Ten years ago, Robin Roberts of ABC’s Good Morning America went through a horrific ordeal with a rare blood disorder she acquired from her previous breast cancer treatment. It required chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant.
Instead of withdrawing, she stepped forward and shared her experience with TV viewers and fans, encouraging open dialog and donor transplants for numerous other patients. Her inspiration? Her mother’s words from years earlier: Make your mess your message.
These five words kept returning to me as I read Rachel Hauck’s The Fifth Avenue Story Society. Make your mess your message. Over time, five unlikely people start meeting and learning the value of sharing emotional burdens. Much like a support group.
We need to tell our stories to each other. It benefits me, the teller, as I find acceptance in my transparency, and experience comfort for my sorrow, my load lightened. It benefits you, the listener, to discover common ground, to receive another person’s baggage, to express empathy.
As Bryce Dallas Howard says, “Stories are so powerful because they’re a gateway to radical empathy and that’s really what stories serve to humanity.”
That’s true whether we’re reading a novel or memoir, watching a movie, or talking to a friend. Additionally, sharing our own stories engender not only empathy but healing.
But how safe is it to be transparent? What if people know what we we’re really struggling with?
Pastors are often privy to many parishioners’ tales of woe. I once heard a pastor say, “If everyone who came to me would be open with others in church, they’d find themselves surrounded by support from people going through similar heartaches.”
But nobody wants to let her guard down.
Furthermore, if these characters—Jett, Lexa, Chuck, Ed, and Coral—were all strangers who happened to be at a big party together, chances are they’d never gravitate toward each other. Only two of them might ever become friends. The others have nothing in common. At least superficially.
Therein lies the power of this story.
When five New Yorkers receive an anonymous, mysterious invitation to the Fifth Avenue Story Society, they suspect they’re victims of a practical joke. No one knows who sent the invitations or why. No one has heard of the literary society. And no one is prepared to reveal their deepest secrets to a roomful of strangers.
Executive assistant Lexa is eager for a much-deserved promotion, but her boss is determined to keep her underemployed.
Literature professor Jett is dealing with a broken heart, as well as a nagging suspicion his literary idol, Gordon Phipps Roth, might be a fraud.
Uber driver Chuck just wants a second chance with his kids.
Aging widower Ed is eager to write the true story of his incredible marriage.
Coral, queen of the cosmetics industry, has broken her engagement and is on the verge of losing her great grandmother’s multimillion-dollar empire.
Yet curiosity and loneliness bring them back week after week to the old library. And it’s there they discover the stories of their hearts, and the kind of friendship and love that heals their souls.
“It’s a gift. Take it. Exercise a little faith.
Be free and don’t choose chains again.
Let your story inspire others.” — page 377
In this case, chains are whatever keeps people closed up. Keeping them superficial. Hiding. After all, it’s risky to reveal the truth behind your struggles, fears, and anxiety. What will people think?
And Jett, Lexa, Chuck, Ed, and Coral have plenty to fear. Alone. None of them have a clue about the others’ fears and troubles.
The story’s unique premise, title, and cover drew me in, but if they hadn’t already, the first chapter would have. Two of the main characters inadvertently meet in a Manhattan jail—consequences of a wedding brawl. I was thrust into the middle of their lives.
Soon after that, the anonymous Fifth Avenue Story Society invitations arrive. Next, five supposedly random people are sitting in the library’s Bower Room on Monday night. Nobody knows why.
They all have their problems. Literature professor Jett Wilder still loves his ex-wife, is still grieving his brother’s tragic death, and is under deadline to finish his book about an admired author who might be a fraud. Lexa has proven herself at the hamburger corporation and could run the company if given the chance. Chuck’s ex-wife won’t let him see their six-year-old twins whom he desperately misses. Widower Ed wants to pen a memoir about the love of his life and their perfect marriage. Wealthy Coral recently left her fiancé at the altar and struggles to keep her family business afloat.
I wondered how the story would work written from five different points of view, but it did. While the characters remain guarded during Monday night meetings, I got behind-the-scene glimpses into each of their lives—the things they don’t want to reveal. Each character is well-rounded and distinct from the others—from different backgrounds economically, family-wise, and career-wise.
They return to the library week after week, mainly from curiosity. They eat pizza and talk, rather stilted and artificial at first. They still don’t know who sent the invitations or why. But they keep coming back . . .
It’s easy to get invested in these characters. Toward the end, a subtle, organic spiritual thread weaves through one of their lives.
Though this is a standalone novel, it has connections to The Writing Desk—which I sought out and read right after this one.
Join me for some Q & A with Rachel Hauck.
Questions about The Fifth Avenue Story Society
What was your inspiration for writing this story? Why did you choose New York City as the setting? Do you have a personal connection to NYC?
Rachel: The original title was The Story Circle. The idea came to me after I spoke at a writer’s meeting. The president of the club mentioned something about “your story circles” and BAM, I was off in another world. I came home and wrote a synopsis in 10 minutes. Which is a Superhero feat in the writerly world. (Ha!)
Since I wanted the circle to be in an old library, Manhattan seemed like a logical place. I’d already written The Writing Desk so I knew a lot about the city, especially during the Gilded Age. Besides, I love New York City.
How did you decide on the characters and situations of your five society members? How well did you know Lexa, Jett, Chuck, Ed, and Coral when you started out?
Rachel: The characters were a journey. I never know characters very well when I start out. Zane was the original hero before I invented Jett. Then I said, “Oh no, he’s the hero.” I had seven characters in the beginning. Mabel Cochran was one of society members, but seven characters bogged down the story. I love that Mabel became Ed’s love interest.
I think each character represented a piece of society, people from all walks of life looking for a place to belong. They found hope in each other.
Did your characters hijack the story or did you have full rein? Did you plan the connections to The Writing Desk from the get-go?
Rachel: I’ve only allowed characters to hijack the story once or twice. I’m the boss. Ha! But I do a lot of thinking and layering through various rewrites and discover more aspects to each character.
I didn’t connect the society to The Writing Desk until I dug in a bit. I knew the library and society had to have a purpose. Jett needed a goal besides fixing a dead marriage – which he didn’t know was even a possibility – so I had the idea to tie in Gordon Phipps Roth. I thought how it all clicked together was accidentally brilliant. Yay God.
If you met Lexa and Coral for lunch, where would you eat and what would you talk about?
Rachel: I would LOVE to meet them for lunch. We’d eat at some place in Midtown Manhattan and talk about cosmetics, royals, and how to love Jesus with a vibrant heart. Maybe politics – because they’re smart women.
You’ve written both split-time fiction and contemporary romance, some with royal characters, some about ordinary folks. What is your favorite genre to write?
Rachel: I love stories. I love coming up with characters that speak to me about life, even a life I could never know. I think that’s the fun of writing for me. Pretending to be a princess. Pretending to be a singer at the Grand Ole Opry. I love hyperbole. I love showing the extremes in life only to realize we’re all the same. We want love and acceptance; we need to know God is a God of love and hope.
Fifth Ave was the hardest book I’d ever written. Twice I turned in an 80K word novel. (About 320 pages.) I just kept writing short, leaving things out, but not realizing I’d left them out.
After my first editorial letter, I spent four hours on a video call with my writing buddy, Susie Warren, fixing the structure.
Then came the second editorial letter. The hardest of my life. My editor told me to “get it right” in six pages of critique and ideas. Yet there was so much grace and peace in the process. She was right. When I turned in the final round, it was 110K words. (Almost 400 pages.)
I beat myself up a little bit about that… coming up short. Twice. But I learned from it and writing novels isn’t a cut and dry, by the “book” process. Some stories flat have to be discovered. I’d never written five characters in the same timeline before and it proved to be a learning process. It worked out well in the end, I’m glad to say.
I’d tried to have a supernatural angle with the library closet but that ended up being cut. I also tried to have a big twist in the end where Jett woke up in the holding cell and the whole thing was a dream! I called Susie to discuss. She keeps me grounded. When she likes an idea, I go for it.
I’d written it where Jett got released, Chuck offered to drive him somewhere, and he went straight to Zane’s office to find Lexa. So it was as if “I told you the story already and now here’s Jett off to make it happen.” But my editor didn’t like it. Go figure. She was right. But I liked that I took a chance.
The spiritual thread was interesting. You can’t have five people “coming to the light.” It’s too much. One morning in our prayer room at church, the Lord said to me, “Just Coral.” I knew she felt the reverence and fear of the Lord when she realized the vows she would make with Prince Gus. At that point, I understood how to weave in the Divine. The Holy Spirit is a really great story partner.
Prince Gus has his own story! Poor guy got left at the altar so I had to do something for him. To Love A Prince is his love story.
Questions about writing
Which books and/or authors have most inspired you in your writing journey?
Rachel: I devoured the Little House books growing up. In college I read a biblical novel, Song of Abraham by Ellen Gunderson Traylor, while in college and it had an impact on my life. I wanted to be a friend of God!
I got married in ’92 and we decided not to have a television, so we read all the time. Christian fiction was just starting to boom in the early ‘90s. In ’93 we bought a PC. (Big stuff!) I quit my job. I started writing. I read Lori Wick, Gilbert Morris and Davis Bunn, who ended up being a mentor. I also read a lot of Belva Plain.
The big “click” for me was chick lit. Once I read Bridget Jones Diary and Kristin Billerbeck’s What A Girl Wants, I said, “This is me!” The hardest part of becoming a writer is figuring out who you are and what stories you tell. Chick lit was me.
In fact, I found a story I wrote when I was 12 and the protagonist had a career and lived in New York City. I’d never even been to NYC. I was inspired by the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Chick lit didn’t last long but I’d found my voice.
Susan Meissner’s Shape of Mercy introduced me to split-time. I loved the concept of looking into the past from the present. If we could talk to our ancestors, what would they tell us? What would we learn?
I wrote my first royal romance when Prince William married Kate. As I watched the wedding, I knew the royals would be popular again. Kate was so poised and confident and beautiful.
Where do your story ideas usually originate from—character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination? Share an example of how a story grew from an initial idea. Also, where’s the strangest place you’ve ever had a great writing idea and how did it come to you?
Rachel: Ideas come from life. From conversations. The Wedding Dress came from a girls get away with three women I connected with on Twitter! The wedding chapel idea came while on vacation in Tennessee. My publisher wanted another “wedding dress” story and I struggled with an idea. I felt like “been there, done that” with a wedding split-time novel. Then I passed a place called “Chapel in the Glen” and The Wedding Chapel was born.
Some ideas come from a phrase or something I think would make a cool title. A lot of my stories start with some kind of title. Or the “What if…” or “What about…” question.
When I wrote three books with Sara Evans, she was the story spark and I took her ideas and wrote three synopses in a week. 😊
Which of your many protagonists is your favorite? Which one is the most like you?
Rachel: I’m not sure I have a favorite. Probably safe to say the characters I most recently spent eight, nine months writing and developing are my favorite. Though I do love all of my princesses.
I just finished a book, The Best Summer of Our Lives (July ’23), and in the end, I wanted to be the character Summer. The story is about four best friends the summer of 1977. Things don’t go as planned and twenty years later, they are still divided by the secrets and lies they’d discovered.
Summer spent 18 years trying to be a country sensation. Nothing worked for her. She ends up on the small Oklahoma town where everything went south in ’77. She lives in a cute little cottage with her adopted dog, and sings four nights a week at the local diner. The hunky cowboy she met in ’77 just happens to be around, and available. I love the peace and the music of her life in ’97. I wanted to be her.
You’ve had the experience of a novel being adapted to film. What was that experience like? Were you involved at all with the process?
Rachel: Having a film adaptation is a lightning strike. I’m blessed to have been hit. I’ve had options on other stories but so far, nothing’s happened. It’s a fickle business, especially during and after COVID.
I was not involved with the process at all. I received a call that the film had been greenlighted, and a few weeks later a call asking when I wanted to visit the set. My husband and I flew out to Victoria BC two weeks after that call and had a cameo in the ballroom scene.
It was very fun to see the story I pulled out of my head, my heart, the very air of my office, coming to life with a cast and crew of about fifty people. It was emotional as well. I’m honored to have had the opportunity.
Please share something about a current project or the direction you want to go as an author.
Rachel: I already mentioned The Best Summer of Our Lives about four best friends the summer of 1977. It’s a story of friendship and reconciliation. I’m noodling on my next book but so far nothing concrete. Every book is different.
As an author, I want to tell entertaining but genuine stories, I want a fresh perspective on life and love and faith. I don’t want to echo what others are saying unless it’s true. I want to be a voice.
The Best Summer is my first novel without a romantic thread. There is a cute cowboy and love is in the picture, but I don’t have a male point of view. I once said I’d never write without one so maybe I’m growing as an author.
I try to stay open to any story the Lord wants to give me. I often ask Him, “What story do You want told?” He gives me the theme, the feel, the truth. 😊
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Rachel: Ideas for stories are easy. They’re fun. But writing a novel of any size is a lot of very hard work. I hear from people who want to write a novel and when I ask, “What craft books have you read?” or “What workshops have you attended?” they tell me none. Stringing words together is not telling a story. Learn the craft.
I also recommend reading widely and be disciplined with a writing schedule. If you want to write a novel, then write. Don’t shove aside your goal for television or pickleball, or for someone else’s emergency. The word No must be ready on your lips. Then write.
Back to Laura . . . On a different note . . .
If you like storylines that follow more than one character, you might enjoy my dual timeline novel, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. Set in Holland, Michigan, this pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. It, too, deals with the tension between transparency and hiding while highlighting The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
If you like stories about family secrets, or southern historical fiction, you might enjoy my recently re-launched novel All That Is Hidden, Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
In June, I was named a semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest for All That Is Hidden. Additionally, in August, All That Is Hidden became the winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award.
I invite you to join my monthly newsletter for updates, freebies, and giveaways. Sign up and I’ll send you a free gift: www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com
Rachel Hauck Bio
New York Times, USA Today & Wall Street Journal Bestselling author Rachel Hauck writes from sunny central Florida. A RITA finalist and winner of Romantic Times Inspirational Novel of the Year, and Career Achievement Award, she writes vivid characters dealing with real life issues. Her book, Once Upon A Prince, was made into an original Hallmark movie. Her novel, The Wedding Dress, has been optioned for film by Brain Power Studio.
She loves to hear from readers. She also loves to encourage new writers and sits on the Executive Board of American Christian Fiction Writers. A graduate of Ohio State University with a BA in Journalism, Rachel is an avid OSU football fan. She hopes to one day stand on the sidelines in the Shoe with Ryan Day. Visit her website to learn more.
Join me next time for a visit with author Barbara Britton.
Meanwhile, have you read The Fifth Avenue Story Society or other books by Rachel Hauck? Answer in the comments below.