Claire Lombardo, 30, called it surreal to be sitting in Prairie Lights talking about her debut novel, “The Most Fun We Ever Had,” released June 25.
She remembers being chosen for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop just a few years ago and dreaming of seeing her book on the shelves here. Lombardo is bubbly and humble. She is proud of all the hard work she has put in, yet admits it didn’t happen alone. She said she is grateful to the mentors she’s had pushing her to this moment, having her debut novel published.
Lombardo said she never thought that writing could actually be a career choice for her. She started out working for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless thinking she would eventually obtain her master’s degree in social work. But she realized she was spending more time on her novel than on her degree.
“I’ve always written. All my sisters were creative writers, but it never seemed like a feasible path. I didn’t think being a writer would be sustainable,” Lombardo said.
Being accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop only solidified her desire to make writing work as a career.
“This was the first time anyone said, you can write and we will give you money to live,” Lombardo said.
All she had to do was go to class and write. Her time in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop focused more on a smaller portion of her current novel, mainly a short story about the father character. But this experience was transformative.
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“For two years I had this wonderful, supportive peer group. Yes, there was an element of competition, but my cohorts were genuinely wanting our writing to get better,” Lombardo said. “I got the opportunity to teach my second year which was wonderful because it married my writer side with my social work side. I had a wonderful adviser who I worked with for a year, using the book as my thesis. I gave him my 800-page manuscript, and he was the only one to read my novel here in Iowa.”
That time spent one on one with her adviser, editing and working on the structure of her novel was much like working with her editor at Doubleday.
“I was very lucky to find a professor who was a great reader and stuck with me on this project,” she said.
Lombardo’s debut novel, “The Most Fun We Ever Had,” chronicles the Sorensen family of Oak Park, Illinois. Lombardo wanted to write a novel set in her home community, but the Sorensen family is not based on any character from her own family. She does understand family dynamics since she is the youngest of five children and has three sisters. She said she wanted to explore the way sisters interact in childhood and adulthood based on how her sisters interacted.
“My sisters always said, ‘Claire doesn’t say much but you know she is listening.’ I overanalyze to a fault. Family drama has always been fascinating to me and I immersed myself into the characters of this novel as deeply as possible.”
Lombardo also wanted to explore a father character with that many women in his family.
“Our father was very emotionally intelligent and enjoyed having daughters and being surrounded by women,” she said.
Choosing a title and cover can be a bit overwhelming for authors, but Claire Lombardo had it fairly easy.
“I feel very lucky to have had such a great experience with my editor. The ginkgo leaves on the cover were the first cover image they sent me and I loved it,” she said.
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A ginkgo tree is a prominent tree that resides in the Sorensen’s yard in her novel. Coming up with the title took a bit more work with about a month of back and forth emails, but “we finally had a moment where we got it.”
Her debut novel is hefty at more than 500 pages, rare for a first-time author.
“I have a joke with my editor that people keep saying, ‘I liked this book. I wish it wasn’t so long,’” Lombardo said. She said her manuscript was more than 700 pages and they trimmed it down to as long as it needs to be.
“I wanted to reach a point where I could point to any scene and justify why it was in there. The feedback has been great and it reads faster than you think,” she said.
She already has started her second book, this time with a focus on the exploration of a marriage. However, this fictional marriage is much different from her current book, much less idyllic.
Lombardo treats writing as her job by waking up and having a routine that includes a certain amount of writing per day as well as working in a walk or two. Her desk is an old picnic table that was her grandparents. She also covers a wall with a Post-it grid, assigning each character a color and each Post-it a scene.
“It’s how I visualize the novel and the shape of the story. I can look at it and notice, Oh, I need to see more ‘pink Wendy.’ I have every color of Post-its you would ever want,” Lombardo said, laughing.
Lombardo said she is looking forward to interacting with people who have read her book. She said she loves the stories readers share about their own families.
Lombardo is spending her summer on a Midwest tour of indie books stores, including a stop at Prairie Lights in Iowa City on Tuesday.
If You Go
• What: Claire Lombardo will read from her book, “The Most Fun We Ever Had”
• Iowa City: 7 p.m. Tuesday at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.
• Decorah: 7 p.m. Thursday at Dragonfly Books, 112 W. Water St.
• Cost: Free