HOW FAR WOULD YOU GO TO SAVE YOUR FAMILY?
As soon as Gail and Jon Durbin bring home their adopted baby Maya, she becomes the glue that mends their fractured marriage.
But the Durbin’s social worker, Paige, can’t find the teenage birth mother to sign the consent forms. By law, Carli has seventy-two hours to change her mind. Without her signature, the adoption will unravel.
Carli is desperate to pursue her dreams, so giving her baby a life with the Durbins seems like the right choice—until her own mother throws down an ultimatum. Soon Carli realizes how few choices she has.
As the hours tick by, Paige knows that the Durbins’ marriage won’t survive the loss of Maya, but everyone’s life is shattered when they—and baby Maya—disappear without a trace.
Filled with heartrending turns, Other People’s Children is a riveting page-turner you’ll find impossible to put down.
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|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Gail didn’t usually drink, but she stood on the patio and took a long sip from her third glass of pinot. It was disappearing quickly, evaporating, maybe. The first-birthday parties always cut especially deep, and this one proved no exception. There was a jump house, of course, and a section of the backyard had been fenced off for a petting zoo. Relatives had flown in from both coasts. A creepy clown was tying balloon animals that all looked like crickets. The birthday boy wouldn’t stop crying, so he was sent upstairs with an aunt for a nap. But first-birthday parties were for the parents, not the babies, and certainly not for infertile women in their early thirties.
Gail searched in vain for someone she knew. A few faces seemed vaguely familiar from her husband’s holiday party, but sorting the relatives from Jon’s coworkers proved difficult. She spotted Jon standing by the jump house, the tallest in a cluster of men whose scruffy jeans and T-shirts marked them as programmers. Jon swiped his dark, shaggy bangs out of his eyes and laughed. They were probably talking sports or music or databases. Gail envied him—men floated upon the surface of their conversations, while women always insisted on diving so deep.
Days like today made Gail’s lungs hurt. She had just fled the kitchen, where she was helping the baby’s grandmother slice vegetables and heat up the chicken nuggets for dinner. The kitchen usually proved a safe haven at first-birthday parties—mindless tasks, no children. But the grandmother knew about Gail and Jon’s situation and was asking all the wrong questions. How long will it take? Is there a lot of paperwork? International or domestic? How much does it cost? Have you heard anything lately? How can you stand the waiting? Stories always followed the questions—stories about adoptions that fell apart at the last minute and women who got pregnant soon after they adopted—because they finally relaxed and stopped trying so hard. Gail answered the questions vaguely, with the fewest words that politeness allowed, and then she set down her knife and walked out, before the stories came, and before she gave in to the urge to tell Grandma about the girl in Morris.
Now Jon spotted Gail and waved her over, but she just smiled, waved, and looked away. She couldn’t go back to the kitchen, but she also couldn’t summon the energy to fabricate an opinion about the Blackhawks defense or the best Modest Mouse album. The wine made everything slant a bit, and the yard swarmed with children she didn’t want to look at, darting around adults she didn’t know. She could go help with the three-legged race, but it seemed well staffed with mothers. Heidi and Colin were already surrounded by strangers. She could go to the bathroom again, but she’d already been twice in the last hour. She’d probably be discovered if she hid in the car.
Finally, Gail stepped off the porch and drifted toward the petting zoo. She leaned against the fence erected around the animals and tried to focus on the rabbits and goats and chickens. She tried to ignore the children chasing them, and she mostly succeeded. She tried not to think about the book that went out to that nameless, faceless pregnant girl in Morris, and she failed miserably. Paige from the agency had told Gail nothing about the girl but her hometown. She never shared more than that, and she always reminded Gail to manage her expectations. That girl would be sorting through a stack of books, and there was no way to guess how she would decide.
Getting your hopes up in the early stages too often leads to disappointment, Paige always said.
The first three times the book went out, Gail had mostly managed to heed Paige’s advice, but those first three times had been easier. The answer had come quickly, a quiet no from Paige, in two days, in four, in three. This time, though, after a week passed without a word, Gail had begun to imagine that girl in Morris thumbing through their book. Gail tried to guess what she saw in the carefully curated pictures, what conclusions she would draw from the painstakingly crafted sentences. She knew that she should think about something else. She shouldn’t get her hopes up. And she should have told Jon about sending the book to Morris.
A little girl wedged in the corner of the petting zoo caught Gail’s attention. She wore a frilly dress and couldn’t have been more than three, maybe four years old—about the same age as Gail’s child would have been if her first pregnancy stuck. The girl sat in the grass and held a chick in her lap. When it tried to escape, she scooped it back up. When it pecked her, she giggled. The chick settled into the folds of the girl’s dress, and she bent over it, her hair draped down the sides of her face, murmuring to her little friend.
As Gail watched, she considered the minimum required stay at a first-birthday party. There should be a formula, a spreadsheet. She could imagine the inputs: The number of your friends in attendance; the length, in years, of your relationship with the parents; the number of your own children writhing in the jump house. If you brought no children, the number of times you miscarried would serve as a key variable. The time elapsed, in months, since your last miscarriage might complete the algorithm. You could display the output in minutes or seconds.
“I hate these things.”
Gail turned to find Jon next to her, his brown, almost black eyes scanning the yard. His hair was tousled—he usually didn’t touch a comb on weekends. He stood a foot taller than her, lanky in a manner that didn’t appeal to many other women, but all his parts fit together in a way that had always seemed just right to Gail.
“Why can’t they just invite their family and call it a day?”
“They’re testing our fealty,” Gail said. “Heidi’s mom is probably tracking attendance.”
“Seems like we should be able to buy our way out of this. A more expensive present? Maybe some savings bonds?”
“That’s not how these things work. Tribute must be delivered in person.”
“How are you doing?” Jon asked.
Gail leaned into the fence again and studied the girl. She’d have three children, two walking by now, if she had never miscarried. She indulged this math too often, and the equations never balanced.
“I’m OK,” she said. The wine helped. That book in Morris helped. The little girl with the chick helped. Gail watched as a man wearing leather loafers, a deep tan, and expensive-looking sunglasses walked up to the fence behind the little girl.
“Time to go, Taylor,” he said.
The girl looked up from the chick, stricken. “No, Daddy. Not yet.”
Jon took another swig of beer and leaned his elbows against the fence, his back to the zoo. “Where were you? Earlier.”
“In the kitchen. Slicing celery and getting grilled by Heidi’s mom.”
Jon raised his eyebrows. “About?”
He knew the answer to that, of course. “Heidi must have told her.”
“Shit. I’m sorry.” Jon’s forehead wrinkled as he glared across the yard at Heidi. “She’s got loose lips for somebody in HR.”
Taylor’s dad checked his enormous watch. “We have to be at your brother’s soccer game in twenty minutes.”
Taylor looked back down at her lap. “But I got a friend.”
“C’mon,” Taylor’s dad said impatiently. “Let’s go.”
“Let’s go,” Jon said.
Gail glanced at her watch. “We’d miss the chicken nuggets and coleslaw.”
Taylor looked up at her dad. Her lower lip quivered, and her face began to collapse. When the tantrum began, the other children and the animals scattered. The chick in Taylor’s lap stayed put only because she folded the hem of her dress over it, trapping it. Heads throughout the yard swiveled toward the commotion. After everyone confirmed that their own progeny wasn’t screaming, their eyes lingered, to see what would happen next. Jon glanced at Taylor only once, and then turned back to the yard.
“Let’s get Indian takeout,” Jon said. “Trade this mess for a date.”
“Did you talk to Heidi and Colin?” Gail asked.
“I did. I even took a picture with Evan.”
“Really? You held him?”
Jon drank again from his beer, shook his head. “I’ve got a cold.”
“C’mon, Taylor,” her dad said sternly. He looked around the yard, becoming fully aware of his audience. “It’s time.”
Tears streamed down Taylor’s face, and she hyperventilated between wails. Gail could see the chick wriggle beneath the dress. Taylor’s hands pressed the fabric tightly around it. She finally recovered long enough to shout, “I don’t want to leave him, Daddy! Don’t make me leave him!”
“You’re right,” Gail said. “Indian sounds good.”
Jon drained the last of his beer. “I’m gonna take a leak, and then we’ll make like Houdini.”
Jon headed toward the house, and Gail turned her full attention to the standoff between Taylor and her dad. She couldn’t help but root for Taylor. Her dad seemed like an asshole, the brother would probably survive if they arrived a few minutes late for his game, and Taylor’s need to hold her little friend seemed so visceral. Taylor’s dad leaned closer.
“Please, Taylor,” he said more quietly.
Taylor began to settle a bit. Her lips trembled, but her voice was clear when she stated her terms. “I want to keep him, Daddy.”
“You can’t keep him,” her dad said. “You know that.”
“I’m gonna keep him,” she said. She stated it as fact and looked up to gauge his reaction.
“I said no!” her dad hissed.
Something hardened in Taylor’s eyes, and Gail’s allegiance drifted toward the chick. Taylor leaned back and let loose a truly catastrophic scream. Her dad’s eyes darted again, landing, finally, on the petting zoo lady who guarded the gate on a camp chair. Taylor’s dad walked quickly to the woman, and his daughter tracked him, even as she screamed. He bent down and whispered something. The woman shook her head emphatically. He said something else, more urgently this time. The woman ignored him. He looked at his daughter, then tugged a money clip from his pocket. He peeled off a small stack of twenties. The woman glanced at the cash and then shrugged. She took the money, wadded it up, and crammed it into the pocket of her jeans.
Taylor’s dad circled the fence, bent to his daughter, and whispered fiercely in her ear. She stopped crying immediately. She smiled. She got up, still holding the chick bunched in the fabric of her dress, and walked triumphantly to the petting zoo’s entrance. Gail moved even before she decided to.
“You can’t do that,” Gail said to the man.
He picked up his daughter and squinted at Gail. His lip curled slightly. “I just did.”
Gail tried to summon the words that might win the chick’s freedom, even as she tried to figure out why it mattered so much. “It’s not right,” was all she could manage.
Taylor looked down at the wriggling lump in the fabric of her dress, and then up at Gail, her eyes, too, now drawn to slits. Her father drew a breath and leaned forward as if about to shout. Instead, he just shook his head, turned, and marched out the side gate, avoiding eye contact with everyone.
Gail leaned her head against the passenger window on the drive home. The wine left her with a dry mouth and a headache gathering at her temples. The smell of curry leaked from the bag of food at her feet. She wondered where Taylor’s family would keep the chick. She imagined a tub in the guest bathroom, covered in shit, the chick’s chirps growing weaker by the day. What would they feed it? How long would it last? Would Taylor tire of it before it died?
Jon was quiet as he drove, and for this Gail was grateful. For all the boneheaded things Jon sometimes said, he knew when to keep quiet and let her work through things. And, of course, he knew how parties like that could send Gail sideways for a few days. He had offered to go alone, and she probably should have let him.
After a while, though, the silence began to grate on her. It seemed to accuse her, to indict her for what she had failed to say. She should have told Jon about the book right when Paige sent it out. She definitely should have told him about it after the first week drifted past. But the fact was, after they sent each of the other three books, she had regretted telling him. Every time, he’d gone quiet. He avoided looking at her, his eyes darting like a cornered raccoon while they awaited the verdict. This time, as each day slid by without a call, it became harder to tell him, even as Gail knew that it became more important. Maybe all those questions from Heidi’s mom made her want to tell him now. Maybe it was all those kids running around the backyard screaming and laughing that allowed her to accept that something good might happen this time. Probably it was the pinot.
“Paige sent out a book,” Gail said quietly.
“Oh,” Jon said.
The word came out hollow, as if he’d gotten the wind knocked out of him. Gail stole a glance at him. He stared hard at the road, as if he were driving through rain. Her skull ached. She shouldn’t have had that third glass. She should have kept her mouth shut.
“To who?” he finally asked.
“Some girl in Morris. That’s all I know.”
“About an hour west. Small town off Eighty.”
Jon chewed his upper lip. He fell back into silence, his eyes darting to the rearview mirror, to the side mirror, to anywhere but Gail. Finally, as they turned onto their street, he spoke again. “When did it go out?”
Gail tried to think of vague words to drape over the truth. Jon pulled the car into the driveway and shifted into park.
“Tomorrow will be two weeks.”
At that Jon grew still, and they both stared at the garage door. Even Jon knew that two weeks was a long time. Gail tried to imagine what he was thinking, but he was so hard to read when he got like that. Gail had no doubt about how she was feeling, though. She had tried to fight it. She tried to distract herself with work, and she’d made lists of all the ways that things could go wrong, but as day five crept into day six, the hope became insidious, hard to suppress, and it wormed its way deep into her bones, like cancer.
Gail settled into bed, turned on the lamp, and opened her notebook. The sound of Jon’s guitar leaked through the door from his office across the hall. She started by drawing a line through Tell Jon about the book. The little jolt—like an espresso or a sneeze—that she always felt when crossing an item off her list, was muted by guilt.
She made a note to pick up the dry cleaning. She flipped to her grocery list and added arugula and celery and avocados. She crossed out chicken breasts and added pork tenderloin. She made a list of the restaurants and butcher shops that she’d call the next day when she got to work. She turned to the last page, where she kept the list of baby names, because she liked to look at them. Because she couldn’t not do it.
Gail was grateful for the music that seeped from Jon’s office. He hadn’t said a word after they came in from the car. They’d sat at opposite ends of the too-long kitchen table eating cold tandoori chicken. That book, the fact that she hadn’t told him about it, sat at the table between them, spoiling their date. At least his guitar spoke.
Gail didn’t recognize the melody. He might have made it up himself. She still loved to hear him play. The night they first met, at a mutual friend’s party, after everyone was drunk, someone thrust a guitar into his hands. She hadn’t really paid much attention to that tall, skinny guy with his bangs over his eyes. But once he started playing that Elvis Costello song she loved, she couldn’t pull her gaze from his long, graceful fingers as they danced up and down the guitar’s neck. When the song finally ended, she looked up at his face and found him staring at her. As he played that night, he shifted deftly from one song to the next and then back again, crafting a new song that was all his own. His ability to play by ear and to improvise thrilled her in a way that she could never find words to describe.
On their first date, they snuck into the Arctic Monkeys concert at the Metro, through a door that Jon’s bartender friend had propped open. They danced in the first row of the pit, and Gail had felt a rush of something that frightened her. On their second date, when Jon bought standing-room-only tickets to the Cubs playoff game and then talked his way down to a pair of seats that remained inexplicably empty near the Braves’ dugout, she began to feel a bit less frightened, but the rush remained. When he snatched a foul ball from the scrum in the aisle and then gave it to the kid with the glove in front of them, she began to see that he lived his life entirely by ear—he improvised everything in a way that she never could—and she began to love him, too.
Jon switched to the banjo. Gail couldn’t stand the banjo, and she had nothing more to cross off or add to her lists, so she put her notebook on the side table and climbed out of bed. She padded down the hall toward the stairs but paused at the door to the nursery. She opened it, slipped into the darkness, and closed the door behind her.
She flipped on the light and let her eyes wander the room. The sea turtle rug waited in the center of the floor. Animals shaped like the letters of the alphabet circled the top of the wall. The changing table, the rocking chair, and the crib stood ready. Children’s books lined the bookshelf. She’d organized them alphabetically at first, but it proved too messy. By color wasn’t much better. She finally arranged them by height before accepting the fact that it really didn’t matter.
Every object in the room had started as an entry on a list in her notebook. Jon hated the lists, but Gail had started when she was ten and had forgotten how to function without them. She had copied her grandfather, who kept a tiny spiral-bound steno pad in his shirt pocket, a nub of a pencil crammed into the coil. Her lists made sure that she never missed a homework assignment, never arrived for an exam unprepared. During high school, when Gail’s mom fell most deeply into the booze, Gail’s lists made sure that food landed in the fridge, dentist appointments were kept, and the utilities got paid. When she started selling for the family knife-sharpening business, the lists helped her stay on top of the accounts and the calls and the proposal deadlines. She tried going electronic once, but the lists on her computer felt insubstantial, ephemeral, easily ignored. Before they started trying and failing to conceive a baby, the lists had been Gail’s superpower, her secret weapon. But after her first miscarriage, they started to feel obsessive, even to Gail. Still, she didn’t set them aside, because they helped her with the waiting.
She made individual lists devoted to children’s books and clothes and supplies like diapers and wipes and creams. She devoted a list to the cribs they might buy, along with the pros and cons of each, the cost, the safety rating from Consumer Reports. After she found a negative review on The Glow or ChildMode, she could draw a line through the name of the crib, striking the very same chord of satisfaction as completing a task. She made a list of potential themes for the nursery—nautical, polka dots, outer space. She finally settled on zoo animals. Another list cataloged paint colors, and on that list, she taped a tiny slice of the color swatches from Benjamin Moore, because it was hard to remember the difference between North Star and Smoked Oyster and Carolina Gull. Now, everything was in place, except, of course, for the most important thing, and for that she could only wait.
The waiting wasn’t always so difficult. Gail’s twenties didn’t feel like waiting at all. In the beginning, when she was struggling to learn how to sell, her notebook was crammed with lists of lost customers, customers at risk, and eventually, as she learned the job, customers won. When she moved to downtown Chicago, to that apartment on Paulina Street, she made lists of parties she attended, the bands she saw at the Double Door, and the dates of the best summer street festivals. And after Jon moved into that apartment on Paulina, they hosted many of the parties, so the notebook held guest lists and mai tai ingredients and a recipe for hash brownies. When she and Jon got married at Salvage One on the Near West Side, her lists exploded with potential dresses and florists and caterers and DJs. And as they approached thirty, the friends who had flocked to their parties slid away with their first and second babies, so she listed the names of other people’s children and new addresses in the far-flung suburbs like Buffalo Grove and Glen Ellyn and Oswego. It was hard to remember, after everything that happened, that Jon was the first to ask the question.
When should we have kids? he asked, like he was asking about takeout from Jade Garden or a movie on Netflix, like it was only a question of when, not if. He claimed that he had always wanted kids, but it took a while for Gail to decide that she was willing to try.
That first night of unprotected sex terrified her. The second was thrilling, the third an adventure. For a while, every month delivered another opportunity, each menstrual cycle another lunge at the brass ring. But then too many months piled up, and Gail discovered that a small, hard nugget of hope had begun to metastasize in her gut, even as her womb remained stubbornly empty. She listed her cycle dates and her basal body temperature and the state of her cervical fluid and, of course, the sex. She made lists of what she ate and her sleep patterns and how many times she went to the bathroom, and Jon’s question gained weight even as Gail remained thin. Finally, when it became clear that things needed a shove, her doctor prescribed the shots.
The shots worked, and four years ago, Gail had become pregnant for the first time. When she told her friend Cindy, Cindy had given Gail the number for a Realtor in Elmhurst, where she lived, and that nugget of hope began to mutate toward expectation. The fetus was just the size of a grain of rice when they made an offer on their house, just a little bit bigger when it bled down her leg. Every setback rattled Gail badly, but the truth was, those failures not only crystalized her answer to Jon’s question, they made her obsess upon it.
Gail probably would have settled into the rocker and ruminated on the one thing that was still missing from the room, becoming more and more annoyed by the muffled plunk of the banjo, if her phone didn’t vibrate in the pocket of her pajama pants. And she probably wouldn’t have answered if it hadn’t been Paige from the agency.
“Her name’s Carli,” Paige said.
Gail pressed the phone tightly to her ear. She opened her mouth to speak, but her tongue seemed to fill her mouth.
“The girl from Morris. Her name’s Carli, and she wants to meet you.”
Reading Group Guide
This reader’s guide for Other People’s Children includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author R.J. Hoffmann. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Gail and Jon Durbin moved to the Chicago suburbs to set up house as soon as Gail got pregnant. But then she miscarried—once, twice, three times. Determined to expand their family, the Durbins turn to adoption. When several adoptions fall through, Gail’s desire for a child overwhelms her.
Carli is a pregnant teenager from a blue-collar town nearby, with dreams of going to college and getting out of her mother’s home. When she makes the gut-wrenching decision to give her baby up for adoption, she chooses the Durbins. But Carli’s mother, Marla, has other plans for her grandbaby.
In Other People’s Children, three mothers make excruciating choices to protect their families and their dreams—choices that put them at decided odds against one another. You will root for each one of them and wonder just how far you’d go in the same situation. This riveting debut is a thoughtful exploration of love and family, and a heart-pounding page-turner you’ll find impossible to put down.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. From the start, we learn about Gail and Jon’s struggle to have a baby. After suffering three miscarriages, Gail and Jon turn to adoption, a process with its own unique stresses. What are their respective coping mechanisms to deal with the uncertainty?
2. Through flashbacks, we learn about Jon’s troubled childhood. His mother was depressed and neglectful. How do these memories inform his concerns about fatherhood?
3. When Carli first considers reclaiming her baby, Paige repeats to herself, “Right down the middle. Don’t take sides. Right down the middle” (p. 145). Does Paige stay neutral? How does she help Carli, Gail, and Jon make their decisions?
4. Carli studies psychology at school. At one point, she slogs through Carol Gilligan’s ethics of care, which state that “At the first level, girls make important decisions based upon what’s best for them. . . . At the second level, women make their decisions based upon what’s best for others.” Then she reads: “Lots of women never make it to the third level . . . where women balance their moral choices between their own needs and care for others. Do no harm to yourself and do no harm to others” (p. 140). What level describes Carli’s development at different points in the novel?
5. Gail and Jon’s decision to flee with Maya is spontaneous. Gail asks, “‘What if we take her?’” (p. 177) and Jon agrees. What propels them to make this radical decision? How do you feel about their decision, and how do you think you would react if presented with their situation?
6. How does R.J. Hoffmann make you sympathize with all the characters and their decisions, even though the situation pits them against one another?
7. Gail and Jon’s marriage struggles under the expectations and disappointments involved in their desire to have a baby. How does touch meaningfully play into their marriage?
8. While sharpening knives, Gail thinks about her father’s advice to “Feel the balance of it” (p. 243). What does he mean by this? How does this advice influence Gail while she’s on the run with Jon and Maya?
9. Marla pressures Carli to reclaim the baby because Marla wants the chance to become a good grandmother and compensate for how she raised her daughters, Carli and Wendy. On the other hand, Paige suspects that if Carli reclaims the baby, “Marla would watch Maya once, maybe twice. . . . She would make excuses, make herself scarce, and Carli would realize how alone she really was” (p. 144). Do you think Paige is right? Would Marla make a good grandmother, or would she be absent again? What is “good” parenting and grandparenting?
10. Marla is an abusive mother. When experiencing anger, she “felt nothing but the heat, her vision went black around the edges, and her fists hardened” (p. 273). Why does Marla lash out at the people she loves? What does her anger say about her? How much of her anger is due to her circumstances and how much of it is her personality?
11. How does R.J. Hoffmann develop the novel from a family drama into a thriller? How did your reading experience change as you progressed through the story?
12. According to Paige, Marla and Carli live in a neighborhood where “All the houses on Carli’s block looked depressingly the same” (p. 123). Gail and Jon are middle class with access to more resources and money. How do socioeconomic issues manifest in the characters’ dynamics? How does it manifest in the conflict over Maya?
13. Carli is surprised to learn about Paige’s teenage pregnancy and decision to keep her daughter against her mother’s wishes. Paige says she works for the adoption agency “So that girls like us have a choice” (p. 339). Did Paige’s backstory surprise you?
14. How do you feel about the novel’s ending? Did all the characters get what they wanted or deserved?
15. After finishing the book, reexamine the title. In what ways can it be interpreted?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. With its emotional twists and riveting getaway, Other People’s Children has cinematic qualities that lend themselves to film. Who would you cast as its stars?
2. Gail and Jon deal with the intricacies and stresses of the adoption process. Does anyone in your group have personal experience with adoption? Do some research and discuss your findings: What is the process of domestic adoption? What kind of requirements are involved and what is the time line?
3. The book takes place in Elmhurst and Morris, Illinois. Plan a trip with your book club to explore the cities!
4. Supplement your fictional experience and learn about the real history of adoption in America. Check out books such as American Baby by Gabrielle Glaser, or watch the documentary Three Identical Strangers (dir. Tim Wardle).
A Conversation with R.J. Hoffmann
Q: Congratulations on your debut novel, Other People’s Children! Can you share your journey as a writer? Did you always want to be an author?
A: I blame all of this on my parents. When I was seven, my family’s television broke, and they decided not to replace it until my siblings and I all made the honor roll in the same quarter. It took us a few years to piece that together, and in the meantime I became addicted to reading. When I was growing up, becoming a writer was like becoming an astronaut or a professional soccer player—something to fantasize about but not practical enough for serious consideration. So, instead, I became an IT consultant and wrote in the margins of my life. The fantasy persisted, though, and it’s fair to say that it’s always been something I dreamed of.
As I approached fifty, I realized that “always” has an expiration date, so I decided to quit my job and go back to school for my MFA. I kept quiet about it because it felt a bit foolish. I only told those closest to me, and those who asked how work was going. I probably gave more effort to each semester at Columbia than to my entire undergrad. I approached it as a job and spent fifty hours each week on schoolwork and writing. I was old enough to recognize the value of the opportunity I was given.
Q: What was your inspiration for this story? Do you have personal experience with adoption that influenced the novel? How much research did you need to do while writing?
A: My wife and I adopted both of our children (internationally). That experience taught me what it means to wait, how to sit with the uncertainty that is essential to the adoption process. I also felt that immediate attachment that Jon and Gail felt for Maya. There was nothing gradual about the way that we fell in love with our children. Gail described it as “like waking from a dream into a bright light.”
For me, the book really centers on the expectations with which we all enter adulthood and the way that life sometimes shreds them. My daughter struggles with a variety of challenges, and a year before I began my writing program, those challenges became so volatile that we were forced to send her to a residential treatment center. By the beginning of the pandemic, thankfully, she was ready to come home. Everything about that experience tore me apart. The pain of being separated from my daughter—and adjusting my expectations to that reality—inspired the book and may explain some of the heavy emotions that the story churns up.
For better or worse, I tend to avoid up-front research. I research after I write, to learn whether I’ve imagined a place or an experience in a way that aligns with reality and to make sure that I’ve gotten important facts right. For me, research can be an excuse to put off the writing, and although it can enrich the details, it can also confine the imagination with pesky facts. So I get the characters and the story down first, and then later I go find out whether I’ve invented something that departs too far from reality.
Q: This novel is memorable for its depiction of motherhood. Gail, Carli, and Marla are mothers with intense desires and a deep capacity for love. At the same time, they demonstrate this love in very different ways. What prompted you to focus on motherhood?
A: I would suggest that the story focuses on parenthood. The story began as Jon and Gail’s, but when I wrote that first scene from Carli’s point of view—when her water breaks in the classroom—something shifted for me. I found her deeply interesting. Over time, as Carli’s character burst onto the pages, she demanded a starring role, and the story re-centered itself upon Carli and Gail, elbowing Jon into a supporting role. I’ve never been a mother, but parenthood is central to my identity. I sometimes wonder if motherhood and fatherhood feel similar, even if men and women express those emotions very differently.
Q: Early in the novel, Paige remarks that the Durbins don’t seem to really “fit.” What was the inspiration for Jon and Gail’s characters? Do you think they’re well suited for each other? How did they and their relationship with each other develop during the writing process?
A: I think that, in so many ways, Gail and Jon are complementary. Gail organizes their lives while Jon brings the ability to improvise and adjust. Throughout the story, the strengths of one complement the weaknesses of the other.
A funny thing happened between Jon and Gail’s characters as I wrote the book. I gave a version to an early reader and was told that Jon’s character was strong, but Gail didn’t come through clearly. I rewrote Gail’s chapters, didn’t touch Jon’s, and gave the book to another reader. The feedback: Gail was fantastic, but Jon felt weak. This happened over and over. The strengthening of one character washed out the other. I think the competition between those two characters inevitably strengthened the book. They demanded more and better of each other. I’m not sure that I could invent a better metaphor for marriage than that.
Q: Other People’s Children explores the class differences between Marla, Carli, Gail, and Jon through the different cities in which they live. Marla and Carli live in Morris, whereas Gail and Jon live in Elmhurst. What did you want readers to take away about class divisions in America?
A: I want readers to take away the idea that integrity lives on both sides of the tracks. As do dishonesty and work ethic and malevolence and disappointment.
Q: Carli thinks about fundamental attribution errors, “the idea that people blame mistakes on your character rather than your circumstances” (p. 95). The people in her life think she is a “fuckup” because of her pregnancy. By the end of the book, what do you hope readers will take away from Carli’s self-perception?
A: When Carli studies that chapter, she finds herself at the nadir of her self-regard. She goes through a lot in her fight to reclaim her baby, and once Maya comes home to her, she still has much more to fight through. By the end of the book, she’s struggling, but she’s struggling with dignity and with a developing confidence. I’d like to believe that when Carli retakes that psychology class next semester, she’ll digest that chapter differently. I want to believe that as she gains distance from the home she grew up in, and as she finds some success as a parent, that she’ll begin to recognize the strength of her character. I hope that she’ll discover a bit more compassion for herself.
Q: While writing the book, did you always know what the ending would be?
A: Absolutely not. I was a hundred pages in before I learned that Gail and Jon were going to run with Maya. I was struggling with what would happen next when a professor suggested to the class that we should consider having our characters do something illegal—and there it was. Once they broke toward Canada, I knew where Maya would land, but that same professor challenged me to keep the reader torn—until the last possible moment—about what they want for Maya. That suggestion served as a compass for the rest of the book, and it reminded me that Carli, Gail, and Jon are all victims, even as none of them are blameless.
Q: Marla is an extremely complex character. She’s abusive to Carli and Wendy at times and experiences flashes of uncontrollable anger, yet she works hard to provide for her family and wants to be a good grandmother. What emotions did you hope Marla would evoke in readers?
A: I want people to feel strongly about Marla. When a friend reads the book, I sometimes get a text when they’re halfway through it, and Marla’s name usually shows up in that text. I don’t expect anyone to side with her. She makes everyone’s life difficult. But I hope that the strength of the reaction comes in part from the motivations (relatively pure) that drive Marla’s actions (mostly destructive). Above all, I hope that readers examine their reaction for fundamental attribution errors.
Q: Which authors do you admire?
A: Toni Morrison is a marvel. I’ve read most of the dozen or so books that Ian McEwan has given us. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road took my breath away. I loved both of Celeste Ng’s books and enjoyed my time in Mississippi with Jesmyn Ward. Fredrik Backman’s novels are never the same and always wonderful. I love a sad ending, and Lauren Groff almost always delivers. John Steinbeck earned his way onto everyone’s bookshelf. I try to read The Pearl every few years.
Q: Are you working on anything right now? If so, can you tell us about it?
A: I’m finishing my second novel. It’s about a terrible secret that four boys keep as they graduate high school, the corrosive nature of the lies that secret forces them to tell over the next thirty years, and what they must do to repair the damage.