Is this book based on your story? Paula Gruben: Yes, Umbilicus is an autobiographical novel. All people and events described in this book are real. As a work of fiction, however, I have changed the names of all the characters, except those of public personalities such as radio and club DJs. I have also taken creative liberty in the reconstruction of dialogue, employed a minor compression of time for literary effect, and made small clerical changes to letters and journal excerpts.
Were you adopted from birth? PG: Yes. It was a closed (private) adoption, as was the norm in those days (1974). My adoptive parents were given no identifying details about my birth parents, and vice-versa. I was only allowed to access my file containing my birth parents’ names at the adoption agency when I reached age of majority (18 with my adoptive parents’ written permission, 21 without their permission). My birth parents were never allowed to initiate contact.
When did you find out you were adopted? PG: My adoptive parents introduced me to the concept from a very young age, so it was something I always knew.
Did you tell people you were adopted? PG: I played my cards close to my chest until I was in my mid-to-late teens, when I had grown a thick enough skin to deal with the kind of adoption ‘jokes’ and ignorant comments below…
Did you always want to find your ‘real’ mother? PG: When we were 14, my best friend’s mom committed suicide, and from that moment on it became a secret obsession to meet my own biological mother, before she, or I, died.
When did you meet your ‘real’ mother for the first time? PG: I met my birth mother when I turned 21. And my birth father when I was 23.
Who do you look like? PG: Most people say I am the spitting image of my birth mother, but I also see a resemblance to my birth father. Talent and temperament wise, I am a blend of both.
Do you have any siblings you grew up not knowing about? PG: Yes. I have two half-brothers (one paternal, one maternal), and a paternal half-sister. I only found out about and met them when I was an adult.
Have your adoptive parents met your biological parents? PG: Yes. They met my birth mother in 2010, and my birth father in 2011, when I was in my mid-30s, and at my request.
Has your adoptive brother met his biological parents? PG: Yes, he met his birth mother in early 2016, in his late 30s. He sadly discovered that his birth father was already deceased.
Do you call your biological parents ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’? PG: No. My adoptive parents, the mother and father who raised me, will always be my mom and dad. I call my birth parents (and my parents-in-law) by their first names.
How does your adoptive family and biological family feel about all the attention surrounding your book? PG: My birth parents and half-siblings have all been extremely supportive of my efforts, and are very proud of my achievements. I have been estranged from my adoptive mother since March 2015, and only have sporadic contact with my adoptive father and brother.
Why did you write this book? PG: Anyone can tell a story, but not everyone can write a book. It is an honour to have been blessed with a talent for storytelling through writing, and I believe it is my duty, my calling, to be a voice for the voiceless. To paint an accurate portrait of the challenges faced by many adopted kids the world over, particularly during the teen years, as we all strive to acquire a sense of self and forge our own identity. To fast-forward a few years beyond the adoption agency’s picture-postcard image of a happy mom cuddling a chubby baby, and relay with authenticity and objectivity the raw dynamics between parents and teenagers in a not atypical adoption triad. Although my story deals with what is officially termed a Closed, National, Same-race Adoption, and I do not claim to speak on behalf of all individuals adopted under this system, I do know that many of our unique challenges growing up as adoptees are universal, as evidenced by American author Sherrie Eldridge’s bestselling book Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew. Without being preachy or patronising, I strive to provoke self-questioning and emotional healing in my reader; to elucidate, empower, and inspire. Having personally run the gauntlet over the past four decades, I hope to pass on what I have learnt to adoptees, parents, and professionals working in the field, so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. As Frederick Douglass so wisely wrote: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Who is your target audience for this book? PG: Umbilicus will appeal to readers of ALL ages who enjoy Young Adult (YA) realistic fiction, particularly those involved or interested in the adoption experience. Wikipedia gives a pretty good description of what YA literature encompasses, beyond just the chronological age of the reader.
Click here for my video response to the above question.
How long did it take you to write this book? PG: The idea of writing a memoir about my adoption journey began percolating in the back of my mind the day I met my birth mother, back in 1995. But it was only after I became a mom myself 15 years later, and experienced first-hand the sheer gravity of this role, that it became a priority to ‘birth my book baby.’ The actual research, writing, and assembling of all the puzzle pieces into an identifiable narrative arc, probably took around two years. Although the end result is a work of fiction, Umbilicus started life as narrative non-fiction, and I wanted to get all my facts straight. The sociopolitical setting of the story, and details of the locations and historic events narrated by the protagonist in this book are all factually sound.
Why did you change this book from narrative non-fiction to fiction? PG: Several key characters in the story wanted their names changed (for professional and personal reasons). And then, after analysing all the feedback and constructive criticism I received from industry professionals, about market trends and optimal shelf positioning for a book like mine, I made the executive decision to change the names of all the characters (except public personalities such as radio and club DJs), and repackage Umbilicus as a YA novel instead of a memoir.
What is the main theme of your book? PG: Umbilicus is first and foremost about the search for identity. There is also a strong underlying theme of redemption.
What made the second person point-of-view (POV) your narrative mode of choice for this book? PG: Umbilicus was actually written in the first person. Then, just before I submitted the completed manuscript to my first-choice imprint (more info on that below), I came across a letter written by Thuli Madonsela to her teenage self. It was from a book called From Me To Me, which is a collection of letters written by some of South Africa’s best loved personalities to their younger selves, and I was inspired to write my own, to include as a Prologue. Ultimately, I ditched the idea of a Prologue, but by now I had fallen in love with this compelling new ‘voice’ which had emerged on the page, and I ended up altering the entire manuscript accordingly.
What makes your book unique? PG: Besides the somewhat unusual second person POV I eventually decided to use, Umbilicus is also distinct from other books I have come across in the global canon of adoption literature in that it incorporates all three voices in the triad – birth parents, adoptive parents, and the adoptee – in a single story, as well as professional insights from the social worker involved in our case. Many of these unique perspectives are faithfully presented in epistolary format, which I believe connects the reader with each of the characters on a deeper level of intimacy, hopefully resulting in clarity and empathy. I am confident it is one of the most balanced books you will find anywhere on the subject of closed (private) adoption and its not uncommon effects on all members of the triad. Umbilicus also includes quite a few South Africanisms, which lends it a uniquely local flavour. I seesawed between whether or not to include a glossary for non-South African readers, and ultimately decided against it. That’s what Google is for.
Why did you self-publish? PG: I first tried going the old-fashioned route, of finding a trade publisher to sign me. And [unfortunately?] it didn’t work out. I don’t regret the experience one bit, as I learned an awful lot about the industry, and grew a much thicker skin during the process. The first local imprint I approached with my completed manuscript in March 2015 was very keen on publishing my story, but said I needed to make 1,000 pre-sales before their publisher – they who held the purse strings – would take a chance on me – a debut author, a virtual unknown. Inspired by Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter prowess, I threw myself into my first Indiegogo campaign (Kickstarter was not available to South Africans back then), and lo and behold, it was a complete and utter disaster. Even though I single-handedly organised and conducted an on-air interview with Jenny Crwys-Williams and Redi Tlhabi on The Book Show (4th June 2015) about Umbilicus and my Indiegogo campaign, it wasn’t enough. After reaching just 11% of my target by deadline (I was aiming for 1,000 funders, at a $5 donation each), I had to concede defeat. The fact that I had also managed to secure a blurb from fellow author and adoptee Jani Allan who had, by then, also read my full manuscript, wouldn’t sway the publisher. I simply wasn’t able to prove that my book would make the requisite number of sales to be profitable for them. Undeterred, I spent the remainder of 2015 submitting to every narrative non-fiction trade publisher and imprint I could find locally, plus a few literary agents overseas. After about six months of querying and not getting any joy (there were exciting flashes of interest, but no firm offers), I was growing increasingly impatient and finally decided to call it a day. I figured I could spend the next year, two years, five years even, embroiled in the submission process, with absolutely no guarantee of ever securing a contract. Or, I could take the bull by the horns, stop the soul-destroying cycle with immediate effect, and self-publish instead. It was a no-brainer. I ended up using the money I managed to raise from my Indiegogo campaign to cover almost all the costs of my first print run (200 units). If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of publishing, especially self-publishing for authors in South Africa, I’ve compiled this page just for you.
Who designed the book cover? PG: It was conceptualised by me (using some broken knick-knacks from my craft cupboard, and table décor I nicked from someone’s wedding), then photographed by my husband, and designed by him (in CorelDRAW), with lots of creative direction from me. The tragic little figure represents the main character – the teenage me; a lost and broken soul – her heart torn between loyalty towards her forever family, and longing for her blood family, whom she doesn’t yet know. The silver cords connecting the two floating hearts to the central figure signify predestined spiritual links, and the subliminal triangle between the three hearts symbolises the adoption triad. For those of you who want to get your hands on your own little string doll, check out the Watchover Voodoo website. Unfortunately the ‘Hanging Man’ (who helped me ‘to destroy bad luck and start all over again’) is no longer available, but you are sure to find a doll that resonates with you and/or the stage you are at in your life journey.
How did you come up with the title Umbilicus? PG: For me, my belly button was the last point of contact with my birth mother. Growing up I always felt a spiritual connection to her, and the word Umbilicus just fitted the ‘tie that binds’ thread of my work so perfectly. It came to me in one of those lightbulb moments, well into the writing of my manuscript. I quickly jumped onto Goodreads and Amazon to see if there were any other adoption-related books titled Umbilicus, and when I found nothing online, I knew it was THE ONE.
Have you taken any writing courses, and did you find them helpful? PG: In terms of creative writing courses, these are the ones I’ve done over the past several years, to help me work through bottlenecks and hone my craft:
- 2-day Writing Workshop with Melinda Ferguson of MFBooksJoburg at Jacana Media (2017)
- 1-day workshop at the SAIR festival (2015)
- 4-day Secrets of a Memoirist course with Writers Write (2014)
- Dial M for a Murderclass at The Bloody Book Week (2012)
- 1-week Writers Write course with The Write Company (2009)
I can categorically state that I would never be where I am today if it wasn’t for the tips and tricks I learned, and all the feedback and constructive criticism I received during these courses. Plus they are tons of fun, and I always walk away feeling richer for the experience. They are as much an investment in myself as an investment in my work. Highly recommended for all aspiring and established novelists and memoirists. On a side note, receiving a voucher for a writing course is probably every writer’s dream gift.
Can you recommend any writing software or resources? PG: I typed most of the raw material into an MS Word document on my desktop PC, or the Notes section on my phone. Then when it came to sorting and structuring the work into scenes and chapters, and eventually a complete, coherent manuscript, I copied and pasted everything into the free and very user-friendly yWriter programme. [I had a chance to compare yWriter to a free demo version of Scrivener during NaNoWriMo 2015, and let’s just say the latter wasn’t for me; I will definitely be sticking with yWriter for all my future book projects.] Editsaurus and The Punctuation Guide were both invaluable tools during the line edit of my manuscript. And for everyday, ongoing writing inspiration and advice, I highly recommend KM Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors website, and Amanda Patterson’s Writers Write website. Both are absolute gold mines for anyone who is passionate about and dedicated to honing their craft.
What fonts did you choose for the paperback edition? PG: Action of the Time New (title), Heavenetica4 (sub-title), Fluoxetine (author name and chapter titles), Adobe Garamond Pro (main text), Typist (for handwritten and typed letters in the text).
What’s next? PG: I am currently working on Incomer, the sequel to Umbilicus.