Thursday, June 8, 2023

Q&A with Julia Franks




Julia Franks is the author of the new historical novel The Say So. She also has written the novel Over the Plain Houses. She lives in Atlanta.


Q: You write, “I was pro-choice and unreligious, but for complicated reasons, many of them naive or cocksure, I decided to bring my child to term and relinquish him for adoption.” How did your own experiences lead you to write this novel?


A: I was curious about the things other women had experienced in relinquishing their children to adoption, so I started reading a lot of oral histories and personal accounts—I mean a lot, and many of those accounts were self-published.


And boy, once you spend years delving into this forgotten history, you feel compelled to write about it. There are just so many women out there whose stories were never heard. So many. It felt like a chorus of people who’d been silenced.


As well, I’ve always been interested in the way people’s beliefs or ideologies, no matter how well-meaning, can end up causing harm when they’re put to the test in the real world. (The main character in my first book, Over the Plain Houses, is an extreme example.)


In The Say So, lots of characters, including the character of Meera, allow their beliefs to blind them in some way. This is also true for Edie’s parents’ goal to be part of a respectable middle class, for Luce’s quixotic goals about how easy it will be to change race relations, and especially true for the women running the maternity home, who actually do believe that the programs the Home offers are universally beneficial.


Q: How did you create your characters Edie and Luce?


A: Once you start researching, characters sort of show themselves, maybe from the history you’ve been reading, or maybe from your own subconscious mind. I saw Edie as someone who hadn’t yet questioned the status quo, and Luce as someone who’d been questioning it since early childhood.


And for me, their very differences were the basis for their friendship. From the get-go, Luce opens Edie’s mind to all these other ways of looking at the world. On the other hand, Edie offers Luce some of the stability and love and middle class acceptance that Luce secretly craves.


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


A: For me, the novel is ultimately about women’s choice, agency, empowerment, self-determination, call it what you will. But I was looking for a word that wasn’t already freighted with culture-war baggage. (At one point I actually entertained the idea of calling the novel “Agency,” but too many people told me that it sounded like a spy novel. Thankfully I listened to them.)


Q: The writer Wiley Cash said of the book, “It's rare that a novel speaks so eloquently to the contemporary moment as The Say So does. The years may pass but our stories stay the same.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: I love Wiley Cash’s description because it implies both the novel’s timeliness and its timelessness. I like to think that the novel has both qualities, so I was thrilled to read that.


I do think we’ve forgotten how constrained so many women’s lives were. We’ve forgotten that sex meant pregnancy and pregnancy meant that your role in life would now be prescribed by other people.


And a lot of people are unaware of that period in American history, when many thousands of girls “in trouble” were channeled into maternity homes and then coerced into relinquishing their babies.


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


A: I did. But that was the only thing I knew. I didn’t know how it started or how I was going to arrive at the end. I guess I worked backward, and not in a very methodical way either.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I appreciate this question, but I’m also superstitious enough not to want to answer it! I have this fear that if I start talking about it too soon, I’ll somehow be jinxing myself.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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