NORDLAND — Meet the author who celebrated the release of her debut novel at Chuck E. Cheese’s, with a side trip to a particular store.
Between the writing, the agent-shopping, the editing and the publication, Rachel Fordham spent better than three years bringing her first book into the world.
“The Hope of Azure Springs,” the story of a young woman who transcends the poverty and neglect of her girlhood, was published this month. And Fordham, mom to seven children ages 2 to 12, was almost too busy for a party.
Her husband Tyler, a dentist in Port Townsend, was away at camp with their older kids. So she took the younger ones to Silverdale, where they could eat at Chuck E. Cheese and see her book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.
“You’ve got to tell someone, Mom,” said 8-year-old Adele.
Fordham, 34, has done some radio interviews. Her publisher, Revell Books, is promoting “Azure Springs” nationwide. The author can do much of the promotion, such as the writing and research, at her home on verdant, rural Marrowstone Island.
It all began late at night, while the kids were sleeping. Fordham would write until the baby awoke for feeding at 1 a.m. or so. At least once, the infant slept all night, so she kept writing until daybreak.
Fordham was a storyteller long before she became a novelist. She’d tell her kids bedtime stories: complex ones that continued night after night. The audience, enchanted, would beg for more.
At the same time Fordham has a fierce interest in history. She grew up in Shelton, and has moved all over the country, living in Idaho and in Buffalo, N.Y. When she learned about the orphan trains of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she got on board to find out more.
Between 1854 and 1929, the so-called “mercy trains” relocated some 250,000 orphaned or abandoned children from the cities of the East and took them to foster families mostly in the Midwest, according to the National Orphan Train Complex website, orphantraindepot.org.
“I read through enough personal accounts of train riders to know that there were beautiful stories of orphans finding homes,” Fordham said, “and that there were tragic stories of children being placed in homes where they were neglected and abused.”
Both appear in “Azure Springs.”
Em, a 19-year-old orphan at the start of the story, is separated from her younger sister, Lucy. She is adopted by a man who leaves her to sleep in his barn, while Lucy goes to live with a family in a town far off; years pass before Em gathers the resources to search for her. Along the way, Em becomes friends with Caleb Reynolds, an unusual man also struggling with loss.
“Azure Springs” is set in a fictional town in Iowa, but Fordham bases the story on her research into what is now called the orphan train movement. She didn’t have an easy time with the project.
In 2015, Fordham’s son Titus, then just 4, got sick suddenly. She drove him to the hospital one night while he was unresponsive and stiff.
After a long stay and weeks of tests, he was diagnosed with adrenoleukodystrophy, a hereditary disease that attacks the nervous system and adrenal glands.
On that day, everything changed. Fordham put her almost-finished manuscript aside.
It felt trivial, she said, compared with what Titus was facing.
Five months later, feeling like a different woman, Fordham reopened the Word document. In the wake of the family’s trauma, she felt called back to Em and Caleb’s story.
“I wanted something I could control. … As I dove back in, I found Em’s experiences of grief and tragedy more relatable than they had been before.
“Em learns to do more than survive — she learns to really live despite hard times. I had to discover that again as I went through my own trial.
“I’m happy to report that my son is doing well. His road is uncertain, but he, like Em, is a fighter.”
Fordham writes this in the acknowledgements at the back of “Azure Springs.”
Ask her about her writing process — how does she deal with distractions? — and Fordham shakes her head slightly.
“I get an idea, and I dive in and go for it,” said the author, who also writes a blog at RachelFordham.com.
With the “Azure Springs” manuscript complete, she queried literary agents — “a whole batch of them” — and found a match in Emily Sylvan Kim.
Kim told Fordham she could sell the book to a small house fast, or hold out for a larger publisher. They held out for Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, which “offers practical books that bring the Christian faith to everyday life.”
“Azure Springs,” however, is categorized on Amazon and other outlets as historical romance. The genre question is a tricky one, Fordham said.
“Some people think I fit as an author in Christian fiction, and some don’t … I think this book could be shelved other places,” she said.
Fordham has signed contracts for two more books with Revell, with the next to be published next summer. This novel, “Yours Truly, Thomas,” begins at the dead letter office in Washington, D.C., where the main character finds a letter that should not die.
“I always thought people who wrote books were less ordinary than me,” said the author.
“Oh, definitely,” Fordham replies.
Then again, there can’t be too many who can get a 12-year-old boy to read a 320-page historical novel about a woman’s search for herself.
But Fordham’s eldest son Garret did read “Azure Springs.”
“Mom,” he said, “it’s like a real book.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.