Book of Lost Friend, Lisa Wingate

Interview: Book of Lost Friends Seeks Family Amid Destruction

June 1, 2020
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An EXCLUSIVE AUTHORLINK interview with Lisa Wingate

The Book of Lost Friends (Ballantine Books)

 

Lisa Wingate, the #1 New York Times bestselling author writes another showstopping historical novel, The Book of Lost Friends which is the dramatic story of three young women searching for family amid the destruction of the post–Civil War South, and of a modern-day teacher who learns of their story and its vital connection to her students’ lives.

AUTHORLINK: Ms Wingate, thank you for fitting us into your busy schedule – especially during these unusual and challenging times. We hope you and your loved ones are well. Your novels have been translated into over thirty-five languages, and on top of your skills as a novelist, the group, Americans for More Civility, a kindness watchdog organization, recently selected you along with six others as recipients of the National Civics Award. This award celebrates public figures who work to promote greater kindness and civility in American life. How heartening is it to read reports of kindness during the global Covid19 pandemic? Have you got a favourite?

“Times like these are a reminder that superhumans aren’t just the stuff of fiction.”

WINGATE: It’s hard to express how much it means to see the creative, incredible ways people have stepped forward to support neighbors, community members, older family members, and quite often even people they’ve never met. Some of my favorites include elementary school teachers reading bedtime books for their students via the Internet, restaurant owners using their businesses and food stocks to feed their communities, birthday parades, the citywide cheers for medical workers, and a nursing home manager who constructed a giant plexiglass box so residents could safely sit outside the door and visit with their family members. Times like these are a reminder that superhumans aren’t just the stuff of fiction.

AUTHORLINK: Quite right! We loved The Book of Lost Friends. We also enjoyed following your travels and the photos you posted on your social media accounts when researching your book. Tell us about how you first came across these, “Lost Friends” advertisements that appeared in Southern newspapers.

WINGATE: The century-old history that sparked The Book of Lost Friends came to me in the most surprisingly modern of ways. I opened my email inbox while on the back porch writing, and there was a note from a reader named Diane. She’d just finished Before We Were Yours, and she thought there was another, similar piece of history I should know about—a story of children taken from their parents and disbursed into the world, of families torn apart, and the surprising means by which some of these families found their way back to one another decades later. As a volunteer with the Historic New Orleans Collection, Diane had been entering old newspaper advertisements into a database for genealogists and historical researchers. The ads ran in the decades following the Civil War in a column called “The Lost Friends,” and were written by formerly enslaved people, now free, seeking news of their long-lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers, husbands and wives.

“When I was reading your book, I was thinking about these families that were sold, traded or killed.  Their identity taken away.  Their constant love of family and their continued search for loved ones, some they had not seen in over 40 years,” Diane wrote in her note to me. “There is a story in each one of the ads.” She shared a smattering of advertisements from the museum’s Lost Friends database—gripping, heartbreaking letters to the editor preserved in the faded, uneven newsprint of hand-crank printing presses.          

After reading the samples from Diane, I followed the link to the database itself, a collection of over 2500 original ads, and tens of thousands of names. I tumbled down a rabbit hole for hours, lost in the lives of these long-ago people. It was both strange and powerful to realize that their voices and quite probably their names had faded into history generations ago, and yet, in old filing cabinets and dusty university archives, these small bits of their stories had survived.

AUTHORLINK: How remarkable! How did you merge the story of the three women searching for their family during the Reconstruction period and of a modern-day teacher who learns of their story? Did you write them separately and then splice them together? Who was your most beloved character and, why?

“Stories, like people (or perhaps because they’re about people), develop their own personalities.”

WINGATE: Stories, like people (or perhaps because they’re about people), develop their own personalities. In structure, The Book of Lost Friends is similar to Before We Were Yours, and there are some common themes, though the historical circumstances are far different. I enjoy crafting stories in dual time frames, melding a modern-day story with a historical one. I like looking at history through the eyes of a modern-day character, exploring the lessons that can be learned from those long-ago people who lived, and loved, and left their stories behind.

In terms of structure, I’m very linear when I wrote. I discover the stories as I go, so I wrote The Book of Lost Friends just as it is in the finished book (minus edits, of course). The biggest trick to making dual time frames work is in weaving the stories together in a way that works. Benny’s modern-day story and Hannie’s life in 1875 are intertwined. The question then becomes, in what ways? How will Hannie’s life, her story, affect Benny’s perspectives and ultimately her choices? What lessons will she learn? What habits, self-perceptions, future plans might be changed?  What secrets might be revealed?

It’s such a fun question to explore. I think most of us wonder about the rumors, tall tales and oft-repeated anecdotes in our families and communities. Stories in dual time frames are all about discovering connections and unearthing the hidden past.

AUTHORLINK: Well said. We would also like to talk a little about your runaway best-seller, with over 2 million copies sold, Before We Were Yours. It’s upsetting this was based on a true event. We understand that from the 1920s through 1950, thousands of children of single mothers and poverty-stricken parents were taken away by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and its Memphis branch director, Georgia Tann.

Before We Were Yours stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List for over a year, was Publishers Weekly’s 3rd longest-running bestseller of 2017, and was voted by readers as the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award winner for historical fiction.

You also wrote a non-fiction book of real-life stories of Georgia Tann adoptees and birth families entitled “Before and After”. We understand The Tennessee Children’s Home Society changed birth records and, many records were lost when Georgia Tann died. As a result, many people were unable to reconnect with birth family members. Recently, though, some are making connections through DNA searches.

How many people are you aware of that have been reunited with their families because of your books? How amazing of you.

WINGATE: While writing the story of Rill Foss in Before We Were Yours, I never dreamed the novel would land in the hands of many real-life survivors Georgia Tann’s notorious adoptions-for-profit scheme.

As Before We Were Yours gained steam, unexpected packages began showing up in my mailbox and via email. Inside were pages of old adoption paperwork, crackled sepia-toned baby photographs, creepy Georgia Tann sales letters to prospective adoptive parents, and pictures of eventual birth-family reunions between siblings, cousins, parents, and children who’d long ago been separated. Because people were talking about the novel, the real-life survivors finally felt free to talk about what had happened to them. Journalist friend, Judy Christie, and I worked together to document what came about when this first group of adoptees and families gathered for a reunion of sorts. Before and After, The Incredible Real-Life Stories of Orphans Who Survived the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, was the result. Since then, we’ve met many more adoptees and family members, and have been able to connect them with others who can help them in their individual quests to untangle a decades-old web of lies and to share their long-hidden stories. At this point, we’ve watched people find cousins, aunts, uncles, the names of birth parents, family photos and burial sites. I haven’t kept count of how many people are involved, but probably a few dozen, in all.

AUTHORLINK: What a remarkable thing you did for these people. Before We Were Yours has been optioned for a movie, or possibly a TV series. Do you have any idea yet when production may start? Do you have any favourite actors in mind whom you would like to play the main characters? Are any other of your books optioned for movie or TV?

“…I would love to see Rill and her family come to life on screen.”

WINGATE: I don’t know when production might start, but I would love to see Rill and her family come to life on screen. Another book, Dandelion Summer, has also been under option for a few years. Many books are optioned and never find their way to screen, so all we can do is imagine and hope!

AUTHORLINK: You were a technical writer before you became a successful author. Do you miss working in this industry and contact with co-workers? You are also a motivational speaker. How did this position come about and what is your next inspirational speech about?

WINGATE: Technical writing was good training in economy of language, and I had some incredible co-workers during an exciting time when the computer and technology industry was rapidly evolving. I miss hearing about new innovations before they hit the market, but I don’t miss being in an office tower. I much prefer slower, quieter spaces with room for mind-wandering. Between writing and traveling for speaking events these days, I have a bit of both worlds—the busy, fast-paced one, and the quieter life of a writer.

AUTHORLINK: Sounds ideal to me! You have written 30 books since you started as an author, mostly stories about, “a world where people go to church on Sunday and life is centered around family and faith.” What prompted you to change your direction into historical fiction in your last few books? Was it easy to convince your publishers and marketing team to accept a change of genre?

WINGATE: I started out in the mainstream fiction market, with a novel titled Tending Roses, back in the dinosaur days before e-books. Imagine! For some years I wrote in both the mainstream market and for faith-based publishers. Before We Were Yours sold at auction, and Ballantine/Penguin Random House won the auction, so by default I’d come full circle. It has been a lovely homecoming.

I don’t know that The Book of Lost Friends differs so very much from my earlier works. I’ve always been fascinated by pieces of “hidden history.” I like the idea of making the past relevant by weaving it into the lives of fictional characters and allowing readers to live through those experiences with the characters. There’s great value in that. Research shows that reading not only grows our understanding of the world, it fosters and strengthens our sense of empathy. My goal in writing has always been to allow one person to walk in the shoes of another.  When we know how it feels to live within the mind, and heart, and body of another person, we look at similar real-life situations with new perspective.  Hopefully, we’re not so quick to judge, to adopt a negative view, because we identify with the experience on a personal level. As a writer, that’s the journey I travel with each story and it’s the experience I hope to pass along to readers. For me a good story, whether you read it or write it, becomes a life experience.

AUTHORLINK: That is so true! Tell us about your writing habits. We understand you used to set a page count for yourself of about 2200 words per day (or ten double-spaced pages per day) and stick to it. Is that still the case? Do you have any writing rituals? Has writing become any easier for you over the years or is every book different?

“I don’t battle writer’s block nearly as much as I battle writer’s laziness.”

WINGATE: I write every weekday, if I’m not traveling. I don’t battle writer’s block nearly as much as I battle writer’s laziness. For me, the battle isn’t so much about what to write as it is about getting myself to the keyboard and getting down to business.

In terms of getting a book together, I set a page count for myself (yes, about 2200 words per day) and I stick to it. Even if I feel that what I’m writing that day isn’t particularly great, I’ve learned to push through it and put words on paper. I can always revise it later, and there’s nothing better than a completed first draft. I don’t think writing ever becomes any easier. Every book is a challenge, and just a bit of a terrifying mystery until the first draft is on paper. In the first draft, I’m finding the characters and the story. In the second draft, I know the characters and the story, and I’m refining the story to send it out into the larger world.

AUTHORLINK: That’s good to know. Interestingly, even an accomplished writer such as yourself can feel that “Some days, I hate what I’m writing. I’m convinced it’s complete junk and the story will be anything that anyone anywhere would EVER want to read.” (Goodreads). How do you feel your writing has improved since 2003 when you started out? Who edits your books and, how did you select him or her?

WINGATE: Ultimately, my editor at the publishing house will guide the editorial of the manuscript. The finished product is the result of a refining process between the two of us. Prior to that point, however, I’ve done all the work I can to turn in a very clean manuscript. I have a team of Beta readers who are “first readers” of each manuscript, and often a writer friend will read the book as well, to give a writer’s perspective. I want to be sure when I send it to my editor, the manuscript is the best it can be.

AUTHORLINK: What are your thoughts on good or bad reviews? Are you less sensitive to them now after so many years, or do they still hurt or delight?

WINGATE: All of the above, to be honest. Writers are, after all, only human and in general we’re giving something into the world that was born of blood, sweat, tears, and no small amount of love. It’s glorious when people love the book. It stinks when people don’t.

Ultimately, though, all readers are individuals, and the book everyone loves hasn’t been written yet. Readers have different likes, dislikes, interests, and prejudices. Sometimes a book hits the reader on the wrong day or touches a personal dislike that has nothing to do with the story.

Some writer friends tell me they don’t read reviews of their books. I do read. It’s part of the business, and it’s a fact that a writer must look criticism in the face and learn to roll with it.

AUTHORLINK: And finally, here are some light-hearted questions just for fun, which we ask you to answer in one-line responses.

  • What is your favourite movie and why?

WINGATE: The Princess Bride and/or A Christmas Story. Both are that delightful combination of quirky, sweet, and deeply human that, for me, creates a viewing experience I’m willing to repeat over, and over.

  • AUTHORLINK: Loved The Princess Bride… What advice would you give to your younger self?

“Don’t be so vulnerable to others’ opinions.”

WINGATE: Sleep more. Overschedule less. Take more walks. Don’t be so vulnerable to others’ opinions. Remember, they’re looking through the lens of their own experiences, and you have no idea what’s imprinted on that lens. Similarly, you never really know what’s imprinted on your own.

  • AUTHORLINK: Good advice! Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and, why?

WINGATE: Mark Twain or Will Rogers, two writers whose wit I enjoy.

  • AUTHORLINK: If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and, why?

WINGATE: How the Grinch Stole Christmas or anything by Dr Seuss. What fun would it be to be an icon in so many childhoods and imprinted on millions of little minds?

AUTHORLINK: Too true! Ms Wingate, it’s been an absolute treat talking to you today about The Book of Lost Friends and your writing in general. Thank you for your time once again and best of luck with your next endeavours!

WINGATE: Thank you for the invitation to your corner of cyber space and for providing a place to talk about books and stories!

 

About the Author: Lisa Wingate is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Before We Were Yours, which remained on the bestseller list for fifty-four weeks in hardcover, and (to date) 45 weeks in softcover, and has sold over 2 million copies. She has penned over thirty novels and coauthored a nonfiction book, Before and After with Judy Christie. Her award-winning works have been selected for state and community One Book reads throughout the country, have been published in over forty languages, and have appeared on bestseller lists worldwide. Her April 2020 novel, The Book of Lost Friends, became an instant New York Times Bestseller. The story follows an unlikely trio of girls coming of age as they embark on a perilous journey through reconstruction Louisiana and Texas… and a modern-day teacher in small-town Louisiana who rediscovers their story. The Book of Lost Friends was inspired by the real-life “Lost Friends” ads, through which families separated during slavery sought to find their lost loved ones in the chaos following the Civil War.

The group Americans for More Civility, a kindness watchdog organization, selected Lisa and six others as recipients of the National Civies Award, which celebrates public figures who work to promote greater kindness and civility in American life. Booklist summed up her work by saying, “Lisa Wingate is, quite simply, a master storyteller.” She lives with her husband in North Texas. More information about her novels can be found at www.lisawingate.com where you can also sign up for her e-newsletter and follow her on social media.

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This post was written by Anna Roins

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