Finding Frances and the Serendipity of CharactersMay 6, 2019
Author Interview with Writing FunJune 4, 2019
The Inspiration Behind A Thread So Fine
t forty-six years old and settled in my life with a wonderful husband, two young boys, and a comfortable career, I had a perfectly acceptable story I’d forever told myself about my childhood. Most of us do, I suppose. The night my brother invited me to dinner and revealed in his deadpan way the family secret he and my parents had kept for decades, my own personal narrative unraveled before even the appetizers were served. I had absolutely no idea that I’d been adopted as a baby—and when he told me as much, anyone nearby could’ve knocked me over with a feather.
As my brother spoke the words, “Mom and Dad adopted you when I was six…”, I felt as if someone put an entire bagel in my mouth, insisting that I figure out a way to swallow it whole. I was dumbfounded—and slightly nauseous. Months later I would explain to concerned friends: the revelation wasn’t like discovering I had a life-threatening disease, nor was it winning the lottery, but the long-hidden truth about my identity rocked my world all the same.
As my brother spoke the words, “Mom and Dad adopted you when I was six…”, I felt as if someone put an entire bagel in my mouth, insisting that I figure out a way to swallow it whole.
n the first nights after that long conversation with my brother, I could not stop my mind from reeling, from unpacking age-old memories, from yearning for a chance to talk with my deceased parents, from imagining, or re-imagining my own life’s beginning with no facts to go on. My sister, with whom I’m very close and who also did not know, could not look at me without both of us laughing hysterically—if one of us were truly adopted, we’d both have put money on it being her, not me. She was the questioning rebel. I was the go-along easy one.
Sleep did not come willingly. Gratefully, I am a writer and one thing I’ve always known is that telling myself stories about invented characters and their dilemmas can soothe a racing mind. I go through the day fictionalizing all sorts of things from my daily life, often in my mind and sometimes on paper if the storyline is at all inspiring. Even as a child, I found comfort in doing this – as if by creating characters I could define and-control, I could perhaps figure out ways to improve myself and to control my own being or circumstances. At the very least, I could entertain myself while life played itself out chaotically around me.
liza and Shannon Malone came to me in those early sleepless nights as I thought about my mother and my newly-revealed-but-yet-unknown birth mother. I imagined them in a dream-state as two sisters coming of age together in mid-century Minnesota, just after the war. Inspired by Dodie Smith’s novel, I Capture The Castle,’ the two girls were well raised and cared for, and more than a little naïve. They began to take shape as the daughters of an Irish-Catholic professor and his mysterious wife, Nell. The girls felt optimistic and loved, although secrets in the family abounded. One sister would be introverted and artistic—even quirky; the other, bright, confident and capable of almost anything—including caring for her only sister as almost a mother would. As the book took shape, one sister would quickly endure an unexpected tragedy, and the other would face a far more sinister threat before long.
The central questions I wanted to explore with my two fictional sisters, their mother, Nell and ultimately the next-generation child, Miriam, were these: How did young women such as my own adoptive mother and (then-unknown) birth-mother navigate their most challenging circumstances in decades before #MeToo, or modern medicine? How might they have found courage to carry on in a society that from today’s perspective seemed laden with secrecy, shame and disempowerment for women? Post WWII American society saw not only rising access to affluence, but rapid and turbulent social change that lasted for decades. Did the seeming intransigence of the Catholic Church and its social mores make it more comforting or more difficult for women who faced dramatic challenges of health or circumstance? Or did the Church contribute to solidifying an era of secrecy, shame and loss around unwed mothers; and judgment around unmarried women? Even more broadly, I wanted to explore the nature of family – the invisible threads that almost irrevocably bind us to one another—as mother, daughter, sister, aunt, brother, uncle, father, son.... What is the deepest nature of those threads and how, if at all, do they change when secrets are – or aren’t – revealed?
I wanted to explore the nature of family – the invisible threads that almost irrevocably bind us to one another—as mother, daughter, sister, aunt, brother, uncle, father, son.... What is the deepest nature of those threads and how, if at all, do they change when secrets are – or aren’t – revealed?
he story of the Malone family was mostly imagined, although vignettes and characters from my own mother’s years in quarantine for tuberculosis weave in and out of Shannon’s experience over that dramatic year at Milner Hospital. My deceased mother-in-law and her sister, also closely-knit but vastly different women, inspired Shannon and Eliza’s relationship so much that I’ve kept their photos as babies and grown girls pinned to my bulletin board. The lives and spirits of many other women--my sister, sister-in-law, myself and even my birth mother whom I finally met two years ago--are among the infinite invisible threads that have inspired me, and that I’ve tried to weave together in a story about women’s relationships to one another and the wondrous nature of family.