Sunday, February 15, 2015

Q&A with Lauren Francis-Sharma

Lauren Francis-Sharma is the author of the new novel 'Til the Well Runs Dry, which is set mostly in Trinidad. She has practiced law in New York, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., and lives in the Maryland suburbs of  D.C.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Marcia?

A: Marcia is a character loosely based on my grandmother. What I knew is that she was born and raised in Blanchisseuse, she had a difficult relationship with my grandfather, and she ended up taking a domestic position in the U.S., leaving the kids behind and coming to Maryland, where something happened and she ran away to New York. That was the bones of the story.

Marcia’s personality was what I thought my grandmother’s personality would have been when she was younger.

Q: Did you know your grandmother?

A: Yes, I spent many summers with her. But know and know are two different things. She was a very private person. I did not ask her questions—that’s one of the regrets I live with. I wonder whether she would have been receptive, and the answer is probably no. Culturally and generationally, self-revelation and introspection were not part of her fabric. I knew a little, but her heart and mind—not really.

Q: Why did you decide to tell the story from the perspectives of three of the characters?

A: I started with Jacqueline [one of Marcia’s daughters] as the narrator. I knew Marcia would be her mother. It was supposed to be a young girl discussing her mom and the secrets her mother tells, her relationship [with her father], the past.

There’s a scene in the book where Mr. Harlow comes to the house [to talk] about Marcia coming to the U.S.—that scene was my first scene I had written. The mother is banging the spoon on the pot lid, and Jacqueline is getting up, she’s awakened this way.

I thought, I’ve got to tell a little about the mother to tell my story better. I thought it was backstory, but this voice then took over the story! I thought, all right, it’s a mother and a daughter.

The problem was that Marcia was very private. I struggled with the daughter not knowing the mother’s secret. The mother was not telling. So how do I let the reader know? That’s how Farouk [Jacqueline’s father] came about. It became necessary. I’m so happy it worked out that way!

Q: Did you set the novel in the 1940s-1960s because that fit with your grandmother’s experiences?

A: There’s probably a five- or six-year difference. I moved it up a little mostly because I wanted to cover the elections in Trinidad in a particular way. I wanted to bring the uncle in.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to recapture that time period?

A: My father was born in 1941, and he remembered a lot, particularly around the time of the elections. When I went on a trip to Trinidad, I spoke to people. I picked up books.

Dr. Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad, he wrote an incredible book that takes you from the late 1800s right up to the election. It’s a really dense piece of work. [Trinidad was] lucky that the first prime minister sits down and decides that everyone in the country needs to understand its history. History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. He has two books. I also bought books by another author, Michael Anthony.

[Also important was] being on the ground talking to people—what the roads are like, what it felt like.

Q: How was the title selected?

A: That was supposed to be the working title. It was something my mother used to say to us all the time, if we were being ungrateful—you never miss the water till the well runs dry. It’s something that just stayed with me. I was thinking about the title of the book, and it was fitting.

I really wanted a short, quick title, and my editor said, Leave it like that, Lauren, it’s good!

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: I think I’ve always been really captivated by Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye made me sit up and say, Oh my God.

I think because my parents came from a former British colony and my mother is a huge reader of British literature, I keep coming back to the old English classics. Very often they don’t seem to be in favor all the time, unless you’re in an English department at a university, [but] Wuthering Heights is still one of my favorite books. I read it every single year.

Khaled Hosseini—I like that he writes these books that take you places you’ve never been, in ways that are approachable and readable. Hilary Mantel—the kind of research she does for a book—she’s magical. Stephen King—just the ability to tell a story that holds you by the edge of your seat: that’s fantastic.

The first time I thought to myself, I could do this!, is when I was reading Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day. It’s still one of my favorite books. It’s a family story and a love story at its core. I just love it.

Q: Did you know how your novel would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way? 

A: Yes, I knew that it would end with a journey, but I was not exactly sure who else, besides Marcia, would be taking this journey. 

My inclination was to wrap everything up as neatly as possible, but with the guidance of my editor it became clear that this was not that kind of story. There could be no perfect ending when your characters are at the beginning of a journey, there could be no perfect ending when some characters are left behind, and there could be no perfect ending when there are characters still longing for something.

Yet, even with all these imperfections, I do love the ending. I remember a senior V.P. at Holt pulling me aside one day and saying how thrilling it was to have a book with a happy ending. And that's how I see it too.  

Q: How have readers reacted to your characters? 

A: Oh, I'm so lucky. The best part of this experience has been the hundreds of e-mails and Facebook messages I've received since April from readers who are delighted with this book and more specifically, delighted to have met Marcia and Jacqueline. 

Farouk....well, I think I'm the only person who loves him, though there are many readers who understand and appreciate him, and that's all I can hope for with a character as complex has Farouk. 

Generally, however, readers are rooting for this family. They are deeply saddened by the tragedy, yelling at the pages set in New York City, swooning over Jacqueline's teacher, sympathizing with the brother, Wesley. 

My bookclub visits have been the most fun, as I have been able to sit back and watch people discuss these characters. It is truly the most rewarding thing about this experience, thus far.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m doing the same thing a lot of first-time writers have to do—How do you write and promote at the same time? That is a struggle!

I’m actually working on a new project, but it’s not the same as when you write your first book, [when] the thread of your narrative stays in your head all day long.

Now, there might be two or three days—I was off at a literary festival, then the Congressional Black Caucus, I’m supposed to be at another event, along with my two children, soccer, a birthday party. I didn’t touch my writing for three days, and it takes an hour or two to just get the rhythm back.

I’m working on something that has a little bit of the Caribbean again—Trinidad, Grenada, and Cuba—set in World War II, in Baltimore.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Lauren Francis-Sharma will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable on Feb. 28, 2015. For an earlier version of this Q&A, please click here.

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