Imaginary History: Not-for-Profit Veteran Jane Wagoner Turns to Fiction Print
News/Features - Literature
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 10 October 2006 22:46

If you visit the Web site for local not-for-profit-organizer-turned-author Jane Wagoner (, you'll be able to read passages from her recent historical fiction, Bells of May, which follows five generations of women rooted in the Harz Mountains of Germany. Here's what you'll find on the site's first page:

Jane Wagoner"The kiss, begun in sorrow, ignited into passion, a passion born of desperation and loss, wild and unstoppable ... . They came together desperately, without nuance or soft caress. But Katherine, still virgin, was no stranger to orgasm and responded wildly to Christoph's thrusts ... ."

And trust me, things just get racier from there.

"My daughter was funny," says Wagoner, who dedicated the book to her child, Katie. "She's 36 years old, and I thought she knew me better. She said, ‘Mother, I didn't know you knew that much about sex.' I'm sorry, but my generation invented sex. ‘Make love not war.'"

Laughing further, Wagoner adds, "Yes, I think people who know me are going to be rather ... surprised by the adult content."

Perhaps, but many who know Wagoner will probably be surprised to learn that she's writing fiction in the first place.

Davenport resident Wagoner has long been a familiar Quad Cities presence. After working for Scott County's American Cancer Society for 18 years - leaving as district vice-president in 1995 - she spent three years as the director of marketing and development for the Putnam Museum, and went on to create the Rock Island not-for-profit The Women's Connection, which has provided health and financial services for nearly a decade. "It was just a wonderful, wonderful position," Wagoner says of her tenure as executive director, "and it's now the largest women's organization in the Quad Cities."

She worked for the group until 2003, at which point, she says, "The board of directors took a look and decided that they wanted somebody with new ideas." Wagoner was let go, a decision she says "hurt terribly at the time. I was in mourning."

Yet Wagoner's period of grief soon passed. "In the long run," she says, "I could see that they were absolutely right. They needed new ideas. So that was fine."

And besides, her husband, Steve, already had a suggestion on how Wagoner could now spend her time. "He said, ‘Why don't you write that book you've been talking about?'"

Jane Wagoner's "Bells of May" Wagoner had long been interested in genealogy. "One of my hobbies has been family history," she says, "and I found several lines of my family, dating back to the 16th Century. But I got very frustrated, because I knew what their names were, I knew what they did for a living, I knew what they died of in many cases, but I didn't know anything about what drove them. What their personalities were like. So I thought I'd write a book and invent all that. I think Bells of May is really an imaginary history of my family."

The writing, Wagoner reveals, came easily - surprisingly so. "When I sat down to write this book," she says, "I had not written a word of fiction since high school. I just sat down and started to write it, and about two days later I thought to myself, ‘I can do this!'"

Not that there weren't glitches. "I was about three months into the book," she says, "and my background is mostly in business writing, of course, where you pare everything down. And I looked at the book and I thought, ‘This book has no detail.'"

Wagoner laughs and says, "So kind of on the spur of the moment, I decided to go to Germany."

She spent three weeks researching the people and customs of her novel's Harz Mountains setting - "finding every possible, small museum I could," she says - and amassed historical information, mementos, and even family.

"I met my third cousin for the first time," she says. "When I got there, he gave me my great-grandfather's birth certificate. He found it in the family files and thought that I ought to have it."

Returning with the detail she sought, Wagoner continued her daily regimen of composition and research, and in January 2005, after "almost exactly a year," Bells of May was completed. Finding a publisher for her debut work, however, proved frustrating.

"I started searching for an agent," she says. "That's what you need to do first, I learned. And it's very much a Catch-22. They just want people who are already published.

"So after about a year of rejection," she continues, "I'd also been reading about other ways of publishing, and went with a print-on-demand publisher," in which books are published at a fixed cost per copy, and profits are established on a per-sale basis. Wagoner arranged to have Bells of May published through iUniverse - which released the 228-page paperback in August - and says she is "really, really pleased" with the decision, particularly in regard to editorial assistance.

"The editing was wonderful," Wagoner effuses. "I thought I had a finished product when I first sent it to them, and after three edits ... ." She laughs. "It's just a much better book."

With current, part-time employment at a local insurance company, Wagoner still has time for composition, and is currently researching her next writing project, the central character of which is based on her German grandmother, who passed away in 1963. Like Bells of May, the book will span several generations, meaning that Wagoner herself could make an appearance in her next imaginary family history. "We'll see," she hints, adding, "I'll have a different name anyway."

And after that? "There's the other side of my family, which is Swiss," she laughs. "That will mean another trip to Europe."


Jane Wagoner will sign her novel, Bells of May, at the Davenport Barnes & Noble from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, October 14. For more information and excerpts from the book - including those racy bits - visit (


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