Last night I was invited to participate in a one-hour live online author Q&A, hosted by the fabulously interactive Books & Everything on Facebook, as part of their Annual Book Diversity Week. Check out a compilation of the [slightly edited] highlights below!
Books & Everything guest: A memoir is what I imagine to be one of the more difficult types of books to write, purely because of the personal information you share. Was there ever a time you doubted your decision to write Umbilicus? Paula Gruben: Not in terms of the information I shared in the book. More of my competency as a writer. The Imposter Syndrome.
B&E: Was writing the book primarily a cathartic exercise? PG: A lot of people seem to feel that way about memoir. But no, not really. While it was cathartic, it was more about having a really good story to tell. One that I knew the world needed to hear.
B&E: I haven’t had the pleasure of reading your book yet, but from what I’ve heard it’s a really good read. Was it hard to share your story with the world? PG: It wasn’t hard for me. But it was hard for my adoptive parents. I think they felt I let too many skeletons out of the closet.
B&E: What is your relationship with them like now? PG: I am currently estranged from my mom. She hasn’t spoken to me in almost two-and-a-half years, since the day I sent her my manuscript in March 2015. But I still have contact with my dad. My mom has a lot of personal issues to work through. I need to give her the time and space necessary to do so.
B&E: I have a half sister I’ve never met. I can’t begin to imagine what it must’ve been like making contact with your biological family, and being able to share your story with others. Have you inspired anyone else to start their own search? PG: Yes! I’ve inspired quite a few people to search and reunite. Go have a look through my Testimonials page when you get a chance.
B&E: Why is it so important for an adopted child to know their biological family’s medical history? PG: Like my birth mom says in my book: “It should be a basic civil and human right to have access to this kind of information. Knowledge of one’s genetic identity, and one’s predisposition to hereditary diseases is one of the most essential tools used by doctors to determine a patient’s risk profile.” Think about it – the first thing a doctor asks is if you have any family history of heart disease, cancer, stroke, or diabetes. Until I met my biological parents, I had a massive and totally unnecessary question mark hanging over this issue.
B&E: How far have we come in really reaching out to adopted children? PG: Well, over the past year, since the release of my book, I have had such positive feedback from fellow adoptees (and adoptive parents and birth parents and social workers) who have read my story, so I know it resonates with a lot of them. I have also done several talks for many people in the adoption community. Slowly but surely adults involved in the adoption triad, or working in the field of adoption, are coming to appreciate and understand the complexity of what the adopted child might go through. Especially during the difficult teenage years. It’s a mammoth task, but we’re moving in the right direction.
B&E: Did you follow any particular structure in terms of putting the book together? I’ve started my memoir I don’t know how many times, and yet can’t seem to find the right starting point. PG: Ah, the inciting moment. It was only during a writing workshop that I managed to identify the best point to kick off my story. Until then, I was too focused on back story. I love doing workshops and getting feedback from pro’s. I’m actually doing another one in two weeks time. A birthday pressie to myself. I need help with the structure for my second book.
B&E: When the book was written and out there, what emotions ran through you? PG: Pride. My heart almost burst with pride. It truly was like birthing a baby.
B&E guest comment: While I haven’t written a book myself, I have worked with a number of writers and have seen the love and commitment that goes into producing a book and it really seems like giving birth, the ultimate labour of love. PG reply: Don’t joke, I separated my Acknowledgements page into ‘trimesters’, to reinforce the stages of birthing this book baby! The line edit was by far the worst part of the process. But it is absolutely crucial to do it properly, to put out a quality product, if you expect readers (and other writers, and publishers) to take you and your craft seriously. I highly recommend doing a soft launch online (releasing a Kindle edition on Amazon) a good month before greenlighting your first full print run – just to iron out the kinks. Because believe me, there will be a few.
B&E: Were you traditionally or independently published? PG: I self-published Umbilicus. But I’m going to try my luck at finding a UK-based literary agent to go the traditional publishing route for its sequel. Incomer is set in Soho, London, during the peak of the Britpop / Trainspotting era, so I think (hope!) they’ll find it really interesting. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll self-publish again.
B&E: Did you not enjoy self-publishing? PG: I loved it. But it is sooooo time-consuming. Especially the marketing aspect. I would like to focus more on actual writing, and public speaking. But mostly I’d like to be able to leverage the established networks of a traditional publisher, namely their publicity and distribution channels. Having a traditional publisher behind one’s name is also great for one’s credibility as an author, and growing one’s readership.
B&E: You seem determined to get your story into schools. Why is that? Writers usually just want to get their words down on paper and move onto the next story. Why the interest in education? PG: That’s my target market. Teenagers at high schools. There isn’t a single teen in South Africa who can’t learn something from my story.
B&E: Is that because of the ‘where do I fit in’ thing teens go through? PG: While the main theme of Umbilicus is the search for identity (for an adopted child, knowing virtually nothing about your biological roots can make this a very challenging time – much more so than what a ‘regular’ teen would experience), the book also covers a lot of other stuff like: crisis pregnancy, abortion, adoption, suicide, and self-esteem issues. Things that are very pertinent to today’s teens. Hence my mission to get it into high schools. I’m still working at getting the Department of Basic Education’s buy-in to include Umbilicus on their list of recommended reading (for the new Comprehensive Sexuality Education syllabus of the Life Orientation curriculum), but in the meantime I am going to try get it into as many school libraries as possible. I got the name of a school distributor just the other day. So when I find a gap, I need to start working on that proposal.
B&E guest comment: You have one of the best websites I have seen – it covers EVERYTHING and is a treat for authors and readers alike. PG reply: Thank you! It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to build, but it was totally worth it. It’s very useful to be able to copy and paste links to specific pages on my website, like we’ve done here tonight. As a weapon in my marketing arsenal, it’s proven to be one of the most powerful.
ON THE FUTURE
B&E: Writing something like this is really epic, but where do you go from here? PG: Two more novoirs to complete the trilogy (I have led quite an unusual life, so there’s lots to write about). Then onto a psychological thriller series.
B&E: Do you feel pressure when it comes to producing after your first book? PG: Yes! Umbilicus is YA realistic fiction, and Incomer is NA realistic fiction, so slightly different target markets, but daunting nonetheless.
B&E: Between your multivitamins and your mug of coffee, what books do you have on your bedside table? PG: My son’s Grade 1 reader, and Kumon homework.
B&E: You’ve written a successful novella, you have a partner, a child, you are a public speaker – how do you fit it all in? PG: Please tell my husband that! He thinks what I do is easy. He keeps bugging me to find a “real” job.
B&E: Are you at peace, Paula? PG: I will be when my adoptive mom and I start speaking again. I have faith that this thing will work itself out, when the time is right.