Friday, August 21, 2009


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.

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,, 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.


  1. Pamela, I feel your pain as you struggled to capture your grandmother on the page. I have a hard enough time bringing a fictional character to life as I envision him/her. How much more difficult it would be to portray a real person who meant so much to you. I'm glad you worked through the rejections and came up with a story that does your grandmother justice. How rewarding.

    I'm the first to guess, and I'm going with Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.

  2. Keli beat me I'd say Scarlett, too. I've been writing a blog post of my own about her .

    This is a fascinating story; what a legacy. I imagine it would be quite a task to write such a story and I'm glad you were able to honor your grandmother's story in such a way. I'm intrigued!

    Thank you, Pamela


  3. Good morning, Pamela! Welcome to Seekerville! I'll also pick Scarlett O'Hara. Julie will to, I'm sure.

    I love the picture of your grandmother as a young woman in her lacy dress. Her face is captivating. I'm so glad you wrote the book and we can share with you her life. I think that often fiction captures a life so much better than non fiction.

  4. Welcome to Seekerville, Pamela.

    Tea is served.

    What a lovely, lovely story about telling your grandmother's story. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

  5. Pamela what a wonderful story and great therapy. I can sense the heightened appreciation not only for your grandmother but for the times. And I love that you then fictionalized it because going 'fiction' allowed you a totally free creative bend.

    Yay for you! That takes guts.

    I went with tropical foods for breakfast because yummy Thai fruits should be the order of the day!

    Mango and pineapple cheese pie starts us off, a delightfully bright concoction to eye the upcoming weekend! And a selection of juices...

    Mango. Grape. Pineapple. Papaya. And there's a combo slushee of all the above for those of us mopping our brows.

    And coffee. Gallons, hot and fresh. And a touch of chocolate to create a mocha extravaganza because a girl can never have too much chocolate. :)

    Pamela thanks so much for joining us here today!

    And I'm laughing at your question and the three identical answers. Can you think of any other culture where three diverse minds would jump to ONE heroine with a question like that?????


    Are ya' kiddin' me? And I don't even like her, LOL!

    (Don't kill me, Julie!!!)

    I wanted to guess the second Mrs. DeWinter (just to be defiant) from Rebecca, but Daphne DuMaurier is British.


    Do you know how few famous, earth-shaking fictional heroines are American???? Come on, girls, let's get on it!!! Create those amazing, hold-to-your-heart women! Any one of us could become the next Margaret Mitchell with a heroine that captures hearts and minds for decades, nay, even centuries!!!

    In defiance of the Scarlett overload, I'm going for "Jo" of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott just because.

    And I'm eating a papaya in her honor!


  6. Pamela,

    Scarlet O'Hara from Gone With the Wind?

    Thank you for your post today. I've been writing my grandmother's story for 15 years - everytime I sit and talk with her I have a notebook in hand. It's been amazing. For me, it's turning into an Appalachian Anne of Green Gables type triology (I hope). There's no way it can all fit into one book :-)

    I'm blessed with the fact that she's still with me - so when I come to a situation, I call her up and ask questions to clarify. Another amazing thing is that she's read parts of it and made comments...mostly good ones :-) Having her here, though trepidatious at times, adds even more inspiration to the process.

    I'm taking a slushy as I head off to work, Ruthy :-)

  7. Great post! Ruthy beat me to the punch. If the answer is Scarlett, I never would have gotten it. Like most guys, I like Melanie, but think Scarlett is a pain.

  8. I'd guess the book is Gone with the Wind and of course the heroine Scarlett O'Hara?

  9. Pamela, just thinking about telling your grandmother's story in such a special way brought tears to my eyes. I'll be a gonner when I read your book!

    What an amazing story! I love the setting. My husband became a Christian in Thailand. (He was teaching 4-H programs there.) It holds an extra special place in my heart.

    My grandmother grew up in much the same time period. She lived to be 106, and she told me many wonderful stories. I only wish I had letters or diaries that tell what she was thinking/feeling during those times.

    And yes, my guess would have to be Gone with the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara.

  10. WOW, Pamela, what an incredible writing journey you've had with Moon in the Mango Tree -- congratulations on the Christy final -- that's HUGE!!

    My guess can be none other than my favorite character in the whole world -- Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler (Ruthy ... I like Jo March, too, but get serious here, will you??)

    And what a clever thing to do -- to highlight and study Scarlett's character to learn what Margaret did to keep us reading about this not-so-lovable creature -- you're a genius, Pamela!! Wish I'd thought of that when I wrote my 2nd book about a Scarlett O'Hara wannabe!!

    Thanks for the great post! Happy Friday, Pam and everyone!


  11. Welcome to Seekerville, Pamela! I loved hearing your journey to what sounds like a wonderful book! You've honored your grandmother and given your readers a woman they can care about. Congratulations on the Christy final!

    I'll guess Scarlet, a complicated character that I love, but not everyone does. From reading a book about Margaret Mitchell, Scarlet shared many traits of the author.

    Thanks for the fruit pie and coffee, Ruthy.


  12. Hello All - I am trying to get on to join the talk and am fighting with Google! Lets see if this one works. Pamela

  13. WOW - I made it. Hello everyone. Sorry I'm late, but sometimes I turn into a technological idiot!!

    Keli - You were the first to get it. Scarlet it is. Debra I bet your blog post gets lively!

    My grandmother would love this group. Ruth, I will have a slice of that Mango and pineapple cheese pie, too. Or some of the papaya. But my usual breakfast is weird and I guess that's what I'll go get in just one minute - a slice of wheat bread with egg salad and olives. (Don't ask--I don't know why).

    Lorna - How wonderful that your husband became a Christian in Thailand! What part of the country were you in?

    Be right back. I hope I'll meet some of you at the ACFW Conference in September, too. Pamela

  14. Frankly I have idea the answer to your question. Did you say it was a true story?

    But I loved your story of how you made your heroine--your grandmother--likeable. We can all learn from that. And now I'm dying to read this book!

    I could never write a book about my grandmothers. One died young of cancer after living a hard life first as a very poor child of about 10 children, then as a poor farmer's wife. My other grandmother I only knew as a bitter, cynical old woman who'd lived a life very similar to my other grandmother, growing up without her mother, who died when she was a baby, with a cruel step-mother and lots of brothers and sisters and step-siblings in rural Alabama. Wow, I'm depressed just thinking about it!

  15. Yikes, lots of typos. I meant to say I have no idea, but I'm changing my answer to Scarlett O'Hara, since that's, apparently, the right answer. :-)

    And wow, now I'm feeling guilty for being negative about my grandmothers. I guess the story of their lives would become a best-seller, something like Memoirs of a Geisha, since depressing stuff is considered "literary."

  16. Just from the who's the greatest heroine line, my guess was Scarlett. Thanks for the opportunity, I need a good cry!

  17. Pepper, I hope you keep on with your own grandmother's story. If Mango Tree had never even been published I can honestly say that every minute I spent writing it gave back more than I put in. Cara, I agree with you - love the dresses women wore in those days. Hope you have time to take a look at the other photos on the web site.

    Thanks for the congrats on the Christy final, too, my friends. What an experience that was. The night of the award ceremony was so exciting. One of the best parts was meeting two new friends, Mary Connnealy and Tamera Alexander. Pamela

  18. Wow, Pamela. Thank you so much for sharing the story behind the story with Seekerville. I'm definitely getting your book!

  19. Melanie - I know what you mean about the difficulty of writing from the negative---very hard. But think about this. Your first grandmother, the one who was bitter--she had an interesting character to explore, and if you fictionalize you can use the core of her story...the hardship that she survived, but she sounds like a strong woman to have survived all that, so you could give her an alternate, happy ending instead with fiction. ?? Pamela

  20. Hey, ever since Nicholas Sparks wrote The Notebook based on his wife's grandparents' story (right???), putting together a fictional account of our ancestors, how their lives might have been, is a wonderful way of laying out a story.

    Melanie, e-mail me off-blog. I think you've got an incredible possibility for stories there, not about the grandmothers, but their children and/or grandchildren.

    I'd love to brainstorm with you.


  21. Glynna - I hope you like it. The first manuscript was 650 pages!! Needless to say...Pamela

  22. I got some good thoughts from this posting. I am in the process of doing a life interview on my Father, who is turning 80 in February. It will be a Christmas gift for the family in book form with photos, etc. It's intriguing and interesting and really offers insight into him as a person. I admire you for your tenacity in writing this story. Thank you for sharing.

  23. Thanks for the suggestion to change the ending to a happy one! I would definitely have to do that. I'm a HEA girl all the way.

    I just want to say, Pamela, I admire you for writing this story. I am definitely wanting to read it! I think I could even relate to it because I spent a year as a missionary. And my girls and I love The King and I, and it would be interesting from that standpoint too!

    Maybe I will see you at the conference!

  24. Jenny that is an amazing Christmas gift. It will be a treasure. Here's a suggestion, too. I had the pictures from my grandparents time put on CD's for everyone in the family to go along with the book. That way they can do whatever they want with them, blow them up and frame them, or make a scrapbook, etc. Pamela

  25. Melanie - Definitely at the conference! I'll look for you and you do the same. It's my first time going and I'm very excited. Pamela

  26. What a wonderful project! It seems everywhere I turn there's something on writing about a grandmothers life. That has been my dream since I was a child, to write my grandmother's amazing life story. Hum, is God nudging me here?

    The Kind & I has always been a favorite. I remember a class field trip to see it on stage when I was in the 5th grade.

    I agree that it's Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (one of my favorites).

    Hope I can meet you at the ACFW conference.

  27. What a great story of how this story came to be.

    As to the deconstructed book:

    I'm guessing it was Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind.

    Now I'm off to read everyone else's replies to see if I'm right. :)

  28. Melinda - Definitely at the conference! Pamela

  29. What a fascinating story, Pamela! Thanks so much for telling us how it evolved. I have a collection of old sepia photos of my parents and other relatives. It does stir my thoughts to imagine what might have been going on in their lives when the photos were taken.

  30. Myra - Ah HA! Sometimes we might not want to know. (Just kidding) Old photos are great and so are old letters. People used to write long and very detailed letters, since that was the only way of communication from any great distance. If you have letters and photos, look at them together sometime and see if there's a puzzle being pieced together. Pamela

  31. what a fascinating journey you were on to write this book! thanks for sharing.

    i'm going with scarlett.

    charactertherapist (at) hotmail (dot) com

  32. Hi Pamela:

    “The Moon in the Mango Tree“ sounds great. I checked Sony eBooks and it is available as an eBook. The description of the story would make anyone want to read it!

    I love the time period and the exotic location. Going fictional I believe was a very good thing.

    I’m not going to be right but I vote for Hester Prynne from 'The Scarlet Letter' as a genuine American heroine.


  33. Hi Vince - Hester Prynne - great choice. That's another book that would be very instructive on character development. Pamela

  34. Morning Pamela, What a great post. I loved how you learned to develop your grandmother's character in writing. Its all about the inner struggle isn't it? Makes me want to read it. Fascinating time period.

    Ruthy the pies are yummy.

  35. Sandra - It is about the inner thoughts and most especially when you're writing in first person. Phillipa Gregory has a great scene in (I think) The Other Bolyn Girl, when one of the characters has her head on the block and the ax is moving down toward her neck. The scene is written from the perspective of the woman being beheaded and the interior monologue goes something like this: Terrified, she counts to herself..."One, two, thr...." And that's the end of the chapter. Pamela

  36. When reading this post and about the book herioine that Pamela deconstructed I immediately thought it must have been Scarlett before I even saw the question at the end of the post! So Scarlett O'Hara is my guess too! The Moon in the Mango Tree sounds very interesting and something I would like to read, the 1920s were a very interesting time period!


  37. Surely, it was Gone with the Wind and Scarlet, also a grandmother story based on fact. I read the book when I was 14, loved it. Recently I reread the book and, of course, loved it more because I understood more. Such a great book, a war book without a battle scene!

    I want to drive through Georgia, where I have never been. We have planned three times and never made it. It is on the calendar for September so I hope all the hurricanes get out of my way and I so want to see Savannah and Charleston!

  38. Sounds like a truly beautiful book. My answer is Gone With the Wind - Scarlett O'Hara. Maybe just because she's my favorite very-flawed heroine.

  39. I didn't know that Gone With the Wind was based on a true story!

  40. Pamela, this is so interesting because I wrote about a half a book telling my grandmother's story.

    She was from Washington State, a librarian and concert level pianist with a master's degree and a father who was a judge.

    She married a Nebraska farmer with an eigth grade education.

    The farmer, my grandfather, married a college friend of my grandmother's and as his first wife lay dying, trying to give birth to her second child, she told her husband that she wanted him to marry her old friend (my grandmother) because she wanted her friend to raise their year old child.

    He did.

    After an exchange of a few letters, he got on a train and rode out to meet her and married her and brought her back to Nebraska to live.

    To me, that is the foundation of a fantastic story. Two people, so different. A marriage of convenience. Their first child was born about 14 months after their wedding so it was a marriage in the truest sense.

    But somehow writing it was just so difficult. I fictionalized it but I just feel like I'm LYING, you know? I needed tension, drama, a villain. But all accounts, they got along real well.
    I hated the thought that my mother might not like what I'd done to her mother. I finally abandoned it. I may fictionalize it even more someday and try again.

    Great encouraging post.

  41. What a fascinating post, and how neat that it finally came to a better understanding of your grandmother and of the book you wanted to write. I'll be boring and guess Scarlett O'Hara and Gone with the Wind too.

  42. Sheila - never boring! Mary, that is really a great story and it seems to me that there would be built in conflict there. Think what your grandmother had to give up, and how she must have longed for her old life sometimes. And the big question a reader would ponder all the way through the story is whether she gave everything up for (1) friendship, or (2) for love. And then you have the natural feeling that she would always be competing with the first wife for her husband's affection. Possible? I know exactly what you mean, though, about getting things right and the fear and weight of responsibility attached to that. Particularly because with fiction it is possible to create false memories for others who loved her too, and that is what you always have to guard against. But if you have some way of devining how she must have felt through letters, or journals or pictures or family stories, then you might be able to do it and with love, and at the end, feel that you got it right.

  43. I'm guessing Gone with the Wind and lovely Scarlett.

    Pamela, I enjoyed this behind the scenes peek at your book. I read it earlier this year and so enjoyed the writing. Just last week as I was in bed, I looked up at the ceiling and wondered if I could sleep with something rustling in the attic above me. Your grandmother was braver than I could ever be. :D

  44. What I feel led toward in my Grandmother's story is to just use the framework of it and just make the whole rest of it FAKE.

    That seems easier. I can't tell you have many of my cousins and brothers and sisters have urged me to 'write grandma's story'.

    I tell 'em to write it themselves!!!!!

    (not really-maybe someday)

  45. Oh Mary,
    What a fantastic story! How beautiful.
    Sounds right up your creative alley to me - even if you only use the premise.

    My grandma moved from the small town of Mt. Airy (fictionalize as Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show) to the hollows & hills of virginia because her father was an abusive alcoholic (tried to kill the kids several times in various different ways. The corncrib became their second house.

    His story is as riveting as hers...and both hold a lovely tale of redemption within them.

    I feel the emotional exhaustion of it though - sometimes, because of its' reality AND its' emotional closeness to me.

  46. Mary - I agree with Pepper - you have a great framework for some day. But I also agree that's it's emotionally exhausting. I just turned in my next book to B&H and it was like that--very personal and emotionally exhausting.

    Sally - I'm so glad you liked Mango Tree, and if you want to see pictures of the characters, look on my web site and there's a photo album there. Mr. Breeden is the man on the right, and Amalise Breeden is not the woman next to him, but the second one down. Pamela

  47. I never knew my grandmother's they both were gone when I arrived. One of my grandmothers was married to a full blood German and the other was married to an Englishman. but they both were born in the Usa.
    I am probably wrong but I disagree with the other comments as your grandmother was a missonary's wife and she loved Opera singing and wanted to be a singer so I think it might be Beth in "Little Women" as she was the singer. But that is my guess and I am sticking to it. LOL


  48. Hey Edna - Not the right one - but I LOVE Jo!

  49. Scarlett O'Hara? ;-)

    Wonderful post! Your book sounds really, really good. I love hearing stories from my grandmas and reading letters and looking at old pictures. Kudos to you for doing this!

  50. Thanks Jessica. I bet your grandmother enjoys telling you the stories as much as you like listening to them!

  51. Pamela, your book sounds great and I can't wait to read it. I'm working on a book about my ancestors, too. I think our ancestry is a great place for story ideas.

    Like most everyone else, I also believe the answer is Scarlett.

  52. Thought-provoking post. Thanks!


  53. so very fascinating and how lovely you have photos. My dh has many sepia photos of his Dad's family, the family Bible and even his great grandparents wedding invitation.

    I believe Scarlett O'Hara/Gone With the Wind.

  54. Thank you for telling us about your writing journey.

    I also think the answer to your question is is Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.

    Now I'm off to take a gander at the photos on your website.


    Ruth Dell

  55. Pamela, your story sounds fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

  56. Great interview with Pamela.Your novel sounds wonderful. I've done a little genealogy research and made some fascinating discoveries about my very colorful great grandmother. I never met her. Someday I may attempt to incorporate this info into a novel. I'd say the character in question is Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. Congrats, Pamela, on being named a finalist for the Christy Award this year.


  57. Pamela, I'm late in reading your lovely post. Thank you so much for sharing your journey! Now I'm dying to get your book!! :)