Friday, October 31, 2014

Writing What Matters

Here is a post I wrote this week for the wonderful website: Jungle Red Writers, a site hosted by a terrific group of fabulous authors: Julia Spencer-Fleming, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Lucy Burdette, Hallie Ephron, Rhys Bowen and Deborah Crombie. I wrote basically to explain how I decided to write Land of Careful Shadows and what I learned by taking an 11 year hiatus between writing my last series and writing this one:

     First, a confession: I turned my back on novel writing before I wrote this book, convinced I’d never publish another novel again.

     In the early 2000s, I was laid off as an editor at Reader’s Digest. At the time I was working on my first mystery series about the FDNY, based on my husband’s work as a New York City firefighter. I went on to publish three books in that series. Then my mom suffered a series of strokes and died, my second child was born and my new novel couldn’t find a publisher. I felt lost in every part of my being, convinced that the only way to get ahead was to write, write, write.

     I started on another novel. Half way through, I put it down. The problem, I decided, was that I was writing because I wanted to publish again rather than because I thought I had something to say. What I needed was to step back, think about something that mattered to me and do it. If that meant never publishing again, so be it.

     I already had an idea what mattered to me. I also knew that it had nothing to do with novel writing.

     I live in northern Westchester County, NY, a lush, wooded region about forty miles north of New York City. It’s an area where great wealth and great need exist side by side. In the 1990s, Latin Americans, many of them undocumented, began to settle in the area. They mowed the lawns, cleaned the houses and bussed the restaurant tables of the more affluent in the county. At the train station, I often saw them huddled on cold winter mornings, rubbing their hands together to stay warm while they waited for contractors to drive by and offer them work.

     As the daughter of immigrants (my father was from Russia, my mother was born and raised in England), I admired their grit and resilience. I knew from watching my parents that it took a lot of guts to make it in a strange land. There was one big difference however: my parents were able to acquire the legal status that allowed them to work their way into the middle class, further their educations and eventually own their own home. The people I saw would never get that chance, no matter how hard they worked because of their undocumented status.

     I’m not political, but I felt moved by their situation. I began volunteering at a local outreach center that provided English lessons and other services to new immigrants. I got to know some of the people and began to hear their heart-rending accounts of near-death journeys and tearful family separations. The writer in me began to wonder: was there some way to share their stories so that others in the community could be as inspired as I was by them?

     I contacted several local Hispanic organizations and suddenly found myself talking to people who, in many cases, had never shared their stories with anyone before. I interviewed almost twenty people—men and women of all ages from countries throughout Latin America. I began the project in the hopes that the people I interviewed would eventually be able to step out of the shadows. But our immigration policies have shifted very little in the past two decades. My subjects’ stories could not be told without exposing them to undue risk. The project ground to a halt. Once again, I felt the sting of disappointment and defeat.

     Months went by and still I couldn’t get their stories out of my mind. These people had risked so much to share them with me. I knew I had to find a way to keep them alive. And suddenly, after saying I’d probably never write another novel again, I knew I had to. It was the only way to tell their stories. I took what I knew and loved about writing mysteries and married it to something I cared about deeply. And Land of Careful Shadows was born. I hope readers love the twists and turns that come with every good mystery novel. But I hope too, that they come away with a sense of the real people behind it.