Saturday, May 18, 2019

Q&A with Rachel Howard

Rachel Howard, photo by Emmet Cullen
Rachel Howard is the author of the new novel The Risk of Us. It focuses on a couple and their foster daughter. Howard also has written the memoir The Lost Night, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times. She lives in Nevada City, California.

Q: You note that The Risk of Us originated with your own family's story, but that you decided to write the story as fiction "to make a space for readers to be in this tension and ambiguity of trying to become a family, but I didn't want it to be about me." What did you see as the right blend between your own experiences and your fictional creations as you wrote the novel?

A: Ah, that’s a tough question. The honest answer is that I didn’t decide on a right proportion for the blend. I’ve spent a lot of years wrestling with the question of “What is the difference between memoir and fiction?” because I’ve long loved to read and write fiction, but my first book was a memoir.

I’ve come to believe that, for me, the differences are primarily two: First, the impetus for memoir (at least for me) has to do with self-excavation and self-discovery, maybe even a cathartic writing myself to the end of one life story and the beginning of another.

Second, memoir can do some relying on the power of telling the reader “This really happened.” The inner reality of its pages connects to outer, real-life reality. Whereas to me, in fiction—even if I know the story aligns in some ways with the writer’s life facts—the story has its own internal reality. Either its internal reality is fully and self-sufficiently convincing, or the work is not quite whole.

For that reason, as I wrote The Risk of Us, I treated my own family’s experience in the foster care world as a starting point for the internal reality of the book. Very quickly as I thought about the dynamics I wanted to set up between the characters and the story shape, some things shifted.

I’d feel I failed if the reader has to know exactly which things line up to have the story feel “real,” but two quick examples, my husband does not have an atrial septal heart defect, and I was not (to my knowledge) unable to have biological offspring. Things about Maresa and my real-life daughter differ, too.

But rather than deciding on a right blend, I entered the world as wholly imagined. Whether something lined up or didn’t with real life was immaterial. I didn’t track it. This way of working can have strange effects. Now, for instance, I sometimes fleetingly think that things I imagined for the book really happened to me in life.

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

A: It’s funny, it actually took a long path to arrive at the title The Risk of Us, even though it felt so right when it came. The working title of the novel was Finalizing—as in, finalizing an adoption. I suppose that title has some obvious faults!

When it came time to change it, after weeks of brain-wracking (and my agents’ brain-wracking!), I was lying awake at 1 a.m. and the word “risk” came to me. I remembered the line early on about the brochure the novel’s narrator sees, a brochure from a foster services agency saying they needed families that “take risks.” I remembered that the line—which I saw in a real-life brochure—had been an important early catalyst for the novel.

To me The Risk of Us signifies the essence of the experience these three characters—the husband and wife who want to adopt and Maresa, the seven-year-old-girl in foster care—are about to enter. They each have a lot on the line, and no guarantees that they will make it to becoming a bonded family. In fact, the odds are against them.

Q: Did you need to do additional research to write the novel?

A: I researched the parenting books recommended to foster parents, and the kinds of therapy that were primarily practiced. I also researched the newer laws of foster care, a model in California called “concurrent planning,” where foster parents are asked to commit to offering the foster child a permanent home, but simultaneously be open to the possibility of the child reunifying with a birth parent. It asks a lot of the foster parents, but I do think it’s the best model.

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

A: I hope readers will take away a sense of just being with truth and reality in all its complexity. That they’ll feel they inhabited a space, within these pages, where pain and beauty exist side by side, and where truth is complex.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a spiritual memoir about learning to sing at an old piano bar in Oakland called The Alley, with a pianist who played there five nights a week from 1960 until he died in 2017, Rod Dibble. The memoir is a serious exploration of the idea of “true religion,” but at the same time, it’s a lot of fun! Quite a shift from writing The Risk of Us.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I don’t think so! I’m grateful for your provocative questions.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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