Lea Wait, here, thinking about personal passions and interests and how they can become themes, in life and in writing.
As a child I was fascinated by books (often set in the nineteenth century) about orphans who found caring homes. As an adult in my mid-twenties I volunteered with abused children in New York City. When I was thirty I adopted my first daughter.
When I was in my mid-forties, the single adoptive parent of four daughters, caring for my mother and working for a large corporation, a major publisher contacted me and asked me to write an autobiography about being single and adopting older children.
I’d been writing for adoption publications. I’d spoken at adoption conferences as an adoption advocate. I’d counseled prospective parents (both single and married) about adopting older children.
But when that publisher called, I did some hard thinking. My four daughters were teenagers then, all coping with major (different) issues. As a family we were going through difficult days. As a parent, I was struggling, too. I was clinically depressed and trying to find the strength to guide my children through their struggles while I was also challenged by a changing workplace and my mother’s illnesses.
But I believed we’d all survive. My girls would become strong and capable and productive adults, and I would go on to the next phase of my life.
Much as I was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to write a book, I didn’t want a memoir of those difficult days to be published, and perhaps to haunt the healthy futures of my daughters.
I not only turned down the publisher, I stopped writing and talking about adoption, and started writing fiction.
Fiction was different. It wasn’t my life.
I could write about anything. Anything but adoption.
I’d always loved historical fiction. I was fascinated by the past, and how ordinary people had lived then. I believed everyone had secrets, large and small, and that, more often than they knew, those secrets changed their lives.
In time, my children found their own ways, as I had hoped — had believed — they would.
I wrote mysteries for adults and historical fiction for young people.
About five years after my first book was published, a manuscript I’d been working on for more than a year was rejected, sight unseen, by my publisher. They’d decided they didn’t want a book on that topic. My editor asked me to come up with another book to meet my deadline. I was crushed by the loss of a book I’d loved, and, although I tried, couldn’t come up with another subject I wanted to write about.
Finally, after several months, I had lunch with my editor and told her how frustrated I was. None of my ideas were coming together. I was lost, and afraid. Nothing was working.
My editor was calm and understanding. “Well,” she said, “all your books are about a quest for home. Sometimes that means family, sometimes it means place, or purpose. But all of your characters are searching for a place they can be loved and accepted for themselves.”
I was stunned. I hadn’t realized that. And yet, thinking of what I’d written, my editor was right.
The book I wrote after that lunch was Finest Kind, set in 1838, about a family that has a secret that changes the way they interact with their community. My major character, thirteen-year-old Jake, also discovers that other families have secrets, too.
Since then I’ve written books for both adults and children. My nineteenth book was just published (a mystery, Tightening the Threads,) about a character whose whole life and family have been a secret, until now.
I don’t always think about quests for family and secrets when I’m starting to write a book. But my characters and plot always seem to lead me in those directions. And now I’m more conscious of that happening, and I’ve accepted that it’s all right. Searching for family and home and helping others to do the same has been a theme of my life. It’s not strange that it’s now a theme in my writing.
In my books, that search seldom involves adoption directly, although in my Shadows Antique Print series my protagonist, Maggie Summer, did adopt an older child. (In Shadows on a Morning in Maine.)
I’m writing the beginning of a new series, now. The two protagonists are sisters who have just met for the first time. They have very different background and goals. And yet, they are both my characters. They find part of themselves in each other. They become family.
I hadn’t thought of that when I imagined the series. But I’m not surprised by it.
I suspect that most authors have similar experiences, consciously or unconsciously. That the same themes run through their work. Readers, too, seek out books that reflect the themes of their aspirations, or their lives.
Is that true for you?
First, I love your new author photo! I do see the “quest for home” theme in your books, and it appeals to me very much. I also appreciate the way you use historical artifacts– embroidery samplers, for example– to draw attention to the heart of a chapter and to extend each development into the larger community and back through history. For my own books, characters are continually learning about themselves and coming into harmony with their community. And solving crime. Terrific post, Lea! –kate
Thank you, Cate! And the “and solving crimes,” is, of course, part of the genre, and the part we sometimes take for granted. “Learning about themselves and coming into harmony with their community” is great!
I’ve been writing for over twenty-five years. My characters marionettes journeying through a port key to find a father or grandfather. The main Character has an unending curiosity in this quest. I’ve never able to satisfy the curiosity until last summer. In real life my much older died. On my last visit to her my questions in regard to family became crystal clear. Now I’m writing a murder mystery involving family. I wonder what epithanies might encounter. Happy trails to you.
“They” say “write what you know.” Sometimes we don’t always recognize what we know. Sounds as though you’re finding that out. Best of luck!
“Sometimes we don’t always recognize what we know.”
I love this comment and find it to be true.
As an adoptive parent I can empathize with your struggle when your children were growing up. I remember going through that and wondering if adoption was such a great idea after all (I had done home studies for adoptive families back in the Ice Age). Thankfully we do live through it and the children find their own ways, successful or not. As to the longing for home and some of the anguish of adoption, did you see Lion? That really hit close to home. I have seen the movie twice and just finished the book. Both excellent. Yesterday I watched a Utube interview with Saroo and his mother and was pleased to hear her say that they wanted to be upfront about the struggles…that perhaps it would help others. Sorry I’m rambling but I really appreciated your interesting post.
Nancy, I haven’t seen Lion yet — and very much want to. (Netflix, soon, I hope!) Like the character in the book, my daughter born in India lost her family in a railroad station when she got on a train, thinking they were also on that train. She still feels that if she went back to India (which she has not attempted to do) she could find her family. She was lost when she was 4 or 5 … came home when she was 10 … and is now 40. Adoptive families have issues that biological families do not … but, then, all families have issues! Thanks for your comment. Lea
Lea, wonderful analysis of the themes of your many different kinds of books. And they do all fit in with each other in certain ways. This is a good lesson for all of us writers who struggle to find the core of different stories. Thanks for being you. Sherie
And thank YOU for being so supportive, Sherie! (As always!)
Lea…try the big screen if you can find the film (Lion). This really brings it home. And take Kleenex. With your daughter’s experience, so much like Saroo’s, I would expect this to be a HUGE and perhaps overwhelming experience for her. One comment that Saroo’s adoptive mother made was that although she was familiar with his story, seeing it on the screen made it much more real. There are also interesting things in the book that are not in the movie. He is a very intelligent person with a photographic memory and he went over and over his memories (of India) as he was growing up so that he would not forget the place where he lived. I think this was pivotal to his success. Sending lots of hugs for your daughter. What a strong person she must be to have survived her ordeals.
Thank you, Nancy! I’ll admit … I’m looking forward, but hesitantly. I’ve been to Calcutta (to bring my daughter home) and visited the places she’d worked (yes, worked), donated a lot of things from single parents in NJ and NY, and so had a little bit of the experience. Only 10 days worth, but it is still all with me. The film Born In Brothels really moved me — it wasn’t my daughter’s story, but the locations were those she’d lived in. Adoption is a lifetime experience for the entire family. (And I have three other adopted daughters, with 3 other sets of experiences in 3 different countries.)
I don’t know if you’ve experienced this but I find it interesting that in different places where we’ve lived (Timmins, Toronto, and Montreal in particular) we seem to have made friends with others who had also adopted. And we didn’t know it until later in the friendship! That’s the funny thing I think. It wasn’t because of adoption that we met and yet it turned out that we had adoption in common. We live in Montreal now.
I suspect that 1) more people are involved with adoption in some way (part of the triad) than we often think and 2) those of us who are share some undefinable characteristics. And it’s those similarities that tend to pull us together, intentionally or unintentionally. Enjoy Montreal! And I suspect there are adoptive families there ….!