Question & Answer
Question: Tell us the story behind the story. How did Chosen come to be?
Answer: This story grew out of three defining experiences: the first was my time in Romania post-Revolution as an aide worker in the infamous Orphanage Number One. It was overwhelming—I was given fifty infants my first day—but inspiring to see the human spirit surviving in spite of the bleakness. Romania led me to the second experience, a job in the United States as the director of the domestic adoption program for a private agency, the sole caseworker managing birth and adoptive parents. My goal was to create happy endings, everything I hadn’t been able to do in Bucharest. But I quickly learned that there was another side to this, the business side, and that it was very difficult to meet the needs of everyone in the adoption triangle and keep a boss happy. I left the adoption world when I became a mother myself—my skin had become predictably thin.
This was the final defining point that shaped this novel: our first son's birth and diagnosis with Pierre Robin Syndrome, nearly losing him as an infant. As a new mother to a child with huge medical hurdles, I pondered some of the deeper issues that form the backbone of Chosen: How does parenthood change you? How will the challenges you face shape you as a couple? What happens when your expectations of parenthood are so far from the reality? What makes a good parent? A good person? What happens when you get what you thought you wanted?
The story is fiction-characters and settings and scenarios are as though I took a handful of experiences, threw in a well-marinated childhood paranoia about abduction, seasoned them with the salt of my vivid imagination, put them all in a bag and shook it up. But the themes are real, straight from my own life and from those I have been privileged to witness.
Question: What was the most challenging aspect of writing your debut novel?
Answer: Chosen came to me the night I found out I was pregnant with my second son. I had completed a manuscript before, an unwieldy thirteen point-of-view epic saga set in the Cumberland Plateau called, and I cringe, The Road Kills of Love--it lives in a Rubbermaid bin in my basement marked “Burn If I Die.” But with Chosen, the story came to me, all the characters who had been rattling around in my head since I worked at the adoption agency, all the untold stories—I outlined the whole novel in one breathless night. I think it was so easy because of how deeply affected I was by this age-old phenomenon of adoption, and how many stories I was aching to tell, made all the more poignant by my own journey into motherhood.
In order to finish it, I reapplied to the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles I had left for the siren song of Southern Spain ten years earlier-and found out I was pregnant again the day I got accepted. Commuting to LA from Philly with a newborn and two toddlers was a nightmare, an episode of Entourage gone wrong, but the structure of the program was critical. Right before I did my final manuscript reading for a crowd of a hundred, my daughter threw up on me. There I was, reading the last scene of Chosen, with barf all over my shirt. It was completely appropriate.
Question: What is the message you want readers to take away from your book?
Answer: In everything I write, I strive to shine a light on the complexity of scenarios that we encounter regularly -- in this case, domestic adoption. When I took the agency job in Portland I was surprised by how many agendas there are to what seems like a simple equation, how many sides of the story. I chose unique voices for the multiple points of view, the grieving birthfather, one potential adoptive father, the jangled single mother, the green social worker, to underscore this fact.
There is a social aspect to this novel: I wanted to share an inside perspective on domestic adoption with characters who were human, flawed, and sympathetic, because the truth is, adoption is the creation of a family in a unique way, but there is a darker side, both the business aspect, and the fact that at every birth, someone is going home empty-handed. All parenthood is a risk; adoption ups the ante.
I've been asked before if I am for or against adoption, given my history and some interpretations of the tone of this book. I am fascinated by adoption, how complicated and beautiful and heartbreaking it can be. And I am awed by the courage it takes for everyone in the triangle to choose this.
Question: Describe your writing schedule. Do you outline? Any habits?
Answer: I resisted the writing before dawn, which every mother who writes insists they do. I’ve come to love it though—you can read more about this here.
Now I try to catch an hour or two before everyone gets up, usually on my laptop in bed, with some jasmine tea. I go right to the manuscript, saving my email, Facebook and online Scrabble addiction as the treat at the end of the session.
The rest of the day, I leave my laptop open on the kitchen counter-I know, I'm asking for a fried keyboard-but that way I can grab moments throughout the day. I don’t have the luxury of endless hours to ponder—it comes in spurts, in between frying bacon and rolling out gluten-free pizza dough.
When I am in the thick of it, it’s difficult to describe what happens without sounding hokey, but it's like being a medium. The words come, the story flows, I hear the characters and my mouth actually moves along with their dialogue; I just try to keep up. On days when I can't go there, when I know I can’t mentally still be in a womens’ prison or describing the smell of flowers in Maui while picking my kid up from piano, I try to do something technical, like outlining or editing.
As far as editing, I'm a big believer in getting a listener whose opinion you value, who is not your target audience, who also might have a short attention span, and read them sections out loud. For me, this is my husband. I find myself editing, rewriting, rephrasing as I read. I think it's because growing up, I was the middle of five kids and there was always some anxiety about not getting enough airtime, losing my audience.
Question: What books are on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?
- The Complete Book of Homeschooling Ideas – Linda Dobson
- Love in a Time of Homeschooling – Laura Brodie
- The Element – Sir Ken Burns
- Classic Myths to Read Aloud: The Great Stories of Greek and Roman Mythology – William F. Russell
- Small Wonder – Barbara Kingsolver
I have decided to take the kids with me on book tour this year. You hear about these rural families who homeschool and their kids are part of the family business, roadside corn and tomatoes, goat milk soap, whatever. This year, our family's business is my book, so I'm brushing up on my third grade history, education theory, Greek mythology, how-to homeschool books and US geography in preparation.
Of course, I have my stack of novels, but I have to be careful with fiction-I can't start anything I don't intend to finish in one night. It's the odd book that I can put down, so I always have to weigh the benefits of reading against the cost of going through the next day jittered out on caffeine and Nutella. I do most of my fiction reading in the winter when we go to the Caribbean. But here is what’s waiting in the wings:
- The Weight of Silence—Heather Gudenkauf
- The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao- Junot Diaz
- A Good and Happy Child – Justin Evans
- Acalan – Anthony Conforti
Question: What was your first published piece?
Answer: CHOSEN is actually my first publishing credit. The day I received my advance check, I was tempted to take it to the bank, turn it into cash and roll around on the bed in it like they do in the movies, or go out and buy a car. Instead, I bought a goat off Craigslist for $65. You can find that story here.
Question: Which authors inspire you?
Answer: I can't tell you how many times I have read or used Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I saw her at Bread Loaf and was totally starstruck, unable to make intelligent conversation with arguably the most human, approachable and talented writer on writing of our time. I hope I get another chance.
I modeled technical aspects of Chosen after Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. It amazed me that she could reveal the outcome of the story in the first few pages, and yet be compelling enough to make the reader forget this, hoping that it would end differently. This also happens to me every time I read Romeo and Juliet.
For sheer plot, Zuask’s The Book Thief. This was one of those all-night reads that left me in a fog for days, marveling.
Barbara Kingsolver is the rare writer whose fiction and nonfiction I find equally appealing. Her eco-minded lifestyle and level of social consciousness is something I aspire to. At the same time, I’m not getting the Youth Hockey team to practice in a SmartCar. But I think about her every time I fill up my gas-guzzling, stomping carbon footprint of an SUV my kids call The Albino Rhino. I give Small Wonder to all my friends, so we can discuss world politics and better living at the playground.
I love vintage John Irving too, and Betty Smith.
Question: What is your advice for aspiring writers?
Answer: Have several kids. Three worked for me. Get some animals too, needy ones. You'll never be blocked again, because you will be so grateful for those stolen moments in a world where you have some semblance of control.
Seriously: a flawless and dazzling query letter. I had offers from the first three agents I queried.
Question: What are you working on now?
Answer: Right now I am setting up my tour for Chosen (see the events page of my website for more details) and doing some final editing on my next novel, tentatively titled, Following.
The four-word summary is: infidelity with a twist. I don't want to give any more away about the juicy plot, but the setting is Boulder, Colorado. I fell hard for Boulder when I drove into town in my dusty Path-finder with my Newfoundland dog in 1998. The health food, the dry air, the hiking, my insane Trustafarian housemates, the beautiful landscape and even prettier people! But I realized I was silly in love with my surfer guy back in the Caribbean – the one who would never trade oceans for mountains – so I left. This new novel is in part a homage to the rugged gorgeousness, the outdoorsy, hip lifestyle and wild weather that is young Boulder, and a nod to the other side of life there, what happens when bong hits and beer pong fall away to BBQ and carpool.