Interview For “Forget Me Not”
It’s been nearly two years since your last novel, The Character. Why so long a wait for the new novel?
This book was very surprisingly and very seriously traumatizing to me. I didn’t expect it to be because my story and Jessie’s are quite different. But I was horrified and moved to my core at the research this book uncovered. I think I got a little overwhelmed at the various plights children face every day. At my church, we had a group come to enlighten us on sex trafficing, a practice in which girls as young as six are sold into prostitution and then brought here to America. My other books detail childhood abuse in various formats. Divorce. Instability. Alcoholism. Any of these environmental circumstances can dramatically alter a child. But touch deprivation is one of the saddest. I could only handle writing half a chapter a day for a long time because I’d start crying and be incapable of finishing. Sometimes, Jessie would be persistent and I’d manage to wade through two chapters. That inevitably caused a hiatus of a week or so. It was slow because the issue deeply touches me.
What was some of the research that most affected you?
A German emperor named Fredrick II wanted to know what language children would speak if no one spoke to them at all from birth. So he took babies away from their mothers and raised them in total isolation. All of the babies died. Children in orphanges in WWII died and were found dying despite proper nutrition and medical care. Only human touch prevented some of them from dying. In the early centuries, many children developed a mysterious ailment that doctors called marasmus. Eventually, they realized that the children who were not being held or touched were quite literally starving themselves to death. In all cases of touch deprivation, sleep is affected. The effects of sleep deprivation are horrific, partly because it kills you slowly. Children were separated from their parents and raised for a while in an institution. Even upon being reunited with their parents, the children experienced significant sleep disturbances; this spoke to me because it told me how lonely the children were. Harlow, of course, also did the experiment with the wire versus cloth monkeys, where monkeys were offered a wire mother who provided nutrients but no comfort and other monkeys were offered a cloth mother who did not provide nutrients. The monkeys preferred the cloth mother. I think part of what touched me so deeply is that we really do need touch. We cannot thrive without it. Children, especially, must know positive touch. It really is a basic life necessity that you don’t even think abou, because you just take for granted that you’ll be touched by someone during the course of the day, even if it’s just a pat on the back. The truth is that there are children who have not been touched, and I couldn’t fathom how horrible that must have been for them.
Many of your other books focus on the dangers of child sexual and physical abuse, where the problem is too much touching. Shouldn’t we be careful when we touch a child so that we don’t do so inappropriately?
We should be respectful. If a child’s body language, or certainly her voice, is withdrawn or skittish, then we need to respect those boundaries. But if we are too careful, if we are too afraid of getting in trouble because we hugged a child, then we are abusing that child too by denying her the basic life necessity of positive touch. Touch is like food. There is poisonous food. If you eat poisonous food, it will kill you. But if you don’t eat food at all, it will kill you. So you eat, but carefully so. The same should apply to touching children. We need to hug them and hold their hands and give them high fives. We don’t need to view them in any sexual manner whatsoever. Both are equally traumatizing and dangerous. As adults, we have the ability to decipher correctly a child’s body language. We must care enough to take the time to do so.
Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
Jessie. I saw her and knew what the end of her story was, but I didn’t know why it was that. Then, one day, she asked me what would happen if she wasn’t touched. That led to the research. And once I saw the research, I knew what the story had to be.
I want to talk about Jessie’s mother. And her father. And her teacher. And her doctor. But especially her mother.
You sometimes seem to downplay their roles as abusers. You did it in The Character—we never find out what happened to that father, or to John. You rarely focus on the person responsible for the pain. Why is that?
Because once pain is inflicted, it does not matter how it was inflicted. The point is that it was. Getting angry and placing blame will shift attention away from the child and onto justice—whatever that is. Of course, I want whoever is to blame to be held accountable, but what I want more is to reverse as much of the emotional damage as I can in the child. Once you start looking at the parents as abusers, your goal shifts from caretaker and comforter to judge and jury; the child is often left, unintentionally, by the wayside. It’s more important to me that the child learns she is valuable than it is for me to see justice served. I can make a positive difference and help her to still reach adulthood with some semblance of self-esteem and hope. I can’t help the abuser.
What was the hardest part of writing the story?
I desperately wanted to introduce Jessie to Ash, the driving force behind The Character. He oozes comfort, and he symbolizes hope. I wanted Jessie to have a little bit of that, very, very much, and it was hard to resist the urge to reinvent Ash for her benefit. But I couldn’t do that. Neither Ash nor Jessie seemed interested.
Describe the writing process.
I always read this question and stand amazed. There’s a process? Really? I need to get on board, so I can become a real author! The process is that there isn’t one. The only thing that hasn’t changed about my writing in recent years is that I am still driven by the characters. First, a character will show up in my mind. I will know what she looks like and her approximate age. Sometimes she tells me right away what the story is, but more often she just stands there and lets me get familiar with her. The longer she’s quiet, the more intrigued I become and the more I start to care. When she’s ready, I see a “scene” in my head that tells me what happens in the first chapter—or the one she wants me to write first. And then I write. After that scene, I usually have three or four more that I know need to be written. I jot down the point of each chapter and then wait on the character. When the character is ready to tell me the next scene, I am ready to write.
Why did you incorporate Pain?
I needed an adult voice. Jessie, as smart as she is, is still eight years old and wouldn’t have had the foresight to discuss pain.
Do you like Pain’s voice?
I like what Pain has to say. Pain’s chapters are among my favorite because they have a lot of important things to say. The sensation of pain is biologically a good thing; it is supposed to help us. If I couldn’t feel pain, and I cut my finger while cooking, I would bleed to death. Pain is not the enemy; it’s what we do with it that really matters. Furthermore, an interesting thing happened during the course of the book, particularly the latter chapters. Initially, this was a story of extreme touch deprivation but Pain’s chapters made it evolve into something bigger so that now it’s really about touch deprivation and emotional pain all at the same time. Rather brilliant of Jessie, actually.
Is that a pat on the back?
No. I love my characters. They are my friends. And I am proud of them. When one of them has a particularly moving or worthwhile story, it makes me so excited to know that their story is being told. You know, there have been several times when people have been talking about one of my books to me and I have to literally remind myself that I did write the words in those pages because I don’t feel I have that much to do with the stories themselves. The characters lead; I follow.
In the study questions, you ask if Pain is masculine or feminine. Which is it?
That’s a question each individual person must answer. It’s a fascinating question, though, and one I’d love to discuss in a book club.
What makes Jessie different from, say, Anna in The Character? And what do you most like about her? Is there anything you dislike?
Well, for one, Anna had Ash. That’s a huge difference. Ash is hope. Jessie doesn’t have an Ash and that, in itself, makes for an interesting difference between the girls. Anna is complacent, passive, but Jessie is often defiant. In a weird way, Jessie’s fight is her hope. She fights for a reason. She wants to be accepted, even if she has to fight to obtain that acceptance. Most of the time, Jessie seems older than Anna because of her tough-girl facade, even though Anna is actually the eldest. I think what I like most about Jessie is the magic because it’s really the place that her innocence and age show the most. She is scared of the woods, and believes in things that not a single one of any of my other characters ever have, things like witches and trolls. I like her language too: her eyes “leaked water” instead of “cried.” I thought that was brilliant and heartbreaking at the same time. I don’t dislike anything about her, although I related a lot more to Anna, because I can’t remember ever acting defiantly on purpose myself.
You mentioned the chapters with Pain’s voice. Did you have an overall favorite chapter?
Usually, I don’t but, this time round, I do. The chapter “The Promise” really struck a nerve. It broke my heart in about ten thousand pieces. And it was the chapter in which Jessie told me the title of the book, and that made me really very excited. I also have a favorite line in this book that I wish I could highlight.
And what is that?
When Jessie, talking about the broken glass, says, “I’m old enough to pick up the pieces.” It’s such a bone chilling statement because, no matter how young they are, children do pick the pieces up from their parents’ mistakes, failed marriages, anger. Divorce, abuse, whatever—the children carry on. They come out scarred, but they somehow manage to carry on and, most of the time, admirably so. When you think about all the environmental junk children hear, see and live through daily and then compare that with the number of children who reach adulthood as fairly intelligent, law abiding, compassionate adults…. it gives you a whole new round of respect for children. I mean, let’s put it in perspective. If I was married and my husband never, ever, not ever wanted to touch me, not even to hold my hand, I think I’d last, at most, week before I burst into tears. Because I’d know that it wasn’t normal. The lack of that knowledge in and of itself really does incredible things to children—on the one hand, it hurts them, because they accept abuse as normal but, on the other hand, it allows them to still see some beauty in the world because they don’t realize how bad their situation really is.
Well, after finishing a book, I usually take a short break. I often spend a day or two re-reading some of my favorite scenes from other books, and then I spend a few days just being a reader. I write a blog a week. If you mean what’s next novel wise—as soon as I have a new character, I’ll let you know.
Reading what, for example?
I just finished Every Last One by Anna Quindlen. And, before that, it was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Quindlen is an emotional writer for me, and it was very thought provoking. The Book Thief is officially one of my all-time favorite books, ever. It was brilliant. Less recently, I also read Emma Donahue’s Room.
Do you ever read anything less serious?
Sure. I have a weak spot for romances, particularly historical ones. I would pay Judith McNaught good money to write another one in the style of Whitney, My Love or Almost Heaven. I have both of those just about memorized, word for word.
Let’s talk about the title of Forget Me Not.
Okay. It wasn’t the original title.
Felt. But Jessie didn’t like it. I got a little ill with her about that, actually, because I did like it. I believe it totally encapsulated the point of the book because she felt the lack of touch, almost as though it were tangible pain. I knew it didn’t sound poetic or pretty; it was kind of stark and to the point. But it “got” the book. So I liked it. Jessie didn’t. Then, one day, Jessie told me I was going to write the last chapter of the book, something I really strongly did not want to do. But I did. And, midway through it, she gave me the title. I was so freaking excited because I loved it. It made me cry, and that’s when I knew it was perfect. My characters are usually right, and I rarely win a battle with any of them.
Why is Forget Me Not better?
My eleventh grade English teacher once gave me a hug during a really, really hard time in my life. After that, he wrote me a letter that said, “I’m glad I was able to give you a hug to show that I do care about your welfare.” More recently, after a poignant conversation, I asked my pastor for a hug. After obliging, he said, “You asked for a hug. There’s trust in that.” You see, a touch is like a meaningful conversation. It can be tender and wonderful, or it can hurt, but it does speak. And, when it’s positive, touch leaves the subliminal message that we are important to someone, that we matter, that we are deemed worthy of time. If you were never touched, at all, ever, then, over time, I imagine you’d start to wonder if anyone even saw you at all. Sigmund Freud once said that the greatest childhood need was a father’s protection. Well, I think the greatest human need is to feel valued and remembered. Touch suggests that if you were gone tomorrow someone would remember you. Jessie just wanted to be loved. She wanted to be seen. But no one did that. So, her last wish, her last hope, is that no one will forget her. It breaks my heart every time I think about it, and it is perfect for the book.
Not a lot of children suffer from severe touch deprivation these days.
Oh, but they could and they likely will. That’s the point. Right now, there’s a stigma against touching children because the adult is afraid of being accused of something inappropriate. I commend these well-meaning teachers, sports coaches and even parents for taking seriously the need to respect children’s bodies. One in three little girls and one in five little boys will be sexually abused before adulthood and that eats at me. It has got to stop; it robs children of more than I can explain. But, once again, it’s a double-edged sword. Positive, physical touch is not optional to the development of a healthy child. Without it, growth in children is stunted, evidence suggests the brain’s development is delayed, and they become emotionally alienated beings with no sense of worth. In essence, then, the consequences of touch deprivation are similar to those of childhood sexual assault. We cannot trade one for the other.
You always sound so passionate about your novels and your issues. What does writing give you?
Writing is like a breath of fresh air to me—still, even after some 20 years. But it also does more than just give me pleasure. At my core, I’m a relational activist even more than I am a writer. I truly am passionate about the emotional, physical and psychological well-being of children. I really care. God has entrusted to me a beautiful gift called writing, and if I can use that to bring awareness to His children, to make people see little ones in a new way, even if it’s only one person whose heart I wake up, then I have done something worthwhile. Writing is my friend. My characters are like members of my family. They talk to me. I can see them. And, together, we tell the stories of the silent.
Tiffini, I think you have brilliantly touched on a subject that has far-reaching effects on children from especially large families. Families like those where the mother was a mere child herself birthing and raising a brood of little ones by the time she herself matured to understanding adulthood as more than homemaking and wifely duties. Mother being exhausted with so many to take care of, the oldest child soon takes on “picking up the broken pieces” becoming the one who gives the human touch to younger siblings she needs to receive herself. Being inexperienced, wanting to please, feel validated, get noticed or thanked; she often gets lost in “setting an example” that sometimes turns out poorly. Middle children often suffer the same loss of identity. Have you come across this scenario?
I have read and heard accounts from the middle child who feels lost and ignored. For me, it’s hard to read this story because it doesn’t seem like the mother is doing anything “wrong.” She provides for her child’s physical needs. The key is that there is more to life and more to thriving than sustenance. Emotional well-being is equally important, regardless of the placement in the family.
You are correct, there is more to life and thriving than sustenance. Perhaps emotional well-being requires meeting at least four needs: physical needs, spiritual needs, social interaction, and protection. In the example I gave, the mother perhaps did not have her needs met as a child and was not prepared or emotionally ready for motherhood and all it entails. Perhaps her entire life did not prepare her to give and receive healthy, loving, nurturing acts. This mother, essentially, did not have the skills or well-being to take care of others until much later. I struggle to write her story because it brings me much pain and anxiety.
I’m sorry for the pain experienced. Healing is certainly a lifelong journey. I do, however, truly believe that each of us have been given a means by which to constructively cope with pain and turn it into something positive. For me, writing is the blessing that allows me to draw strength and inspiration from some of the most deeply periods of life.