Anna Shinoda

Forever Stuck Between Love and Fear: The Inspiration Behind Learning Not to Drown

“What inspired you to write Learning Not to Drown?” is the first question I’m asked in interviews.

I sometimes say that the United States incarcerates more of their population than any other country in the world.  Or that we spend a million dollars each year to incarcerate the residents of a single city block.  I might note the war on drugs has done very little to keep people from doing drugs and has contributed to the over-crowding of our prisons.  I could talk about the 3.2% of the US population-  almost 2 million citizens of my country– that are either incarcerated or on probation.

But the real reason I wrote a about a girl who has a brother in prison is because my brother is in prison.

A long time before the book came out, I was already thinking about how I might answer the “what inspired you” question.  Even writing this blog post has taken me months and several drafts to figure out what I want to say.  And although I was (and still am) nervous about admitting the truth, I decided that it is better that it come from me than someone finding it and feeling like they’ve found buried treasure.

So when I’m, asked, I am honest… and then most of the interviewers get all sidetracked.  They want to know how much of the story is me and how much is fiction. I tell them that if I wanted to, I would have written a memoir, but I decided to write a work of fiction out of respect for my family. I talk about how writing is like making a smoothie. How my husband and I go out to the garden and pick some kale and grind it up, then we add bananas, yogurt, strawberries, peaches and blueberries. How it all becomes part of the mix and it is impossible to separate the kale – the me – from the other stuff – the research and imagination. But unfortunately, it doesn’t matter. The moment I say I have a brother in prison, like my protagonist Clare, the most interviewers have already concluded that Clare’s story and mine are one in the same, intertwined, names have been changed to protect the innocent.

And they are wrong.

Yes, having a brother in prison made me the first resource for researching this book.  But when I started looking outside my own story, I wasn’t just researching to write a book. I found myself searching to understand who “we” are – the families out there like mine, who struggle to fake perceived “normal” while hiding our actual “normal.

In high school I never talked about having a brother in prison.  He was quite a bit older than I was, and being the youngest of seven kids, it was easy for my oldest siblings to blend into each other in my friend’s eyes.  It was easier for me, most days, to forget where he was, the only reminder that I had that seventh brother was the last picture taken before he was locked up that hung in my dad’s photography studio, right in line next to the rest of our family.  That, and the letters, or the collect phone calls.  No matter how much I tried to pretend or forget, the truth was always waiting for me.

While researching, I found no shortages of documentaries and journalists covering problems with our current prison system.  And I was amazed how people on message boards or chat rooms spilled their feelings behind the comfort of their keyboards, the protection of anonymity.  The thing that surprised me the most?  The openness my own family and friends showed when I told them about Learning Not To Drown, and the stories they told about themselves, about their incarcerated loved one.

There were stumbling blocks along the way.  In my research, I dug up new information on my own brother  – something that I didn’t know before… facts that threw me into a depression so deep and so wide I didn’t know if I could find my way to the surface.  But with the help of a good therapist and by helping Clare come to terms with her own situation, I eventually did.  Just weeks before the release of the book, I found out more information.  Which brought me to another realization: most families don’t know the whole truth.  We will never know the whole truth.

There are approximately two million people in the US correctional system today.  My book is about their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunt, uncles, cousins, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, and friends.  It is for the ones who live in the greyest area of all – where crime and punishment isn’t as cut and dry as good guys and bad guys.

Learning Not to Drown isn’t about me, it is about the families, the friends, the lovers, the children. The ones left at home. The ones forever stuck. Stuck between believing the people we love and believing the victims. Stuck between hope and reality. Stuck between love and fear. All the while, hoping to find a way to refuse to let the sunlight be stolen from our lives.

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6 thoughts on “Forever Stuck Between Love and Fear: The Inspiration Behind Learning Not to Drown

  1. Thanks for sharing Anna, I can only imagine the struggles you, your family and brother have all gone through. Perspective.

    I’m looking forward to working with you and your husband in the near future. I’ve had visions of making a difference with what God lays on my heart to write about. You both, as well as Jared Leto have a connection to change the world for the better that I’m convinced will make a positive mark on society.

    God bless,



  2. Anna, I can only imagine how emotional it was for you to write this blog entry. I read Learning Not To Drown a few months ago, and it stayed with me. Sometimes I had to put it down and come back a few hours later because it affected me so much. It brought to light a part of some people’s lives that I have never had to consider. Clare’s character was so vulnerable, yet in many ways so strong – in a way that I could never be. I rarely emotionally connect with a character like I did with Clare.

    All the things I’ve ever read about writing (including my favourite book – Anne of Green Gables) say the same thing – write about what you know. But when you write about what you know, your DNA is sprinkled throughout the book – important emotions and nuances are crafted not from imagination, but from having lived them. Because of this, even though your book is a work of fiction, the framework of the story is created, but the things that bring your book to life – are the heart and the blood of the writer.

    By writing what you know, you expose your soft underbelly to a world full of sharp things. Because of your high profile, you are more vulnerable to these. I’m sorry that you had to reveal your brother’s story to prevent a heartless stranger sharing this personal part of your life. I hope that writing the story, though an emotional and painful journey, has helped you. As a reader, it certainly opened my eyes and my mind.

    Thank you for sharing this with us. I admire you both for the woman that you have become, and the writer within you. Keep your heart open. Look forward to your next book.


  3. jozzie8 on said:

    Hi Anna, this was a good read. I really liked the last paragraph, very powerful yet touching at the same time.


  4. i, personally, thank you for being open about your experience with this topic. although my experience with it is no where near as serious or as hard to deal with as yours is, i still have a brother who went to jail, and your book helped me look at my brother and his situation in a better light. he was only incarcerated for three months last year for drinking and driving. he doesn’t and never did have a serious problem with alcohol, he just liked partying too much and never did it responsibly. i resented the hell out of him for it, because my family never had to go through something like this before, and in a way, it tore us apart a little. my parents wanted to support him as much as possible while in jail; they put money in his account there so he could buy candy and chips and shit. i severely opposed that, thinking that he didn’t deserve it, because he put himself there, which yes, he did. and my sister was on my side with it. and i felt the same way about him once he got home. we never really talked to each other. he stayed in his room and i stayed in mine, and the only time he ever talked to me was when he wanted to use me as a ride to his friends or something. but after i read LNTD, it kinda made me change my attitude towards him. i realized it could be so much worse. i could be in your shoes. but i’m not, and so i decided i wasn’t going to resent my brother anymore for what he did, and my sister, although she hasn’t read your book (yet), she kinda followed me with it. so my brother and i actually have somewhat of a family relationship now, and it feels much better than just constantly thinking ‘i can’t believe you were so stupid’ all the time. and i know he’s thankful for it, too. he’s finally started to take responsibility for his actions, he’s not partying as much as he used to, and when he does he’s being responsible about it. so as much as i’ve changed my attitude towards him, he’s changed his attitude towards his life and towards our family. and it’s really nice to see.
    so thank you for writing LNTD, thank you for being so open about everything. you’ve helped make a change in my life and with my family and that’s something that i have to really be grateful for. ❤


  5. YoMarques on said:

    One of the reasons I really appreciate your book is exactly because it tells us the story of what, most of the times, isn’t talked about but it is no less important, which is what the families and friends have to go through and how they feel about it all. Thank you for sharing this with us and for writing such an emotional and captivating book.


  6. ΕvoΟba on said:

    Let me just take my hat off to you for finding the courage to blog about this, something so personal.
    You’ve mentioned way before the book was published that it was indeed inspired from your childhood and having a brother in prison but that was it. Nothing more, nothing less. I am in no possible situation to fully understand what it must be like living with all these questions and ideas about having a loved one in jail, especially in a young age, but I can say I got an idea through your book. The way you described Clare’s feelings, the way she sometimes acted – so innocent and everything – simply captured it all. I just love how you managed to take something so personal and turn it into a beautiful work of fiction.
    Thank you for sharing this post with us!


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