Dear Readers, I’m always glad to host Lisa Wingate on this blog. There’s a kind of funny story about how we first met. A number of years ago, I can’t remember how many, I had acquired a Lisa Wingate book. She is a fellow
author, and I really enjoyed the book,
because I’d been to some of the places she used as her setting. Her characters
leapt off the page right into my heart. When I finished, I found out she had a
book with the title Never Say Never. I
had a book with that title, too. They were vastly different books, but they led
to me contacting Lisa. I’ve featured many of her books on my blog, and they are
so different from mine. I haven’t read one that I didn’t love. Her stories stay
with the reader a long time. Texas
Welcome back, Lisa. How did this book come about?
For me, every piece of fiction begins with a spark. From there, the story travels on the winds of research and imagination. Before We Were Yours had the most unexpected kind of beginning.
I was up late one night working on materials for a different story and had the TV playing in the background for company. A rerun of the Investigation Discovery: Dangerous Women cycled through at about two in the morning. I looked up and saw images of an old mansion. The front room was filled with bassinettes and babies. There were crying babies, laughing babies, babies who were red-cheeked and sweaty-faced and sickly looking. I tuned in and immediately became fascinated by the bizarre, tragic, and startling history of Georgia Tann and her
Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s
Home Society. One of the most shocking things about the story was how recent it
was. Georgia Tann and her children’s home operated from the 1920s through 1950.
After watching the segment, I literally could not clear the images from my
mind. I couldn't stop wondering about the thousands of children who had been
victimized by Georgia’s
system, who had been brokered in adoptions for profit.
What became of them? Where were they now?
I couldn’t help but dig into the story. I was shocked by the scope of
network, the fact that she affected so many children, and the tragic
consequences of her cruelty and greed.
Wow, you’ve caught my attention. Tell us about the book’s cover and what makes it unique.
The cover actually went through many iterations before we landed on a combination that seemed just perfect for the story. I have to say, of all of my book covers on over thirty novels now, this one is my favorite. There’s just something about the posture of these two little girls that speaks to me. They represent twelve-year-old Rill, a little girl growing up on her parents’
Mississippi river shantyboat and her
young sister, Fern. When they and their five siblings are taken from their
parents one stormy night and placed in one of Georgia Tann’s orphan houses,
Rill struggles not only to protect herself, but to keep her siblings together.
That battle, to me is what this picture represents—the uncertainty of their
situation, the strength of their sibling bond, and Rill’s determination to
return to her free floating life on the river.
Please explain and differentiate between what’s fact and fiction in the book.
Rill and her siblings in the novel and their shantyboat life on the
Mississippi river are fiction. Avery, the thirty-year-old
senator’s daughter in the modern-day portion of the novel is fictional as well.
The Foss children and Avery Stafford began taking shape as I combed through accounts of birth parents who’d searched for their stolen children for decades and adoptees who’d searched for their birth families. Survivors of TCHS care, desperately seeking their true identities, were confronted with systematic legislative roadblocks, altered paperwork, and closely held secrets. Because powerful families and
celebrities were involved in TCHS adoptions, and because many people felt that
the children should be left where they were, there was pressure to legalize
even the most irregular of Tann’s adoptions and seal the records, which was
exactly what happened.
As with most stories that are true or partially true, the dividing line between good and evil is murky in the case of Georgia Tann and her Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society. The journey of the Foss children in the novel reflects this. Certainly, TCHS removed some children from unfit birth families and facilitated adoptions into safe, loving homes that provided great opportunity. Sadly, thousands of others were left with lasting damage and questions that would never be answered.
I hope Before We Were Yours, in some way, tells their stories. Yes, it’s fiction. Rill and her four siblings, growing up on their family’s shantyboat in the
were figments of my imagination. But in a way, they existed. In a way, they are
any one and every one of these children, taken from their families, torn from
their lives with no explanation or understanding of what was happening, and
deposited into an unregulated, unfit, and politically corrupt system that
operated not based on child welfare, but on profit. Those were the stories I
wanted to tell––the stories told in the smallest voices or never told at all.
I’m glad you wrote this story. I had been aware of this situation, but I didn’t know how long it went on or how horrible some of the cases were. How much research did you have to do for this book?
The book was research-intensive. I took in nearly everything I could find about the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in
Memphis and Georgia Tann. In large part, I
found bits of the story here and bits there. The Discovery Channel’s Deadly Women and 60 Minutes provided helpful information and visuals. Several books,
including, Babies For by Linda Austin and The Baby Thief by Barbara Raymond were
particularly helpful in researching the adoption scandal. Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat Journal is a beautiful
account of shantyboat life on the river. I also spent time in Sale Memphis, researching locations, combing
through the river museum, visiting the library and the university’s photo
archives, and talking to people who remembered the scandal.
What are some of the most interesting things you found about this subject that you weren’t able to use in the story?
Because Before We Were Yours is fiction, I was able to thread in what I felt were the most interesting pieces of the true-life history of Georgia Tann and her
branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. One interesting aspect of the
true story that isn’t in the novel is the special investigation that was
conducted as Georgia Tann’s operation was finally shut down in 1950. The
original report to Governor Browning was filled with information about Tann’s
nefarious methods, the deaths of children in her system of unregulated boarding
homes, and the sheer panic of adoptive families who were terrified that the
children they’d raised for years would be taken away. There were also some
wonderful newspaper stories written years later, telling of birth families
What inspired and surprised you while you were writing the book?
The resilience of the children who had survived stints in TCHS care (and in the care of other orphans’ homes) and their determination to regain their identities, to resist being defined by the circumstances they’d been delivered into through no fault of their own.
What do you hope the reader takes away from the story?
I hope readers take away the message that we need not be defined by our pasts. I hope Rill’s experience resonates with readers who have in some way surrendered to the wounds of painful past experiences. Rill faces that battle as she matures. As an old woman, she advises thirty-year-old Avery, “A woman’s past need not predict her future. She can dance to new music if she chooses. Her own music. To hear it, she must only stop talking. To herself, I mean. We’re always trying to persuade ourselves of things.” Living in a defensive posture is another form of allowing other people to dictate who we are and what we believe about ourselves. Letting go, dancing to our own music is a risk, but on the other side of that process lays light, freedom, and fulfillment. That’s what I hope people take away from Before We Were Yours. Our lives have purpose, but to fulfill that purpose we must first claim ourselves.
I also hope that, in a broader sense, the story of Rill and the Foss children serves to document the lives of all the children who disappeared into Georgia Tann’s unregulated system. Only by remembering history are we reminded not to let it repeat itself. It’s important that we, ordinary people busy with the rush of everyday life, remember that children are vulnerable, that on any given day, thousands of children live the uncertainty of Rill’s journey. We have to be aware. We must be kind neighbors, determined protectors, willing encouragers, wise teachers, and strong advocates, not just for the children who are ours by birth, but for all children.
What is the next project you’re working on?
I can’t imagine not being at work on a new story, and yes, of course I am at work on another novel now. I think this will be novel number thirty-one. As always, this new story began with a piece of history that was huge in its day. Just a little over a century ago, anyone, anywhere would have recognized the names. Today, hardly anyone would. Through fiction, I have the chance to resurrect these people whose lives have gone into quiet slumber. I learn about their world and slip into their lives. As always, the experience is both challenging and wonderful. I’ve finished the first draft, which is always the hard part. The first draft, for me, is about figuring out the story, sifting through loads of raw ore and finding the gold nuggets. It’s hard work and heavy lifting, backbreaking in a way. The second draft is about getting the story into shape for other people to read–shining up the gold nuggets and hanging them on a string. That’s the fun part.
What do you do when you have to get away from the story for a while?
Photography! I love it and anyone who follows my Facebook page will find tons of photos, from the vast mountain vistas to little wonders that could easily go unnoticed underfoot. I love looking at life through the lens of a camera.
Please give us the first page of the book.
A U G U S T 3, 1939
My story begins on a sweltering August night in a place I will never set eyes upon. The room takes life only in my imaginings. It is large most days when I conjure it. The walls are white and clean, the bed linens crisp as a fallen leaf. The private suite has the very finest of everything. Outside, the breeze is weary, and the cicadas throb in the tall trees, their verdant hiding places just below the window frames. The screens sway inward as the attic fan rattles overhead, pulling at wet air that has no desire to be moved.
The scent of pine wafts in, and the woman’s screams press out as the nurses hold her fast to the bed. Sweat pools on her skin and rushes down her face and arms and legs, She’d be horrified if she were aware of this.
She is pretty. A gentle, fragile soul. Not the sort who would intentionally bring about the catastrophic unraveling that is only, this moment, beginning. In my multifold years of life, I have learned that most people get along as best they can. They don’t intend to hurt anyone. It is merely a terrible by-product of surviving.
It isn’t her fault, all that comes to pass after that one final, merciless push. She produces the very last thing she could possibly want. Silent flesh comes forth—a tiny, fair-haired girl as pretty as a doll, yet blue and still.
The woman has no way of knowing her child’s fate, or if she does know, the medications will cause the memory of it to be nothing but a blur by tomorrow. She ceases her thrashing and surrenders to the twilight sleep, lulled by the doses of morphine and scopolamine administered to help her defeat the pain.
To help her release everything, and she will.
Sympathetic conversation takes place as doctors stitch and nurses clean up what is left.
“So sad when it happens this way. So out of order when a life has not even one breath in this world.”
“You have to wonder sometimes…why…when a child is so very wanted….”
I am eager to read the book. How can readers find you on the Internet?
Lisa’s website: www.Lisawingate.com
Lisa’s newsletter signup: http://visitor.r20.constantcontact.com/manage/optin/ea?v=0018GC6MpVjY0TpvP16_2KxSyrRJByqJCRpyYmRWXZCW3i5gO4vpFWzOU5TC0yqiiw8ZFUeQazAAms%3D
Lisa’s blog: http://theuntoldstory.guru
Where can I read and excerpt of Before We Were Yours?
On my website, of course. Sign up for my newsletter while you are there, if you wish.
Here is the direct link to the excerpt:
Thank you, Lisa, for sharing this book with us. I eagerly await the release date in June. And they are available by pre-order on Christianbook.com and Amazon.com.
Readers, here are links to the book. By using one when you order, you help support this blog.Before We Were Yours - Christianbook.com (best pre-order price Hardback)
Before We Were Yours: A Novel - Kindle
Before We Were Yours: A Novel - Amazon Hardback
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