A Conversation with Meredith Efken, Author of Lucky Baby
For this Q&A, Meredith turned to good friend and avid reader, Amy Bettis, to find out what questions she had about Lucky Baby. A mom of three and director of children’s ministries at her church, Amy also has personal experience with the world of adoption and foster care, making her the ideal reader to chat with about the story.
What inspired you to write Lucky Baby?
Ever since we adopted our daughter Jessamyn from China, people have asked me, “So when are you going to write a book about it?” The problem was that our adoption experience is so close to my heart, so emotional for me, that I couldn’t easily write about it. I was determined not to even try until I felt that I had a story that could do it justice.
I love the international adoption community—from the agencies, orphanage workers, and foster parents, to the adoptive parents and the children themselves. I care so much about the birth families, too. I wanted to write this book as a sort of loving testament to the adoption experience. When you think about it, international adoption is a totally new phenomenon (new in context of human history)—at least on the scale that it has become. It was unheard of even a century ago. And with it has come so many new kinds of blessings and challenges. It’s taught us much about families and about child development that we simply would not have understood any other way. It’s a historical development as much as it is a personal journey, and I wanted to pay tribute to this experience.
That’s a lot to tackle in one book. Do you feel you accomplished your goals?
Yes and no! In many ways, I tried to take on way more than I could actually handle. I’m so emotionally close to the subject that it’s hard for me to keep a good perspective on it. It was a huge struggle to write the book because I wanted it to be “perfect”—for my daughter, for the other adoptive families, and even for the Chinese people. The truth is, no book will ever be perfect. There are flaws in this book, and I had to get to the point where I could accept that and be satisfied that I’d done the very best that I could do at this point in my career.
I do I feel my story portrays a good snapshot of some of the trials and joys that many adoptive families face. I feel it also gives a respectful and compassionate portrayal of birth parents and of the orphanages that care for our children until we can be united with them.
I also wanted to convey the sense of “magic” and wonder that I felt during the process of adopting, and then bonding, with my daughter. The way to do this in the story eluded me for months, until I came across the idea of using a technique called “magical realism.” Once I made the decision to incorporate this into the story, everything seemed to fall into place, and I am so happy now with how the book turned out.
So what is “magical realism”?
It’s actually a literary technique developed by South American writers several decades ago. Some of the more well-known authors in this genre are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, and Joanne Harris.
Magical realism incorporates fantastical story elements into an otherwise realistic setting. It’s used to draw attention to different aspects of the human experience—both the physical and the spiritual. In the original South American writers’ works, it had a political and revolutionary aspect as well, which I chose to downplay in my work.
There’s no actual “magic” in magical realism, which is what separates it from fantasy. It just blurs the line between supernatural and natural, so that we can come to a deeper understanding of both worlds. In Lucky Baby, you’ll notice that Meg and Wen Ming never question the supernatural things that happen to them—that’s a feature of magical realism. The supernatural is accepted as being part of the world. The true wonder comes from the truth about the human experience that the characters gain through the story.
As a Christian, this approach excites me because I believe that the separation between the spiritual/supernatural and the physical/realistic is not as wide as we think it is. I think that God is always crossing that line into our world, and we can see it if we are paying attention. Incorporating this technique into Lucky Baby allowed me to explore both worlds and how they interact to affect our lives and our choices.
How much research did it take to write this book? Where did you find most of your information?
I started with my own experience adopting my daughter. I also drew from the experience other adoptive families have had. I did need to do some research even beyond that, however, since my story was set about ten years later than when we adopted. A lot changed in that time, and I needed to have accurate information for the time period I wrote about. But it was easy to talk to other families, get news from our adoption agency, Great Wall China Adoptions, and stay current through email loops and e-zines.
The most challenging part of the story was how to accurately portray the characters living in China, especially in the orphanages. Chinese culture tends to not be as open with information as American culture, so I couldn’t just call up an orphanage director and start asking questions. I used the limited experience I’ve had touring my daughter’s orphanage, the stories of other people who have worked with Chinese orphanages, and I did a lot of digging for personal experiences online.
For other parts of daily life in China, I read blogs, watched personal videos on You-Tube, and talked with some of my Chinese friends. As an American, I can’t capture the Chinese experience as authentically as someone who has been immersed in that culture could, but I hope I came close. It was important to me to give a respectful and appreciative portrayal of the Chinese people, out of love for my daughter and her heritage.
So how much of this story was autobiographical?
Not a whole lot, actually. The most autobiographical part was the scene where Meg receives Eva. My husband was with me, whereas Meg’s was not, but we were in a government building and the way Meg felt as she waited for her child and the way the receiving took place was pretty much the way it happened for us. Our daughter was much younger than Eva, but she did start screaming when we took her. The scene following that, with Auntie Yang in the private room was totally fictional.
Some of Meg’s despair about not being a good enough mother is similar to how I’ve felt over some of my own failures as a mom. The exact circumstances are fictional, but the emotions are the same.
I wasn’t willing to make the story very autobiographical because that story belongs to my daughter, and I don’t have the right to take it for my novel.
Can you separate some of the other details into fact and fiction?
Sure! I think it’s safe to say that the details on the actual adoption process are accurate. I skimmed over most of the paper chase because it’s so tedious, there’s not much I can do to make it exciting for a book.
I think that the depiction of Wen Ming’s orphanage is fairly true-to-life as well, though the orphanage itself is fictional. All orphanages are not the same—there are good ones and not-so-good ones. Wen Ming and Zhen An lived in a really good orphanage, and in some ways I made it similar to the one my daughter came from. The workers are kind and dedicated, the building is clean, and the children are as well cared for as they can be in an institutional setting.
I mentioned two real-life organizations in the book—our adoption agency, Great Wall, and Half The Sky Foundation. Great Wall, like so many terrific adoption agencies, do as much as they can to find families for orphaned children, especially those with special needs. Half The Sky Foundation is devoted to helping the orphans in China that aren’t adopted, through building schools and providing medical care and other important projects. You can find out more about both organizations at their websites, which I included in the Resources section.
Several of the shops in Guangzhou that I mentioned are, or were, real shops. I’ve heard that Shop on the Stairs closed a couple of years ago, which saddens me.
The tango restaurant Meg and Lewis frequent, as well as the tea shop, are both fictional. So is Meg’s church and the Bible college she attended. Her symphony, and it’s unusual focus, are fictional, but inspired by a real symphony in a different city.
Lewis’ university—University of Chicago—is real, and so is Fermi Lab and CERN, but his mother is not and neither are her contributions to the physics world. The search for the Higg’s boson is very real, but that breakthrough hasn’t happened at the time of writing this Q&A. The way I portrayed that breakthrough is based on the conjecture of some of my physics friends, so we’ll have to see how that plays out in the future.
The supernatural elements in the story are whatever you make them out to be. Real or fictional? You choose.
How do you develop the characters in your books?
I think every author develops characters based on their own experiences and a combination of different people and types of people they know. I usually have a general mental picture of the type of person I need for a certain character—rather like a director getting ready to conduct auditions for a play. I use my experiences with different people and my own understanding of human behavior to help me shape each character. I borrow aspects of personalities or individual quirks and put them together to create a unique, fictional character that is based in human reality.
Do you base your characters on real life people?
There’s a t-shirt I want that says “Be careful, or I’ll put you in my novel!” I used to tease my friend’s dates that if they hurt my friend, they’d end up my next villain. Here’s the secret: I’m just bluffing.
In reality, it’s very rare for me to base a character entirely on one real person. It’s too difficult because fictional people have to be shaped to an extent to fit the parameters of the story. Since real people are more complex and their lives rarely follow the structure of a novel, it’s more useful for me to create entirely fictional people.
The other issue is a respect for privacy and compassion for the people I know. In a novel, it’s necessary for characters to behave badly and make poor choices at times. I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone or damage their reputations by basing a character on them and then having that character act wrongly. If I ever did base a character on someone I know, it would only be the most positive and noble aspects of that person that I would use. All the “bad stuff” would be strictly fictional.
I did use one of my daughter’s teachers in the book—at least his name. But it was a very minor character and I did it to amuse her and the teacher. You were amused, right, Mr. Compton?
Why did you choose to make the relationships between Meg and her mom and Lewis and his mom so tense?
It was a thematic decision. One of the things I wanted to explore in the book was that there is more than one way to be abandoned. The Chinese orphans were abandoned in a traditional sense. But in an indirect way, so were Meg and Lewis. I wanted to explore the effect that might have on them as they try to all come together to form a family when none of them had a good model to follow. Given the number of broken and dysfunctional families for those in my generation and younger, I think it’s an important question to explore. And since Meg was my main character, and this story is also about her journey to become a mother, it made sense to focus on the mothers in the story as a way to tie the themes together.
Is it usual for adopted children to have the sort of attachment problems that Eva had? Doesn’t that make adoption a bit more scary?
That’s a delicate question. Parenting itself is scary—regardless of how the family is formed! There are no guarantees that any child is going to sail through life without problems. But there are some challenges adoptive families face that most non-adoptive families don’t have to deal with.
First of all, I want people to understand that when an author sits down to plot out a book, she fully intends to make life for her characters as difficult as possible. A novel without conflicts, without challenges for the characters to overcome, is boring.
So you can’t judge the adoption experience on the basis of a novel—fiction requires conflict to levels that real life does not. The same can actually be said of most news stories about adoption. Bad news sells. Good news doesn’t. That means you will hear far more stories of difficult adoptions or problems than you will about all the many, many adoptions that are virtually trouble-free. Unfair, but that’s how life is.
On the other hand, there is an aphorism in the adoption community that every institutionalized child is a “special needs” child. This includes those in foster care and those in even the best orphanages. At the very least, every adopted child has to heal from the wound of being separated from their birth mother. This affects each child in a different way, but adoptive parents have to understand and be equipped to deal with that very deep loss and the grief it often brings.
We’ve only learned about attachment disorders in the last twenty years or so. There’s a lot we don’t understand, but we’ve made tremendous progress. Not every adopted child has attachment problems, and it’s not entirely clear why some do and some don’t. Even non-adopted children occasionally have attachment disorders. But it’s not the end of the world—there are a growing number of techniques and therapies that have successfully helped children heal and learn to bond with their families. There is always hope and healing.
I used to conduct adoption information seminars as part of my job as a regional office for Great Wall. My advice to prospective parents was to educate themselves about attachment disorders and to be prepared to love their child and be committed to them no matter what difficulties arose. I also encouraged them that the majority of children adjust to their new families with few or no problems at all.
At the end of the book the relationships are still quite fragile in their healing process. If you were to lengthen the book, how would you help the characters develop strong and deep relationships?
I think counseling is always a good place to start, especially when the problems are caused by trauma that happened to children before they were old enough to process or understand.
I also would love to have explored Lewis’ faith journey in more depth. I firmly believe that God heals not just our bodies but also our emotional wounds, and I think that if Lewis could come to even a point of acceptance about God’s existence, he would find the path to healing much easier.
For the family as a whole, I would focus on them consciously and deliberately defining for themselves what a family is, and what their family is going to look like. I think they’d need to be very protective of their family space and time together. The girls would need direct instruction about how to be part of a family, and they’d need lots of reassurance that they are loved by their family no matter how badly they behave or how angry they might feel. Lots of communication, lots of forgiveness, lots of patience—these are what I would “prescribe” for them. And I’d also want them to take it in baby steps and not expect everything to be perfect overnight. It’s a process, and it might take years, but in my mind, they do make it.