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Cowiche native relishes success of first novel

kelli estes

Kelli Estes, whose first novel, "The Girl Who Wrote in Silk," was published this month, will sign books at Oak Hollow Gallery in Yakima on July 23. (Photo courtesy of Kelli Estes)

Kelli Estes is enjoying the kind of praise that authors dream of.

“This story is compelling, heart-wrenching, and an absolutely beautiful read,” Debbie Buck of Vintage Books in Vancouver, Wash., said of the Cowiche native’s debut novel, “The Girl Who Wrote in Silk.”

Buck’s comments prompted the book’s appearance on the July Indie Next List, which highlights 20 books boasting inspired recommendations from independent booksellers across the United States.

Estes, who lives in Seattle with her husband and two sons, will sign copies of her book and read excerpts during a reception July 23 at Oak Hollow Gallery in Yakima.

It’s all a bit heady for a Highland High School graduate who couldn’t imagine herself as an author, though she always loved reading.

“Highland’s a small school. I never met any authors, any real writers. ... It’s very exciting; I’m so thrilled,” said Estes, 41, who returns to the Yakima Valley fairly often to see family, including her parents, Ron and Sue Christenson, who recently celebrated their 50th anniversary.

After high school, Estes pushed her literacy aspirations aside and earned a bachelor of science degree in business management from Arizona State University.

A job as a buyer/contract administrator for a large airplane manufacturer in the Seattle area involved extensive travel, reawakening Estes’ literary urges.

“My first published book was my sixth finished manuscript,” she said of her 15-year quest to become a published author. “I had five complete books I tried to sell, then gave up and moved to my next project.

“This one I stuck with the longest.”

“The Girl Who Wrote in Silk” is the story of two women, past and present, whose lives intersect in a historic house on Orcas Island.

A history buff from a young age, Estes was inspired by true events, including the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Designed to prohibit Chinese immigration to the United States, it rode a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment that spread to the Pacific Northwest in the 1880s .

In the Seattle riot of 1886, more than 200 Chinese residents were forced from their homes and onto ships. While some chose to return, most did not.

“This was really close to home,” Estes said.

In other research on the San Juan Islands, she also learned of a smuggler who feared that authorities would discover his illegal human cargo, prompting him to knock them unconscious and push them overboard.

After building her historical framework, Estes needed something to tie the woman of the past — Mei Lien — to Inara Erickson, the woman of the present.

“I was really struggling. ... I meet with a group of writers, and I took it to my plotting group to see if anyone had any ideas,” she said.

“One of my friends had traveled to China and had purchased a framed embroidered sleeve. The robes have wide-open sleeves that are embroidered. ... Sometimes it’s just flowers, or symbols of something else.”

Inara discovers the elaborately embroidered sleeve that Mei created and hid in the house a century before.

“She embroiders the truth because the truth was covered,” Estes said of Mei.

Estes is eagerly anticipating her book-signing in Yakima.

“I’m hoping to see some people I haven’t seen since high school. ... I’ve had so much great support,” she said.

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