Interview with Caitlin Hamilton Summie
CHS: What inspired this novel?
JEL: My mother was adopted, and the knowledge of an additional, unknown branch of my family has always been with me. Although I was curious to know who these people were, my mother had no interest in doing a search for her family of origin. Over the years, my mother mentioned that there was a sealed letter in her safety deposit box that we were instructed to destroy when she died. A strange request. Why didn’t she destroy it herself? I’d always assumed that it revealed her birth parents, and although I was dying to read the letter, I didn’t push my father when he decided to have it shredded following her death. As luck would have it, the adoption papers were separate from the letter, so I was able to learn the names of her birth parents and do an ancestry.com search. Through that search, I learned more about her extended family and received a grainy photograph of my birth grandmother. I’m vitally interested in the detours that adoption creates in a life, and how a person develops because of or despite these detours. What makes us who we are? What is the mix of nature, nurture, and free will?
The novel arose from the idea of this letter and the secrets that family members keep from each other. Not knowing the contents of the letter freed me to make up my own version of what might have happened. Originally, the novel contained three birth-mother stories: one from Pearl’s birth-mother, one from Andrea’s mother’s point of view in 1944-45, and one that dealt with Andrea’s grandmother in 1926. The only birth that now appears in the novel is the one from the 40’s, and I chose to keep it a secret from Andrea throughout the novel.
CHS: What kinds of research did you have to do in preparation for this novel?
JEL: I read Wake Up Little Susie and The Girls Who Went Away about maternity homes in the 50’s and 60’s. I also did research on extramarital pregnancies over time in the US, about the rise of adoption around World War II and the tendency to grant young women a fresh start, to put their mistakes behind them and move on.
My mother was born in Johnson City, New York, and her birth father had been an employee of the now closed Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company, located there and in the neighboring cities of Binghamton and Endicott. I consulted Gerald Zahavi’s Workers, Managers, and Welfare Capitalism about the paternalistic practices of the E-J president George Johnson. He gave his employees inexpensive housing, schools, shoes, even free carousels, all in exchange for the agreement not to unionize. My husband and I traveled to the area and drove around, looking at the empty factory buildings, the carousels, the company houses, and I did research at the historical society on the factory and the employees.
My husband and I have a friend who worked for Heartland Alliance settling refugees. Through her, we volunteered to help a recently arrived family from Burundi acclimate to life in Chicago. In addition, I read Tracy Kidder’s book on Burundi, Strength in What Remains, as well as doing research on the Idi Amin era in Uganda and the Rwandan genocide.
CHS: Thicker Than Blood is timely. Nationwide we are having renewed discussions about race relations in America. You began writing this novel before recent events, but how do you think your novel fits into the current discussions, or does it? Do you believe fiction has a role in cultural discourse?
JEL: Fiction has an essential role in cultural discourse. By creating plausible situations involving imagined, but believable, characters, human dynamics can be examined and debated. Ideally, people can empathize with the lives of others. I approached the issue of race with some caution, for fear of being labeled presumptuous, but I decided I could connect to race through adoption. Race, of course, has been a central aspect of our country’s history for its entire existence. It’s risen to the forefront recently given the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, the Charleston church shooting, and with Ta-Nahisi Coates’ book. There was a brief, idealistic period with Obama’s election when some thought we were post-racial, but that was short-lived. Because the novel was to take place in Chicago, and because of the statistical scarcity of white infants and the preponderance of African-American infants available for adoption, I decided it would be an accurate scenario. I wanted to have my character encounter a challenge that she hoped she was prepared for, given her work experience, but which was larger than she imagined. I was primarily interested in the human drama of a woman trying to be the best mother she could to her daughter. In that way, she’s like all mothers. Like all parents.
CHS: What was the hardest part of writing this novel?
JEL: Finding the shape. I struggled a long time to find the overall arc before deciding it would take place over nineteen years. I realized I needed Pearl to grow up so she could weigh in and I had to do a lot of time shifting to make that work.
Once I developed Andrea and Pearl and figured out their relationship, the difficulty lay in staying in the emotional turmoil and living with the estrangement. As a mother, I found it painful to be in the midst of such anger and hurt. As a daughter, I could relate to the longing for closeness and understanding. I had to let both Andrea and Pearl make mistakes, over years, and not to resolve things neatly in the end.
CHS: Parts of this novel were first published as stories. How do you weave a novel from stories, which are self-contained worlds?
JEL: I am very comfortable in the world of the short story. I had written them exclusively for over twenty years. I love the tight arc, the crystallized language, the challenge of saying a lot in few words. I admire Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Mary and O’Neil by Justin Cronin, The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor, and Fools by Joan Silber, among others. These books link in various ways: a single main character, a shared locale, or a shared time line. I loved how they succeeded in creating short arcs within the long one. I originally conceived of this project as a novel in stories. However, the challenge in making this particular material work as a novel in stories arose because I felt obliged to re-establish the issue of race with each chapter. I also felt I needed to exclude some secondary characters for lack of room. I finally came to realize that the repetitions were cumbersome and that the other characters kept intruding on Andrea’s and Pearl’s thoughts. Of course, Andrea would think of her best friend and her boyfriend. Breaking down the barriers and letting the material flow in was very liberating.
CHS: Thicker Than Blood is about race in America today, but it is also about family structure, family secrets, self-identity, adoption, and single motherhood—even motherhood in general. How did you decide, or why did you decide, to create the sub-plot of secrets? And why did you want Andrea to be a single mother?
JEL: The secrets came first and they had to do with the hidden identity that accompanies an adoptee through life. Originally, I had Andrea married to a man with whom she had significant conflict over parenting issues. Over time, he became a boyfriend, not a husband, and he stepped to the background. I think I made her a single mother because I wanted to raise the stakes for her by making her have to shoulder the responsibility alone. And I wanted the central relationship to be between Andrea and Pearl and for everyone else to be secondary.
CHS: Your novel addresses people’s assumptions, about who they are and what they need. For instance, Andrea has little support from family or community after adopting Pearl. Are no resources available for parents post-adoption or did Andrea assume, given her experience as a social worker, that she would not need them?
JEL: I think that Andrea feels she has the tools she needs. She’s a bit of a loner. She’s not close to her mother or sister, but she has a best friend, Freya, whom she leans on for emotional support and advice about parenting. Before Pearl, she’s avoided permanent commitments. She is a person who’s very cautious about whom she lets into her life. I suppose I could have included more institutional support for her, but I wanted her to feel, rightly or wrongly, that she’s on her own.
CHS: What do you want your readers to walk away with, after reading the novel?
JEL: I want this novel to highlight the challenges any parent, mother or father, biological or adopted, faces in raising a child. I want readers to see that this is a unique relationship, but that there are universal aspects of the mother-daughter bond. And I hope it’s not just mother-daughter. Or just about adoption.
CHS: What’s next?
JEL: I’m working on a novel from two points of view involving women who come from the same rural college town but who have very different experiences. One grows up on a farm and marries her high school sweetheart, who’s in the military. The other one is a faculty child who rebels and leaves home after a series of bad decisions. Their lives intersect through a shared history that I won’t reveal here. I know a lot about small-town college life. I need to do research on homeschooling, the anti-vaxxer movement, and the lives of Iraq War widows. What’s amazing to me is that I thought I’d used up in the first book all the possible material inspired, admittedly broadly, from my life and family, but I find I have a whole new cache of memories to draw on to inspire new characters and situations. I also love creating a character whose life has been very different from mine. It’s the juxtaposition of familiar and unfamiliar that creates a dynamic energy that propels the story for me.