Author of Etched on Me
Welcome to Literary Marie's Precision Reviews. Today we have a special guest post from Jenn Crowell, author of Etched on Me (on sale 02/04/14).
|Author Jenn Crowell (Photo by Hedy Bartleson)|
I never intended to write in the voice of ETCHED ON ME’s narrator, Lesley. In fact, I hadn’t even planned on writing about Lesley at all. I had envisioned the novel as being about a couple’s journey towards adopting a child from Russia—but in 2007, a heartbreaking news story from the UK changed all that.
“Threat To Take Newborn Over Emotional Abuse,” the headline read. Beneath it, a solemn photograph of a young pregnant woman, ethereal and pale yet admirably composed, her hands cupping her trim, just-beginning-to-show belly.
Her name was Fran Lyon. 22 years old, with a solid job and a university degree, she had been happily expecting the birth of her first child…until British social services learned that, as a teenager, she had spent time in psychiatric hospitals for self-harm after having been raped.
Fran had been given a bill of clean health from her treating psychiatrist, and possessed no history of harming another person. And yet, due to her mental health history, social services declared her such a risk to her unborn daughter that they planned to take the baby into foster care at birth.
As a recovered self-harmer and new mother myself, I was shocked and saddened that such a barbaric course of action would even be suggested. I knew that I needed to write a similar fictionalized account, but still felt a great attachment to my Russian adoption story.
I figured I might just slip a scenario into the novel as a minor subplot (perhaps as a background drama played out on talk show television and newspapers, to provide some texture to the couple’s struggle to adopt), but my fictional Fran Lyon had other ideas. First she told me off that the name I had chosen for her was total crap and didn’t belong to her. Then she point-blank asked me, “If this is so important to you, then why am I some tiny afterthought?”
Good question, Natasha–I mean, Lesley.
(Yes, my characters boss me around. It sounds bizarre, but the results so far have been excellent. They’ve never steered me wrong!)
OK, I thought, maybe we should go with alternating points of view. Have Lesley be the former student of the woman trying to adopt from Russia (a teacher whom I’d already written about in my first novel, NECESSARY MADNESS). Let their situations and motherhood struggles play off each other. One familiar character, one new.
Easy-peasy lemon squeezy, to quote my 7-year-old daughter. Or so I thought.
I went back to school for my MFA, and spent the first three terms working on that manuscript. Lesley was going to escape the UK in her last few weeks of pregnancy, beating the clock just like Fran Lyon did. I had a nice tidy list of chapters I needed to write in the home stretch. I was 250 pages in. I was gonna knock out the rest and walk across the stage at graduation content in the knowledge that, after 10 years working on this book, I was done, baby, DONE.
And then I got selected to work with my final term mentor, Leonard Chang. He read the work-in-progress and sent me a long letter detailing his thoughts: As professional and polished as ETCHED ON ME was, it was also ducking the heart of Lesley’s story.
My husband stood by laughing as he watched me read the letter. Every few seconds, I’d grumble "damn it.” Not because I was annoyed at the criticism, but because I knew Leonard was absolutely right. Too scared to face the devastating parts, too resistant to write in the voice of a 22-year-old British girl, I’d been totally chicken.
The next morning (I still remember the date: February 1, 2011), I sat down at my keyboard and let Lesley truly speak to me. An hour later, I had what would be the first chapter of the final version of ETCHED ON ME. Written in Lesley’s inimitable first-person voice, detailing the horrible aftermath of her daughter’s birth and removal in the delivery room, the scenes were brutal and stunning and everything I’d been scared of. To this day, I have no idea how I channeled her.
Still dazed, I dashed off an email to Leonard, asking him if he would be so kind as to read those five pages and let me know if I was on the right track.
Minutes later, I got back a one-word response: “Yes.”
And then we were off, Lesley and I, on a journey and into a collaboration that would be the most amazing literary experience I’ve ever had.
On the surface, sixteen-year-old Lesley Holloway is just another bright new student at Hawthorn Hill, a posh all-girls’ prep school north of London. Little do her classmates know that she recently ran away from home, where her father had spent years sexually abusing her. Nor does anyone know that she’s secretly cutting herself as a coping mechanism...until the day she goes too far and ends up in the hospital.
Lesley spends the next two years in and out of psychiatric facilities, where she overcomes her traumatic memories and finds the support of a surrogate family. Eventually completing university and earning her degree, she is a social services success story—until she becomes unexpectedly pregnant in her early twenties. Despite the overwhelming odds she has overcome, the same team that saved her as an adolescent will now question whether Lesley is fit to be a mother. And so she embarks upon her biggest battle yet: the fight for her unborn daughter.
About the Author:
Jenn Crowell is the critically acclaimed author of novels Necessary Madness and Letting the Body Lead. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband and young daughter.
Excerpt from Chapter One:
Have you ever wanted something so much, it's not a desire so much as a beacon? Have you ever prayed for it so hard, your fingernails curl into your palms and your eyes squinch shut and your whole body just hums?
*GIVEAWAY* One (1) Signed Paperback (US/Canada residents only)
You may purchase Etched on Me through Amazon, B&N, Books-a-Million or Bookish.