“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.