Her family was miserable, however. "My kids went from Iowa City to a place where they had to drive everywhere, and a tiny rental," she continues. "I was making $32,000. The schools were not for us--very punitive, very traditional. I'd go in to work every day and love it, but I'd come home every day to sad, lonely kids."
At the end of the year when Brown offered to renew her contract, she declined. "I came back [to Minneapolis] humbled like you wouldn't believe, with an unfinished novel, no job, nothing, and moved back in with my parents," she says. "My mother is a mathematician and my father an economist, and the fact that I'm a writer has always just blown their minds."
They rallied around her, though, insisting she finish her novel. "They said, 'If you're going to do this, you're going to do it. We're going to treat this like a six-week residency. We'll take care of you. We'll take care of your kids.' My dad even gave me a deadline."
Bauer started writing every morning at 6:00. "I would go to a coffeehouse and write for exactly two hours. I would have the same coffee, the same routine. I'd even face the same way every day." (The food-writer's coffee drink? "A triple--as in three long shots--Americano. I'm addicted. When the espresso is made right, tightly packed and dripped slow, they're so thick they're almost chocolatey.")
By the time she was done, she was so broke she couldn't copy her final manuscript. Her agent--a young, untested Englishman who had contacted Bauer after happening upon her work online--let her e-mail it. What little money Bauer had coming in was for writing freelance articles for Minnesota Monthly. "In September--I remember it was the last day of the fair--[editor Jeff Johnson] called. I had just bought a house, a tiny, tiny house. He called and said, 'We like what you're doing. Would you like to come work here?' And I said yes. No interview, no nothing."
After a grueling revision, Scribner bought Wild Ride in March of '04. Fast-forward a year and a half and Bauer is looking at a full schedule of readings, book signings, and interviews. She guards the privacy of her children, 17, 15, and 11, zealously, explaining that they didn't choose to have a writer for a mother. "When you're a teenager your business is to be focused on you, not on your mom." But of the 17-year-old not-Edward whose otherworldly prism was the catalyst for the story, she will say this much: He has pronounced the novel "an interesting translation of our reality" and, brand-new driver's license in hand, ferries his mother to interviews.
Has he helped to deliver Bauer a little from the parts of her personality she has described as "driven and relentless"? "And this is where fiction comes in," Bauer wrote in an essay published by Salon in July. "Because in the book, my narrator reaches the same frenzied peak I did, but then she softens and somehow heals herself. There is an end, a point at which she is, finally, nearly as quiet and forgiving and gentle as the child. In life, however, I must keep learning his lessons over and over again."
And that, of course, is the best that any of us can hope for.