Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Interview with Author Gillian Marchenko, Part 1

Each of us carries within us what writer Mark Nepo has called "a map of expectation as to how we should respond" — to need, to want, to confusion and pain, to loss, to love. The "endless gravities" of expectation, Nepo says, "govern most of our thinking and summon most of our energy in denying them or complying with them."

A mother expects to love the child to whom she gives life. What does she do if she cannot or does not?

In her recently published memoir Sun Shine Down (T.S. Poetry Press, August 2013), Gillian Marchenko relates, sometimes with the rawest of emotion, how expectation collided with reality when she learned she had given birth to a daughter with Down syndrome. Her story is not like that of "other mothers who have children with disabilities, and right away they loved them." It is instead the story of  experiencing — and being surprised by — the failure to "feel love at first sight". The very fact of this particular difference is what makes Marchenko's account so memorable a read, her honesty so refreshing, and her self-discoveries so life-changing. 

After reading Sun Shine Down, I wanted to know more about this writer and the person behind the words and arranged an interview via e-mail. In Part I, below (remarks have been edited), Gillian answers my questions about her reasons for writing her memoir, which is her first book; her writing approach, the audience for the book, and what makes her story stand out from the stories of other mothers and fathers who also have written about their experiences of parenting a child with Down syndrome. Tomorrow, in Part II, Gillian discusses what influenced her initial feelings toward her daughter, her use of alcohol to escape and numb those feelings, her greatest challenge in raising her daughter in the years not covered in the book, and what she tells others who are living with family members with Down syndrome. She also talks about her next writing projects.

I  thank Gillian for her thoughtful and insightful responses, which I hope will encourage readers not only to read and share Sun Shine Down but also discuss its important underlying message.

Interview with Author Gillian Marchenko, Part I

Maureen Doallas: Sun Shine Down is a deeply personal first book. What motivated you to write your memoir at this particular time in your life?

Gillian Marchenko: E.M. Forster said, "How can I know what I think till I see what I say?" I am a life-long journal-keeper but after the birth of my third daughter [Polly] and her diagnosis of Down syndrome, writing became necessity. The first year of [Polly's] life, I wrestled on the page a hallowing grief over the child I expected and the mother I was to become.

My journaling delved deeper as my daughter grew. Images, situations, and details bobbed to the surface of my conscience. A fear of brokenness — broken people, broken  things, and, ultimately, my own broken heart — had been tucked inside me since childhood. I wrote, and a thought nagged: Perhaps these words are meant to be read by others.

A memoir emerged.

MD: Tell us a bit about your approach, from draft to publication. Did you ever imagine telling your story as other than memoir? Did you read other first-person accounts on the subject before sitting down to write about your own experience? What did you first think to include but subsequently excise, and why? What was the best piece of writing advice you received?

GM: Wow, five-barrel question!

First, my approach: With a nod of approval and support from my husband and children, I began molding my journal entries into chapters. The story oozed out of me, and I found great comfort and joy in the process. The book took four years to write, with the help of [members of] an advanced memoir writing workshop, who critiqued a lot of it, and two professional editors who worked with me on the first and second drafts of the manuscript.

Once finished, I began the arduous task of querying agents, entered writing contests, and attended writing conferences. I won The Ethel Herr Most Promising New Writer Award* 2012, at Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference in California, which helped to get my name out in the Christian publishing world. A couple [of] months later, after submitting part of my manuscript for review at the Festival of Faith and Writing, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I landed my agent. I submitted my proposal to publishing houses for about a year before signing with T.S. Poetry Press.

I never considered telling my story in any other genre but memoir, although I probably should have, because it seems everyone wants to write memoir and [memoirs] are hard to get published.

I do and did read other first-person accounts about Down syndrome. A couple of my favorites are Expecting Adam by Martha Beck, Roadmap to Holland by Jennifer Groneberg, and A Good and Perfect Gift by Amy Julia Becker.

I wrote three drafts of Sun Shine Down. In the first two drafts, my spiritual journey to faith and Ukraine [where Marchenko was living when her daughter was born] were included in the narrative but eventually weeded out to focus solely on my daughter Polly's story.

The best piece of writing advice I've received? I'd say, "Be bold enough to join a class or share your work with others." My writing grew immensely once I shared it with a memoir class in Chicago. I am still in a writing group with select members of that [class]. It makes all the difference to my writing—[having] others' eyes on my work.

MD: The title has multiple meanings. Did you consider other titles? What was the deciding factor in your final choice?

GM: I love that you picked up on the fact that Sun Shine Down has multiple meanings: the sun is shining down and the sun has fallen. The duality is what makes the story.

I had a working title I was pretty connected to before signing with my publisher. [The publisher] eventually offered three alternatives and checked with [prospective] readership for opinions. Although it was difficult to do away with my working title, I absolutely love the title now. I can't imagine [the book] being called anything else: Sun Shine Down, a memoir.

MD: Is there an ideal audience for Sun Shine Down? Apart from other parents raising children with Down syndrome, whom do you hope your readers will be? What do you expect the takeaways to be?

GM: I think this book will resonate with all sorts of people. Of course, special needs parents, but also anyone who has been taken by surprise in life. And who hasn't?!

The takeaways could be many things, such as "love, if you let it, finds its way through cultural stereotypes, medical difficulties, and any number of other barriers."

The main takeaway depends on the reader. The essence of Sun Shine Down is this: I didn't want my baby with Down syndrome and now I can't imagine life without her.

MD: What makes your story stand out from other books written by parents of children with Down Syndrome; for example, Michael Berube's Life as We Know It, or, more recently, Rachel Adams's Raising Henry?

GM: [The books by] Berube and Adams are on my reading wish list. I have read other books authored by parents of children with Down syndrome, like [the three titles mentioned earlier and] The Shape of the Eye by George Estrich and Bloom by Kelle Hampton.

These books share [with mine] a similar story arc, starting with grief and ending with acceptance. Sun Shine Down stands out because the birth story takes place in the former Soviet Union. Although I went to various outside sources to learn to love Polly — culture (moving back to the United States in the hope that a more accepting culture would make the difference), alcohol (as an escape and a "boost"), and religion ("she is a gift, she is for a divine reason") — none worked completely. It was Polly, Polly the person, who showed me that love is deserved simply because she is lovable. My story is not deconstructing disability but deconstructing the ways that a parent comes to grips with [personal feelings about] a person who is not who she expected to raise. My editor Sandra Savage and I were in agreement from the start that we didn't want to lose this focus of the book.

Join me tomorrow for Part II of my interview with Gillian Marchenko.

Sun Shine Down is available in print and for Kindle.

Recipient in 2012 of The Ethel Herr Most Promising New Writer Award*, Gillian Marchenko writes and speaks about and is an advocate for the needs of individuals with special needs. Her writing has appeared in Today's Christian Woman, Thriving Family, Connections Magazine, Chicago Special Parent, Charlottesville Family, and other publications.

* Sponsored by Kathy Ide's Christian Editor Network

Gillian Marchenko Website

Gillian Marchenko on FaceBook and Twitter

T.S. Poetry Press

Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference

Festival of Faith and Writing

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