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Margaret Hermes’ new novel was inspired by backpacking Europe — and 4 decades of gestation

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John Montre
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Provided by Margaret Hermes
Margaret Hermes published her new novel, "The Opposite of Chance," more than four decades after she wrote the first chapter.

Margaret Hermes’ new novel, her second, was 39 years in the making.

That’s no exaggeration. Soon after finishing her first novel, Hermes got divorced and set off across Europe with a backpack. While in Europe, she wrote the first chapter — about a new divorcee traveling to Europe for the first time (a character that was not actually her, she hastens to add). After she returned home to St. Louis, she wrote two more chapters.

And then she put the idea away … for decades.

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As Hermes explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, it took a different international journey to pick the novel back up and realize what had been missing.

“Twenty-five years later, I was in an airport in Montreal and was beginning what was a difficult trip,” she recalled. “I had lost my passport at the outset. Lots of things had gone wrong, and I was feeling fairly glum. And I was sitting in this airport when this startlingly handsome Muslim man came and said his prayers.”

The man caught her attention — not only for his intense good looks, but also for what struck Hermes as a particularly bad dye job. She found herself wondering about him. Who was he? Why the hair dye?

“And for some reason, for which I'm grateful, I have no idea why, but this man stuck in my brain,” Hermes recalled.

Listen to Margaret Hermes on St. Louis on the Air

Ultimately, the stranger would catalyze a return to her long-abandoned novel, inspiring a unique narrative structure: Readers first meet a character through the eyes of Hermes’ naive Midwestern protagonist and then, one chapter later, shift to understand the world through the other’s perspective. That idea didn’t just provide organization. It also helped Hermes overcome what had previously made her lose interest in the story: her protagonist’s limited perspective.

Still, Hermes acknowledged that writing so intimately about characters different from herself brought its own challenges. “I can't even begin to tell you how much time I spent in research on this book,” she said.

That effort pays off in a story that allows the reader to see the world even as it never loses track of its central character. “The Opposite of Chance,” published in 2021 by Delphinium Books, gives us Betsy Baumgartner of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but also gives us an intimate look at the denizens of Europe in 1981: a native of Pakistan on his way to the casinos of Venice, a French farm boy taking the train to Nice, an Irishman protesting the Troubles in Dublin.

At one point, Hermes said, her research nearly overwhelmed her, as when a chapter set in Ireland went too deeply into Bobby Sands’ fatal hunger strike. “The book would have been 30 pages longer if my editor hadn't put his red pen to the vision,” Hermes admitted.

For Hermes, publishing the novel so many years after she began it (and 40 years after her first novel), has led to a burst of creativity. She’s now hard at work illustrating a children’s book — even as she freely admits she “can’t draw.” (Her medium: collage.)

“This project has been bringing me real joy,” she said. “I have had the pleasure of working with my hands, the pleasure of using my brain in a different way.”

She also stressed the pleasure of that long ago, absolutely formative trip to Europe.

“It was a wonderful, freeing experience,” she said. “I was never responsible for myself in the way that I was on this trip: I'm responsible for entertaining myself as well as for making all the practical decisions. … Sometimes it was an extremely lonely experience, as I think solo travel is. But it was also a wonderful opportunity to explore the world and my inner landscape as well.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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