Seekerville welcomes Christy Award Finalist Pamela Binnings Ewen. To get your name in the drawing for a copy of her award winning novel The Moon in the Mango Tree, answer Pamela's question at the end of this blog and all correct answerers (is answerers a word?) will be in the drawing.
And now, here's Pamela.
HOW TO WRITE YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S STORY WHEN YOU KNOW SHE’S UP THERE WATCHING?
First thing you do—you get it right! You’re not going to believe what happened on my first attempt with The Moon in the Mango Tree, the story of my grandmother’s life in the glittering decade, the 1920’s, when she lived in Siam (now Thailand), and then in Paris and Rome. Writing about someone you love takes a delicate touch, you want to reach the truth, the heart of the story. I found that sometimes that means dealing with facts that you’d not expected to find.
But, first things first. Take a look at this photo.
Here are my grandmother and grandfather standing together under a tree in the middle of the jungle in the North of Siam.
My grandfather was a medical missionary at that time. I love her long ruffled dress, and his bow tie and the tropical whites he always wore! Found this picture in a box of old sepia photographs and letters after she passed on. Note the expression on her face—“Anywhere but here…!” You can write a book about this picture (and essentially, I did). Family stories and pictures like this are gold nuggets for writers.
But why the expression and body language in the photo? It took years for me to understand. This picture was taken at the beginning of the decade, around 1923, about the time my grandmother, living in the jungles of Siam, figured out that back home in the U.S. women were shortening their hair and skirts, driving automobiles, and dancing the Charleston. I’ll bet that if you search, you’ll find a family story tucked away somewhere just waiting to be discovered and written. Sift through boxes of old letters and photos. Look for journals from the past that are stashed away in attics, talk to the older people in your family—if not your grandmother, talk to an uncle who fought in a war, that cousin who was a flower child in the sixties.
I first wrote my grandmother’s story as non-fiction, from the perspective of her granddaughter. When I was a child my grandmother told bedtime stories of life in Siam and later in Europe, and she told them as funny, fantastical adventures, laughing and gesturing and carrying on as if she’d loved every minute. My mother was born in Siam. My grandmother rode a bamboo raft for seven days downriver to Bangkok for the birth. They got there with one day to spare!
So, I grew up hearing the whimsical tales—stories of a pet gibbon who stole my mother from her cradle, of the beat of the evening temple drums as the old gold moon rose behind the mango tree, of priests in yellow robes, tigers in the dusk, trains of elephants moving through forests and villages carrying local royal princes. In 1926 the family moved to Bangkok and my grandfather started the first medical school in the country and became the royal physician. My mother has vivid memories of that time. The King of Siam at that time was the grandson of the King known as Chulalongkorn, from the story The King and I.
But the letters and photographs unlocked secrets. The letters wove the same stories that I’d heard as a child, but now I discovered many complex layers to my grandmother’s past and personality, revealing a spirited young woman who, despite her love for her husband, also longed for her lost musical career, questioned her faith, questioned even the meaning and purpose of life. And remember that in those days, women had barely gotten their first taste of freedom in citizenship—we’d just won the right to vote, but there were still limits. Women weren’t allowed to own property in most states, nor do such things as serve on juries.
So prepare for the secrets you may discover. My mistake was to distance myself from my beloved grandmother’s true story as I wrote. I didn’t want to write the story of a sometimes rebellious and unhappy young medical missionary wife who found herself posted to an isolated jungle town in Siam—Nan, a small, ancient place filled with temples and palaces, but no automobiles, no radio, no music, no parties…no ice. I’d never realized that she’d given up a musical career to follow my grandfather across the globe to Siam and what that must have meant to her. To get to Nan they trekked on ponies across a mountain range and through jungles for five days with a caravan of porters carrying their belongings and live chickens in cages for dinner; sleeping on high bamboo platforms each night for fear of tigers.
I found that it was difficult to write about things my grandmother had kept hidden all those years. So I skimmed along the surface of the story. When I finished the book and my agent sent it out to publishers, I received rejections, rejections, rejections. Loved the stories, the letters said. Love the setting, the idea. But just don’t like your grandmother!
I was devastated. I’d let my grandmother down. I’d let my mother down and I’d gotten things all wrong. I’d failed to capture my grandmother’s true loving, complex spirit and the failure was mine, not hers. Blown away, I put the manuscript aside for a few years and wrote my first published novel, losing myself in Walk Back The Cat, a faster paced story of suspense, of power and revenge.
But when I’d finished writing Walk Back The Cat, I read Mango Tree again and the passage of time allowed a fresh look at the story. My grandmother was loveable, funny, sometimes outrageous, sometimes rebellious. She was such a good person, and yet she was also flawed—as are we all. I went back to the letters and read them again. The dazzling decade that I had covered was not just a good story, I realized now; for my grandmother it was also a search for faith, meaning and purpose, and independence, a search that led her ultimately to have to choose between two things she loved. I was determined to deal with the advice in those rejections and find a way to allow readers to discover the real woman in the story, not just my grandmother. (Spoiler alert: I did let myself go with my own thoughts in the Epilogue though.)
The best teachers are great writers, so I decided to try to learn from the best. Here’s what I did: I ‘deconstructed’ a novel featuring one of the greatest heroines in American literature, a woman that we all love in spite of her flaws. For about the tenth time I read the book cover to cover, but this time I highlighted with a yellow marks-a-lot every passage in which the heroine did something outrageous, or something that today we find especially hard to understand. When I’d finished, I reread those passages, paying special attention to the sections written just before and after the highlighted lines, to see how the author managed to make her heroine loveable. What I found was this—the author was always careful to share her heroine’s feelings, thoughts, and motivations with the reader. She probed beneath the surface of the character’s personality so that the reader could understand why she’d acted as she had. Because I had distanced myself from the story, and because I had written the book as non-fiction, I had neglected to include those reflections that made us human and sometimes vulnerable.
My agent suggested that I step back from the story and fictionalize. Fiction can sometimes reach a deeper truth. So I started over again from page one and wrote The Moon in the Mango Tree as published today. What a joy that was. I felt my grandmother looking over my shoulder and I’m certain she approves. When my mother and her sister read the final version, they both wept. They told me that I had given them their mother back! Unlike any other story, writing The Moon in the Mango Tree, for me, was a labor of love. On my website, www.pamelaewen.com, there is a photo album showing more pictures of the characters and places in the book if you’re interested.
Well, after all that, can you guess what book I deconstructed and who the heroine was?
Answer in the comments section to get your name in the drawing.-Mary
Ha. I’ll bet you can in a snap. Anyway, I’ll tell you over coffee.