This blog was featured on 06/26/2017
Behind The Book American Family
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Behind The Book

American Family

By Catherine Marshall-Smith

 

“What a long strange trip it’s been,” pretty much sums up my experience writing American Family. What had changed more, me or my book?

American Family is the story of a gay couple’s struggle to gain custody of their biological child from her grandparents who are fundamentalist Christians, as is she. I began writing it ten years ago when the Defense of Marriage Act was still in place and money was flowing into California to change the constitution so that marriage could only be between a man and a woman. But then the Supreme Court struck all of that down and I thought my book was irrelevant. And then the new president was elected and my sense of urgency to publish intensified. I knew I had to get it right.

The areas of information I had to research in order to write American Family with any authenticity included:

  1. Family Law
  2. Christian Doctrine
  3. Gay culture (dialogue, sex, inside jokes, fashion)
  4. A child’s perspective of the adult world
  5. Alcoholism (the couple seeking custody is in recovery)

To gain expertise, I learned to be humble, accept criticism, and listen, listen, listen. Every new lesson felt like a pound of flesh being cut from me. I wanted to give up often. But I didn’t. Coincidentally, when I needed help most, people appeared.  When a lawyer said there were legal inconsistencies in the book, I asked a friend in law school to read with me the Supreme Court decision setting the precedent for grandparents’ rights. Another friend, a judge, invited me to attend her Family Court.  I observed for hours and discovered that while the mantra of Family Law was to operate in the “best interests of the child,” children do not hire lawyers and all they seemed to want was for everyone around them to, “just get along.” I had many awkward conversations with gay friends about culture, blended families and (throat clear here) sex.

Four years into the ten it took to write this novel, I got sober. All great writers were drunks, I thought. I had been writing with a glass of wine in one hand and wondering why the story didn’t make sense. My desire to get this book to market may have saved my life.

Writing is a long series of experiences that teaches you that you don’t know what you don’t know. American Family had come so far from its beginnings that I no longer had objectivity as to whether it was saleable or not. I went to lots of writing conventions, most notably the San Francisco Writers’ Convention. I pitched my book to agents and publishers long before it was ready. An agent I really wanted asked for the whole manuscript. My feet seemed not to touch the ground until months later when I returned home to find my manuscript on the porch. This experience made me afraid to self publish. I hired an editor but rejected most of the changes she suggested and abandoned the project. For awhile, I didn’t know if I was going to be a writer. This instinctual break allowed me to see that the editor’s changes increased the pace of the book and made it readable.

 It was at the San Francisco Writers’ Convention that I met Brooke Warner and realized She Writes Press was what I needed: a balance of independence and support. Through She Writes Press I found professional editors to vet my work, technical support in website design, and publicity through Booksparks. Even more importantly, I found friends in a community of writers who will continue to guide me. The final changes for American Family are in, and my life is changed forever.

 

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Comments
  • Michelle Cox

    Great article, Catherine! Thanks for sharing your story! Can't wait to read your book.