Concord-resident Virginia MacGregor's latest novel, Before I Was Yours, is the story of a young Kenyan boy, Jonah, who is brought to England under mysterious circumstances by a friend of his mother's. He's abandoned at the airport and, after a stint in foster care, starts living with two would-be adoptive parents who are desperate for a child. But Jonah, as polite and well-behaved as he is, comes with his own set of complications, prompting the adoptive parents to question their ability to be parents at all. MacGregor spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about her book.
Virginia MacGregor's Top Five Reading Recommendations:
1. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon Macgregor. "I have a weak spot for novels that straddle the borderlines between prose and poetry. Jon Macgregor was a poet before he turned his hand to fiction, and this makes his prose beautiful and original. Every sentence sings. What I love, particularly, is that he uses this poetic prose to tell the story of ordinary people. One early summer evening, while people go about their everyday life on a street in Northern England, a tragedy unfolds. Jon Macgregor shows how the lives of strangers can be bound together and changed irrevocably through a shared experience. This ‘unity of place’ (a term coined by Aristotle) – just one street – inspired the setting in my novel, The Return of Norah Wells, which all takes place mostly in one house and one road. It’s a wonderful constraint that allows the writer to go deep into the lives of a small group of characters."
2. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. "I read this novel as a late teen and it made me fall in love with the technique of telling one story from many points of view, something which I have used in every one of my adult novels so far. I am a great believer that for every story there are as many points of view as there are characters: no one perceives the same event in the same way. I also love that this novel is told exclusively from the point of women – a wife and her four daughters. These five women are at the mercy of the father of the family, Nathan Price, a religious fanatic who takes them on a mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. The story is profoundly moving tale of a family uprooted to Africa, and how they navigate a life that they are thoroughly unprepared for. "
3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler. "I think of Anne Tyler as the Roger Federer of the fiction world: her writing is effortless; it is impossible to see the seams. She is one of the most natural and gifted storytellers I know and one of the most acute observers of human nature. Her novels are a masterclass in creating believable, flawed and totally engaging characters. In this, her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, she takes a middle-aged couple, Ira and Maggie Moran, on an emotional road trip in which they rediscover each other and their marriage. If Jon Macgregor’s novel showed me the power of using a single location to tell a story, Anne Tyler taught me about the constraint of time: the whole novel takes place over one day but, as reader, we feel like we experience and entire lifetime with these characters."
4. Room by Emma Donoghue. "This book was instrumental in teaching me about the power of child narrators in adult novels and was a big inspiration for my debut, What Milo Saw. Donoghue tells the sordid tale of a mother and daughter locked in the same room for seven years by Old Nick, a psychopath inspired by the real life Austrian kidnapper, Josef Fritzel. The story, told strait, would have been too horrific to bear: kidnapping, sexual assault, violence and depression. Told through the eyes of a child, however, it becomes a moving and sometimes humorous account of the intense bond between a mother and child and their spirit of survival despite their tragic circumstances. The fact that five-year-old Jack is kept from understanding the gravity of his situation (principally through his wonderful, imaginative, loving mother who makes their one room a world) adds poignancy to the novel and is wonderful metaphor for how all small children straddle real life and make-believe. Beyond the plot – the kidnapping – the book is, above all, about motherhood: its magic and its paralysing constraints, something which, as a mother to two small girls and a boy on the way, I can certainly identify with!"
5. Beloved by Toni Morrison. "Toni Morrison is the Shakespeare of the fiction world: she is quite simply a genius. She crafts sentences in a way that is completely her own. Like Jon Macgregor, she writes poetic prose but her writing has a magical quality too and it is this magic that started my love affair with magic realism in fiction, especially in fiction which tells the story of ordinary lives experiencing extraordinary circumstances. Although Sethe, the protagonist, escaped slavery eighteen years prior to the opening of the novel, she is still enslaved by the memory of her baby girl, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Beloved haunts Sethe and the novel in a way that is both psychological and physical. Her presence is palpable and terrifying. This novel taught me about the terrible repercussions of slavery, something which I am coming to learn more about each day as I now live in America. It also tells of the courage of the human spirit, the power to endure and the unbearable pain of losing a child."
This question comes up again and again in this novel: “Am I fit to be a parent?” The couple trying to adopt Jonah, Sam and Rosie, wonder at each turn whether they are cut out for this job. Why did you choose to explore this question in your novel?
For several reasons, really. I think it’s a question that any of us who have children—whether biological or not—ask ourselves every single day. It’s one of the most testing things in the world and it’s the thing that we are least prepared for. We can have a million degrees and we can have important jobs and feel like we have reached a level of maturity in life and our children completely floor us and, I think, make us wonder whether we are fit.
But I think this is particularly true of adoptive parents and it’s something that I find very moving but also quite sad. Parents who adopt, many of whom have been through years of infertility where they’ve been questioning their roles as parents anyway, all of a sudden enter adoption and have to prove themselves over and over again to social workers and other authorities as being fit parents. And I often joke that, you know, you don’t have someone with a clipboard knocking on your bedroom door when you’re about to conceive a child with your husband, but these adoptive parents—some of them said to me, “We feel we have to be experts in certain areas,” particularly because some adoptive children come with psychological or physical baggage. So it’s something I wanted to question, especially from the point of view of adoption, where these parents have had to prove themselves to be exceptional parents. But even then there’s nothing that quite prepares you for that.
And talk about having to prove themselves! At one point in this novel, there’s a party—it’s not an adoption party that celebrates the completion of an adoption. It’s a speed-dating between prospective adoptive parents and children who are looking for parents, trying to find the right match for them. That is quite a performance in your novel, especially because the parents are all dressed up like cartoon characters and stuffed animals.
This was one of the most exceptional experiences in my research. I contacted an adoption social worker in England who works with the British Association of Adoption and Fostering and asked whether I could attend an adoption party, which I’d heard about through prospective adopters, and I was sure she was going to say no. It’s an emotional day, a personal day. The last thing they want is a novelist nosing around with a notebook.
But when I talked to her about my motivation about my writing and the nature of my writing, magically she was one of those “Yes” people and said, “Yes, do come along, but be discreet.” And it was just incredible. I went to London and every time there’s a different theme. The theme when I went was a jungle theme. Sometimes it’s based on a particular film that the children like. I’m sure there’ve been “Let It Go” themes. I think there was Toy Story—there’s a moving story the social worker told me of an adult, a single male who came dressed as Woody from Toy Story and there was a little boy who came who had chosen that character, too. And they clocked each other right at the beginning, and at the end of the adoption party, the little boy was sitting on his lap, and they became father and son, which is one of those magical stories.
It was such an eye opener. You bring together these very nervous adopters who have passed a lottery. I think there were only about 20 couples for 60 children—something like that. And then there are activities set up all around the room. It always tends to end with a magic show. He does it for free, the magician to the queen. He does childrens’ parties.
The idea behind it—some people are very critical, they think it’s a puppy show and parents come to pick their ideal child, but it’s not like that all—the idea behind it, an American idea originally, is that there needs to be chemistry between two people for the relationship to work and adoption social workers spend a lot of time with paper, trying to match children with prospective adopters. They look at their background, their interests, all sorts of things, but actually paper’s not necessarily going to tell you whether there’s a magic connection between a child and a parent. It is quite incredible to watch how at the beginning it’s quite awkward, but through the various activities, some of the children and their parents begin to bond. I gather that the success rate of those matches is much higher than when children are placed purely based on paperwork. It was a pretty incredible day, I found, and gather it is a successful method of bringing children and parents together.
So in your research for this book, which is in large part about adoption, what were your big takeaways about the adoption system?
I felt that, like I said, perhaps there was too much red tape. I know that it is absolutely vital that we check and double-check the suitability of prospective adopters, but it feels as though they have to jump through a million hoops before they get to a child and the problem with that is there’s the heartache for them but also the children in the adoption process are getting older and older. It’s very hard to adopt a baby or a small child and sometimes these children spend years in the adoption system before they are matched and I think sometimes the system felt to me, in England anyway, felt quite slow because the checking is so rigorous, and as I said, as biological parents, yes we have the same genes, but it is quite a lottery of what kind of child you’ll have, what kind of character, whether you’ll be able to manage them. So I’d like to see them coming together a bit more swiftly.
I also realized that for the children in the adoption service, particularly those who get adopted very late, and quite a few of them were older at the adoption party, it’s very sad. There’s a sort of disillusionment that these children feel that somehow they’re not good enough to be picked, or that somehow they’re never going to find their forever family and so they do arrive in these families sometimes very cautious or skeptical and that’s something no child should ever feel. It’s hard. It’s a difficult process and I think everyone is working as hard as possible to make it work, but there are many sad stories, too.
We ask authors for this segment to share reading recommendations, and one of them is Beloved by Toni Morrison. And in that book, a mother is haunted by the ghost of her child whom she killed so the child would not have to grow up in slavery. I thought this was an interesting choice in part because this novel deals with the same question your novel deals with: what difficult things are you willing to do to do what's best for your child? In Beloved, obviously, the protagonist Sethe chooses a horrifying path, but the question seems the same at its heart. Am I off-base there?
No, that’s a wonderful connection, and that’s the question we always ask, and I think that’s the basic nature-nurture child question. People who have biological children think they would lay themselves down in the middle of the road to save a child or run into a burning building, they would give up their lives for their children and I certainly feel that for my own children, and the question then is: Would you do the same for a child who wasn’t biologically yours?
All the evidence I’ve seen—and I have personal experience as well, my godson is adopted from Romania, his sister from Vietnam—is that adoptive parents can form bonds that are so strong with these children that they will go to any lengths to look after them and nurture them and love them, and I suppose I’m a believer that biology isn’t everything. That actually incredible bonds can be made between people. Something that comes up again and again in my books is how people come together with no drop of blood in common, no background in common, and yet they form a family of sorts. That’s something in modern life—families are fragmented, separated, blended, and we’re forging these new relationships.
As an immigrant to America from England, I’m trying to forge a new family for myself from an extended family. I’m sort of adopting aunts and uncles and grandparents for my children here and some of those go really, really deep, and yes, the lengths you would go to for a child—whether he’s biological or not—I think is an issue at the heart of the book and my impression is that, if you are a parent, you’ll do just about everything for your child.
Part of this novel is told through Jonah's perspective. Jonah is seven at the start of the book, he turns eight by the end of it. How do you as a writer go about inhabiting the perspective of someone who is so young?
This is one of my favorite things I do in many of my adult novels. I kicked it off in my first novel, What Milo Saw, which is told predominantly through the eyes of a small boy.
The boy is slowly going blind in that novel, right?
He is. And it was considered a bit of a cross-over novel, like A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.
Mark Haddon’s novel about an autistic boy.
Exactly. It was pitched to both adults and young adults and even children. And the reason I loved writing from the point of view of children—well, first of all, I feel they need to have a voice. If a story is about family and about them, they need to have a voice. I think that is very important. But also because they have a magical view of the world. I think it’s hugely engaging for a reader. It’s sometimes a little bit of a naïve view. It’s a view that’s incomplete. As a reader, you see the world through their eyes and they’re both very hopeful sometimes but also have this incomplete knowledge. If you’re into geeky terms, there’s a term in literature called the “ironic gap” where you know more about what’s going on in the story than the character who is telling the story, and with children that’s almost always the case. If you’re a grown-up, you know more about what’s going on in Jonah’s life than Jonah does. He has a limited perspective because he’s much younger. That makes for quite a powerful reading experience.
I also think children add a bit of light. So the subjects I tackle in my books are quite strong social issues and they can sometimes become a bit preachy or heavy if they are exclusively told through adults. Children add a bit of humor and a bit of light to that. And I find it fun. I think I mentioned in my book recommendations Room by Emma Donoghue, completely horrific circumstances, he’s locked in a room. He’s been kidnapped with his mother. And yet he brings the most magical perspective of the world and that room because he’s a child, so it’s something I love to do.
How does a novel come together for you? Do you outline the whole thing, or do you sort of follow the story as you go along?
I usually am interested in a subject. I knew for a while that I wanted to write about modern adoption, and then I sometimes have a triggering event or I find out about a particular situation that tells me—wow, that’s going to be the opening of my novel. For this one, it was when I was talking to one of the social workers and she said to me that she worked for Heathrow Airport and quite often children are shipped from third world countries and less privileged countries with the chance of a new life in England or America and there was the expectation that they would be met by a family member. And yet no one is there to pick them up. Obviously they get picked up by social services and they get swept into the adoption service. I had this vision of a little boy lost at Heathrow airport on Christmas Day, having been abandoned by the person who brought him over and nobody there to pick him up, and what would happen then? That opening scene was a microcosm of the novel as a whole. It triggered the drama. And then I have an almost cinematic picture of what the opening needs to be and from there I work forward.
I have to say that I do have to plot quite far in advance from a pragmatic point of view. Editors these days want you to submit a full synopsis of the story as a proposal and they debate that with everyone else in the publishing team before they decide to acquire the book. So my very first work, I could just present the whole book, and say: “Would you like to have this book?” So I got to completely choose the plot and so on. Here it’s more of a discussion. I put forward a proposal with the synopsis and there might be a bit of debate with my editors and publishers and agent as to which element will work or won’t work. So usually I do have to know quite a lot in advance.
Do you prefer one method over the other?
I think it’s a really healthy discipline to really map out in detail what you think’s going to happen. Now, my publishers don’t expect me to keep to it completely. When I come to putting the magic on paper, writing the scenes, then I can go off the reservation a little bit, I can change things according to the demands of that story, and for me I feel it gives me a degree of security and forces me to write a good story and write good plot rather than just meander. Writers can be quite naval-gazing and fall in love with their language and quirky ideas and go off on tangents so this is a good way of focusing, I think.