Skip to main content


December 8, 2014

Laura Lane McNeal: Getting Her Book on the Shelf

Posted by Lincoln

The inspiration for a book can come from anywhere, but what spurs someone to become an author in the first place? For novelist Laura Lane McNeal, it was a special shelf in the middle school library that held books written by graduates of the school. Laura swore that she would add one of her own books to those ranks, and with the publication of her debut novel, DOLLBABY, this year, she succeeded. Here is the story of a Christmas gift that helped shape her journey.

We all have memories we draw from, memories that in some way shape our lives. I will never forget the fall of 1971. I was barely 13 years old, the age when I was beginning to think about who I was and what I wanted out of life. I’d taken to playing hooky during lunch at school, hiding out in the upper school library among the more grown-up books we weren’t allowed to read in middle school. One day, while perusing the library aisles, I came upon a display of books that carried a distinction noted by a brass plaque --- they’d been written by graduates of the school. Fascinated, I took each one off the shelf, noted the author and the title, then I fanned the pages, hoping the secret of authorship would be bestowed vicariously upon me. But in this moment, a new aspiration began to take hold. I decided right then and there that I wanted to be an author. One day, I vowed, my book would be on that shelf.  

A few weeks later, while waiting for my mother to pick me up after school, a beige station wagon pulled up. A man in a uniform came around and opened the back door and ushered a girl into the back seat. Several aspects of this event were curious. Number one, I didn’t know anyone else at school that had a chauffer. And two, every window in the car had curtains drawn so you couldn’t see in.

I found out later that this new student was the daughter of Shirley Ann Grau, a local author who had won the Pulitzer Prize a few years back. By now, Ms. Grau had grown to be somewhat of an enigma, reclusive and private, which explained the curtains in the car. She lived a few blocks from campus, so on my way home, I’d often take a detour and ride my bike past her house just to see if I could get a glimpse of her.

A few weeks later, while I was hanging out at a friend’s house, a boy I didn’t recognize came in the front door. I introduced myself and he told me his name was Ian. I didn’t think much of it, until that same beige station wagon came to pick him up that afternoon. The next time I saw him, I asked if Shirley Ann Grau was his mother. He shrugged.

By the time Christmas rolled around, and I was hanging out at this same friend’s house, out of the blue Ian asked what I wanted for Christmas. A first edition copy of your mother’s book, I replied, joking. Later that afternoon, Ian appeared once again, this time carrying a loosely wrapped bundle. He handed it to me without a word and rode off on his bike.

I tore the paper away to find a rather downtrodden copy of KEEPERS OF THE HOUSE, the book Ms. Grau had won the Pulitzer for. I hid it under my shirt, made excuses as to why I had to leave my friend’s house on such short notice, and then rode my bike a few blocks over to the playground. I found a spot under an oak tree and opened the book. There were markings all over the pages. It was obvious that this must have been Ms. Grau’s personal copy, the markings her notes. This was a special present indeed, but I imagined Ian had probably gone into his mother’s library and snatched it without her consent. By now the sun was peering halfway over the trees as I pondered my dilemma. As much as I wanted to keep the book, I knew I couldn’t. Once it was dark, I pedaled over to Ian’s house and dropped the book through the mail slot.

I never ran into Ian again. I was told he’d been sent off to boarding school. But I will never forget his gesture.

Years later, I became a member of a Writer’s Workshop taught by Ms. Grau. I considered telling her the story of how her son gave me a gift --- holding that marked-up book in my hands solidified my desire to become a writer. Then I thought better of it. If only Ian could have seen my smile.

And oh, by the way, my novel now sits on that shelf in the library.