ANNAPOLIS — When Ernest Hemingway tells you to do something, how can you say no?
Especially if you’re already contemplating a book with him as a main character.
That was the position author Erika Robuck found herself in after she visited Hemingway’s home in Florida. She was swept away by the history and a fascination with the legendary writer’s life.
Then, Hemingway appeared to her in a dream and told her to write about him because he’d become irrelevant.
“I really just thought it was my subconscious nudging me to do something totally different,” Robuck said. “It confirmed for me what I’d been thinking about for a couple weeks when I went to the house.”
Robuck, a 35-year-old mother of three from Annapolis, began work on “Hemingway’s Girl” soon after. The novel, due out Sept. 4, is published by New American Library, a division of the Penguin Group, and marks a big step up in the literary world.
Robuck’s first novel, “Receive Me Falling,” was self-published in 2009. She got a two-book deal from New American and recently inked another two-book deal with the publisher. “This is a nice upgrade,” she said.
Her future novels also deal with literary luminaries, including Zelda Fitzgerald (wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald), and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Robuck visited the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West in May 2009, just a few months after she released “Receive Me Falling,” which was also historical fiction.
“Hemingway’s Girl” is about a 19-year-old maid who goes to work for the Hemingway family in 1935.
“You really and truly feel like you’re living with Hemingway on that page.” said Kelly McMullen, a Laguna Beach, Calif. resident who grew up with Robuck.
McMullen, who writes a blog, and Robuck critique each other’s work. McMullen said her friend’s writing has improved quite a bit since her first book. “Erika’s getting a lot more confident,” she said. “She’d finding her voice now.”
David Gonzales, events director at the Hemingway house, was also impressed. He took an early copy of “Hemingway’s Girl” with him on a flight to Washington, D.C. and read half each way.
“I couldn’t wait to get back on the plane (to finish it),” he said. “It definitely made my return trip delightful. It’s great read.”
Robuck’s first book took her five years to write.
The former third-grade teacher at Millersville Elementary School decided to self-publish after she received rejection letters from traditional publishers.
She never let the refusals get her down, since some added a personal note with a form letter, or even more feedback. “I knew I was on the right track,” she said.
Once she finished “Hemingway’s Girl,” she took the manuscript to a writer’s conference and received an enthusiastic response from agents. Ultimately, an agent who deals with a lot of historical fiction, Kevan Lyon, agreed to represent her.
“She’s definitely an author to watch,” said Lyon, of San Diego.
Robuck, she said, is a good storyteller. “You immediately get caught up in this world that was Hemingway’s world in Florida at that time, a transformational period in American history,” Lyon said.
Some writers might have balked at the idea of creating their own version of Hemingway, but Robuck said she did exhaustive research. The book took two years to complete, and a good chunk of that time was spent combing through any material she could find on Hemingway.
“So many people are fascinated with him,” Lyon said. “It takes courage to enter that circle.”
Robuck feels the Hemingway she created was as real as possible. “I really feel like I’ve written the truest Hemingway I could,” she said. “If anything, I’ve done him well.”
Meanwhile, Robuck’s already moved from Hemingway to Zelda Fitzgerald and beyond. The book on Zelda, due out next year, is already done. She finished it in about a year, despite remaining faithful to her habit of writing only on breaks from taking care of her children. Her sons are 10, 7 and 4. Her husband is a financial planner.
“I always joke that when they’re all in school, I won’t be able to write well,” Robuck said. “I get a golden two or three hours. I can’t waste time.”
Over the years, she’s honed this formula. “I’ve learned so much about technical things you can do in writing, elements of style and also from a historical research perspective. I know exactly what I need to do to get the heart of the subject.”