Monday, July 24, 2017

Interview with Lisa Wingate

 I am thrilled to be able to present this interview with Lisa Wingate regarding her new book, Before We Were Yours. I've loved Lisa's books, but when I read the blurb about this one I couldn't buy it fast enough. I have a very personal connection to this story.

For readers of Orphan Train and The Nightingale—an engrossing new novel, inspired by a true story, about two families, generations apart, that are forever changed by a heartbreaking injustice.

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize that the truth is much darker. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together—in a world of danger and uncertainty.

My own mother grew up under the iron hand of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children's Home Society. It wasn't something Mother liked to talk about, but what she did tell us is completely consistent with this story, based on truth, that Lisa Wingate has portrayed with meticulous research and heart-wrenching story-telling.

Lisa, welcome. I can't tell you now much this book has meant to me:

1.  What was the inspiration for this story?  

For me, every piece of fiction begins with a spark. From there, the story travels on the winds of research and imagination. Before We Were Yours had the most unexpected kind of beginning.

I was up late one night working on materials for a different story and had the TV playing in the background for company. A rerun of the Investigation Discovery: Dangerous Women cycled through at about two in the morning. I looked up and saw images of an old mansion. The front room was filled with bassinettes and babies. There were crying babies, laughing babies, babies who were red-cheeked and sweaty-faced and sickly looking. I tuned in and immediately became fascinated by the bizarre, tragic, and startling history of Georgia Tann and her Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. One of the most shocking things about the story was how recent it was. Georgia Tann and her childrens’ home operated from the 1920s through 1950. After watching the segment, I literally could not clear the images from my mind. I couldn't stop wondering about the thousands of children who had been victimized by Georgia’s system, who had been brokered in adoptions for profit. What became of them? Where were they now?

I couldn’t help but dig into the story. I was shocked by the scope of Georgia’s network, the fact that she affected so many children, and the tragic consequences of her cruelty and greed. An estimated five thousand babies and children passed through her hands. While in the care of her system of orphanages and boarding homes, many were neglected, abused, denied schooling, medical care, and food. They were separated from their siblings with no preparation or explanation. They were, quite simply, offered as products. Prospective parents could choose hair color, eye color, age, gender, religious background, and genetic predisposition for talents such as art and music. As long as prospects had the ability to pay, they could circumvent many of the normal barriers to adoption. There were rumors of family members procuring babies and children as gifts for couples who might have lost a child, or couldn’t conceive.

What, I wondered, could motivate someone like Georgia Tann? How could so many others – law enforcement officials, welfare workers, court workers, caretakers – be coerced into taking part, or at least turning a blind eye to the kidnapping and abuse of so many children? How could as many as five-hundred children have simply vanished from the care of Georgia’s Tennessee Children’s Home Society with no investigation of their whereabouts and probable deaths? How could ordinary people have failed question Georgia’s frequent newspaper ads, offering children as “Christmas presents” and “Yours for the asking?”


            (Image courtesy of Preservation and Special Collections Department,
University Libraries, University of Memphis)

Writing Before We Were Yours was a means of answering those questions in a very personal way.

2.  Tell us about the book’s cover and what makes it unique.

The cover actually went through many iterations before we landed on a combination that seemed just perfect for the story. I have to say, of all of my book covers on over thirty novels now, this one is my favorite. There’s just something about the posture of these two little girls that speaks to me. They represent twelve-year-old Rill, a little girl growing up on her parents’ Mississippi river shantyboat and her young sister, Fern. When they and their five siblings are taken from their parents one stormy night and placed in one of Georgia Tann’s orphan houses, Rill struggles not only to protect herself, but to keep her siblings together. That battle, to me is what this picture represents—the uncertainty of their situation, the strength of their sibling bond, and Rill’s determination to return to her free floating life on the river.

3.  Tell us about the inspiration behind your characters. Where does it come from?

After researching the Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal, my first question was, Whose story is this, really? Is it a story of parents––both biological and adoptive? Of greed, falsified records, and political corruption? Of one woman’s cruel and unconscionable actions?

In the end, though, the voices that whispered through my mind where the voices of the children. What was it like, I wondered, to be taken from everything you knew, with no explanation or understanding of what was happening, and placed in the care of someone like Georgia Tann?

That question gave life to twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her five young siblings, Camellia, Lark, Fern, and Gabion. Growing up on their family’s tiny Mississippi River shantyboat, the Foss children live an almost magical life, until, as was so often the case in reality, a random twist of fate causes their path to intersect with Georgia Tann’s. Rill’s story is like the stories of so many children who fought not only to survive and adapt, but to reclaim their lives, their family bonds, and their stolen identities. What I admired and treasured most about Rill in the end was her grit, her enduring love for her siblings, and her ability, against all odds, to cling to her sense of who she is.

4.     Where do the truth and fiction in Before We Were Yours meet?

In the case of something like Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, it’s challenging and in some ways, haunting.

Rill and her siblings in the novel and their shantyboat life on the Mississippi river began taking shape as I combed through accounts of birth parents who’d searched for their stolen children for decades and adoptees who’d searched for their birth families. Survivors of TCHS care, desperately seeking their true identities, were confronted with systematic legislative roadblocks, altered paperwork, and closely held secrets. Because powerful families and Hollywood celebrities were involved in TCHS adoptions, and because many people felt that the children should be left where they were, there was pressure to legalize even the most irregular of Tann’s adoptions and seal the records, which was exactly what happened. For years, adoptees and birth families fought for the right to see their records, but they were not successful in having the records opened until 1996. For many birth parents and family members, who’d grieved their lost little ones for a lifetime, that was simply too late.

For others, the attainment of their records was only the beginning of a long, frustrating, and sometimes fruitless journey. Georgia Tann routinely altered names, ages, and family histories to prevent birth parents from finding their children. With the stroke of a pen, she also altered genetic backgrounds to satisfy the preferences of her clients. The children she brokered were often represented as products of accident pregnancies among “gifted college students” or “talented young ladies of good breeding” who could not, of course, keep them. Children were represented to Jewish adoptive parents as being of Jewish descent, when in reality, they were not. Children were represented as having genetic predisposition toward high intellect or skills in music and art. These kinds of nefarious practices often resulted in adoptions that went poorly when the children couldn’t meet the expectations of their new parents.

As with most stories that are true or partially true, the dividing line between good and evil is murky in the case of Georgia Tann and her Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society. The journey of the Foss children in the novel reflects this. Certainly, TCHS removed some children from unfit birth families and facilitated adoptions into safe, loving homes that provided great opportunity. Sadly, thousands of others were left with lasting damage and questions that would never be answered.

I hope Before We Were Yours, in some way, tells their stories. Yes, it’s fiction. Rill and her four siblings, growing up on their family’s shantyboat in the Mississippi River were figments of my imagination. But in a way, they existed. In a way, they are any one and every one of these children, taken from their families, torn from their lives with no explanation or understanding of what was happening, and deposited into an unregulated, unfit, and politically corrupt system that operated not based on child welfare, but on profit. Those were the stories I wanted to tell – the stories told in the smallest voices or never told at all.

As a mother of two boys (now grown), I experienced the writing of Before We Were Yours through a parent’s heart. I deeply felt the strength of the family bond and Rill’s desperate struggle to protect her siblings and reunite with her parents. I also deeply felt the children’s vulnerability as they search for safe haven among their new caretakers and have difficulty trusting new people in their lives. Who wouldn’t? As a parent, I couldn’t help seeing my own children in Rill’s position, imagining them in her situation. How would they survive? Would they manage to remain together? Would they, as so many TCHS victims did, fight to regain their identities later in life?

5.   How much research did you have to do for this book?

            The book was research-intensive. I took in nearly everything I could find about the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis and Georgia Tann. In large part, I found bits of the story here and bits there. The Discovery Channel’s Deadly Women feature and a 60 Minutes segment provided helpful information and visuals. Several books, including, Babies For Sale by Linda Austin and The Baby Thief by Barbara Raymond were particularly helpful in researching the adoption scandal. Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat Journal was a beautiful account of shantyboat life on the river. I also spent time in Memphis, researching locations, combing through the river museum, visiting the library and the university’s photo archives, and talking to people who remembered the scandal.

6.   The original manuscript of Before We Were Yours generated worldwide   interest. Tell us about that.

            After the long months of reading, researching, imagining and writing Before We Were Yours, the sale of the novel took place in a wild rush. The novel went out to several publishers on a Thursday. By Friday, we’d received the first preemptive offer. On Monday and Tuesday, I talked with editors from eight or nine publishing houses, all of whom were incredible, talented people who had edited books I’d read and loved. The auction took place the following week on Wednesday. It was a whirlwind day. The bidding was brisk and the book finally sold to Susanna Porter (editor of Loving Frank and The Paris Wife) at Ballantine, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House. At the same time, preemptive bids were coming in from foreign countries. Translation rights have sold in fourteen countries so far, including fourteen countries, including France, Spain, Israel, Germany, Holland, Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Italy, Bulgaria, Norway, and Portugal. 

7.   What are some of the most interesting things you found about this subject that you weren’t able to use in the story?

Because Before We Were Yours is fiction, I was able to thread in what I felt were the most interesting pieces of the true-life history of Georgia Tann and her Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. One interesting aspect of the true story that isn’t in the novel is the special investigation that was conducted as Georgia Tann’s operation was finally shut down in 1950. The original Report to Governor Browning was filled with information about Tann’s nefarious methods, the deaths of children in her system of unregulated boarding homes, and the sheer panic of adoptive families who were terrified that the children they’d raised for years would be taken away. There were also some wonderful newspaper stories written years later, telling the reunion stories of birth families finally reunited.

8.  What do you hope the reader takes away from the story?

I hope readers take away the message that we need not be defined by our pasts. I hope Rill’s experience resonates with readers who have in some way surrendered to the wounds of painful past experiences. Rill faces that battle as she matures. As an old woman, she advises thirty-year-old Avery, “A woman’s past need not predict her future. She can dance to new music if she chooses. Her own music. To hear it, she must only stop talking. To herself, I mean. We’re always trying to persuade ourselves of things.” Living in a defensive posture is another form of allowing other people to dictate who we are and what we believe about ourselves. Letting go, dancing to our own music is a risk, but on the other side of that process lays light, freedom and fulfillment. That’s what I hope  people take away from Before We Were Yours. Our lives have purpose, but to fulfill that purpose we must first claim ourselves.
I also hope that, in a broader sense, the story of Rill and the Foss children serves to document the lives of all the children who disappeared into Georgia Tann’s unregulated system. Only by remembering history are we reminded not to let it repeat itself. It’s important that we, ordinary people busy with the rush of every day life, remember that children are vulnerable, that on any given day, thousands of children live the uncertainty of Rill’s journey. We have to be aware. We must be kind neighbors, determined protectors, willing encouragers, wise teachers, and strong advocates, not just for the children who are ours by birth, but for all children.

Lisa, thanks so much for sharing this with us. My mom passed away in February. I'm not sure she ever shed the "defensive posture," but she did try to "dance to her own music." Before We Were Yours has helped me understand her a little better. 

Part 2 of this interview, chock full of tips for writers will post on Friday, July 28. 

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