Wisconsin-born author talks “In the Shade of Olive Trees”

Wisconsin-born author talks “In the Shade of Olive Trees”

In light of the clichéd admonition to “write what you know,” Wisconsin-born debut novelist Kate Laack would like to clarify that her husband did not leave her at the altar, nor did he pass away.

Laack’s “In The Shade of Olive Trees,” which came out in November 2022, concerns jilted bride Julia, who discovers a new kind of love when she reluctantly embarks on a solo honeymoon in Italy and finds the Olive Haven Women’s Retreat for Widowed Travelers.

“I woke up in June of 2021 one morning with the character of Julia Brooks fully formed in my mind, as if she was a person I knew on the street,” Laack told attendees of a recent author talk at Madison’s Mystery to Me bookstore. “Everyone probably has one good love story, whether it’s the person they’re with or not. The concept of the book wasn’t originally widows, but just women on vacation together who, over the course of the trip, were going to share their one really good love story.”

Before Laack knew it, every character had become a widow, and her husband lamented the loss of all the good male characters. Yet he still encouraged her to pursue publication of the completed manuscript.

An English teacher by day, Laack was attracted to the mystique of the traditional publication route, despite self-publishing being easier than ever, and landed a contract with fittingly named Olive Street Publishing, a Delaware-based company. Her background with literary analysis and narrative arcs came in handy as she plowed through 114 initial edits, refining her characters and her story’s timeline.

“It was kind of like playing with imaginary friends, and someone says, ‘This is going to make your friend a better person,’” she said. “Obviously I want them to be a better person, and I just liked spending time in that world so much.”

Who wouldn’t, considering that “that world” fixed in Laack’s imagination was the Italian coastline? Laack and her husband traveled to Italy in 2016 and 2018, prompting her to wonder if it might be the most heartbreaking place in the world to be alone.

“It was post-COVID, and nobody had been traveling, and the world was a big scary question mark. It was so nostalgic and kind of vicarious travel to be able to step back into those memories,” she said.

On the eve of publication last fall, Laack stayed up until midnight to watch the book appear on her Kindle. During a spring break cruise in March this year, she regretted not bringing along a dozen copies to leave in random places throughout the ship, a move that seemed in line with the story’s spontaneous themes.

Having grown up in small-town Wisconsin, she knows well the experience of relationships and trust growing organically, of people opening their doors — an experience she hopes the book will replicate.

“One of the most overwhelming parts is the number of women that have reached out to me saying, ‘I lost my spouse and have not been able to articulate what my loss meant, and then I read your book,’” Laack said. “People have shared it with their families, people have shared it with their grief and loss support groups. I’ve had people email and write from all over the country that have just kind of found it.”

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Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash
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