By Leslie Lindsay
“In New York Times bestselling author, Jacqueline Sheehan’s evocative and compelling THE CENTER OF THE WORLD (December 29, 2015), a mother and her adopted daughter each embark on a journey of self-discovery in the wake of a stunning revelation.”
Kate Malloy is a single mother raising her adopted daughter, Sofia in white-bread Massachusetts. Sofia has long known she was adopted–her caramel-colored skin and jet black hair are in stark contrast to Kate’s fair skin and blonde tresses. But…there’s something niggling at Sofia deep down in her bones, something she often disregards. When her step-father dies in a freak accident, she is given a letter from his attorney stating the truth: she not Mexican like she always believed.
We delve into war-torn Guatemala in which the country is in the throes of a 30-year civil war. Twenty-four year old Kate is a graduate student on an academic grant studying water consumption in Third World countries.
THE CENTER OF THE WORLD has a lot going for it–a story of love and loyalty, it’s ultimately about mothers and daughters, complicated secrets, heartbreak and redemption, and at the core: a love story.
Today, I am honored to sit down with Jacqueline Sheehan and discuss all things writerly.
Leslie Lindsay: Jacqueline, thanks for taking the time to pop over. I’m always so intrigued with literary inspiration. What got you thinking about this story, propelling you to sit at your desk for long stretches of time crafting this complex story of heartbreak and redemption?
Jacqueline Sheehan: It’s great to be here with you, Leslie.The bond between parent and child is so universal and it inspires acts of courage beyond what any parent could imagine. I was intrigued by this bond and what happens when a child is forced to deal with the death of a parent. I also wanted to know what it would be like for someone like Kate Malloy, a budding scientist, who was childless, when she was forced to make a choice to protect a child.
Leslie Lindsay: I fell in love with your glittering descriptions of Guatemala. Everything came alive for me—from the thick, round tortillas, the whoosing of palm trees in the sticky wind, to the soccer ball held together with strands of tape. If I listened long enough, I might have been able to hear the ocean lapping the shore in the distance. Tell us how you were able to create such a real and haunting landscape for readers to reside.
Jacqueline Sheehan: I’ve been traveling to Guatemala for ten years, so I am familiar with the landscape. I wanted the setting to become a character, so I worked hard to add all the senses into the writing so the reader could experience the setting. The rumbling volcanoes and the unsettling earthquakes equate with the danger that Kate and Sofia face. Combined with the threat of danger, there is the intense beauty of the country that is nearly intoxicating.
L.L.: Speaking of Guatemala…I lived through the 1990s, but was unaware of the civil war going on then. Can you speak to that, please?
Jacqueline Sheehan: Very few people in the United States were aware of the civil war in Guatemala, including our elected officials. News coverage was minimal and distorted. 200,000 Guatemalans were killed and the majority were the Mayans. Today, our world feels much smaller and thanks in part to social media, we are much more connected to events in other countries. Keep in mind that during the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was difficult to even make a phone call from Guatemala.
L.L.: Adoption has long been an interest of mine—and I’m not exactly sure why, I’m not adopted—but I’m curious how it came about in THE CENTER OF THE WORLD?
Jacqueline Sheehan: Adoption is fascinating. People who adopt are primarily North Americans and Europeans. International adoptions tend to follow political or social instability in a country. When mothers are desperate, due to war, or intense poverty, giving a child up for adoption is one way to insure that the child will survive. War orphans are kids who have lost both parents and no other family members are available to provide for them. During the long civil war in Guatemala, there were plenty of war orphans. Very few children are currently available for adoption from Guatemala today.
I am hearing from many parents who adopted kids from Guatemala and to my amazement they say, “It was like you wrote our lives. Thank you.”
L.L.: I have to admit, I kind of fell in love with Will Buchanan a bit…is there a real-life inspiration for his character? Had you ever been in the Peace Corps, or know someone who was?
Jacqueline Sheehan: I’m glad to hear that you fell in love with Will. Me too. How could you not love this guy? I tend to write men who are full characters, who have a full range of emotions, including weaknesses. Will is purely fictional, but I do wish that I could clone him.
My daughter and son-in-law were in the Peace Corps in the Republic of Georgia ten years ago. I visited my daughter and was able to meet her entire crew of Peace Corps Volunteers, so I was able to gain a deeper appreciation of the people who tended to volunteer. They were largely committed to providing a service to a country in need, as well as having a high sense of adventure.
L.L.: Also, I loved the linguistic approach in THE CENTER OF THE WORLD, how Will often said that language tied people to their roots; it was buried in the marrow of their bones and ultimately, we all have to listen to the language of our heart and soul. That’s deep stuff; what is about language that has this affect on us?
Jacqueline Sheehan: It’s possible that Will said it best. Language is a primal part of our cultural and familial identity. We have seen again and again what happens when people lose their original language and are forced to speak the language of essentially conquerors. So much history of indigenous people in North American was lost when their language was suppressed. I dearly hope that the Mayan people can continue to hang onto their language as well as learning other languages.
L.L.: As writers, we’re all inspired by good reading. What are you reading these days?
Jacqueline Sheehan: I just finished reading T. Greenwood’s novel, Where I Lost Her, which I loved. Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale For the Time Being, left me breathless. And I am mid-way through The Weight of Silence, by Heather Gudenfauf.
L.L.: What’s obsessing you now and why?
Jacqueline Sheehan: I’m trying hard not to obsess about it, but the election year theatrics are hard to ignore.
L.L.: Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask, but should have?
Jacqueline Sheehan: Thanks for asking! I’m offering three writing retreats this next year. In September, I’m teaching a week-long retreat through Maine Media in Rockport Maine.
October 28-November 5, I’m teaching a writing and yoga retreat in Jamaica.
And in January 2017, I’m returning to Guatemala for another retreat (year ten!) to teach a writing and yoga retreat.
You can find information about all three on my webpage, www.jacquelinesheehan.com.
L.L: Thank you so much for this lovely chat, Jacqueline!
Jacqueline Sheehan: Thank you so much for having me!
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Author Bio: Jacqueline Sheehan, Ph.D., is a fiction writer and essayist. She is also a psychologist. She is a New Englander through and through, but spent twenty years living in the western states of Oregon, California, and New Mexico doing a variety of things, including house painting, freelance photography, newspaper writing, clerking in a health food store, and directing a traveling troupe of high school puppeteers.
Her first novel, Truth, was published in 2003 by Free Press of Simon and Schuster. Her second novel, Lost & Found, was published 2007 by Avon, Harper Collins. Lost & Found has been on the New York Times Bestseller List and has been optioned for film by Katherine Heigl, star of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Her third novel, Now & Then, was published in July 2009 by Avon, Harper Collins. She has published travel articles (“Winter in Soviet Georgia”), short stories (most recently in theBerkshire Review), and numerous essays and radio pieces. In 2005, she was the editor of the anthology Women Writing in Prison. Jacqueline’s books have been published in over eight countries.
She lives near Northampton in central Massachusetts.
[Author photo credit: Jane Green. Cover image and author photo courtesy of Kensington Press and used with permission. Image of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala retrieved from Wikipedia on 3.29.16. Adoption image retrieved from dcfs.utah.adoption.org on 3.29.16 Dock view/Guatemala image photo credit: Stephanie Richardson and retrieved from J. Sheehan’s website 3.29.16].