Elizabeth Leiknes releases ‘The Lost Queen of Crocker County’
In her fourth novel, local author Elizabeth Leiknes intertwines her love of film with fond memories of her own Midwestern upbringing to create a compelling story of adversity, growth, and redemption.
Released this week, “The Lost Queen of Crocker County” is set against the backdrop of fictional True City and weaves inspired references to Iowa’s rich and rolling landscape throughout the narrative. The story constellates around L.A. film critic Jane Willow, former county Corn Queen, and the trip back home that forces her to face her secret past and the life she left behind. It is a story of love and denial, of tragedy and truth revealed, and of grace granted through second chances.
“This book is a little bit mystery, a little bit fairy tale,” said Leiknes. “I wanted to see if I could get the reader to come along with someone who had done so many bad things.”
From early on, Leiknes felt a yearning to write.
“I am the youngest of seven kids,” she laughed. “I think I spent a lot of time constructing stories as a way to get a word in edgewise.”
She recalled that when she was a small child, her family traveled all over the state of Iowa for her brother’s wrestling matches.
“These were 8, 9 hour meets and I remember a lot of time spent rolling around in the bleachers by myself,” she said.
It was during one of those meets that Leiknes wrote her first complete story: a one-page tale of a little lonely pumpkin that nobody picked from the patch.
“My mother told me it was great and how much she loved it…she started telling everyone who would listen, ‘My daughter is a good storyteller.’ I thought of myself as a storyteller from that moment on.”
A second burst of inspiration came after a trip to the famed Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City, where Leiknes bought a book of short stories by American fiction writer Lorrie Moore. Energized by what she’d read, Leiknes knew she “…wanted to be in this [writers] club.”
The arc of affirmation was complete after Leiknes took a creative writing class with instructor Marilee Swirczek at Western Nevada College. She credits Swirczek with helping her define who she is as a writer.
“When you got praise from Marilee, you bathed in it because you knew it was right, it was warranted, and you knew to be grateful,” Leiknes said.
On one early (and particularly experimental) story that Leiknes wrote, Swirczek commented, “This is really good.”
“Four words, that was it,” said Leiknes. “I thought, ‘if she thinks this is good, maybe it really is good.’ She shaped me as a writer and a teacher…if that class hadn’t gone the way it did, I would not be where I am today.”
Leiknes went on to earn a master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Reno.
As a mother and full-time teacher at Carson Valley Middle School — 23 years teaching 7th- and 8th- grade English at CVMS after a long-term sub assignment at Pau Wa Lu Middle School — Leiknes is inventive with her writing time.
“A lot of writing I do is very early in the morning; 4 or 4:30. Most of it is done in 1-minute increments between soccer games.”
Leiknes and her husband, John, have two sons.
“A majority of my books have been written on napkins and on the back of Target receipts.”
Of her process, Leiknes said, “Ideas often come when you are busy living your daily life; writing grocery lists or planning meals for the week. Those [ideas] are gifts. They are things that can’t be forced.”
For Leiknes, much of a story’s early energy is directed toward sorting out the conflict and how it’s going to be resolved.
“Once I have five sentences of what I know needs to be said, it falls into place,” she said. “I usually bite off way more than I can chew, but this is how I do it; this is how I love it. A story takes a lot of time to come to fruition.”
The Lost Queen of Crocker County took more than five years to complete and went through more than 20 revisions. “The emotions of what I wanted to do came first; the characters are the vehicle. I wanted so much to fix [Jane Willow],” said Leiknes.
For this particular novel, Leiknes sent a pitch letter to several agents. “That’s not how it usually works,’ she said, “but I figured, ‘What do I have to lose?’”
To her delight and surprise, she received several requests for the full manuscript, and ultimately opted to partner with New York-based agent Stephanie Rostan (who counts Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame among her author roster).
“[Rostan] emailed first, saying she was crazy about the book and asking to speak with me,” said Leiknes. The call happened at 5 a.m. on a weekday morning.
“She is so down to earth. She told me that she’d been hoping to find a book that had a smart female protagonist, possibly from the Midwest…something edgy and dark but that brings some hope and goodness into the world.”
Relaying the story, Leiknes broke into an amazed smile. “It feels divine.”
Bancroft Press published Leiknes’ previous novels, The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns, The Understory, and Black Eyed Susan.
Leiknes worked closely with Rostan and publishing house Sourcebooks in preparation for The Lost Queen of Crocker County’s release. 24,000 copies were printed in the initial run, and audio rights were purchased. Both the written and spoken forms of the book became available on July 10.
Print copies can be purchased at bookstores across the country and online at Barensandnoble.com; Amazon.com; Booksamillion.com; and Indiebound.org. The audio form of the book can be found at Audible.com.
Early editorial reviews have been positive. Caroline Angell, author of All the Time in the World wrote, “Elizabeth Leiknes writes her heroine with wistful authority. The Lost Queen of Crocker County is a tale of the tenacity it takes to search one’s soul and find forgiveness there – and of the kind of grace that can only be found in your hometown.”
Nancy Simpson-Brice of Oskaloosa, Iowa’s Book Vault, wrote, “This heartwarming redemptive novel proves that you can indeed ‘go home again’…What a charmer this book is!”
Leiknes will be at the Barnes and Noble store in Reno for a book signing this Saturday, July 14 at 1 p.m. A second book signing will take place in Iowa City at Prairie Lights Bookstore on July 22 at 4 p.m.
She has also recorded author interviews with National Public Radio and Iowa Public Radio.
For Leiknes, the culmination of the book’s release is more than an accomplishment; it is a dream realized.
“[The Lost Queen of Crocker County] is a love letter to where I grew up and to all the things that are home to me. I love the idea of being marked by where you came from.”
For more information about Elizabeth Leiknes, her writing, and her books, log on to elizabethleiknes.com.