[As she did with her debut novel, Real Life & Liars, Kristina Riggle writes with soul about family and friends coming to terms with change in The Life You’ve Imagined, being released August 17, 2010. And, in today’s guest post, she shares the personal inspiration for the book.]
This is what I remember most about my dad starting his own business: him sitting in a basement office space with a city directory open in front of him, cold-calling strangers to sell his lawn care service.
Since you don’t know my dad, this is probably unremarkable. But my dad is shy.
And if you’re shy, too, you know how hard it is to talk to strangers about the weather. And here he was, calling up strangers in their homes to sell them something. And the stakes were high. If he failed, there went our family’s livelihood.
Meanwhile, my mother – raising two children and already working full time to support us – would spend her evenings doing the accounting for the family business.
I wasn’t consciously thinking of this as I sat down to write The Life You’ve Imagined, but it must have been lurking in the back of my mind. The story revolves around four women connected by a dying family business, in this case a convenience store called the Nee Nance Store.
No matter how much you love your job, if it’s not your company, it just isn’t the same. You can’t have that ownership and pride, nor is the fear of failure ever quite as great. And the odds are stacked against small businesses, certainly. As a reporter I’d done many a story about a new business venture. The owners would show off their shiny new spaces and equipment, bubbling over about how their store was unique and special. And more often than not, I’d drive by later only to see an empty, dark storefront.
My dad’s business beat those odds. He just retired in January after twenty-one years. And it was my dad’s company – plus the support of my mom, without whom he never would have made it — that finally pushed us firmly into middle class instead of hovering over the poverty line.
How did the business affect my sister and me? From middle school on I was also a receptionist when I got home from school. I’d have to answer, “Riggle Professional Lawn Care” or at least, “Riggles” when I answered the phone, and then professionally and courteously take down the message, even if someone was honked off about too much crabgrass. (My dad used to joke that I should answer, “Riggle Towers, how may I direct your call?” as if we were in some shiny office complex, as opposed to our little brown house.) I also had to begin processing the incoming checks every day, to make it easier for my mom to enter them into our books every night when she got home from a long day working at the bank.
But my small contributions to the family business were nothing compared to my characters in The Life You’ve Imagined. Maeve and her daughter Anna lived out their lives behind the front counter of their store; the operating hours of a convenience store meant that they were almost always working, and had scant privacy.
For Maeve, who was stuck with the store after her husband took off, the Nee Nance was a necessary evil: it was income and support for her daughter, and the only job skill she thought she had. For Anna, it symbolized everything she never wanted, so she took off for the big city as soon as she could. But as the story opens, she finds herself back home again.
This isn’t the only family business in the story. Anna’s childhood sweetheart, Beck, is heir to the Becker Development fortune. The contrast between their two lives growing up was something else which imprinted Anna with a desire for something better than what she had. She’s going to have a new relationship with Becker Dev, now, as it turns out that the other son, Paul Becker, has just purchased the Nee Nance Store’s building….
I’m lucky in that my family’s business story wasn’t so dramatic. But I know now, with adult perspective and as a parent myself, how terrifying those first years must have been, and how every economic downturn must have left my parents wondering: Is this the year we fail?
Labor Day is approaching, a time when we applaud the everyday working Joe and Jane. I’d like to take a moment to cheer for the family business, for the proprietors who have the guts to chase a dream. In fact, do more than just cheer, give them your business. Like Anna and Maeve, they might just be hanging on by their fingernails…
Book Giveaway: This week Julie Buxbaum has graciously offered two “signed” copies of After You to the winners of a random drawing from comments left on this specific post, Julie Buxbaum and After You. A comment on any other post during this week will not be eligible. The deadline for this contest is Wednesday, August 11, 2010 at 7:00 p.m. EDT and the winners will be announced here in Thursday’s post. IF you do enter, please return Thursday to possibly claim your book.