“Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea” by Morgan Callan Rogers, Jan. 23, 2012, Viking, 320 pages, hardcover $26.95.
A beautiful woman with locks of fiery red hair disappeared on the Maine coast in the early ’60s. She left behind her young daughter and loving husband, who, with the strength characteristic of New Englanders, tried their best to cope with the loss. This mysterious tragedy sets the stage for Morgan Callan Rogers’ first novel, “Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea,” which enters United States bookstores Jan. 23, 2012.
Rogers, 60, grew up in Bath and now divides her time between Portland and South Dakota. Already, her novel is selling well in Germany, and it will soon hit bookshelves in Australia, Spain and Italy.
The coming-of-age story is told by Florine, a spirited young woman marked by hardship.
“I think there’s probably a vein of granite running through her veins,” Rogers said recently while sipping tea in the kitchen of her Portland home — her old, gray cat pawing her leg for attention. “She’s Maine; she’s wry; she’s strong.
“I latched onto a character that wouldn’t quit.”
At a risk of sounding cliche, the novel is difficult to put down. Each chapter hooks into the next. The rhythm of Rogers’ words pulls readers along, as do her dynamic Maine characters, people who view life with a bit of dark humor and continue to show Florine their love in subtle, honest ways.
While the story follows the life of a teen, the romantic scenes and emotion-packed conversations make it a book for adults.
“In order to be fiction, everything has to be absolutely true,” Rogers said. “That’s a contradiction. But I wanted to write about someone who’s in life. Florine is not an observer; she goes ahead and does things. She has the ability to bounce back. She has a lot of heart.”
Though Rogers can’t predict how the novel will do in the U.S., she’s already honored to be represented by The Viking Press, a venerated New York City publishing house that, when founded in 1925, promised to support books of permanent importance.
Viking published John Steinbeck’s first novel, then his “Grapes of Wrath,” and the first American edition of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” (1939). More recently, Viking has published the works of Stephen King, J.M. Coetzee, “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, “The Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd.
“It’s an out-of-body experience,” said Rogers of the success of her first novel.
“I’m a quiet person, and I can’t …” she paused for a moment and playfully slapped her own cheek. “It’s like I really have to prepare now for success.”
She considers the story a gift and was recently surprised to discover that reading it aloud is an emotional experience.
Like Florine, Rogers grew up in the ’60s. The novel is set in The Point, a fictional coastal village near Popham Beach, Boothbay Harbor and Reid State Park, but it is really a conglomeration of all of the fishing towns Rogers visited while growing up. In many ways, the characters’ voices are the voices of people Rogers grew up with.
“There’s never a false step in a Maine voice,” she said. “I can’t speak for all in Maine. I just wanted to speak to the people I grew up with. It is a love letter to them.”
Rogers writes in the morning to Beethoven symphonies and Irish songs, matching the music to the mood of the scene she’s writing — a practice that might explain the natural flow of her words.
To release a first novel to be proud of, Rogers worked long and hard. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Southern Maine, and for 30 years, she worked as a freelance journalist at independent newspapers. No matter the job, she always found herself writing.
It was while working at an engineering firm, writing news reports and proposals, that she realized her desire to write fiction.
“One day I was just sitting there looking out the window,” she recalled. “I was really sad, and I said to myself, ‘Oh my god, what’s that sound?’ And a voice in my head said, ‘Honey, that’s the sound of your soul dying.’”
Soon after, she returned to USM where she earned a master’s degree in creative writing. It was there that she first heard Florine’s bold voice inside her head. By then, she knew enough to listen to the character and write her story.
“She’s full of flaws, and I like her that way,” Rogers said. “I don’t like dull narrators.”
Florine is a magnet for surprising events, odd circumstances, coincidences and near disasters.
“Some people just have big karma,” she explained. “They just do.”
While writing the 320-page novel, Rogers worked as the assistant to the Portland fire chief, which explains why many of the firefighters’ names appear in the novel. She took several years to complete her first novel, but now she’s on a roll and is already working on her next project.
“Writing fiction is like stopping time — you don’t notice time,” Rogers said. “I think that’s the place where passion lies — when time stops. I think everyone has that in some way.”
The novel’s launch party is set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, at the USM Bookstore in Portland. Several book signings and readings are scheduled throughout the state. For information, visit morgancallanrogers.com.