Family means the world to me. I am very close with mine and would move mountains for them if I had to. When I heard Samuel Shem, best-selling author of The House of God, was releasing a new book I knew I had to give him a call. Luckily, Samuel answered.
At The Heart of the Universe, is a fictitious story, based upon Samuel's own experiences about the ups and downs of adoption, during the time of Mao's population control policies in China, and the drama that comes when two opposite ends of the world become inextricably intertwined. Click here to purchase the book!
1. You just released your latest book, At The Heart of the Universe, inspired by your own adoption experience, chronicles the ups and downs of adoption, during the time of Mao's population control policies in China, and the drama that comes when two opposite ends of the world become inextricably intertwined. How did writing this book help you reconcile your feelings about what you went through personally? I wrote the novel because I had to. When my wife Janet Surrey and I and our ten year old daughter Katie were standing in the courtyard of the police in Changsha China where she had been abandoned as a one-month old, something happened! A woman walked across the courtyard into the police station and—of all the thousands of Chinese we’d seen so far—she had the same oval face as Katie, the same eyes the same glint of russet in her black hair—she looked just like Katie, and was the right age to be her birth mother. Janet and I, independently, noticed this. We got distracted, and later, when we went looking for her— she had vanished! We were so enraptured by the similarity, we told our van driver to try to find her. We drove around through alleyways and on big streets for a while. No luck. That was the seed of the novel. As Dylan says in his song "Up to Me," "Someone had to tell that tale, I guess it was up to me." Someone had to write this, and—having published novels and plays—that someone had to be me.
2. What do you hope people come away with after reading this book? As the author, I dare not say. Bu here’s what a few others who have reviewed it have said: Bill McKibben: "A gorgeous novel of particulars set against the fascinating backdrop of the Chinese mountains, and a hauntingly universal account of loss, gain, and new beginnings." And the Chinese/American writer Ha Jin: "A moving story that if full of understanding and psychological intensity. This large-hearted novel reaffirms the necessity of empathy, self-discovery, and love." And, finally, Abraham Verghese: "A poignant and tender novel about love, about parenting and the nature of home. This is a lovely, transformative story."
3. At The Heart of the Universe is described as "A journey of how we humans can walk with each other through suffering to heal." With what just happened with the election, the timing of this book seems all too perfect, in that, primarily we as a nation are walking around suffering while looking for ways to heal. Aside from that statement, how would you correlate what happens in this story with the results of this year's election? Ahhh! This election! Hey readers—this novel may help: it affirms, deeply, the joy that can come from walking through sharp differences, together, to understanding and, in this case, love. This is the story of how differences can either divide or connect. We in the USA are living in a nation that is fractured among many differences. By adopting a four-month old Chinese girl, very quickly we were opened up to difference—and as we went on we saw how difference, through love, can be turned into greater, stronger connection—of the shared human spirit. For instance, after our first month of looking into our baby’s Chinese eyes, when we went out and saw white babies, we thought: "How strange their eyes look." We had crossed a divide of perception—what was normal for us, then, was different from us, and it was who we were now. We were in a new normal. And we saw through her eyes the way sometimes people treated her: (to Janet) "You can’t be her mother!" And at a 5th grade visit to school we were startled to see, in her "Draw Your Family," two stick figures with white faces, and one dark brown. How surprised we were! The world of division opened up, and we embraced it. The terrible stresses in this country, mostly huge economic inequalities, don’t allow us to see differences as adding, rather than diminishing. The oppressing group can’t readily see the daily feeling-experience of the oppressed; the oppressed can often see clearly that of the oppressors—their lives literally depend on this clarity. Working in face-to-face live (not screen) dialogue through these differences is required—and actually, from all our work on the difference of gender, healing.
4. In the book, Xiao Lu, gives birth to a baby girl, but with the laws the way they are in China at that time, can't keep her, so she abandons her in a pile of celery in a rural market, hoping someone who could care for her would find her. What do you think was going through her mind as she was making this decision? Here is what I wrote is going on in her head at the end of the first chapter:
"She takes the carefully calligraphed note and ties it firmly into the swaddling clothes and smells her one last time, that smell like no other, baby-soft and fragrant, like spring’s own hair, and puts her lips to the soft skin of her face her little nose her rosebud lips, and then she seems to float over the sidewalk over the dirt of the alley of the market crowded at noon and hiding the baby in a fold of her dress she goes straight to the vegetable stand trying to blend in and yes the celery is piled high and the stalks healthy and easily parted and, yes, safe, and she places the tiny bundle in the little nest she makes for her and without looking back rushes off, away, resolving not to watch what happens but then at a safe distance from behind the pile of iron and tires and pumps of the bicycle-repair stall, she watches. It takes no time at all. Vegetable sellers know their vegetables. She watches a short, stout woman wearing a blue bandanna go to rearrange the celery and suddenly look down, recoil, look again, and realize, and pick up the baby and shout:
"Whose baby? Whose baby?" People turn to look. "Whose baby?"
Mine! To keep this from escaping she puts a fist to her mouth, jams it hard, smashing her lips against her teeth.
"Whose baby?" the woman shouts. People stare, look around for the mother.
Mine! Fist to her mouth, she turns away.
"Whose baby whose baby?" echoes and echoes.
Turns back, blood on her hand now, on her fist.
"Whose baby whose baby whose babywhosebabywhosebaby . . ."
Turns away, huddles up inside, crouches over as if the fist is coming down on her head, her back, her belly, runs away.
5. Later in the book, it's revealed that when the adoptive parents return to China with their daughter, 10 years after they adopted her, they find the birth mother living alone in a forest. How do you think the decision of Xiao abandoning her daughter like that, sort of caused her life to lead her to a place of loneliness and despair? The birth mother is so overwhelmed by the horror of abandoning her beloved that for years she refuses to get pregnant again—to try for a boy, who would be valued by the husband’s farming family, because boys stay and work the farm, while girls leave to get married—and she is ostracized. Finally, after years of suffering in the family, she flees to the wilderness of a sacred mountain, thinks of suicide, but survives, and works a caretaking job at a Buddhist Temple. She lives alone on the mountain in a tiny, old stone hermitage, and she makes friends with the deer, and the birds, and, as her loneliness turns to solitude, returns to her girlhood talent, for calligraphy—trying to heal from this profound wound.
6. Going back to your own story, what was it like when you were visiting China with your daughter and you found out the birth mother wanted her to stay and she kind of wanted to as well? How did you get through that? This is a novel. We did not meet the birth mother. Of the hundreds of thousands of internationally adopted Chinese, almost zero meet the birth mother. That’s another reason I was called to write this novel—to fill the big blank space. As our daughter put it, at age eight, "It’s like my life is a movie, but I don’t know the first part of it."
7. What did you learn about yourself from writing this book that you didn't know beforehand? In a way, everything! I’ve been a writer for five decades, and I’ve learned that the only way that I really, deeply learn from writing (and from good mutual relationships) is how to live and write on my edge. (What could be more audacious, trying to write with Shakespeare on the shelf, taunting you with astonishing lines like "parting is such sweet sorrow.") This story demanded I write it, and writing it demanded I live on the edge of all of it, in my experience in China and in the USA, over a decade of our daughter’s life, writing a draft and reaching my edge and putting it away for a year or more, picking it up wiser, an edge further, and so forth. Seven drafts worth. I read everything I could about all these Chinese things—and we took in Chinese graduate students to live with us and after a while the magic worked. I also learned that I could write in the present tense in the heads of four main characters—the edge of my technical ability—which, I am grateful to say, I learned from the modern master, my dear late best friend John Updike. I jumped in whole-heartedly, and came out with an even more full heart. A novel may or may not be true, but it is—and this one is—real. Oh, and the grad students? We asked them to teach Katie Chinese. She refused--"All my friends are taking Spanish"—but she taught the grad students English!
8. Everyone says that becoming a parent changes you. How did becoming a parent change you? I got a little wiser and kinder, and accepting. Not totally, of course—I had to stay deeply flawed enough to write novels. I found out that the two reasons that I write are:
1) to resist injustice, do good in the world
2) to show the danger of isolation and the healing power of good connection.
All of my eight novels and plays and non-fiction and speeches are about just that. Last year’s novel/commentary I wrote with my wife Janet Surrey—THE BUDDHA’S WIFE: A PATH OF AWAKENING TOGETHER—and my novel THE SPIRIT OF THE PLACE—are more explicitly about that theme. And my first novel, THE HOUSE OF GOD—about medical internship, as well. (It was just named by Publishers Weekly in its list of "The 10 Best Satires of All Time" Number 2)
9. What advice would you have for parents going through the adoption process that you wish you had? It’s not easy, and you have to persist—Janet and I at one point labeled the process: "The Adoption Olympics." But follow your heart, and you will find the baby meant for you. There is how a remarkable story about how "our baby" was "meant" for us, at the center of the novel.
10. What is something your daughter has taught you? Along with my decades-long year relationship with Janet, Katie has taught me just about everything human of value at my core. And, because of her love of animals, she taught me how incredibly much I could love a dog. I’m talkin’ really love a dog. And he’s getting old!
Best-selling and literary-award-winning novelist Samuel Shem is known as the author of the three million copy–selling modern classic, The House of God, recently named second on Publishers Weekly’s list of "The 10 Best Satires of All Time." A visiting Artist/Scholar at the American Academy in Rome, a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Medical School faculty member for over three decades, Samuel is currently a Professor of Medical Humanities and Literature at NYU Medical School. He has given over sixty medical school commencement addresses on "Staying Human in Medicine,” and has been described in the press as "Easily the finest and most important writer ever to focus on the lives of doctors and the world of medicine." His other books include The Spirit of the Place, named 2009 USA Book News Best Novel of the Year as well as Independent Publishers Best Novel of the Year. His award-winning play Bill W. and Dr. Bob, co-written with his wife Janet Surrey about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, ran for ten months Off-Broadway in 2013. Surrey and Shem are co--authors of the 2015 book The Buddha's Wife: The Path of Awakening Together. He lives in Boston, New York, and Costa Rica, together with Janet and their daughter Katie. Follow Shem on Facebook, and read about his upcoming events at www.samuelshem.wordpress.com.