Interview: May 15, 2014
Lauren Francis-Sharma, a child of Trinidadian immigrants, was born in New York City and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. Her debut novel, 'TIL THE WELL RUNS DRY, tells the twinned stories of a spirited woman’s love for one man, her bottomless devotion to her children, and the family secret she must keep to protect them all. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Jana Siciliano, Francis-Sharma talks about the real-life inspiration for the story: her grandmother, and the regret she felt for not seizing the opportunity to get to know her grandmother’s history better. She also shares her sunny life philosophy, which is rooted in Trinidadian culture, what she learned from being a lawyer at a high-profile firm, and a little hint at what she’s working on next.
Bookreporter.com: What served as your inspiration for ‘TIL THE WELL RUNS DRY?
Lauren Francis-Sharma: My grandmother had a stroke. I spent many summers as a preteen in Brooklyn, trying not to live by her very strict rules, and when she was lying in the hospital, I realized I never took the time I should have to get to know her or her story. And suddenly, I wanted to know. As such, I used the bones of her true story to build this book.
BRC: Was there a first image that came to you that made you realize you were about to embark on the journey that culminated in this compelling debut novel?
LFS: Yes. I was on an empty beach in Blanchisseuse, the beautiful little fishing village where this novel begins and where my grandmother was raised, and I had this flash, this image of my grandmother walking along the road. It was just a quick picture, but it was then that I knew I had to write a book about a girl from this place.
BRC: Where did the idea for the character of Marcia Garcia (such a lyrical name) come from? Was she based on anyone specifically?
LFS: Marcia is who I hoped my grandmother was, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. I hope that underneath all that reservedness, beneath all the rules and discipline, she was this loving woman who was just too scared to show how much she felt for the people around her. When I would travel to Brooklyn from Maryland and arrive at her apartment, very often there would be fresh bread with butter and a batch of sweet cold sorrel on her table, made just for me. But she wasn’t a hugger or a kisser; she rarely showed affection and seemed to care very little for my fancy degrees. She did what she knew. This woman, this very practical woman, is who I molded Marcia Garcia after.
BRC: I’m a sucker for any story that incorporates place as a character, as an important cog in the wheel of the narrative. ‘TIL THE WELL RUNS DRY does just that, and Trinidad appears to us, bold and forthright, on every page. It is the perfect backdrop for such a sensual and emotional life as these characters enjoy together. What did you discover about Trinidad in your research that you never knew before?
LFS: I think I knew that Trinidad was a very spirited, colorful place. My father's friends had nicknames that made you wonder about the hilarious incident from which it derived, and my mother would tell stories about her upbringing that would have us on the floor in peals of laughter. And when I’m in Trinidad, I love to travel around the country to take in its beauty.
Yet, I could never understand why my grandmother and my parents left. When I started to delve into the island’s history, reading Dr. Eric Williams’s books, pulling newspapers from the archives, I realized that the 1960s was an amazing time of change in the country, very similar to the United States, where the future was quite unknown. If you weren’t born into a family with money or connections, it was probably difficult to see the possibilities for your future, especially since the country had just snatched its independence from Great Britain. Writing this book helped me to understand why my grandmother may have made the decision to leave, to bring her children to a place where the future seemed just a bit more promising, even if the path to it was unclear.
BRC: How did the history of the island affect the story you wanted to tell?
LFS: Ha, I guess I sort of answered this question earlier. But if I may, I’d like to elaborate a little on the time period of this book. I like to think of the modern world as pre-Oprah and post-Oprah (I know this is crazy, but in my life this is so true!). In the pre-Oprah world our parents and grandparents were raised in, people would never have discussed incest; it would have been a shame borne only by the victim. In this post-Oprah world we live in today, it is easy to forget how many events in a person’s life would have been a shameful secret that would be taken to the grave. So, as I wrote this book and got to know these characters, I had this post-Oprah urge to make them talk, to have them tell everything, and I had to remind myself that the world in which they lived wouldn’t have been open to this sort of self-revelation, the world in which they lived wouldn’t even have encouraged introspection. As such, I was forced to write this story as the mid-20th century story that it is.
BRC: How did you incorporate your grandmother’s actual life into the story?
LFS: This is what I knew: My grandmother was born and raised in Blanchisseuse; she had a difficult marriage; she landed a job as a domestic in the U.S., left her children behind with their father, and when she arrived in Maryland, it was not as she expected. Something horrible happened, something I will never know, but somehow she “ran away” to New York. This is all I knew. This is all I could use.
BRC: In the course of your research, did you interview people who left Trinidad?
LFS: Yes, my parents, of course, who were most instrumental in the writing of this book. Bless them! But I also interviewed the father of a friend, “Bunny” Dupigny. This dear man shared his very vivid memories of his first moments in the United States, in New York City in the early ‘60s. It was from this that I was able to write the scene where Marcia steps out of Port Authority. It is a scene of which I am most proud, because I literally traced her steps in Manhattan, forcing myself to feel the fear and the hyper-awareness that many of us experience but never admit when we are in New York City. Can you imagine that it is your first time and you’ve seen perhaps one picture of the place and you know no one there, but you have to make it because your family is depending on you?
BRC: Is Marcia’s love for Farouk Karam an ardor that would have been encouraged by a family at that time?
LFS: No, definitely not. They are of a different class, a different race, different religions. But in fact, the more I looked around Trinidad, the more I realized that this must’ve been happening. Just look at the people! There’s so much racial mixture, Hindus marrying Muslims, Muslims marrying black Christians, my own father’s grandfather ran away with my great-grandmother against his parents’ wishes and changed his name to do so. It was happening and it was scandalous, and this was a rich and delicious world (for culinary reasons too!) to use for this book.
BRC: Why was it important to incorporate other voices in the telling of the story?
LFS: Chapters told from perspectives of different characters? Well, I didn’t start this book with that in mind. It was supposed to be the story of Jacqueline, who is Marcia and Farouk’s second oldest child. She was to have this difficult mother who she was seeking to understand who would eventually leave the country and this elusive father who she’d be left with while her mother established a new life in America. But as I began to write, Marcia’s voice grew louder and louder. She needed me to tell her story, and this urge was so much stronger than Jacqueline’s. Yet I couldn’t lose Jacqueline. Her perspective on her mother, the unfolding of her own life was as key to this story as any. And what of this man, Farouk? A man who feels betrayed at the very beginning of this story. Who would tell his story? Only Farouk could tell Farouk’s story. And then there were three.
BRC: What types of female characters do you look for in the books that you typically read? What inspires you since you are clearly capable of handling profoundly strong women protagonists?
LFS: I like female characters who intentionally choose the time to speak. I’m a bit of a talker, but I admire people who know when it’s the right time to be quiet, when it’s the right time to study the world and others around them. These characters are most intriguing to me. I like female characters who seem ordinary but who, in their small worlds, do extraordinary things. In this book, Marcia leaves Trinidad for America to make a new life. This act of leaving all that you know for all that you do not know is extraordinary. We have celebrated men for this very act for centuries. And the reason we love these stories so much is because these people are burning with passion for someone or something. I love fire in the underbelly of a character. I could never write a story without passion. One must burn with something; stories must burn for something.
BRC: “Every day is a fishing day but not every day is catching day” is a quote from Trinidad that you include in the book. Is that how you feel about your writing life?
LFS: Indeed! This is how I feel about my life. I’ve been on such a ride. I’m a girl from Baltimore. My grandmother came from Trinidad as a domestic and never graduated from high school. I went to a little community Catholic school (where Tom Clancy went to school, too, by the way!), I somehow ended up graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, going to law school, becoming a lawyer, marrying the most wonderful man, having beautiful children and publishing a book over the age of 40. But if I told you about all the “fishing day” tears between those “catching days,” I could fill 10 more books. When you get up and do what you have to do, it’s a fishing day. In the end, if you keep at it, you’re gonna catch a fish. It might be a sardine, but if you’re from a Caribbean family, you know that if you add a little tomatoes, onions, salt and pepper to a sardine, you’ve got a damn good meal. That’s life.
BRC: You have a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. How does your legal training affect your life as a storyteller?
LFS: I started practicing at Skadden Arps in New York City. This was a tough-as-nails law firm, the biggest and arguably one of the best, at that time. While there, I learned that the job isn’t done until it’s done. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t eaten or slept, what matters is getting the job done PERFECTLY. Look, I wasn’t an amazing attorney back then; it took me years to even get decent. But I worked hard. And I still work hard. I didn’t know how to do many things when I started writing this book (there were plenty of edits), but I stayed up at nights and I did my best to make sure that at the very least there were no typos, that it wasn’t sloppy, that the person on the other end of my work could appreciate how much I put into it.
When I first started at Skadden, a good friend of mine sat me down and said, “You know when you see a contract and it’s got fine print for five or six pages and no one ever wants to read it? Well, all that [expletive] is your responsibility to read and to know.” Being a lawyer taught me that it’s not always going to be pleasant, but you and everyone you represent should feel pride at the end.
BRC: May we ask what you are working on now?
LFS: A new story I’m really excited about with some of the core elements I mentioned here, but it’s also with some elements I haven’t seen before with a cast of amazingly complex characters. That probably doesn’t answer the question, but that’s all I can give for now.