Julie Lawson Timmer discusses what it takes to be a parent.
1. Can you tell us about your latest novel, Untethered?
Untethered tells the story of Char Hawthorn, the stepmother to a fifteen-year-old, Allie. Before the book begins, Char’s husband dies, leaving open the question of who Allie should live with: Char, her devoted stepmom, who has raised her full-time for the past five years but has no legal rights to her; or Lindy, Allie’s self-involved bio mom, who lives across the country and has never been interested in parenting, yet who now has sole legal rights to Allie. While this situation plays out, Char also gets swept up in the life of a ten-year-old girl, Morgan, who was adopted out of foster care but is subsequently “rehomed” by her adoptive parents.
.2. Untethered deals with quite a few heavy topics. Why did you decide to write about these topics in particular?
I read an article called “The Child Exchange: Inside America’s Underground Market for Adopted Children,” by Meghan Twohey (Reuters Sept. 9, 2013), and I knew immediately I had to write about it. The article tells the story of a number of children who were “rehomed” by their adoptive parents — given away to new families after their parents advertised them on the internet. I wanted to explore the kind of situation that might drive an adoptive mother and father to feel they had no choice but to rehome their child. Also, I wanted to call our collective attention to the issue of rehoming, since so few people appear to be aware of it.
I also wanted to explore the tenuous role that stepmothers often hold in the lives of their children. Not only is there a certain amount of heartbreak from being a distant third adult in a child’s life, but also, in most cases, a stepmother has no legal rights to her stepchildren, so she lives in some fear that if something happens to her husband, she might never her stepchildren again. These kinds of sadnesses and fears are unique to stepparenting; bio parents don’t have the same concerns. (I am a bio parent as well as a stepparent). I created Char because I wanted to show the unique situation that stepparents are in, both as a means of catharsis for me and as a means of relating to readers who are stepparents themselves, or who know stepparents.
3. Did you do any specific research for the book?
Yes! I tend to do a great deal of research for all of my novels, and Untethered was no exception. Specifically, I read a great deal about foster care – tons of memoirs, treatises and articles. I also read about adoption and rehoming. I also met with a number of experts: legal experts who deal with children in the foster care system, some who have been rehomed; the head of a foster care agency; a child psychologist; and a social worker. For me, written research is a huge help but meeting with experts is always the key, and I’m constantly blown away by experts who will take their time to answer a writer’s questions. I didn’t have to research stepparenting as much, because I am a stepmom myself, so I had a good grasp on the issues involved in blended family relationships.
4. What are you most proud of about the book?
I’m most proud that Untethered sets out the incredibly morally complex issue of rehoming in a way that is balanced, taking into account the devastation to the child but also showing the impossible position of the parents. It’s very easy to demonize adoptive parents who would give their children away, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted us all to appreciate the heartbreaking Catch 22 that adoptive parents can find themselves in, when they’re forced to choose between keeping a child they love and possibly endangering their other children or themselves, and giving that child away, and thereby breaking their promise to provide a “forever home” to that child. I think it’s tough to show balance in any issue that involves children, but I think Untethered strikes that note.
I’m also proud that Char comes off as a very loving and devoted stepmom who has some reasonable anxieties about her role in her stepdaughter’s life, and who makes her own share of mistakes in the relationship. I wasn’t interested in presenting a stepmom who’s the victim of a terrible stepdaughter, or who is bitter about her stepchild’s ungratefulness or other attitudes. That, too, would have been the easy way out, but I wanted to present a view of the relationship that doesn’t put anyone in the “good” column or the “evil” column.
5. What is the best thing about being a writer?
The ability to bring people and stories to life. There is nothing better than spending a few hours wrapped up in a world I created out of thin air, with characters who didn’t exist a month ago but now feel like old friends, and plot lines that aren’t real and yet feel incredibly urgent and important.
6. What is the worst thing about being a writer?
The feeling that we never have a day off. “I could be writing” is an accusatory mantra that pops into my head seven days a week. It can be difficult to relax and read a book or pet the dog or watch a movie when this mantra is on a playback loop in your brain.
7. If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?
I would tell any aspiring writer to be careful of following anyone else’s advice, including mine. Writing is such a personal thing; what works for me might not work at all for someone else. I think we all need to experiment and see what fits us best: outlining or not; writing in the early morning or midday or late at night; writing alone in complete quiet or in a crowded coffee shop; showing others your work or not, etc. There is no “right” way to write; there is only what is right for you. I would take the time to figure out what works for you and stick with it, no matter what others are doing, or telling you to do.
8. What do you do to relax after a long writing day?
I love to move around after a long day hunched over my laptop. Some days, I got to Pilates – it’s great way to get my entire body moving after it’s been still for so many hours. I love the chance to clear my mind of everything but the specific moves I’m supposed to be doing in class, and I love the opportunity to stretch my tight back and shoulder muscles, and straighten myself out of the C-curve I tend to sink into while typing. Other days, I walk the dogs with my daughter. And of course there are some days, when it’s cold or rainy or I’m feeling particularly lazy, where I flop on the couch and watch Bravo! TV; I could claim it’s the kind of “people watching” writers are encouraged to do but really, it’s pure, mindless relaxation.
9. What’s next for you?
I just sold my third novel, Mrs. Saint and the Defectives (coming in 2017), so will be working on revisions for that with my editor. I’ve concluded the research for my fourth novel and am planning to draft that over the summer. And I have a tall, tall to-be-read stack of novels I’m dying to get to, and summer weekends are perfect for reading -that is, as long as I can keep the “I should be writing” mantra out of my head!
Char Hawthorn, college professor, wife and stepmother to a spirited fifteen-year-old daughter, loves her family and the joyful rhythms of work and parenting. But when her husband dies in a car accident, the “step” in Char’s title suddenly matters a great deal. In the eyes of the law, all rights to daughter Allie belong to Lindy, Allie’s self-absorbed biological mother, who wants to girl to move to her home in California.
While Allie begins to struggle in school and tensions mount between her and Char, Allie’s connection to young Morgan, a ten-year-old-girl she tutors, seems to keep her grounded. But then Morgan, who was adopted out of foster care, suddenly disappears, and Char is left to wonder about a possible future without Allie and what to do about Morgan, a child caught up in a terrible crack in the system.
Julie Lawson Timmer grew up in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband, their four teenage children and two rescued dogs. By turns, she is a writer, lawyer, mom/stepmom, and dreadful cook.