A warm welcome and a big thank you for coming today: it means the world to share my latest novel with you, my American friends and readers.
This is my second book launch at the wonderful Gibson’s, a place where I may just spend more time than I do at home!
I love to write in the coffee shop round the corner – a place where I’ve made some great friends and got to know quite a bit about my new town here in Concord;
I love to browse the wonderful displays of books and;
I love to chat to Gibson’s enthusiastic and incredibly well-read staff.
A good bookstore is the heartbeat of a community; that is certainly true of Gibson’s.
A special thank you to:
Michael Hermann for allowing me to hold this event and to
Elisabeth Jewell for working her organisational fairy dust in making it all happen.
It’s a real honour to stand here tonight – not far from where Hillary Clinton signed her books back in the Fall!
This afternoon, I’ll speak a bit about the inspiration behind Before I Was Yours as well as giving you some readings from the novel itself; then you can ask some questions and after that I’d be delighted to sign your books.
So, to the book itself.
I describe writing as an alchemy of experience, research and imagination.
In each novel, the weighting of these three elements varies, depending on the story I’m telling.
Usually, I try hard to put the greatest weight on the imagination: the worlds and the characters I create. I know that when the imaginative muscle works hardest, I write the best stories.
After the imagination, comes research. Because I write contemporary fiction which addresses social issues I spend a great deal of time speaking to people who are leading lives similar to those of my characters, as well as experts involved in those lives.
Before I Was yours is a story of adoption, so I spent a great deal of time:
Talking to adoption social workers, talking to adopters and children in the process of being adopted or adopted already.
I attended adoption parties – like the one I write about in the opening of the novel.
I spoke with a leading British QC about the legal angle of the subjects I address the novel.
Finally, I spent time with a GP who specialised in a particular condition that affects African children, which forms one of the plot strands in the novel.
Beside that in-person research, I read a great deal about adoption, both fiction and non-fiction.
Usually, when my imagination and research work together, I have the foundations for a good story and the third element to the alchemy, experience, plays only a fleeting role.
That’s because I work hard to make my books as un-biographical as possible.
My joy as a writer is to explore lives other than my own and I also believe that when I write too close to home, my imagination goes slack, and so my writing is less vivid for the reader.
What’s more, as far as I’m concerned, I spend quite enough time inside my own life. Writing is for something else.
However, with Before I Was Yours, I knew I had to draw on some of the things I had observed and experienced in my life. Indeed, these experiences were what motivated and inspired me to write the story to begin with.
Not directly, of course.
None of the characters are based on people I know;
None of the situations are exactly as I’ve experienced them.
But nevertheless, I did draw closer to home when trying to understand, in particular, the longing for a child and the emotional rollercoaster of taking on a child that is not, biologically, your own.
Let me tell you about someone very special in my life to whom Before I Was Yours is dedicated.
When I was born, I had a Swiss au-pair. Her name is Anne. She was 16 when she looked after me. And even then, there was nothing in life that she wanted more than to a mother one day and, ideally, have a whole tribe of children.
With some women, this longing to be a mother, goes deeper than almost anything.
It was so for Anne.
When Anne left us, she went to nursing school. She married a doctor. And then she settled down to have a family.
10 years later, after endless fertility tests, drugs and IVF treatments, she still didn’t have a child.
I remember visiting her in Switzerland once and seeing her crying on her bed the day she got her period. Every month, she was reminded of what she saw as her failure. It turned out that both she and her husband have fertility problems and so the chance of conception, even with IVF, was close to zero.
And so, they undertook the long road to adoption.
One in which they had to prove themselves, a thousand times over, to being the best possible parents – something which biological parents never have to do – before they conceive a child.
They had to deal with the waiting – more waiting.
Tackle the red tape surrounding adoption;
Anne had to face the reality that she might not be able to adopt the baby she longed for. Most children in the adoption process are much older, already.
She also knew that the children she adopted would, in all likelihood, come to her with both physical and psychological challenges. The heartbreak when the child you’ve longed for finally arrives and you need to navigate a creature you didn’t make, who comes with a whole lot of baggage that you are, largely, unprepared for.
And, with time, Anne recognised that, if they went down the route of international adoption, she and her husband would have to face the challenges of integrating a foreign child in a small, conservative, largely white Swiss community.
Anne never used to word unfair but I felt it for her.
For those of you who read Before I Was Yours, you will recognise not the character of Anne or of her husband or her children but you will certainly identify the emotions I referred to above.
I came to understand these emotions even more vividly when I became a mother myself: when I experienced the power of having my own children and witnessed how women around me, unable to have children, were suffering.
We underestimate how much of a ‘club’ having children is and how alienating it can be not to be part of that club.
The novel is written from four points of view and one of these is Rosie’s, the young woman who longs to have a child. Let me give you a little insight into her world:
First Reading: Rosie
Another element that falls under ‘experience’ in this novel is a trip I took to Kenya in 2008 with twelve girls from the boarding school where I lived, taught English and ran a dorm. We worked in primary schools along the Lamu Coast and the Kenyan element to the story draws on my time there and inspired me to create the character of Jonah, a seven-year-old Kenyan boy abandoned at Heathrow airport on Christmas day.
I often write from the point of view of children. I love their take on the world. And, in this novel, I felt it was particularly important to incorporate the voice of the adopted child.
Let me give you a little glimpse of Jonah’s world, in his own words:
Second Reading: Jonah
My hope is that my book, as well as offering the entertainment, which is the job of a novel, also illuminates the subject to adoption and builds our empathy for anyone who struggles to create or feel part of a family, including adoptive children, like Jonah.
The youngest ever reader to attend one of my book events: dear little Olivia Kim. I made the book out to her and can’t wait for her to read it one day.