[SWP: Behind the Book] American Family by Catherine Marshall-Smith

I didn’t write American Family; it burst from my chest like the alien in the movie by the same name starring Sigourney Weaver. It was also produced by the clash of politics, law and faith that swirled around LGBTQ rights at the beginning of the millennium.

American Family began writing itself years before I even knew I was going to write it. When I try to figure out when my novel began, a series of headlines and snippets of conversations flash through my mind. I remember being told a story by a conservative Christian woman about another woman who was awarded custody of her own daughter after a divorce and was raising the girl with her lesbian partner.  The woman relating the story added, “I’m sorry, I have a problem with that.” She later had two signs in her yard supporting Proposition 22, which temporarily put into California law in 2000 that, “marriage was only lawful between a man and a woman.” During the campaign, I would drive down the expressway between a depressing gauntlet of those signs. Prop 22 passed because of the flood of commercials funded by money from outside of California, but it was famously reversed by the Supreme Court in 2008. It was a pleasure for me to watch so many gay and lesbian couples getting married, jubilantly kissing on the courthouse steps.

But I was affected by the commercials. How could they find traction in California where so many people are openly gay and openly mainstreamed? The messages from the ads were so mean spirited and they were building on ignorance. Underlying some of the messages was Christian fundamentalism. I am a person of faith. But I saw that faith being twisted and used for political gains. I stopped going to church for almost a year and found that I needed the solace I had found in liturgy and communion.

Out of these two colliding forces, my faith versus the legal conflict, two characters emerged, rumpled Richard Lawson and meticulous Michael Elson. Proposition 22 was law when my story begins and Richard and Michael are moving together into Michael’s house in Manhattan Beach. Richard is unpacking boxes and comes across a picture of his ten year old daughter, Brady. Fueled by recovery idealism and gay rights rhetoric, Richard feels the urge to parent her and reaches for the phone. He is her father; it’s his right to be a father. His zeal overrides reason and he fails to tell Michael.

When the phone is answered, he is surprised to find himself on the line with Frank Nordland.  Frank and Kathleen Nordland are Brady’s grandparents. Years earlier, following their fundamentalist faith, they had prayed, offered love and money trying to save their daughter Brenda, Brady’s mother. They had thought, if they only loved her more, practiced tough love, sent her to rehab, she would break free of addiction. But all hope ended one night with a knock on the door. They were informed that Brenda had died in a car accident and that she was reeking of alcohol. Frank and Kathleen were escorted to the hospital where they first meet their granddaughter. Pale, dirty, disheveled and underfed, Brady has survived. Frank believes he sees hope and trust in her eyes; God is giving him a second chance to father. He and Kathleen pull together with Brady and become a family. The wounds left by Brenda’s alcoholism and death are healing.

And then Richard calls.

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