If you read my review of The How and the Why last week you will know that I absolutely adored it. As an adoptee, reading these books about adoption and featuring adopted characters has been a balm to my soul. So when the opportunity came up to interview Cynthia, I knew I had to!
The How and the Why
Today Melly had us writing letters to our babies…
Cassandra McMurtrey has the best parents a girl could ask for. They’ve given Cass a life she wouldn’t trade for the world. She has everything she needs—except maybe the one thing she wants. Like, to know who she is. Where she came from. Questions her adoptive parents can’t answer, no matter how much they love her.
But eighteen years ago, someone wrote Cass a series of letters. And they may just hold the answers Cass has been searching for.
Alternating between Cass’s search for answers and letters from the pregnant teen who gave her up for adoption, this voice-driven narrative is the perfect read for fans of Nina LaCour and Jandy Nelson.
As an adoptee myself, I am so excited for The How & The Why. Was this always a story you knew you wanted to write and if so, how did it come around? Was it an emotional process?
Yes, it was very emotional, but it was so worth it. I like to write about topics that I haven’t fully figured out for myself, and this was–as I am an adoptee too–a subject I’d had mixed feelings about all my life. I’ve also always been a tad annoyed by the way that adoption is so often depicted on television and in movies. So often the attention is focused on the birth parents, almost completely ignoring the real parents—the adoptive parents! So I set out to write something more accurate, a story that felt true to my experience, and to learn about myself along the way.
How did you balance real places and aspects into the writing process?
I’ve always preferred to write about real places in my books: having a true setting helps me to flesh out the characters’ worlds into something richer—it gives them atmosphere to breathe, so to speak. That way, most of my creative energy goes into discovering the characters. It’s fun to weave reality into the what I’ve imagined. But I also make it a point to not write my autobiography. I want my characters to be their own people and go on their own journeys. While the settings and emotions of THE HOW & THE WHY are absolutely real, the things that happen to Cass and S are totally their own.
The summary hints at possibly telling both sides of the adoption, how was it to write that POV being an adoptee yourself?
Honestly (and surprisingly, for me) I found it much easier to write from S’s point of view, even though S is the birthmother in my novel, and Cass is the adopted child. I don’t know why that was. Maybe it’s because S is closer to my age—she is 16 in the year 2000, and I was in college at that time. Or possibly it’s because I, as the mother of two children, could relate to her thoughts and concerns as she goes through her pregnancy. But it also occurred to me that maybe it was just simply harder to write about Cass because being in her head makes me confront some uncomfortable questions about myself, as an adoptee, and how I think about things. I don’t know. I loved writing about Cass’s experiences in the theater—I was a theater nerd in high school, and so is Cass, but when it came to the adoption element, I had a harder time. Which I’ve come to see as a good thing, to struggle with ideas and emotions that are complex and nuanced and layered.
After writing The How & The Why, do you think you’ll write another story that features adoption?
Maybe! When I was researching for this book, I spent some time at the Marian Pritchett School, which is a high school for teen parents that operates in the Boise area. I was there to research what the school was like twenty years before that, when it was still called Booth Memorial, and it was a “home for unwed mothers,” because that was what my book was about. But I was so impressed by what was happening at the school currently, and how huge a difference they were making in the lives of these girls, that I took a ton of notes about it, in case I ever could find a way to write about it in modern times.
As an adoptee yourself, what other books have you found that tackle adoption in the YA sphere?
Hmm, not a ton. The ones that spring instantly to mind are HOW TO SAVE A LIFE, by Sara Zarr, and FAR FROM THE TREE, by Robin Benway. Both of these are beautifully written novels, and I enjoyed them immensely, but neither really reflected my own experience as an adopted person.
As someone who is still on the fence about trying to find her birth family, what is it like for Cass to balance the guilt and the complex feelings associated with that search?
Cass loves her parents, and doesn’t want to do anything to upset them. But she is curious about where she came from. It’s such a delicate, terrifying thing! For Cass, searching for her birthmother is not about seeking a relationship with this person who is, essentially, a stranger to her. In so many ways, Cass is seeking answers about who CASS is—and what parts of that are made up of her birth parents, and what parts come from her parents and her upbringing. Cass is searching for herself, and in the end she has to come to terms with who she is, separately from who S is. Her parents have mixed feelings about it, too, of course, so they all struggle along with it together.
About the Author
Cynthia Hand is the New York Times bestselling author of several books for teens, including the UNEARTHLY trilogy, THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE, MY LADY JANE and MY PLAIN JANE (with fellow authors Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows), THE AFTERLIFE OF HOLLY CHASE, and the upcoming novels THE HOW AND THE WHY (November 5, 2019) and MY CALAMITY JANE (June 2, 2020). Before turning to writing for young adults, she studied literary fiction and earned both an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. in fiction writing. She currently resides in Boise, Idaho, with a husband who’s addicted to buying typewriters, two kids, two cats, one crazy dog, and a mountain of books.