IN THE AWARD-WINNING DOCUMENTARY, PERFECT STRANGERS, Eldonna Edwards’ three-year odyssey to become a kidney donor is chronicled. She would later write her own memoir of that journey, Lost in Transplantation, a first book that would launch her career as a writer and make her life-long dream come true.
“I thought I was setting out to change someone’s life,” she says. “I had no idea that the life I’d change the most would be my own.”
On June 1st at 2 pm, at the Barnes & Noble here in SLO, Edwards will celebrate the release of her second novel (and third book), Clover Blue, with a book signing. The date coincides with the paperback release of her first novel, This I Know. She was 57 years old when she signed with an agent, 59 when her first novel was printed, and she’ll be 60 when you meet her on June 1st. Though she hardly looks it, Edwards freely admits her age, hoping the news will remind others that it’s never too late for a dream-come-true life.
Eldonna Edwards was the fifth of seven children born to an evangelical pastor and his wife in the tiny village of New Era, near Lake Michigan. When asked about her unusual name, she laughs that it was probably selected because her parents had run out of traditional names. Growing up, Edwards adopted the role of “family jester,” finding great glee in making her parents laugh, and admitting she sometimes tested their patience in the effort.
She wrote her first poem at the age of nine, titled Mother. Though she cannot recall the rest of the poem, she does remember the effect it had on those who read it, and she marks her desire to become a writer from that moment. But it would be years before she had the chance.
Her childhood was far from ordinary. Edwards describes her mother as a dutiful pastor’s wife and wonderful mother to seven children. And though there was “more than enough love to go around,” her mother’s degenerative disk disease kept her bedridden much of the time. VaLoyce Edwards would endure a risky surgery in her late forties that was a great success and left her with a renewed zest for life. She went back to college in her fifties and earned a degree in social work. Edwards would remember her mother’s courage and mid-life achievements when it was her turn to persevere.
Once out of high school, Edwards enjoyed a ten-year stint in the real estate industry. She began a second career as a licensed massage therapist, and this one would last a quarter century. Along the way, she married and had three children: Andrea, now 43; Maggie, now 39; and Jacob, now 30. Her marriage ended when the children were still young. She admits that being a single parent posed one of her life’s biggest challenges. And as she approached 40, she’d had enough of the bitter cold winters in Michigan and moved to California in 1997. She opened Avila Beach Massage not long after.
“I realized that just because I was born in the Great White North didn’t mean I had to stay there,” she explained. “ … the stork had obviously dropped me on the wrong coast.”
And it was here that her dream of becoming a writer began to unfold. She’d been journaling and studying the craft for years, and now, she began teaching and speaking about it. It was while taking a class at Cuesta College that she met a fellow student with kidney disease and was moved to write an essay about the student’s ordeal. Her research revealed a tragic organ shortage and inspired her to become a donor herself.
“I can’t save the world,” she remembers thinking at the time. “But I can save one person.” (Read Lost in Transplantation for the vivid tale of that life-changing journey).
The day she found an agent to represent her writing was one of the highlights of her writing life, second only to holding the finished book in hand. “Claire really gets me,” said Edwards. “When she told me my voice reminded her of Fannie Flagg, I fell in love.”
In the truest sense of the writer’s adage, “Write what you know,” Edwards’ debut novel, This I Know, draws on her experiences as the young daughter of a passionate pastor. It’s the story of a clairvoyant preacher’s daughter who comes of age in the 1960s Midwest. Her second novel, Clover Blue, features a young boy who grows up in a 1970s commune not knowing who his parents are. (Both published by one of the largest independent publishers in New York City, Kensington Publishing Corp.) She is currently at work on a third.
“I like stories about the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s,” she said. “A time before the internet and cell phones, when people had to figure things out more organically.”
This year, Edwards finally quit her “day job” to write full time. She writes in a cozy studio in the backyard of her San Luis Obispo home that she shares with longtime partner, William “Brer” Austin, a retired teacher and talented editor with a “big picture brain,” she says. “We make a pretty good team.”
Aside from the writing itself, one of her favorite activities are the road trips she takes to research the settings for her books.
“Writing is a way to hold up a mirror so that readers might recognize themselves and others in the characters I create,” she explains. “… My books tend to have a running theme of our universal search for identity and belonging … and the consequences of our actions, good or bad.”
Today, Eldonna Edwards is a sought-after keynote speaker and session facilitator on the topics of organ donation, writing, and publishing. Locally, she is also a 12-year volunteer with the SLO Film Festival and a recurring instructor/advisory board member for the Central Coast Writers’ Conference.
“I believe we are meant to be in service to each other,” said Edwards. “I think it’s so important to reach back and take the hands of those who are behind us.”
Insisting she is just getting started, Edwards hopes her own story will convey the message that it’s never too late, we are never too old, to go after our dreams. “At the end of our lives, it’s the things we didn’t do, not the things we did, that we most regret,” she says.
In her life, in her daily actions, and in her writing, Edwards tries to remember the sage words of Ram Dass, who said, “We are all just walking each other home.”