Sunday, February 10, 2019

Q&A with Vanessa McGrady

Vanessa McGrady, photo by Stephanie Simpson
Vanessa McGrady is the author of the new book Rock Needs River: A Memoir About a Very Open Adoption. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and She works in corporate communications, and she lives in Glendale, California.

Q: Why did you decide to write about your experience with an open adoption and at what point did you decide it would become a book?

A: Well, to begin with, personal essays are my favorite things to write, and when major stuff happens to me, I try to make sense of it through story.

I wrote about Bridgett and Bill, my daughter’s birth parents, living with us for The New York Times’ parenting blog as it was happening. And after that, it kept feeling like it was a bigger story, and I thought it would be maybe a short e-book, so I just kept writing.

I had so much help shaping it and forming it into a longer, book-length piece with the help of my agent, Cheryl Pientka. And there were times when I wondered if there was enough there for a full volume, but I guess that depends on where you stop and start the story.

My editor, Carmen Johnson, also helped on the other end of it all to bring it up to where it needed to be. One of my favorite parts of the book happened when Carmen asked me to write more about my own parents, and it felt very appropriate to do that on my 50th birthday. It’s in the beginning of the book.

I’m so grateful to Cheryl and Carmen for their wisdom and insight during the whole process.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I had so many other title ideas that just didn’t cut it. Everything seemed too wrong or too “movie of the week” for what this book is. But the concept for the real title came to me in Texas, on the way to interview Bill and Bridgett.

From the book: "The drive the next day took me along scrubby fields toward the swelling Medina River carved into a granite shore. It had been so long since I’d been near water like this. I marveled at the riparian system: All these slate-grey rocks need the river for their form and placement. A river needs rocks to give it a path, to slow it down and speed it up. Rocks and rivers are intrinsic opposites, yet they are critical components of each other, together and separately.”

This seemed like the perfect metaphor for our situation. And then I worked with another friend to boil that down into the title I fell in love with, Rock Needs River.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope they understand that adoption is very nuanced and it’s different for every family. I hope they understand that not every path to parenthood is a straight line. I hope they understand that it’s OK to say, “I was wrong, I messed up,” and then try to move forward from there. 

Because I feel like so many times we make these monumental fuck-ups until we finally get something right. That’s what this book is about.

Q: What do your family members think of the book, and what is your relationship like at this point with your daughter's birth parents?

A: My mother and my cousin Elizabeth are my only family members who have read the book so far, as far as I know, and they loved it (but my mother did have a question about one part where I talk about the intensity of visiting her, which is really my own limitation and lack of tools, not anything about her).

Peter, my ex-husband and Grace’s father, died in early January, very sadly and unexpectedly. His family has read the book and they are, for many reasons, uncomfortable with it.

A couple weeks before he died, I told Peter I would let him read an advance copy but might not like the book because it goes into our marriage and the issues that destroyed it. But he did say, “I just want people to know that Grace has a dad who is involved.” And I think I did that.

Bridgett and Bill have chosen not to be in contact with us at this time. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now, just getting through the day, actually! I have my daily bread-and-butter writing work for brands and some journalism. I’m a 100 percent single mom now, so I need to balance that in and figure out how to do more for Grace as her sole parent. I do have a related project coming soon that I’ll share more about when it’s done.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope anyone who reads this book will do so with compassion and understanding that no person, or family, is perfect. I hope they’ll take a moment before deciding to judge someone on what they see at first glance, or whatever their preconceived ideas are, especially about marginalized people, like the homeless.

And that if you like a book, reach out and tell the author—the strangers who have done that for me in the past month have lit up my day every time and it means so much to me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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