Friday, September 03, 2010

Author Chandra Hoffman ~ Interviewed

Since graduating from Cornell University, Chandra has been an orphanage relief worker in Romania, a horse trainer in the Caribbean, a short order cook in a third world hospital, the director of a US adoption program and an event planner for Philadelphia's Mainline elite.

She has lived in eleven international cities and this wanderlust shaped her writing—in each novel, the setting is its own character, flavoring the story. She prefers to write about everyday scenarios, shining a light on the complexities of situations through the voices of multiple characters. Her debut novel, Chosen, uses the domestic adoption scene of Portland, Oregon as a backdrop to pose the questions What happens when you get what you thought you wanted and How far would you go if it might not be what you want anymore?

Chandra received her MFA from Antioch University in 2007. She is now settled back in her hometown outside of Philadelphia with her husband, three young children and an ever-changing menagerie.

Tell us a bit about your current project.

CHOSEN is a multiple narrative novel set against the backdrop of the Portland, OR domestic adoption scene. It has themes of infertility, infidelity, adoption and extortion.

CHOSEN grew out of three defining experiences in my life: the first was my time in Romania post-Revolution as a relief worker in the infamous Orphanage Number One. Romania led me to the second experience, a job in the United States as the director of the domestic adoption program for a private agency, the sole caseworker managing birth and adoptive parents. My goal was to create happy endings, everything I hadn’t been able to do in Bucharest. But I quickly learned that there was another side to adoption, the business side, and that it was very difficult to meet the needs of everyone in the adoption triangle and keep a boss happy. I left the adoption world when I became a mother myself.

This was the final defining
point that shaped this novel: our first son's birth and diagnosis with Pierre Robin Syndrome, nearly losing him as an infant. As a new mother to a child with huge medical hurdles, I pondered some of the deeper issues that form the backbone of CHOSEN: How does parenthood change you? How will the challenges you face shape you as a couple? What happens when your expectations of parenthood are so far from the reality? What makes a good parent? A good person? What happens when you get what you thought you wanted?

The story is fiction--characters and settings and scenarios are as though I took a handful of experiences, threw in a well-marinated childhood paranoia about abduction, seasoned them with the salt of my vivid imagination, put them all in a bag and shook it. But the themes are real, straight from my own life and from those I have been privileged to witness.

We are all about journeys...unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.

I have been insanely lucky. I wrote an excellent cover letter and got offers from the first few agents I queried. Then I had lots of good attention from publishing houses when my manuscript went out. I think it’s important to know who your readers will be and let the industry know that you know. Also, Sally Kim at HarperCollins has defied every snarky, stereotype about editors. It is in large part to her credit that CHOSEN is the novel it is.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

I’ve found that having three kids and a bunch of needy pets has completely eliminated my block. I am so ecstatic for the few moments when I get to slip into a world where I have a semblance of control.

Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

No, but people expect you to. Once I was scribbling in a notebook during my son’s hockey practice, and I heard one mother whisper to another that I was a writer with a novel coming out. “Are you working on it now?” they wanted to know, peering over my shoulder, and I so wished I had been, but the grocery store is on the way home from the rink and I was jotting down my shopping list.

Not that I never write notes or deconstruct scenes at the kids’ sporting events and recitals, but at that particular moment, it was just tomato bisque, gluten free bread and raspberries.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?

Returning to Antioch’s MFA program was critical in so many ways. I knew, with three little kids and an event planning business that I would never have the discipline to finish my manuscript without the discipline of a program. I went back for Leonard Chang, who had been my mentor ten years earlier before I abandonned grad school for the siren song of Spain. I picked Leonard because he is an incredibly sharp editor and because he couldn’t be farther from my target audience—I knew he wouldn’t get caught up in the story, would be brutal with me.

Back in Leonard’s program I met fellow writer Linda Davis. We continued our school schedule, weekly check-ins and monthly work swap for the next three years. I look forward to Sunday mornings because of Linda. Finding a simpatico writer/reader friend is nothing short of gold. Every so often we send wine and thanks to Leonard for shaping us as writers and, more importantly, making sure our stars collided.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn't have to be one of your books or even published.)

I wrote an essay in honor of my mother-in-law who lost her twelve year battle with breast cancer in 2008. She was unfailing in her faith in me as a writer, a model as a mother/artist, and she insisted that the only way I was going to finish a book with all these little kids was if I got up at 4 am. You can read this piece about Cherry here:

Share a dream or something you'd love to accomplish through your writing career.

I’d like a starred book review in People magazine, something I could carry around in my wallet and whip out whenever someone asks what I do for a living or if they should have heard of my book.

What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?

Since I can’t say Nutella, I will say it is when I am free from distraction and in the zone, when I feel like I’m just the medium and the story is moving through me. I don’t want to jinx it, but this part is easy for me. It is giving myself the freedom to go there and get back in time for piano lessons that is a challenge.

What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?

In 1995 I traveled alone to Bucharest as a relief worker in an orphanage and pediatric hospital. My experiences there defined what I would do with my life (adoption work) for several years afterwards. But more importantly, I learned the value of letter writing and journals. I had a serious boyfriend at the time and he was my lifeline. We never spoke on the phone in all those months, but our daily letters and my journals were critical in keeping me grounded during an emotionally trying time. You can read more about Romania here:

Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you'd like.

Honestly, I take it where I can get it. I try to do my early morning writing in bed with a little jasmine tea since it makes me feel like I didn’t lose those two hours of sleep. Throughout the rest of the day I set my laptop up on the kitchen island so I can grab a moment whenever. CHOSEN was written in snatches, in between frying morning bacon and doing the dessert dishes. Right now I’m answering these questions on my laptop lying on my three-year-old’s bed while she straddles my back to brush my hair with a wooden soup ladle. She’s got her whole box of hair pretties out too--I bet I’m looking super fancy right now. No photo.

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

Getting a feel for the novel as a whole—when it is complete it feels unwieldy, like a 50 lb bag of horse feed, like I can’t hold it or even wrap my arms around it. I have two ways I handle this: deconstruction, where I literally take it apart and make beat sheets for each chapter or even every page. (If you want to know more about beat sheets, send me an email.) For me, this involves a lot of Post-its and highlighters and nobody can sleep on the master bed or even enter our bedroom for a few days. The other is reading it aloud in one sitting. Thanks to my listeners.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

I sit down and scribble out ideas in one big binge, often all night. I carry these sheets around for a few days since I know there will be some aftershocks. I have a new novel in a scribbly six-page draft like this. It's not my next one, or the one after that, but it’s the one after that. I get a little quivery whenever I think of it, and I peek at those pages sometimes, like cracking the over door to check on a crème brulee baking in the oven.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

Character character character. And nobody in my life is safe. The elegance of my friend’s wrists, the way she flutters her hands when she talks about her restaurant dream? Done. Some irreverent chat dialog with my sister—snagged. By the same token, the characters from my books become real to us at home. The other day I was drinking my red wine through a straw so it wouldn’t stain my teeth—I was just about to have my jacket photo taken--and my husband said with a tiny eye roll that that was ‘so Francie from CHOSEN.’

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

I regularly make the mistake of giving too much information. I want to make things so realistic, want my characters to have all the trappings of people in my daily life. I want them to be able to throw up without it being a sign that they’re pregnant, or take a phone call from their college roommate even if this person doesn’t drive the plot. CHOSEN was originally 135,000 words. It’s around 86,000 now. The secret is out--I’ve become a cutter.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.

After the months of glowing reviews and jacket blurbs flowing in pre-publication, I was floored by the first time someone trashed my book. In fact, she was really offended by it and said lots of nasty stuff about my characters and my writing ability on her blog. It was a great lesson for me as a writer about the lens of the reader. I don’t consider CHOSEN to be anti-adoption, nor do I think it lacks a ‘shred of positivity.’ Her reaction was a preview before the novel went out into the world that not everybody will love this story—which I sort of knew, because my boys and I have tried to get into Harry Potter three times with no luck—but more importantly, that every reader brings their own agendas and interpretations to my writing. That is completely out of my control

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?

Question: What is the message you want readers to take away from your book?

Answer: In everything I write, I strive to shine a light on the complexity of scenarios that we encounter regularly -- in this case, domestic adoption. When I took the agency job in Portland I was surprised by how many agendas there are to what seems like a simple equation, how many sides of the story. I chose unique voices for the multiple points of view, the grieving birthfather, one potential adoptive father, the jangled single mother, the green social worker, to underscore this fact.

There is a social aspect to this novel: I wanted to share an inside perspective on domestic adoption with characters who were human, flawed, and ultimately sympathetic, because the truth is, adoption is the creation of a family in a unique way, but there is a darker side, both the business aspect, and the fact that at every birth, someone is going home empty-handed. All parenthood is a risk; adoption ups the ante.

I've been asked before if I am for or against adoption, given my history and some interpretations of the tone of this book. I am fascinated by adoption, how complicated and beautiful and heartbreaking it can be. And I am awed by the courage it takes for everyone in the triangle to choose this.


Kelly Klepfer said...

Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Chandra!

Julie Garmon said...

Beautiful interview!

Marti Pieper said...

As both an adoptive and a biological mother myself, I've encountered some of the issues Chandra mentions. After the angst of our infertility/adoption experience, I seethed when more than one well-meaning friend looked at our newborn and said, "Oh, you had her the EASY way."

Now twenty-three, this daughter knows she's CHOSEN--and plans to adopt one day as well. Thanks for a great interview.

PatriciaW said...

This is what I love about Novel Journey. I get to learn about authors and books, and the authors' processes, which I might not otherwise.

Thanks for introducing me to Chandra Hoffman (fellow CU alum -- Go Big Red!)