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Luggage tags inspire ‘what if’ for debut novel

Amy Gail Hansen

Amy Gail Hansen

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Author Amy Gail Hansen reading for The Butterfly Sister

7 p.m. Aug. 9

Lake Forest Book Store, 680 N. Western Ave.

(847) 234-4420;

Updated: September 10, 2013 6:06AM

The inspiration for author Amy Gail Hansen’s The Butterfly Sister didn’t arrive all at once. It took its time and showed up one piece at a time — beginning with some pieces of luggage.

It was Hansen’s luggage, packed for her 2004 honeymoon in Italy, when during final preparations for the trip she noticed that they were tagged with the name and address of a friend she’d loaned them to years before. As she wondered if they would have been shipped to her friend if they had been lost — and what her friend would have made of that — she realized the idea would make a good story.

Hansen hung the old luggage tag on a bedside lamp and mentally filed the idea away until another piece of the puzzle popped up two years later. Listening to a woman in a writers group read a passionately mournful poem about her formerly all-female college going coed, Hansen suddenly realized a women’s college would make an intriguing setting. And Hansen’s debut novel was well on its way.

Now, after years of writing and rewriting, finding an agent and selling the book to a publisher, The Butterfly Sister is available in stores and online. The romantic thriller tells the story of Ruby, a 22-year-old former English major who dropped out of all-girl Tarble College and slipped into a dangerous depression following an affair with a married professor, who is surprised one day to receive a mysterious suitcase holding a tattered copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own — which she had planned to make the subject of her senior thesis.

Ruby knows the suitcase belongs to a college acquaintance named Beth, but when she tries to return it she realizes Beth has disappeared. And searching for her reveals unexpected personal connections that force Ruby to confront secrets from her own past.

“I guess stories never land in your lap perfectly formed,” said Hansen, who will present a reading of The Butterfly Sister Friday evening in the Lake Forest Book Store. “I really thought this was just going to be a short story at first, but it evolved and developed as I worked on it. First you get one thing, then another, then another. Stories come in layers.”

The Palatine resident has been writing since childhood, when she was inspired by stories her mother Gail told. In addition to working as a journalist, Hansen has written short stories and published two unauthorized biographies of pop star Taylor Swift, always thinking of someday trying her hand at a novel.

“I tinkered with a few other stories that seemed like they could have been novels, but they just didn’t go anywhere,” Hansen said. “But this one, once I started, really clicked. It stuck with me and kept becoming more and more interesting.”

Possibly because Hansen herself is partial to the type of story The Butterfly Sister was turning into.

“This is the sort of book I enjoy,” she said. “I like suspense and mystery and women’s fiction and literary fiction, so I tried to write a book that was all of that. I guess I was trying to write a book I’d love to read.”

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