Author Q & A

What was the inspiration for The Orphan Daughter?

There were dual inspirations, actually. The first came years ago, when a friend visited with her 18-month-old daughter, who refused to step off our patio onto the grass. I was fascinated by her dilemma – she wanted to go to her mother, beyond the patio in the yard itself, but simply couldn’t. That led to Lucy’s phobia/magical thinking about grass in the story. The second was the 2010 deportation of the equivalent of a DACA immigrant in my community. This young woman’s parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico, she lived here her whole life, graduated from high school, worked, was engaged – and then deported. I wound up exploring the other side of that story – what happens to someone who remains when everyone he loves is taken away?


How did you start the writing process?

With the lessons I learned from my first novel, Sparrow Migrations. About 60 percent of that book was set in a place I’d never been – Ithaca, N.Y. Writing one set of scenes set locally made me realize the wisdom in the old adage “write what you know” at least in terms of setting. So I set TOD almost entirely in my own backyard, Traverse City, Mich. I again churned out the first draft during National Novel Writing Month (NaNo) in November 2013.

Something different was I chose to write in present tense, after reading another present-tense novel (Room, by Emma Donoghue) that completely captivated me. It brings the reader in closer to the events and characters and creates an urgency to the story that I wanted to try. Present also works especially well when cast in the voice of a child, as Donoghue did. TOD is told half in a child’s point of view, half in an adult’s.

Once I was satisfied with my revised draft (which took more than two years) I had both a critique group and beta readers read it and offer suggestions.


This is your second novel. Was it easier?

No! It was slower, too  – almost three years from first words on the page in November 2013 to submitting to my editor in August 2016, an offer that November, and then another year and a half of enduring the publishing wait. (Sparrow took two years to write and revise and another 6 months to self-pub.) Admittedly, it was Sparrow’s acquisition and revision in 2014 that caused me to set aside TOD for several months. Still, it took longer as I experimented with genre and tone. At one point, I was going for a thriller-esque plot. I wound up being true to my strengths and focusing on the relationships between characters.


You describe Aunt Jane as “prickly.” Why write a character the risks engendering reader dislike?

Empathizing, not liking, is the most important emotion an author must create between a character and reader. If a character’s motivations are clear, readers are usually able to move beyond personal dislike of particular actions. Oftentimes its said of movies that viewers need characters to root for. I think that’s mostly true. Perhaps more true is readers/viewers need an outcome to root for – and that’s very clear in The Orphan Daughter.


How did you write the Spanish dialogue and vocabulary?

I have basic fluency in Spanish, and since the English-speaking characters speak broken Spanish, that sufficed with Google translate as backup. It’s a tricky line. Too much foreign language trips up readers. Too little and it’s not purposeful. I was going for the Goldilocks amount, which I think enriches story and setting sparsely, not weighing it down the way excessive description can. I was fortunate to find two fluent beta readers, and the publisher conducted a thorough Spanish language edit.


How would you compare and contrast this novel to Sparrow Migrations?

Both are resilience stories of contemporary, unconventional families. Both feature parent-child relationships, or proxies for that relationship. Setting is much more vivid and important in The Orphan Daughter. Its cast of characters is also much smaller; two primary and one secondary (Sparrow had four primary and four secondary) so I believe readers come to know the characters more intimately.