The Bookshelf: Meg Kearney's Adoption Stories, Real and Imagined

Feb 16, 2018

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week on The Bookshelf from NHPR is Meg Kearney of New Ipswich. If you're adopted, the search for your birth parents can be a struggle, both emotionally and logistically. State laws differ on the adoption records they keep, and it can feel frustrating when those records aren't available or don't reveal anything useful. In Meg Kearney's new novel, When You Never Said Goodbye, 19-year-old Lizzy moves to New York City find her birth mother. The book is inspired by Kearney's own experiences. Recently, I stopped by Kearney's writing studio in New Ipswich, New Hampshire. Scroll down to read a "Top Five" list of Meg's reading recommendations and a transcript of the interview.

Meg Kearney's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, poems by Laure-Anne Bosselaar. "This is a book that changed my life as a poet—I read it soon after it was published because a friend sent it to me, thinking I would enjoy it. I haven’t stopped reading it since. Laure-Anne has published a few more books since that I also adore, but it’s hard to let go of a 'first love.'"

2.   The Great Fires, poems by Jack Gilbert. "This is a book I discovered when it was a Finalist for the National Book Award. It is the collection I keep in my nightstand and reach for when I need a poem in the middle of the night."

3.   Brutal Imagination, poems by Cornelius Eady. "I adore all of Cornelius Eady’s poems—he’s also a wonderful songwriter and musician! But these poems, written in the voice of the imaginary black man that Susan Smith claimed abducted her two children back in 1994, speaks to issues of racism and civil rights that are just as valid in 2018."

4.   The Girl Who Drank the Moon, a novel by Kelly Barnhill. "This novel with an adoption theme is simply gorgeous—the writing and the story, both. It won the Newbery last year. I hope no one thinks that novels written for young people won’t speak to adults—most do, and this one certainly does. It’s a book to read again and again.

5.   Mary's Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein​ by Lita Judge. "[It's a]a genre-breaking biography...no other book I know is quite like this one. It combines stunning (and sometimes terrifying) black and white watercolor paintings and short, dark free-verse poems to tell the story of how this runaway teen could conceive and create one of the biggest literary icons of all time. It is essentially about creativity and at the same time speaks to love, loss, family, loneliness, loyalty, and women’s rights, which are also very much in the news today. Pay no attention to the fact that it, like Kelly Barnhill’s novel, is for young adults; this book crosses over to all. I should add that Lita Judge lives in New Hampshire!

When You Never Said Goodbye came out last year and you took some inspiration for Liz from your own life. Tell us about your experience.

Like Liz McLane, my character, I was raised the youngest of three adopted children. All of us were from a New York family in New York City. So I was actually in foster care for the first five months of my life, and then, lucky me, I was adopted by my parents who brought me up to New York’s Hudson Valley, and that’s where I was raised. I grew up in a very loving family, but that said it was also filled with certain silences. I realized I was writing poems at quite a young age, I started writing actually short stories in second grade and it was in sixth grade that I turned to poems. And at the time, I guess I was around 12, when I read my mom a poem I had written in which I was wondering about my birth mother. It’s actually, there’s a scene in the first book of this trilogy, The Secret of Me, the first book, in which I kind of describe this happening with Liz.

So I read this poem to my mom, and she must have said something like, “Oh that’s very nice, dear,” before she literally ran out of the room. And I learned two things from that experience; one, this poetry stuff is really powerful, you know, made mom run out of the room; but also, I had just entered taboo territory in terms of subject matter. I realized that while in the four walls of the house we were able to talk about the facts of our adoptions, all three of us, but we didn’t talk about our feelings, especially if those related to wondering who our first parents were.

And unlike Liz McLane, who vows at the end of that scene with her mother that she will keep on writing things that make her parents uncomfortable, I didn’t do that. I kept writing because I was hooked, but I didn’t write anything related to adoption again until I was in my mid- to late-20s. So through Liz McLane, I have been able to tell my, somewhat of my story, but it’s also her story, but my emotional truth.

So, why do you think (A) it’s so difficult for families to talk about the emotional aspect of adoption, and (B) why do you think it was so difficult for you to break through and find a way to talk about that in your creative writing?

Well, I think at the least, in terms of my family, my siblings really insisted that wondering who our parents were was kind of disloyal to mom and dad. It took a long time for me to realize and then be able to kind of convince my family that my wondering who my first mother was had nothing to do with how much I loved them. It had nothing to do with my wanting to be anywhere else but where I was. It’s kind of threatening, I think, to adoptive parents, you know, when a child, an adopted child, starts asking questions about where she came from.

In When You Never Said Goodbye Liz moves to New York City to go to NYU for a couple of reasons. One: that’s where poets go, they go to New York City. And two: that’s the last place she feels like she had contact with her actual birth mother. And as she’s searching, she runs into a variety of problems trying to uncover the identity who this person is.. Was that your experience as well? Was it very difficult for you?

It was very difficult. You know, it goes state by state in terms of how accessible your adoption records are and certain states, when you turn a certain age, you can have access to those records even if your adoption was closed, as mine was. In New York State, they do not open adoption records. I do not have a copy of my original birth certificate. Really searching was not legal, what I was doing. It took me eight years, my quest for my birth mother.

We don’t want to give away the ending of this book, but I do want to ask you about the structure of it because it is unusual. This book alternates between poems that tell a story and Liz's journal entries. How did you settle on this style?

It really kind of came organically. The first book in the trilogy, The Secret of Me, is told entirely in poems and they are all poems written, of course, in Liz's voice. She’s 14 at that point. And then in book two, The Girl In The Mirror, I started finding that there’s just certain material that you need the reader to understand, number one, that just doesn’t find its way in poems, and also sometimes the poems can emotionally get very intense, and I needed some kind of way to kind of break that emotional intensity and to go into pros was the way I did it, through her journal entries.

You spoke with recently with author Benjamin Ludwig who wrote a story about adopting, or rather wrote the story about an adopted girl with autism, and he has an adopted daughter as well. I think the frame of your talk was taking charge of the story.

Yeah, “Taking Control of our Adoption Stories.”

Does that imply that the control of the adoption narrative is maybe in the wrong hands or misplaced. Is that the case?

Children in foster care, children who are adopted—we don’t have a say in any of that. Where we go, where we’re placed. And sometimes also birth parents search for their children and find them and then you don’t have a say in that either. And I think by telling your story, whether it’s in a memoir kind of way, non-fiction, or if you tell your story as I’ve done through a fictional character, you know, I can reveal what I want to reveal when I want to reveal it and I think that’s really essential for a lot of us to have that kind of power. I’m going to tell my story the way I think it should be told, and there’s a lot of self-empowerment there.