on stage and cheered along with everyone else when Nora walked out, slamming the door as the curtain fell. It was just the kind of thing my bold little doll might have done.
After college, I spent a soul-bending year working with the poor in Mississippi, then took my idealism into the federal government, where it got properly mangled. I missed storytelling, so I turned to journalism, earning an M.A. from American University and starting my reporting career at a scrappy D.C.-area weekly so that I could tell stories that illuminated the world. I moved on to The Washington Post, covering local news, development and mortgage malfeasance, all the while fascinated by people. I wanted to know why folks did what they did, whether it was embezzling the retirement funds of elderly people or taking in foster babies, one after another, until adorable pictures covered the fridge. I married and had two babies of my own.
A few years later, my first marriage began to crumble, and I slowly realized I had to leave. As fate would have it, I saw A Doll’s House again, and suddenly saw Nora differently. What propelled her out the door? Was it courage or selfishness or fear? And why was she leaving her children?
I soon walked away from my own marriage, into the complicated world of joint custody. As I negotiated life as a divorced single mom, I often thought of Ibsen’s Nora and the challenges she would have faced in her time – the thin purse, the ache of being barred from seeing her children, the shame of being expelled from her class. I left the newspaper to teach journalism at American University in Washington, D.C. Eventually I had time – and the distance – to write a book about life on the other side of the slammed door, Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce (Hyperion/Thea, 2001). Several years later, I remarried and wrote another book, one about merging two sets of teenage boys, The Triumph of Love over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage (Hyperion, 2004).
In 2007, I decided to step away from my career as a journalist and professor to write the story of Nora’s fate. Searching for Nora sent me to the fjords and cities of Norway, and to the rolling prairie of western Minnesota. I interviewed Ibsen scholars and Norwegian historians, and read every immigrant diary I could find. It took me ten years to write the novel that emerged from that labor of love. Throughout that time, my Nora doll stood on my desk, smiling enigmatically.
My husband, Charlie Shepard, and I now split our time between Reno, Nevada, and Cape Cod. For fun I play the piano (badly but with feeling), ski and kayak whenever possible, and read voraciously.
Wendy has provided a guide for book clubs on the Book Club page. She is also available to join book clubs (by Skype, Facetime or phone) to discuss Searching for Nora. Contact her to learn more!
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