Self-published Oakmont writer Shoop finds success with 'After the Fog'
Finding motivation to write was not difficult for Kathleen Shoop. It seems that she had no other choice.
"I couldn't quit," the Oakmont resident says. "I even emailed a friend to say I quit writing one time, and within an hour, my head was full of stories and characters and plots."
Shoop, who is a mother of two and a language-arts coach with a doctorate in reading education, finally realized the stories were going to be there whether she wanted them to be or not.
Even "extremely disheartening" news from those inside publishing who praised her work, but said there might not be anyone willing to take on her novels, was not a deterrent.
She decided to self-publish, acquired a national publicist and hired a book-cover artist who designs for Simon & Schuster and other publishers. Last year, her debut novel, "The Last Letter," sold more than 50,000 copies for the Kindle, and it won the Independent Publisher Awards Gold Medal. Described as "the novel for every daughter who thinks she knows her mother's story," it is set in the Dakota Territory of the late 1800s.
Shoop's new historical fiction novel, "After the Fog," is a family drama set in the Washington County steel-mill town of Donora, and is based on the 1948 environmental disaster called the "killing smog."
Her writing previously appeared in a number of publications, including four "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books. She plans a nonfiction companion for "After The Fog."
Shoop's determination should not be surprising, given that she has taken on considerably larger challenges. A competitive athlete since the age of 6, her running came to a halt in 2003 shortly after her 34th birthday, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
"It is difficult to balance MS with everything in my life, especially with two kids (Jake, 10; Beth, 9) going in different directions. But there are people who are much, much more challenged than me who have many more obstacles in their lives," she says. "And, I am so lucky I have the support from family and resources that I do. I am very fortunate."
The author, who works at the Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh's North Side, says MS has changed everything about her life, including it might have created the situation in which she is able to be more prolific in her writing. "I'm at home more than I would be. Even when I'm sick, I can write for portions of the day where I wouldn't be able to do another job," she says.
She believes that her strengths as a writer are in bringing a world to life, making readers feel like they are in the story.
"I like redemption tales. I love flawed, quirky people. I admire people who say what they mean, people who are strange, but don't care, and people who have goals for a better life, but who can't quite get things right."
Readers have told her they like what they learn in her novels -- such as the killing smog in Donora, about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, along the Monongahela River.
"I, like many Western Pennsylvanians, had never heard of the smog that changed the way the world viewed industrial waste and its influence on public health," she says. It killed 20 people and nearly 800 animals, and sickened almost half of the town's 14,000 residents. It is credited for helping initiate the nation's clean-air movement, which, eventually, led to the Clean Air Act of 1970.
"It takes a local event and puts a human face and back story on it," says Beth Mellor, library director at Oakmont Carnegie Library, which hosted a reading by Shoop on May 12.
Shoop's readers have told her they see parallels between the past and present in her stories. "We think we've changed so much in 60 years, in 125 years, but much of what we worry about, how we fail and succeed, is the same," Shoop says. She believes the five-day smog, and the complicated way people responded to it, is applicable to current events.
"The same questions people ask about industry and its relationship to the environment and public health today are the ones they were asking after this smog event," she says.
One of the challenges of writing historical fiction, she says, is fitting the "truth" into a fictional family's life. Her research began with her mother's (Ross resident Barbara Jacobs, who was a nurse) collection of volumes of nursing reports, handwritten and typed accounts of what community and public-health nurses did for a living.
"After the Fog" centers around the fictional character of Rose Pavlesic, a straight-talking, gifted nurse who is controlling and demanding in an attempt to create a life for her children that reflects everything she missed as an orphan.
Pavlesic has managed to keep her painful secrets hidden, away from her husband -- whom, she discovers, has secrets of his own -- their children and their large, extended, complicated family.
As a stagnant weather cycle works to trap poisonous gases from the three mills in town, Rose's nursing career thrusts her into a conflict of interest she never could have fathomed.
She hopes she has done the nursing profession justice. "My mother, my mother-in-law, two women who live in Oakmont and cared for my children, and many other nurses who I've met over the years never cease to amaze me. This is a tribute to them, but veiled with the past," she says. "It truly takes quite a unique person to be a nurse, and that's always been compelling to me.
"Mostly, I want people to feel as though they read a compelling story about a family whose struggles were amplified when this deadly smog descended," Shoop says. "The ending is happy, and I've been told the characters stick with readers beyond finishing the book. I love that."
'After the Fog'
Author: Kathleen Shoop
Publisher: Self-published through Createspace. E-book, $2.99 on Kindle