Q: Where do you get your material?
A: In writing fiction, I am fascinated by the thought of what it is like to live inside another body, to have a completely different set of reference points, from cultural allegories to music, food and dress. I am intrigued by the way the physical landscape shapes the people who are either confined--or freed--by it. (This is true especially for my two yet-unpublished novels, one set in Russia and one in China.) Therefore, while I have traveled extensively, I don't always belong to the places in which my novels are set, nor am I always of the people that materialize in my fiction. For me, the most exciting part about writing is discovering all that imagination within me and using it, then researching places, customs, food, plant life, weather, political system, linguistic syntax, architecture and geography. However, as did in Puppet Child, I incorporate into my writing emotions with which I am familiar--the power of motherhood, the commitment to friendship, the pain of personal growth. Writing is an outlet for my outrage over injustice, prejudice, and ignorance.
Q: It's hard not to wonder how much of PUPPET CHILD story is autobiographical.
A: None of it. Years ago I was in Family Court in what should have been a simple divorce case. Almost two years later, with my parents' savings depleted and my children's lives almost destroyed had I not put up a fight, I was left wondering how women and children with real problems--and none of my resources and stamina--could ever survive the justice system. I started paying attention, feeling enormous compassion for children whose mothers lost the battle. On a more global note I must say that the forces that shape our lives--political upheavals, big governments, or the legal system--intrigue me with the infinite possibilities with which the human spirit can be either broken or rise above them. I bring to Puppet Child the profound compassion I feel for children and parents betrayed by those who are supposed to protect them.
Q: How did you conduct your research?
A: I sat in family court and spoke to the judges, who allowed me to sit at closed hearing proceedings. One judge even gave me his files to take home to study. I also I posted an 800 number where victims--mostly women--called me to tell me their heart-breaking stories. As the plot and subplots of PUPPET CHILD unfolded, I spoke with lawyers, judges, law enforcement personnel and family law activists I either knew personally or met on the Internet. People love to help novelists.
Q: How did the plot come into being? How did you structure the novel?
A: Actually, the characters wrote the story for me. They simply took over. I had first started exploring the character of the judge. He was the most complex and intriguing for me. Then came Phil, the young law clerk with his own personal history and agenda, who challenged him. Rachel, the protagonist, squatted in my head from the start, and in the rewrites, as she encountered new dramatic events, she pushed her way into the forefront.... In the first draft, I never knew which of the characters would tell the next chapter. However, the three of them could only interact in a certain way as they plotted their way around one another. The danger in allowing characters to take over is that they often lead the writer astray. And sure enough, at the end, I had to cut many of their side stories in order to focus on the storyline.
Q: What were the moments of defeat and triumph in the process of writing this novel?
A: There were many sad moments as I listened to stories of women who, along with their children, were the victims of the justice system. These were people's lives, years hijacked from children and mothers, never to be recaptured. I had some interesting moments of enlightenment when judges cooperated with me and gave me free access to their files, which included their personal notes. I was amazed at how these gregarious, well-meaning men were simply clueless as they victimized the victims. Sometimes it was hard to sit still in court when they handed down insensitive or harsh rulings.
Later, I experienced moments of doubt when major publishers opined that Puppet Child, was a "very well-written page-turner, but readers don't buy books with child abuse in it." To me, Puppet Child is not about child abuse, but rather about a mother's struggle against the legal system--and about all the other forces that play in such situations-political corruption, corporate indifference, family dynamics, media feeding-frenzy. Nevertheless, I discovered that what was OK for memoirs and other non-fiction books, was a "no-no" for fiction. "A novel is meant to entertain," mainstream publishers claimed, "not to be a soap-box."
Q: You have proven that you can tell a story that is entertaining while it carries an important social message. How did it finally come about?
A: I had learned a great deal from having established Business Women Marketing Corporation, at that time sidestepping the media giants, and, with a solid idea, my company actually become a competitor they had to reckon with. With my agent's blessings, I signed up with a small publisher that, while standing behind me, offers me the freedom to make decisions. For example, the novel was published both in hardcover and soft cover almost simultaneously because I insisted on making Puppet Child price accessible to the broader number of readers. I am also making myself available to reading clubs--in person or by phone--and am accepting speaking engagements that cut on my writing time, but which give me enormous satisfaction. I am unwavering in my belief that, like me, many readers enjoy "intelligent women's fiction" that teaches something while being engrossing, exciting, unforgettable. First and foremost, I am a mother, and while writing this work I allowed myself to be carried away with the emotions of indignation, courage and despair my protagonist, Rachel, was feeling when taking on the giant adversary in order to save her daughter. The reviews so far have proven that my trust in the readers has been well placed. Puppet Child has been picked by several reading groups who unanimously loved it. Every such positive feedback is a moment of triumph--not only for me, but also for the message that finds yet another home.
Q: Women's issues are the themes in your novels. Do you believe that the job of a writer is to educate?
A: Perhaps. For me, writing is another way of bringing women's issues to the forefront. It was my experience in Russia, where I went twice in 1993 to teach women business skills that jump-started my writing career. Matryoshka Doll was written as the cry and the triumph of the spirit of the women I met there. For many years I was active in women's civic and professional organizations. Over $1,000,000 of the proceeds of my company, Business Women Marketing Corporation, went to benefit professional women's organizations that, in turn, invested in educating women in their respective industries. Since financial independence is the prerequisite for all other forms of independence, I taught entrepreneurial skills to women as a volunteer at The Small Business Administration's affiliates programs. When I traveled to the International Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995, it was to participate in economic seminars. However, my attention was hijacked by the issue of violence against women worldwide. In Beijing, after watching a video about clitoridectomy, I helped African women to develop a campaign geared toward educating their governments and their people on the brutality of the procedure.
Puppet Child is a protest against our justice system, which betrays and destroys our most vulnerable citizens who come seeking help from this last resort. If the public learns about this shameful secret, then I have educated them. But my goal-the conscious one at least-had been to write a good suspense novel I would have loved to read.
Q: What does developing the writing craft involve? Can one learn it?
A: It seems that talent is distributed in a pyramid shape. At the very narrow top you'll find the outstanding writers who have shaped the world of literature. Below them, making up several layers, are those of us who toil at the keyboard with varying results, with the bottom layer being the widest, but also, naturally, the least accomplished. I am not referring to either the enjoyment of the craft, which can be enormous regardless of one's abilities, nor to marketability, which has to do with venues, relevance and tenacity as a promoter, not as a writer.
Since I began writing in 1994, I have read two dozen "how-to" books, attended many serious workshops and conferences such as the prestigious Iowa Writing Festival, Bread Loaf (VT), Sewanee (TN), The International Writing Guild at Skidmore (NY), the University of South Florida, and The New School in New York. While I worked with some wonderful authors such as Alice McDermott and Robert Boswell and had professional editors advise me about my novels, my writing buddies--both online and in my face-to-face writing group--have been my greatest tutors.
Oh, yes, a writer must also engage those little pesky things called "muse" and "discipline," which I don't find elusive, because what I want most of all is to write.
Q: Where do you see yourself heading next, as a woman and as a writer?
A: Besides seeing "China Doll" published in 2004? Since I have been surprising myself, I plan to continue to be surprised.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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