In the beginning of the pandemic, we all made promises to ourselves — lose 10 pounds, learn a second language, write a book — but few of us actually stuck to these ambitious goals. That’s not the case for Lori Toppel Sarnoff, who emerged from quarantine with a newly published novella under her belt.
Ms. Toppel, as she is referred to professionally, is a Pound Ridge resident of 20-plus years and member of the Pound Ridge Library board. She also is an accomplished author, who has been writing fiction for over 40 years. She completed her first novel with a friend in college. That experience hooked her. “I was mesmerized with the idea of creating a complete world outside of my own,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Toppel’s latest work, a novella, titled “The Word Next to the One I Want,” was published by Los Galesburg , a novella press, in February. Her manuscript was chosen as the winner of a novella competition to launch the small press, founded by writer Thomas Cook, publisher of Tammy, a literary journal, and professor at Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles, California.
“The Word Next to the One I Want” tells the story of a tombstone-reading hedge fund partner who discovers his mother is dead after not hearing from her in over a decade. This unexpected truth compels him to explore the years she was lost to him. In his quest, he crosses paths with a young veterinarian whose own troubled history slowly confounds his own. In a press release, Ms. Toppel describes her book as “a love story that unearths two personal histories, both tainted by the misrepresentation and absence of love.”
In many ways, it represents a departure from her previous work. During a discussion about her writing process with The Record-Review, Ms. Toppel said her first published novel drew from personal experiences “but the novella came from people and experiences I didn’t know.”
She began writing the first draft about six or seven years ago, while taking a fiction workshop at the 92nd Street Y with novelist Lore Segal. Recalling the experience, Ms. Toppel said she entered the class with a rough draft of approximately 20 pages detailing a scene that had been running through her head: a young man is visiting his brother’s grave and comes upon the grave of someone else he loves. That would become the first chapter of the novella. When the class ended, Ms. Toppel continued to work on the story.
The novella’s title is pulled from a conversation Ms. Toppel had with Ms. Segal, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, during her time in class. Ms. Segal told her that, at times, she chose the word right next to the one she wanted. “That line has always stayed with me. Every sentence counts, every sentence has its own music that contributes to the overall rhythm and pace of the narrative,” Ms. Toppel said.
During the writing process, Ms. Toppel often pulls inspiration and energy from her surroundings in Pound Ridge. “I love the woods during twilight, the color of blue and the transition of day into night or night into day. I’ve set quite a few scenes during the twilight hours,” she said. She finds herself similarly entranced by sounds of the woods and streams, the crickets and frogs on a summer night, the drumming of heavy rain on a tin roof.
This theme of interconnectedness and coexistence is prevalent in “The Word Next to the One I Want.” When readers step away from the novella, Ms. Toppel hopes they consider that “sometimes it’s the narrative outside of the one you’re living that can change how you think, and move you closer to love.”
Ms. Toppel is also author of the novel, “Three Children” and co-author of the collaborative memoir, “Still Here Thinking of You.” Her stories and essays have appeared in the Antioch Review, the Inkwell Journal, and other literary journals.