As a young woman, Meg Waite Clayton never thought she'd become a novelist.
"I didn't know any writers," she says. "Being a writer wasn't on the real-life list of things to do."
Twenty years ago, Clayton was a wife, mother and lawyer working 100-hour weeks. One night, her husband asked her what she'd rather be doing.
"I said I didn't know," recalls Clayton. "He said, 'But in your wildest dreams...' And I said, 'In my wildest dreams, I'd be a novelist.'"
Fans of Clayton, 54, might consider that a surprising admission, since her 2008 best-seller, "The Wednesday Sisters," is all about women discovering their hidden potential. In the wake of that life-altering conversation, the D.C.-born, South Bay-based author has devoted herself to exploring the ways female friendship can foster change.
Continuing the story
Set in 1960s Palo Alto, "The Wednesday Sisters" is the story of five ordinary women who meet in a neighborhood park and form a writing group. Together, they weather personal struggles and the social upheavals that led to the 1970s women's movement. The novel became an instant favorite with women, indie bookstores and book groups.
Today, Clayton says the book struck a chord with readers who were weary of the ways women often were portrayed in fiction.
"It's either this sappy, Hallmarky, there-are-no-problems friends forever, with no issues," she says, "or, it's mean girls who are all terrible to each other. My personal experience is that the truth is somewhere in between. I tried to deliver that, and I think that's what people responded to. I heard from a lot of readers who either said, 'I have friends like that' or 'I wish I had friends like that.'"
Now Clayton's sequel, "The Wednesday Daughters" (Random House, $26), carries the story forward to the next generation.
Like "Sisters," the new book focuses on women's themes -- career and marriage, race and class, illness and infidelity. Writing this book, says the author, was an opportunity to explore how contemporary women deal with issues their mothers thought had been put to rest.
"The Wednesday Daughters" begins when Hope Tantry arrives in England's Lake District, where her mother, Ally, spent the last years of her life researching and writing an unpublished biography of Beatrix Potter.
Traveling with "Wednesday" daughters Julie and Anna Page, Hope discovers a cache of Ally's old journals -- which prompt the young women to evaluate their shared past, current ties and possible futures.
Clayton, who lives in Palo Alto with her husband, writer Mac Clayton ("The Dad App") and their two sons (both currently away at college), hadn't planned to write the sequel. "I thought I was done with those characters," she says. But she found the idea of exploring life from the daughters' perspective irresistible.
While she allows that women of Hope's generation have greater opportunities than their mothers did, Clayton says that second-wave feminism is "not at all done. There are all these subtle ways that society makes life challenging for women, and each of these women faces that. How do you have children, and who takes care of the children once you've had them? There's a lot of pressure, because women are still expected to do it all."
A light dawns
Reading Ally's journals, the daughters gain new insight into the choices their mothers made.
"I think many of us don't know our parents until pretty late in life," Clayton notes. "They're your parents, and either you don't think that much about them as separate beings, or there are emotional barriers to learning about them. A lot of us don't come to know -- or come to understand -- our parents until we become parents ourselves."
"Daughters" also allowed Clayton -- whose other novels are "The Language of Light" and "The Four Mrs. Bradwells" -- to learn more about Beatrix Potter. Researching the British author's life and works, Clayton spent time in the Lake District visiting Potter's Hill Top Farm and hiking to the tarn where Potter rowed with her husband in the evenings.
Clayton was shocked to learn that Potter, today one of the best-known children's writers of all time, was unable to get "Peter Rabbit" commercially published. "Every London publisher she sent it to rejected it," says Clayton, "so she published a black-and-white version herself."
If that sounds like a "Wednesday" story, the irony isn't lost on Clayton, who hopes readers will find inspiration in her characters' risk-taking spirit. "Until I had that conversation with my husband, I didn't think I could be a writer," she says. "It's somehow easier to do something if someone else imagines that you can do it. It allows you to imagine it, too, without feeling totally foolish. And we won't do things if we don't imagine we can."
Clayton appears at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 3 at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, www.keplers.com.