This page contains excerpts from interviews I have done regarding my adoption experience and writing process. You’ll find more info about both topics on the FAQ page.
Kelly Jade Stock: How difficult was it to contact your birth mother… both emotionally and in the literal sense? Paula Gruben: Growing up I always felt a spiritual connection to my birth mother. (Incidentally, this is how the title for my book came about – for me, my belly button was my last point of contact with her, and the word Umbilicus just fitted the ‘tie that binds’ thread of my story so perfectly.) So when, after 21 agonisingly long years, I was finally allowed to trace and make contact with her, it was an incredibly emotionally charged experience. Exhilarating and exhausting. A real roller-coaster ride. Logistically, it was a surprisingly easy process. After a bit of detective work with the help of my then-boyfriend’s mom (she went on to become my mother-in-law a decade later, and sadly passed away suddenly last year), we managed to first locate my birth father, who put me in touch with my birth mother. Less than 24 hours later I met her face-to-face. After so many years of being kept apart, all it took was a couple of phonecalls for us to be reunited!
KJS: How did your adoptive parents feel about you wanting to contact your biological parents? PG: My mom always said that she and my dad would support me, and that they would try and help me as best they could. But I could see it wasn’t something they were particularly enthusiastic about. I think they felt threatened by my birth parents. (The fear of rejection runs through every thread of the adoption tapestry. Deep down, everyone in the triad has a fear of it. For adoptive parents, it is the fear of being replaced by their child’s birth parents. For birth mothers, it is the fear of being rejected by their child – as punishment, for abandoning them, and not being able to provide for them like a parent should. And for adoptees, it is the fear of their birth mother not wanting to meet them, of being rejected by her a second time.) I only broke the news to my mom about my reunion with my birth mother several weeks after the fact.
KJS: How did you feel after you met your biological parents? What in your life changed? PG: They say you’re only as sick as your secrets. And after so many years of dealing with all the secrets, the stigma, and the shame that is part and parcel of a closed adoption, I was a very sick, broken young girl. After meeting my birth parents, I finally had closure. I felt a wonderful sense of inner calm and peace. All those questions I had carried around inside me for so long were answered, the aching hole in my soul was filled. I felt liberated, and I began to heal.
KJS: What advice would you give teens and adults who are currently going through what you went through? PG: Adoption is not a once-off transaction, an isolated event. It is a multi-faceted, multi-layered, lifelong journey. Although I do not claim to speak on behalf of all adoptees, I do know that many of our unique challenges as adoptees are universal. When it comes to search and reunion, I’d like to remind fellow adoptees embarking on this process that ‘making contact’ with birth mothers (and/or other members of your biological family) doesn’t necessarily have to involve a face-to-face meeting. Perhaps your birth mother will only be comfortable exchanging info and photos via email initially. Maybe after a while she’ll be open to chatting on the phone or via Skype. And eventually she may be prepared to meet in person. Don’t rush her. Allow things to unfold and evolve organically. There will be ups, there will be downs. But ultimately you, the adoptee, will have a far better sense of who you are, and your place in this world. We are all here for a reason.
KJS: How did it feel to be invited to speak at the Kingsmead Book Fair? PG: It is always a triumph when we self-published authors are taken as seriously as our traditionally published counterparts. So being invited to participate in one of the more significant events on South Africa’s literary calendar, and being able to rub shoulders with some of our country’s most celebrated authors, of both fiction and non-fiction, as well as a few heavy hitters from overseas, was definitely a highlight of my author career thus far. I felt both humbled and proud.
KJS: What did you speak about? PG: The theme of our four-author panel discussion, facilitated by acclaimed cultural commentator Victor Dlamini (who I could tell had actually read all of our books in preparation for this event by the engaging questions he posed to us), was ‘Cut Off at the Roots’. We spoke about some of the many challenges faced by adopted and emigrant children when trying to build a sense of identity, and probed the concept of truly knowing who we are if we don’t know where we came from. Unfortunately, it went by so quickly, and we really only scratched the surface. I hope the interest of the audience members was piqued enough to go out and buy our books and read our stories!
The Blessed Barrenness: Is there any one thing that your adoptive parents could have done to ease your struggle with identity? Paula Gruben: I wish that as a young child they had made a lifebook for / with me. I wish that when I started acting out as a teenager, in an obvious cry for help, they had found me a professional to speak to. Someone who specialised in dealing with adopted children, and the unique psychological and emotional challenges we face. Someone with a strong grasp of pre- and perinatal psychology, and how it relates to ensuing problems with attachment, bonding, and abandonment issues – as uniquely experienced by adoptees. Someone with proper training in treating the trauma associated with the primal wound, the ghost kingdom, genealogical bewilderment, mirror loss, and identity issues – again, as uniquely experienced by adoptees. I now advise all adoptive parents to seek out professionals who specialise in adoption, to help their children. Normal family psychologists and school counsellors and clergymen are not qualified to deal with these adoption-specific issues. Period.
BB: What do you want adoptive parents to know? PG: It is the fear of rejection that runs through every thread of the adoption tapestry. Deep down, everyone in the triad has a fear of it. But remember, your child is the only party in the triangle that entered involuntarily. You are the grown-ups. You need to put your fear of rejection aside and do what’s in the best interests of your child. Biological or adoptive, immediate or extended, family is family, and we are all inextricably bound, through blood ties or otherwise. Don’t deny your child information about or access to certain branches of their complicated, colourful family tree, no matter how crooked those branches may be. Each leaf on every branch is part of your child’s story.
BB: What do you want birth parents to know? PG: At some point, your child will want / need to know their biological history and your reasons for their relinquishment. If you are not able / willing to explain everything in person, at least write it all down in a letter, and include photographs of family members wherever possible. Even if the truth regarding the child’s conception and your pregnancy is ugly and painful, it is still better for the adoptee to know the facts, than being forced to live with the anguish of unanswered questions. Simple, unadulterated truth will go a long way towards your redemption in the eyes of your child, and the healing of their trauma caused by relinquishment.
BB: What do you think should be done differently in adoptions today? PG: I am a firm proponent of an open and adoptee-centric approach. Adoptive mom and author Lori Holden, who describes herself as being “passionate about de-freakifying open adoption and ending discrimination against adoptees” explains beautifully in her work the difference between contact and openness. They are NOT the same thing. And in her adoption grid, she breaks down the various options available: traditional closed adoption, obligatory contact, openness with discernment, and extension of family. This particular page on her website is a MUST READ for all social workers, birth parents, and adoptive parents before negotiating a post-adoption agreement.
BB: Any parting thoughts? Or points you’d like to add? PG: Although #AdoptionAwarenessMonth and #WorldAdoptionDay and #FlipTheScript campaigns may be triggering for some, I believe they open dialogue around pressing issues in our community. For example, in the US, where millions of North Americans are still prohibited by an archaic law from accessing personal records pertaining to their historical, genetic, and legal identities – due solely to the fact they were adopted as children, and depending on which side of a State line they were born – there is a groundswell of advocacy for change. Activists are lobbying for the basic civil and human right of all North American adoptees, regardless of which State they were born in, to have access on demand, at age of majority, without condition and without qualification, these government documents, including their unaltered original birth certificates.
Like the inimitable Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I think we can all do better, together.
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. [Update: Just prior to us emigrating to Ireland in September 2020, my folks drove up from KZN and visited us in Joburg for a couple of days. It was the first time in more than half a decade that my mom and I had seen one another and spoken. And when we parted ways, it was incredibly emotional. Although we have officially reconciled, we still haven’t spoken about her reasons for those five-and-a-half years of estrangement. But I’m OK with that. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that our time on earth is short and, right now, I’m just enjoying having her back in my life. We communicate regularly via WhatsApp and the occasional FaceTime video call.]
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: 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: 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. 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: You have one of the best websites I have seen – it covers EVERYTHING and is a treat for authors and readers alike. PG: 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.
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 Young Adult (YA) realistic fiction, and Incomer is New Adult (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. [Update: On 1st December 2017, I returned to work full-time, and put Incomer on the back burner. So he got his wish.]
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. [Update: Just prior to us emigrating to Ireland in September 2020, my folks drove up from KZN and visited us in Joburg for a couple of days. It was the first time in more than half a decade that my mom and I had seen one another and spoken. And when we parted ways, it was incredibly emotional. Although we have officially reconciled, we still haven’t spoken about her reasons for those five-and-a-half years of estrangement. But I’m OK with that. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that our time on earth is short and, right now, I’m just enjoying having her back in my life. We communicate regularly via WhatsApp and the occasional FaceTime video call.]
MYeBook: What were some of the doubts you faced before publishing, and how did you overcome them? Paula Gruben: I have never, in my 42 years on the planet, ever experienced so-called writer’s block. I have, however, from time to time suffered from the crippling effects of Imposter Syndrome – the fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. During the creation of Umbilicus, I questioned my ‘right’ to write. I wrestled with doubts over my ability to write. But like Maya Angelou once wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” After grappling with all the worst case scenarios and how my fragile ego would cope, I decided to put on my big girl knickers and just go for it. The risk of rejection and ridicule became overshadowed by the increasingly stronger labour pains of a fully gestated book baby ready to be born. Before I knew it, she was out in the world, the positive reviews were rolling in, and the inner critic was silenced once and for all.
As far as the occasional, inevitable shitty review goes, I liken them to the Braxton Hicks. However strong the pain may feel at the time, it doesn’t increase in intensity, and eventually it eases off completely. You should never take a bad review personally. Like John Lydgate once wrote, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
MeB: Were you part of any author communities that you can recommend? PG: I am a firm believer in the power of networking, online and in real life. As an indie author, you have to put yourself out there in order to find your tribe. Join and participate in online communities like THE Book Club (TBC) and The Secret Book Club (TSBC). Make the effort to attend in-store book launches and litfests in your city. Skoobs, Theatre of Books in Joburg hosts monthly indie author networking events, with guest speakers. Don’t be shy to ask authors and publishers and bookstore owners questions. You’ll be surprised how generous people are with sharing their intellectual capital if you hustle hard, and stay humble.
, later changed to South African Indie Revolution). I figured if I couldn’t secure a traditional publishing contract for Umbilicus, I needed to keep my options open. Just as well I did, as many of the connections I made at the SAIR book fest that day proved invaluable in the year that followed, once I decided to forego the idea of traditional publishing and forge ahead with self-publishing instead.
MeB: You have put a massive amount of effort into building a business for yourself based around the book. Can you briefly summarise the main steps needed for those who might want to follow in your footsteps? PG: I think it boils down to mindset. From the outset I saw myself as not ‘just’ another indie author, but rather an authorpreneur. I figured out a way of using my ‘book as business card’, to position myself as an expert in my field, and the steady stream of invitations to do inspiring and educational author talks has proved very fruitful. Not only has it created another income source for me in the form of speaker fees, but it’s also a valuable platform to engage with and sell my book directly to readers at each event. I use Umbilicus as a launch pad for all my talks, but I tailor the content and the message to suit the unique needs and intended outcome for each audience.
Voxate Writing & Editing: What kind of feedback have you had from your readers and editors? PG: Mercifully, Umbilicus has been extremely well-received. These are just some of the words that readers have used in reviews to date: affecting, authentic, beautiful, bittersweet, brave, candid, captivating, compassionate, consuming, emotive, engaging, enthralling, exhilarating, fascinating, fearless, gripping, heart-rending, honest, humbling, important, informative, insightful, inspiring, interesting, motivating, moving, open, original, poignant, powerful, raw, real, refreshing, relatable, remarkable, revealing, sad, soulful, thought-provoking, touching, truthful, unforgettable, unique, uplifting, well-crafted, and well-paced.
Voxate: What are the publishing houses looking for, based on your dealings with them? PG: Unless you are a Trevor Noah or Helen Zille or Chris Hani’s daughter, you stand a snowball’s chance in hell of a local non-fiction publisher picking up your memoir. You will have to fictionalise your story and try submitting to their fiction imprints instead. Even though I ended up self-publishing, I am grateful for the advice and insights I gleaned from traditional publishers, mainly about current market trends and optimal shelf positioning for a story like mine. Although I didn’t take every single bit of advice on board, I did end up changing Umbilicus from a memoir to an autobiographical novel, from non-fiction to fiction, and it’s worked out really well.
Voxate: We’d like to know the results of your decision to self-publish. Would you consider it successful? Why? What does success mean to you? PG: The average novel written in English by a South African will sell 600 – 1,000 copies in its lifetime. Taking into consideration I’m about halfway there already with Umbilicus, just seven months after its release, I guess I’m not doing too badly. But to achieve my goal of seeing this book included as recommended reading in high schools around the country, much work still needs to be done. Perhaps with the clout and connections of a traditional publisher behind me I’d have achieved this goal by now. But there’s no way of knowing.
For me, over and above not-too-shabby book sales and phenomenal reviews, surprising personal fulfilment has come in the form of a steady stream of invitations to do author talks. This has not only created another income source for me in the form of speaker fees, but also a valuable platform to engage with and sell my book directly to readers at each event. I use Umbilicus as a launch pad for all my talks, but I tailor the content and the message to suit the unique needs and intended outcome for each audience. The feedback from these talks has been incredibly gratifying.
Voxate: Please give us a quick list of pros and cons for the traditional publishing route. PG: Sure, there’s still an element of ‘prestige’ attached to being offered a traditional publishing contract. And it’s nice having someone handle much of the marketing and publicity on your behalf, leaving you more time to actually write. But realistically, your odds of landing a publishing deal in the first place are slim to none. And even if you do, there’s no guarantee of commercial success. As a writer, you have to decide what you want most – the ‘prestige’ of a traditional publishing contract, perhaps only years after you start the submission process, or the reward of seeing your work in the hands of readers, now. For me, it was the latter. And thanks to technology, plus lack of ego, I was able to embrace the idea of self-publishing as a truly credible alternative. During the process of birthing my first book baby, I acquired a whole new skill set, which I can use again and again in the birthing of all my future book babies.
Voxate: What advice do you have for aspiring authors? PG: If you decide to try your luck with the traditional publishing route, be prepared for rejection, and probably lots of it. To help soften the blows, follow @LitRejections on Twitter. Their daily tweets of ‘inspiring rejection stories’ (not an oxymoron, believe it or not!), motivational quotes, and genuine empathy will encourage you to persevere, and most importantly, remind you of why you started this publishing journey in the first place.
If you choose to go the self-publishing route, make sure to outsource the services of professionals, like Staging Post and MYeBook, for areas where you know you lack expertise. Very few authors are able to single-handedly see the entire process through from start to finish, from first draft to physical paperback. From the editing, proofreading, and typesetting of their manuscript, to ebook conversion, cover design, website design, distribution, marketing, and publicity, it’s a pretty Herculean task, by anyone’s standards.
Luckily I had the experience needed to do everything myself, but what I didn’t have was the capital needed to do my first print run. I used Indiegogo to raise enough funds to cover the costs of my first print run (200 units), and I used the profit from the sales of those books to bankroll my second print run (another 200 units). If I need to crowdfund again, I will give Thundafund a go. It’s apparently the leading crowdfunding platform for South Africa (it wasn’t around when I used Indiegogo a couple of years ago).
Voxate: How much time do you spend writing per day / week? PG: When my son is at school, I try and spend at least two to three hours every morning working on my books – either marketing the first, or writing the second. During school holidays, however, this routine goes out the window. Then I take whatever free time I can get – an hour here, half an hour there. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.
Voxate: How long (on average) does it take you to write a book and how many times do you edit it? PG: With Umbilicus, the 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, the book 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 are all factually sound. It went through at least a dozen edits, maybe more. Now that I’ve got templates to work from and systems in place, I’m hoping Incomer will take around 18 months. Being the perfectionist that I am, I reckon this manuscript will also go through around a dozen edits to get to the point where I am completely satisfied. But I know in the end it will all be totally worth it!
THE Book Club (TBC): What did you spend your first earnings as a published author on? Paula Gruben: Groceries. And a new dress.
TBC: Had you already written your second novel before you published your debut? If not, do you find writing the second a different experience, because you’ve already got a book and readers out there? PG: I am still so deeply entrenched in the marketing and promotion of Umbilicus that I simply don’t have the time to even think about resuming work on its sequel, Incomer, right now. To give you an idea of my schedule since my official brick-and-mortar bookstore launch for around 100 guests (2nd August), I have done a Teen Talk for 300 students at a local high school (23rd August), an author talk + signing for 50 guests at a monthly book club lunch at a local bistro (30th August), another author talk + signing for around 20 guests at a newly formed book club which meets once a month for lunch at a local tea garden (17th September), and have been invited to do the opening speech for an art exhibition in Pretoria (9th October), plus a 30-minute speech for 300+ delegates at an annual national adoption conference (2nd November). And this is not counting all the interviews and articles for publications, websites, and blogs I have done in between. I am also currently working on a proposal to the Department of Basic Education. I will resume work on my second novel when the time is right.
TBC: What do you hate doing to market your novel? PG: I come from a research and marketing background, so I’m actually really enjoying the marketing and promotion of my first novel. It’s a project I am extremely passionate about, and I do believe this comes through in all aspects of the little business I am building around the book. For example, over the past 24 hours I have been approached by an Adoption Specialist Social Worker to speak at one of her group sessions for prospective adoptive parents (January 2017), and by the organisor of an upcoming PTA brunch to do an inspirational speech for around 150 guests (February 2017). For all my speaking gigs, I request the opportunity to market / sell signed copies of my book to audience members afterwards. As an aspiring authorpreneur, like myself, you have to really put yourself out there if you: a) want people to know about your work, and b) you want to leverage your ‘book as business card’, to create alternative revenue streams (other than just Amazon and brick-and-mortar bookstore sales). I recommend all new authors create a simple website + blog (I did mine in WordPress), where you can provide all sorts of background info and updates, and which you can then link to in online conversation at the click of a button.
Northcliff Melville Times: Tell us about the title of the book and the unique cover design. Paula Gruben: 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. The figure on the cover represents the main character – the teenage me; a lost and broken soul – her heart torn between loyalty toward her adoptive family, and longing for her biological family, whom she doesn’t yet know. The subliminal triangle between the three hearts symbolises the adoption triad.
NMT: The book speaks to all involved in the adoption process. How were you able to develop such insight? Usually, this type of story would be very one-sided. PG: Much of the story is told in epistolary format, through real letters between my birth parents, adoptive parents, and the social worker involved in our case. It’s all glued together by a very intimate second-person point-of-view, from the perspective of the main character – the adoptee. It took about a dozen drafts and a lot of shuffling of chapters and scenes to create a well-structured narrative arc and coherent whole.
NMT: Who should read Umbilicus? PG: My story will appeal to readers of any age who enjoy young adult (YA) realistic fiction, particularly those involved or interested in the adoption experience. George Meredith once wrote: “Memoirs are the backstairs of history”. And although this isn’t strictly a memoir, but rather an autobiographical novel, it is an authentic slice of life, about real people and real events during the 70s, 80s, and 90s in South Africa.
NMT: This [self-publishing] route must have presented its challenges. But your tenacity has seen you through it. How did you stay focused to the end? PG: Maya Angelou once wrote: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” And for me, it was exactly the same. I had a story which needed to get told. I knew my message was an important one, and that there were a lot of people I could help and inspire. It took about two years of research, writing, editing, designing, and formatting to birth this book baby.
NMT: I’ve seen the great reviews and the sales seem to be doing great. How do you feel about your book baby now? PG: Deeply humbled, and terribly proud. All the blood, sweat, and tears were totally worthwhile! Although it’s already touched a lot of lives, I still have a great deal of work to do in order for it to reach my target audience en masse. My ultimate goal is to see Umbilicus on the Department of Basic Education’s list of approved set works for Life Orientation. There is not a single teenager in South Africa that cannot in some way relate to and learn something from this story.
NMT: Any advice to up-and-coming authors? PG: If you’re keen on writing a novel or a memoir, or as in my case, a hybrid, do a focused writing course. It’ll help you work through various bottlenecks you’ve probably stumbled across in the creative process. Harness technology. There really is nothing you can’t teach yourself online nowadays. Network with fellow authors, on social media and in real life. Support their book launches and signings. And don’t be shy to ask questions. Anne Lamott once wrote: “Very few authors really know what they are doing until they’ve done it.” And once we’ve figured out how to do it, we’re usually happy to lend a hand to those still learning the ropes.
Women24: Umbilicus is more than a story about adoption. It is also a coming-of-age story written from a young adult’s perspective. What did you want your reader to feel and experience through your book? Paula Gruben: There’s a poignant line from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ which reads: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” And that’s exactly how I wanted my reader to connect with my protagonist. But the somewhat iconoclastic second person point-of-view I use, which adds so much to the immediacy and intimacy of the story, actually came about quite by chance. Initially I wrote Umbilicus in the first person. Then just before I started the submission process, 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.
W24: By sharing your story you will be helping so many others find healing – and that shared feeling of ‘someone understands.’ I know you particularly have a heart for teenagers and young adults. Can you share more about your talks at schools? PG: It is my passion, and my mission, to share my story with teenagers. To reach out to and connect with any lost or troubled souls who may be secretly facing seemingly insurmountable challenges or crises in their own lives – to let them know they are not alone, that there is help out there, and hope for healing. To complement my book, I have created an unbiased, non-judgemental, interactive and inspiring Teen Talk, suitable for all grades at high schools. Topics discussed include issues of: crisis pregnancy, abortion, adoption, suicide, self-esteem, and identity. My main aim is to educate adolescents about their rights, responsibilities, and options regarding an unplanned pregnancy. And to facilitate dialogue and debate amongst their peers about abortion versus adoption versus teen parenthood, including the impact these choices could have on their lives, over both the short and long term. I am not prescriptive in my advice, and advocate neither a pro-choice nor pro-life stance. Rather, I call for introspection and critical thinking from the teens themselves, providing links to the resources they will need in order to make a safe, informed decision should the situation of a crisis pregnancy ever arise.
W24: Did you find that by writing the book it helped you with your own healing too? PG: I once likened the process of writing this book to that of peeling an onion – amidst a steady stream of tears, uncovering layer upon layer of memory and fact, getting deeper and deeper under the skin, I managed to get closer and closer to the truth. My goal was to gather up all the separate layers of fact and memory and integrate them into one coherent story. The resulting book, although dark in parts, is far from navel-gazing misery-lit. It is ultimately an enlightening and inspiring story – a love story – which, once birthed, left me feeling liberated and empowered.
W24: You chose the self-publishing route, even although your book would have been snatched up by a traditional publisher. What prompted this decision? PG: Like most budding authors at the start of their careers, I was lured by the thrill of potentially securing a contract with a big name trade publisher, which supposedly meant utter validation of my worth as a writer. But 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 don’t regret the traditional submission experience one bit, as I learned an awful lot about the industry, and grew a much thicker skin. But in retrospect, I am so glad I decided to go the self-publishing route, as it is far more in line with my more maverick ‘indie sensibilities’, which extend to just about all aspects of my life.
W24: Do you have another book planned, and if so, can you give us a little hint around what it will be about? PG: My second book will be a direct follow on from Umbilicus, although both can be read as stand-alone stories. The working title is Incomer, and it is based on real events which took place during my two crazy years living in London and working in an adult store in the heart of Soho, the city’s red light district. It will be targeted at the New Adult (NA) realistic fiction reader.
Glamour magazine: When did you decide to become a writer? Paula Gruben: I have worked in the magazine and newspaper publishing industry since 2000, first on the marketing and research side of the fence, before moving across to editorial. I’ve always loved working with words so it was a natural progression. My first feature story was published in 2007, and I moved from freelance to full-time and back to freelance over the next few years. Then in 2010, when full-time motherhood to a severely prem baby became my priority, I had to put my writing career on hold. Franz Kafka once wrote, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity”, so in 2011, I started blogging to keep the creative juices flowing. When my son started playschool a couple of years later, and I had more time on my hands, I started serious work on Umbilicus – one of about half a dozen manuscripts I had filed away in various stages of gestation. It’s been a long and laborious process to reach the point of actual publication, but undoubtedly my most rewarding personal project to date.
GM: What are some of your favourite stories to read as a writer? PG: I am a huge fan of crime fiction, psychological thrillers, autobiographies and memoirs.
GM: Umbilicus is based on your own experience. Was it a difficult process trying to put this into words? PG: The words came quite easily but the scenes were all over the show, in a myriad disjointed vignettes. It was quite a challenge deciding what to leave in and what to chuck out, and then weaving it all together in a compelling narrative arc with decent pacing. When I started writing this book, I also didn’t know how the story was going to end. It was only during the process of structural manipulation that the idea for a satisfying ending emerged, and I finally knew I had it all sewn up.
GM: Why did you decide to write a fictional novel of this experience instead of an autobiography? 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 during the submission process, 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, in order to provide a cultural touchpoint – and repackaged my book as a Young Adult novel instead of a memoir.
GM: What is your advice to aspirant writers? PG: Read, read, read! You cannot write unless you read. Attend writing workshops and courses – online or in real life. Write like you speak; simple is always better. Dialogue makes up about seventy percent of contemporary novels so learn to master the art of writing dialogue and you’re well on your way to producing marketable material. Go to book launches and don’t be shy to ask authors and publishers questions. Put yourself out there – network, network, network! And use Google – Google is your friend, as are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest – to connect with other writers and potential readers down the line. If you’re like me and write in ad hoc chunks rather than full, chronological chapters, then yWriter is a marvellous little tool. It’s a free downloadable programme that helps you sort and structure your work into scenes, chapters and, eventually, a complete, coherent whole.
GM: What does your writing process entail? PG: I need dead quiet to write so I do my best work while my son is at school or after he and my husband have gone to bed. I type most of my raw material into an MS Word document on my desktop PC then copy and paste everything into yWriter to sort, structure and edit. I am also a very visual person and find that creating mood boards on Pinterest works extremely well in helping me compartmentalise and organise my rather haphazard thought processes. Genre, theme, plot, characters, setting, soundtrack, exposition, ideas for cover art and marketing, inspirational writing quotes, anything you can think of really – each has their own virtual pinboard.