NEW GLOUCESTER — After spending most of her days alone in the writing shed out back behind her house, Joan Dempsey finds it liberating to be on the road promoting her novel, “This Is How It Begins.”

Berkeley-based She Writes Press published the book in October, and Dempsey has been out in the world since, talking about her debut novel whenever and wherever she’s invited. “The experience has been fabulous,” she said. “I love it.”

Her next stop is at 5:30 p.m. Monday at Blue on Congress Street in Portland, when she appears as a guest of Chris Robley on the Verses Verses Verses reading series, where songwriters and authors search for common connections in their work. Also joining the discussion will be Maine writer Margaret Broucek, and they’ll talk about “gratitude.”

Dempsey has reason to feel grateful and triumphant. She’s made her living with words, teaching what she calls “serious writers” how to master the craft of revision through online courses, and she spent many years in the halls of the State House in Massachusetts lobbying for animals rights.

All the while she wrote, harboring her dream of becoming a writer herself. She is quick to note, “This Is How It Begins” is her first published novel, and her second overall. The first one didn’t gain traction with agents, so she set it aside and wrote “This Is How It Begins” instead.

It’s the story of an old Polish woman named Ludka Zeilonka, an artist, art historian and a survivor of World War II. During the war, she was an operative of an underground resistance group that saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis, and conspired to hide and preserve important works of art, including the first known portrait of the Polish composer Frederic Chopin.


Joan Dempsey talks about her novel, “This Is How It Begins,” at the Portland Public Library on Nov. 15.

The framework for the story began when Dempsey got an image in her head of an old woman crawling from a burning building clutching a rolled-up canvas under her arm. “I needed to find out what the canvas was,” she said. She called the image “a gift that just showed up. I have no idea where it came from, but it still gives me the chills.”

She wrote the book to answer the question about the canvas, and it became a modern-day story about oppression and intolerance told around an anti-gay campaign that envelopes Ludka’s grandson, whose father is president of the Massachusetts State Senate.

Including scenes about political maneuvering on Beacon Hill felt natural; her earliest vision for the book was as a political novel set in the Massachusetts State House. She lived in New Hampshire briefly, and a notorious hate group operated nearby. That experience also informed the book. “We continue to repeat our prejudices, and we continue to dislike people who are not like ourselves,” she said. “That is not going away.” As her book expanded with a Polish theme, she received a research grant that enabled her to travel to Warsaw and to Washington, D.C.

When she finished the final revisions, Dempsey “burst into tears. It was joy, a complete outburst of joy.” She teaches writers how to revise, but that does not making revising her work any easier.

Joan Dempsey reads from her book, “This is How it Begins.”

Dempsey has lived in New Gloucester with her longtime partner for about 10 years, carving out a focused, busy life as a writer and teacher. It’s a much simpler life than her former life in Boston, and satisfying in different ways. She loves the quiet, and appreciates the opportunity to work in her little shed out back. “Most of my life has been spent out here in the shed,” she said without regret.

Before moving to Maine, Dempsey researched the writing community here and tuned in to the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. She was impressed with the organization, and encouraged by the community of writers it supported. It was among the reasons she chose Maine as her home. She volunteered for the alliance board, offering her skills at fundraising and relationship-building.


Dempsey’s personal story is one of patience and persistence. Like many writers, she dreamed of getting an agent and a big publisher and making a splash. Part of that dream came true. “This Is How It Begins” is making a splash – it’s a local best-seller, and Dempsey has received many positive reviews and spent weeks on the road reading from and talking about the book across New England and the Northeast. The topic of hate is timely, she said, and people want to talk about it. At her readings, she usually talks more about issues raised in the book than she reads from its pages.

But she didn’t get an agent, and ultimately chose a hybrid self-publishing strategy, working with She Writes Press, a female-run publishing house that specializes in books by women writers. Dempsey paid up front to publish the book, but gets a larger percentage of sales than if she had gone through a traditional publisher. She Writes Press distributes the book nationally through a network of bookstores and readers.

Dempsey has her own network, too, and has worked hard to promote the book, using her social media skills and her willingness to talk and travel to create a buzz. Her strategy is simple, and it’s much the same as it was when she was working as a lobbyist on Beacon Hill in Boston. “It’s all about relationships, and I’m always thinking about building relationships over time. I’m in this for the long haul,” she said.

When not out in the world talking about “This Is How It Begins,” Dempsey spends her days out back in the shed working on her next novel, this one focusing on the U.S. justice system and wrongful imprisonment. This is how it continues?

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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