Author Interview with Theresa Shea, Author of "The Unfinished Child"
Created By: BookBundlz
1. If you could have coffee with any 3 authors, living or dead, who would they be?
That’s a hard question, and I think my answer would change daily. However, for today, the three authors I’d love to have coffee with would be John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, and George Eliot. (Can I add Charles Dickens?) I’ve always been fascinated by fictional depictions of human suffering. I remember taking a course in Victorian Literature and just devouring the books that described characters living in squalor and poverty during the Industrial Revolution. The women had large families and no birth control. The midwives came in the front door and the undertakers went out the back door.
I remember reading The Grapes of Wrath and just bowing my head at the moving descriptions of the characters, their motivations, and their sheer desire to carry on. Of Mice and Men also made me take a seat. That’s true brilliance. The strange and whacky characters in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction are wonderfully eye-opening. Yet whether they’re religious fundamentalists of intellectual atheists, they all have their epiphanic moments when grace is accessible to them. That transforming moment is hugely powerful, and O’Connor handles it masterfully.
As for George Eliot, Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss stand out for me. In the latter, Maggie Tulliver’s headstrong desire to BE something gave me goose bumps. Her life choices were so restricted; is it any wonder she deviates from conventional behavior to seek her dreams?
Oh, there are so many books I could list. What I always respond to is the emotion. I want to be utterly moved when I read a book. I want to care about the characters; in so doing, I can imagine myself in his/her situation and question my own beliefs. I’d like to think I’d make admirable decisions when placed in a difficult position, but do I really know? Being moved is an educational experience for me.
2. If you could only take one book, food item and drink with you to a deserted island what would they be?
Maybe the collected works of Charles Dickens. Does that even exist? It would be a huge book. Basically, what I’d want is something that I could read over and over again and get different meanings from it. The Bible suits that requirement, for sure. As for food, it would have to be some bread item. My beverage of choice would, bar none, be coffee. I love my coffee.
3. What are your secret indulgences?
Hmm… It’s pretty boring, really. I love sneaking in an extra cappuccino or latte. I spend far too much money on satisfying my love of caffeine.
4. What about you would surprise your readers?
I homeschool my children. What’s surprising is that every writer wants TIME. Having my children at home means that I’m never alone and always interrupted. Those hours when other children are at school (8:30 – 3:30) are not my own. The only way I get work done is to take my laptop out and sit in a café somewhere. My husband is also a writer, so together we’ve figured out ways to be sure one of us is available to the children. We’re tag-team writers.
This year my eldest boy, who is fifteen, decided to go to school, so he’s in his first year of high school (grade 10). My daughter (13) and son (11) are still homeschooling.
5. What is your perfect day as an author?
A perfect day is when I get up knowing exactly where I’m going to start with my writing. If I’ve set things up from the previous day, then I’m ready to jump right in. I love that, because often I have no idea where to go next, and I find myself circling the novel and wondering if everything I’ve written has to be scrapped. I have those “what’s it all about, Alfie?” moments a bit too often.
The day gets better if my husband is home and I can add a swim after I’m done writing. I find swimming to be the perfect exercise. It brings my shoulders down, and it allows me to continue imagining what my characters might do next. Water is extremely soothing. I love the feel and sound of it as I swim; it’s elemental and inspiring.
6. If you could be any fictional character who would it be?
Oh, that’s hard! Do you know what first came to mind? Aslan. When I was a girl, I simply adored The Chronicles of Narnia. I remember sobbing when Aslan was killed. It’s one of those memorable moments from my childhood. Does that count? Can I be Aslan? I want to be all-knowing and kind and gentle at the same time.
7. What are the book(s) you are reading now?
I recently read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I thought it was wonderfully human and moving. Again, I want to be moved when I read. I start a lot of books and don’t finish them. After fifty pages if I don’t care about any of the characters, then I don’t finish the book. Too much contemporary fiction is cynical and filled with unlikable characters or situations that don’t seem universal enough to allow my to enter into the narrative. I try to keep up with contemporary fiction, especially novels written by women. I love Elizabeth Strout’s books. Any new Alice Munro book gets to the top of my reading pile right away. Now that I’ve published a novel, I find myself keenly watching for how author’s create certain effects.
8. What was your favorite book as a teenager, and why?
As a young teen I read horse books because I was an avid rider and loved horses. They weren’t particularly good books, from what I can remember, but they had strong narrative drives. My mid-to late-teens, however, weren’t great years for me personally, and I don’t recall reading much.
9. (Aside from your own) What book(s) have you read that you think are perfect for book clubs?
The Help is a great book club book. Also, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I’ll admit to having a terrible memory for titles and names, but I’d certainly recommend Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries and Bonnie Burnard’s A Good House.
About Your Book:
10. Where did the inspiration for your book come from?
I have three children, and I didn’t have my first until I was thirty-five years old. Because of my “advanced maternal age,” I was given genetic counseling that outlined my options for prenatal testing. After a routine blood test with my first pregnancy, I was told that I had a higher chance of having a baby with Down syndrome. I remember the doctor’s office leaving a message on my answering machine that I was to call them. I knew right away something must be wrong, and the call came on a Friday. By the time I got home, the office was closed, so I spent the entire weekend convinced that something was wrong with my baby. And I was mad, because I felt like I’d been robbed of something. I’d been so happy to be pregnant, and then that test blanketed everything in darkness.
From the get go, then, my reproductive life was marred by tests and tinged with fear. That experience got me thinking a lot about human reproduction, and I realized that we are the first generation to be living in a time when we can control and alter much of our reproduction. Is this good? Is this bad? That’s a matter of opinion, but it’s certainly compelling to think about, and I spent a lot of time thinking about it.
After much discussion, my husband and I decided to roll the dice and take what we got. We didn’t even have ultrasounds with our second and third child, and we decided to have homebirths with all three. We ended up with three “typically developing” children. Would we have loved a child who was not “typically developing?” I don’t doubt that for a minute. As so many women are delaying having children until they are older, and as prenatal testing is a standard option for them, I came to believe that there were untold stories that needed to see daylight.
11. They say every book written is the author telling a personal philosophy. What personal philosophy are you trying to get across?
That we are way stronger than we think we are. By and large, people do what they have to do when they have to do it. If asked in advance if they would be strong enough to handle adversity, most people would balk. Are any of us strong enough to handle the tragedies that will eventually come our way? And are we meant to know in advance what we will be given? I don’t know.
Dr. Maclean is one of my favorite characters in the novel. He’s like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird in that he’s got a vision for societal change. I only thought about this connection after the book was published. Dr. Maclean speaks to the humanity of people with disabilities in much the same way that Atticus Finch stands up for racial equality.
Mostly, though, I think that my personal philosophy is that the power of love transforms us entirely.
12. Writers are often surprised by something that happens in their book. Perhaps a character says or does something you did not think they would, or something you thought would only be a couple of paragraphs turns into 10 pages. What surprised you about your book?
Two things surprised me: first, Carolyn, the child with Down syndrome born to Margaret in 1940, was not initially in the book. She came later and provided the back-story that would make readers care about the present day characters, Marie and Elizabeth. And secondly, I was surprised by the plot twist that jeopardizes Marie and Elizabeth’s friendship. I can’t say more without giving away some of the plot.
13. If you were crafting a discussion question for book clubs to discuss about your book, what question do you think would generate the most discussion?
I have been invited to some book clubs, and the discussion that seems to interest readers the most is whether or not Marie makes the right decision in The Unfinished Child and whether or not things are better today then they were in the 1940s. The book invites women to share their personal stories and fears surrounding their own pregnancies. It invites readers to share on many levels. Almost everyone has a person with disabilities in his or her life, whether it’s an uncle, cousin, or closer family member.
About Your Writing Process:
14. What is your writing process like?
It’s messy. When I’m in a good stretch, I try to be disciplined and write every day. If I can carve out two solid hours a day (that’s with me sitting down and the computer open), without fail, then I’m feeling great. I find writing to be such an emotional roller coaster. On a good day I feel fabulous and know that I’ve found my calling, but on a bad day I question my very existence. I feel I should stop taking time away from my family. I feel I’m a fraud, etc. Deep down, however, I know that I’m a better person—wife, mother, friend—when I’m taking care of my artistic needs. When I find myself focusing too much on my children and their “accomplishments,” for example, I know it’s time to turn that energy to my own writing.
15. What gets you in the mood to write?
Knowing that my characters have enough of a life that they will speak to me without my having to interrogate them too much. Does that make sense? I love when they become full enough that they just speak to me outright.
And editing a draft is great fun. Once I know what the full story is, then I can go back and add layers that link things together. Getting the story is the hard part; crafting it is a pleasure.
Now that I’ve written and published a novel, I know I can do it again. The monkey’s off my back, so to speak. I learned a lot from writing The Unfinished Child, and I think as a result I’m a bit gentler with myself while working on my second novel. I know that I can just create a mess and that I’ll eventually clean it up. I also know that there might be false starts and wrong turns, but if I just keep moving forward, eventually it will all make some kind of sense.
16. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Just write. Just do it. And give yourself a concrete deadline to finish a draft of something. For instance, I now tell myself when I start a project that I will be finished a draft by a particular date. Doing that helps me to keep the calendar from just blowing in the wind.
Also, don’t think you have to start at the beginning and work you way to the end. Write whatever interests you that day. Write the ending first, if you know how you want to end. And know that you will create a big mess that you will have to live with. For me, writing a novel is like always cooking and never doing the dishes. It’s chaos. It’s frustrating. It’s messy beyond belief. But one day it starts to come together, and I begin to put the pieces together enough that the feeling of being out of control dissipates. Now that I know that’s how it works for me, I’m a bit kinder to myself while working on the draft of my second novel. It doesn’t matter to me so much that everything counts. Like I said, in The Unfinished Child, some of my characters introduced themselves at a very late date. I had to write them in! And when you change one thing you change everything. I used to be really hung up on word count, but now I’m more interested in who is going to be in the book. Some characters don’t last long; they appear simply to introduce other characters to me. It’s a strange thing, really, to create an entire world with believable characters who interact in believable ways with one another.
I don’t know if I’d wish novel writing on anyone, but finishing a book feels great.