Interview with Adrienne Ehlert Bashista

Adrienne Ehlert Bashista

Adrienne Ehlert Bashista

The Kool-Aid Mom

The Kool-Aid Mom

Q & A with Adrienne Ehlert Bashista, author of Mishka: An Adoption Tale

 

 

 

 

 

An Adoption Tale

Mishka: An Adoption Tale

Hi, Adrienne! I’d like to thank you for taking time to do an interview with me. First off, I must tell you I found Mishka to be a very touching story, and was a bit weepy by the end. The illustrations are beautifully detailed and the simplicity of the writing makes it perfectly understandable and understandably perfect for both children and parents.

Thank you so much! I’ll take the fact that it made you “weepy” as a compliment ;)

Q My first question is, what is the back story for Mishka?

My husband and I adopted our son Jamie from Russia in 2003. When we adopted him there were no books for children adopted from Russia or EE available, and so I decided to write one with a great deal of encouragement from my family, particularly my mother! My first book, When I Met You: A Story of Russian Adoption, came out in 2005. When I Met Yougot a great reception and I am really happy with it, but When I Met You is also more of a concept book – it doesn’t tell the actual story of adoption. So I felt like there still needed to be a story about the actual process of adoption from Russia or EE. That’s why I wrote Mishka. It took me a long time to figure out the character of Mo, actually, but I’m so glad I did! At first I had the story from the point of view of the parents, but in my (not so humble) opinion, books written about parents are actually written for the parents, not the children. Then I had it from the little boy’s perspective, but there wasn’t a story there. So once I invented Mo I had a character who could go through the whole process with both the parents and the child.

Q. In your dedication, you wrote your son Jamie is your “Yuri”, and I read in your bio you have an older son Jacob. What made you decide to adopt, and why did you choose to go to Russia for a child?

Jacob

Jacob

After we had Jacob I had a series of miscarriages, and the last one was at 22 weeks. I was pretty exhausted from the whole thing and after that last, late miscarriage I finally convinced my husband that we should look into adoption. Up until then he hadn’t been very interested, but the miscarriages (and fertility treatments, which did nothing in my case – I got pregnant the months I wasn’t taking the drugs) wore us both out. We went to an agency that did domestic adoptions and they suggested we go international – specifically Russia – because of the stress we’d been under from the miscarriages. Russian adoption has changed a lot in recent years, but when we were in the process things were very cut-and-dry: you filled out all the paperwork, applied to the various governments, paid the fees, and then bam – you got your child, quickly. That’s how it worked for us. From start to finish Jamie’s adoption took 7 months. We’d been told that any other adoption – domestic or international – would take a lot longer. So that’s the main reason we chose Russia. Now, I understand, it takes a lot longer and there have been some uncertainties in recent years. We adopted him during an easier time. If we were to adopt again, which I’d love to do, I’m not sure which way we’d go. Part of me is drawn towards Russia, but we have lots of friends who’ve done foster-to-adopt and it worked out well for them, and in the past several years I’ve also learned a lot about open adoption, which I think really benefits the child.

Q. Here in Logansport, there is a large group of families who have adopted from China and they all get together once a month to celebrate their children’s heritage and holidays. Do you have that where you live in North Carolina?

Jamie & Adrienne

Jamie & Adrienne

We belong to a group called FRUA – Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption (and other countries) – which gets together occasionally, and we also have a playgroup we attend that is made up of children adopted from Russia and EE, but we haven’t been in a while. Jamie loves it when we can get together with these kids, but we don’t have a super active group like many other places. I would love to do more of this.

Q. Do you do anything to encourage Jamie to remain connected with his heritage?

Jamie

Primarily, I answer any question Jamie has about anything to do with his adoption as openly and frankly as I think he can handle. But that doesn’t really answer the question about “heritage” – more about adoption. As for that – we have lots and lots of books about Russia and we talk about it a lot. He is very interested in the non-fiction books we have and he is quick to pick up on any time Russia is mentioned. We also attend the playgroups, as mentioned, and we’ve gone to events like the Russian Festival in Amherst, Massachusetts (we live in NC but grandma and grandpa live in western Mass). As he gets older we’ll do more of this. He’s just turned 6 now and has just started to show interest in the subject.

Q. In Mishka, Yuri is an young child, as opposed to an infant, during the adoption. Was this the same for Jamie, and was this something you chose?

Jamie was a baby when he was adopted, but not an infant. He was 15 months old. You cannot adopt infants from Russia as they’re on a national orphan database for 6-8 months after they’re placed in the orphanages. Many children are “older” when adopted from Russia or EE, however, as they enter the orphanages as older children or they just aren’t adopted when they’re babies. There are 600,000 – 700,000 children in orphanages in Russia at any given time and the past couple of years only about 3-4000 have been adopted into the U.S. each year and even fewer are adopted within Russia by Russian people. So there are kids of all different ages available for adoption. If my husband and I adopt again and if we go to Russia we would adopt a slightly older child about the same age as the little boy in the book (except we’d want a girl!). Yuri, by the way, is Jamie’s middle name now – it was his given name at birth: Yuri Yurievich.

Q. You also run DRT Press, which is your own micropress, which is expanding to include other authors as well as releasing your first activity book. How are you balancing your time as writer/publisher/mother/wife?

hubby

hubby

Well, this is a pretty funny question to me because while I was typing this my husband came in and started talking to me about something random…then Jamie came in and started telling me what he wanted for breakfast(even though his dad was in the kitchen and I was in the office) …as if I was doing nothing sitting here at the computer. I find it really hard to work out of my house, actually, although it helps when the kids are at camp. I also work full-time as a school librarian during the school year, which I started doing a year and a half ago. Before that I worked part-time. I am really hoping that after this year I’ll be able to stop (although I love my job and the kids at my school) or at least go part-time, because I am trying to do way too much. My ideal situation would be to have an out-of-the-house office where I did my work. When I came home, I’d be home. But that’s at least a year off. I know some people love working out of their house, but I am not one of them. But I’m stuck with it for the time being. I don’t make enough to quit my job and I certainly don’t make enough to justify renting another space. But I’m trying really hard to get to that point.

Back to your question – how do I balance? I don’t think I do. It’s more like a see-saw. One day it’s all wife/mother stuff, the next it’s all work. Once school starts I’m going to have to give up television (not a bad thing to do, but one of my pleasures in life is sacking out on the couch with my husband, watching whatever we’d Tivo’d for the night). One of the great things about my life is that I have family around – my mom moved here right before we had Jacob (my older son) and she’s been a great help. My husband is also very hands-on with the kids and he has a pretty flexible work schedule, which is also crucial. If we were both 9-5ers working 12 months/year there’d be no way for me to have this little business on the side. Next year the kids are coming to school with me, too, which will help with our commute (last year we were at 3 different places which was a pain – where I live is fairly rural so my daily commute was a good 45 minutes in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon with all the pick-ups at various places).

Q. One thing that especially touched me was the very last page of Mishka. Five percent of DRT Press’s profits is donated to various charities that are close to your heart. Why have you made this choice, and to which charities does the money go? Why these particular charities?

I don’t think anyone who’s visited a Russian orphanage can come away from it without feeling very strongly about the plight of the children left behind. I wrote this earlier, but between 600,000 and 700,000 children are in the orphanages over there at any given time, and most of them will live their entire childhoods in an institution. I don’t want to sensationalize what it’s like in the orphanages, nor do I want to condemn what the orphanage workers do over there, but in the majority of the children’s homes the conditions are substandard. I’m talking 17 babies to 2 caretakers, no diapers (too expensive), no hugs or kisses or stimulation. I am not saying they don’t try or they don’t value things that we value in Russia – not at all. But if you were in charge of feeding, changing, and keeping 10 toddler safe and relatively clean that is all you would have time to do. You wouldn’t have time to teach them to talk or to walk or any of the things that children are taught in a family. It’s all about crowd control. Add to that the fact that the longer children spend in institutions the more developmentally delayed they will become and the harder they will be to take care of – it’s an awful picture. Then they turn 16 and if they’re lucky, the government helps them a little and finds them a place to stay and a job or some training, but if they’re not (which is what I understand happens to the majority), out they go onto the streets.
It wasn’t a hard decision at all for me to commit a tiny portion of what little profits I make to helping the kids!

As for how I choose the charities, it’s fairly random! I hate to say it, but it’s true. Some of the organizations, like EEAC, are specifically for people who are adopting from Russia, but most of them help children directly. Two of my favorites are Ascent Russian Orphan Aid Foundation and ArkAngels for Russian adoption. They are both relatively small organizations that have very specific missions.

self-sustained orphanage

self-sustained farming orphanage

My family also has a yearly party/potluck/fundraiser called “Family Day,” around the anniversary of Jamie’s adoption, where we ask all our guests to contribute to whatever organization we’re interested in. One year we asked people to bring a pair of new shoes, which we donated to Buckner’s Shoes for Orphan Souls project – I think we had 35 pairs of shoes we sent, and another year we “bought” some sheep for a self-sustaining farming orphanage in Siberia through Ascent Russian Orphan Aid Foundation. This year I’ll let my kids pick where they want to give.

Q. Finally, my favorite question for everyone: I’m a big fan of the shortlist. What books are on yours?

This is a HARD question! I am a children’s librarian as well as a book lover so it’s really tough. For kids books, I have TONs that I love. How about adoption books? The Sea Chest, by Toni Buzzeo, is a picture book I think is just perfect. Another is The Family Book, by Todd Parr. A Mother for Choco, by Keiko Kaska, is another, simple adoption book that any kid could enjoy.

As for other books for kids, someone I work with told me I’m actually a boy because I love lots of books that my 3rd grade boys love, like Captain Underpants or the Septimus Heap series, by Angie Sage, or the Hiccup Horrendous Haddock books by Cressida Cowell, and at school I can talk those books up much better than I can the princess or pony books. But I think it’s because I read a lot with Jacob, who’s 9, and I also like a story that’s funny and fast-paced. I am not against princess or pony books, they’re just not what I’m picking up in my spare moments!

Books for grown-ups? Ha! Who has time? When I do get a chance to read for pleasure I like to read mysteries by Elizabeth George and Ruth Rendell and P.D. James, and I also admire Alice Munro quite a bit. I just read Eat, Pray, Love, too, by Elizabeth Gilbert, and loved it – but who didn’t, really?

Maggie has a question I never thought of: Was there a “Mishka” in the true story with you and Jamie?

Please let Maggie know that we gave Jamie some toys in between trips, but he didn’t have a mishka of

Mo the Bear

Mo the Bear

his own. He was actually too little to keep track of toys and in his orphanage they didn’t let kids sleep with stuffed animals like they did in Yuri’s. In the book, Yuri is probably about 4 or 5, but Jamie was a baby (14 months) when we first met him and he was only a month older when he came home with us. I know that many children *do* get to keep the toys their new parent(s) bring them, because people have written to tell me so, but Jamie didn’t.

Also, in the review Maggie said she wished their was a plushie to go with the book – lots of people say that! I think Miranda, the illustrator, did a great job creating Mo. He would make a perfect stuffed animal.

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Thank you, Adrienne, for taking time out for this interview.  I’m grateful for the wonderful book both for Maggie and me AND for the one lucky reader to win!

I am giving one SIGNED copy of Adrienne’s book, Mishka: An Adoption Tale her at Mt. TBR. Along with you entry on the giveaway post, comment here and at Mishka‘s review, as well as post the link on your own blog, and you’ll get a total of seven entries!

An Interview With Nam Le

I’m so excited to announce my first author interview! A couple weeks back I read and reviewed The Boat by Nam Le, and was very impressed with his writing and the stories. Shortly after reading the first story, Love and Honour, I asked Le if he would be willing to do a Q & A interview with me, and he was gracious enough to agree.

First off, I want to say that Nam Le is very personable, friendly, and down to earth. The emails back and forth was just like receiving email from a friend, even remembering my daughter’s name. His answers show he took time to consider his answers, and I was impressed that he treated the questions of a blogger with as much respect as an interviewer from a major newspaper.

And now, In the Shadow of Mt. TBR’s first author interview

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Q: I know you’ve been asked this several times in interviews, but this is the question that made me want to do my first Q & A with you. The narrator in the first story shares so much with you, same name, work history and Iowa Writer’s Workshop, how much of the first story is autobiographical?

A: It depends on your definition. Certainly the protagonist shares my name, and many of my circumstances, but of course it’s arguable that all fictional characters are, through their elements, frankensteined from ‘real life’. (I don’t mean that flippantly!) A lot of people assume that it’s easier cribbing from ‘life’ than from ‘imagination’ (a distinction that’s false on many fronts, not the least of which is because both are unavoidably mediated – and complicated – by consciousness (not to mention the vagaries of memory)), but in fact I reckon it’s much more difficult. Why? Because me being me – that is, me being supported by my own entire subjective infrastructure – I’ll almost always find my accounting of my own experience more compelling, more resonant, than readers who can only go by my words on the page. Writing from autobiography can tend to be a selfish enterprise that way. And as a writer, I feel it’s my responsibility to make the words on the page as charged and suggestive as possible – for a set of readers bigger than just myself!

Here’s another proof that the first story isn’t straight reportage from my life: ‘real life’ is hopelessly messy whereas my story is pretty ruthlessly determined. It deals, to an almost painful extent, with cliché, with hackneyed conventions: the blocked, alcoholic writer, the close-mouthed father, the story spewed out overnight in an inspired rush, its single (typewritten!) copy then burned (in a gasoline drum!), etc, etc. I contrived this story in this way to show up the contrivance – the artifice – of such stories – as well as the body of assumptions we readers bring to such stories – whilst attempting to nevertheless get some truth or feeling across. Art, after all, is – at its best – a lie that tells us the truth, and here I needed some of the truth from my own life to improve the lie.

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Q: The Boat as a book and you as a writer are receiving a lot of attention from critics and the media. How surprised are you by this, and how are you dealing with it?

A: I’m very surprised, and I’m dealing with it as best I can! That is, with gratefulness, as well as guilt – and some grog thrown in – for the chances my book’s received that other books haven’t. It’s got to be said, of course, that expectations are so low for short story collections in general – let alone debut collections – that any attention at all is gravy. I’ll be first to admit how lucky I’ve been – most of all for the incomparable team of folks that have supported me and the book. When it comes down to it, you write to put your hand up for a conversation – with other readers, writers, and books that have inspired you – so it’s a thrill to think that this book’s getting called on.

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Q: Some of the stories in The Boat seem to not have an official ending, the reader just seems to exit the scene before the end. Did you write these so as to leave it open-ended for the reader to interpret, or are they endings more of a resolution of the characters’ emotions?

A: I like that you used the word ‘official’ – part of my personality balks at anything official, and so I guess it goes with these stories. That’s the easy answer. The tough question highlights the fact that each of these stories has its own type of ending. When you say some of them ‘exit the scene before the end’ I think that’s telling: it posits an assumed or expected end (though of course it’s not the end – the end before the end is the end … are we clear yet?) There’s a tired (though not entirely legless) workshop axiom that endings should be ‘surprising but inevitable.’ Here’s how I see it. First, my stories are longer than the average so having laid down all the narrative threads it would stretch credulity to have them tied up at the same time. Second, there’s nothing like having a clear end in sight to make the intervening stuff feel like filler; I ideally strive to command the reader’s full attention at every moment in the story. Third – a clear endpoint enhances the power of a bait and switch. And isn’t it all bait and switch? I largely adhere to the idea that there are few clean resolutions in life; that even epiphanic moments come broken and bruised and bent out of shape. Why should fiction be any different?

Of course, as we’ve discussed, a story is a contraption, and as such its parts have to answer, to some degree, to each other. For me, an ideal ending sheds light on what’s come before; it speaks to its own concerns and it justifies the occasion of the story – while at the same time it gives its elements (character, place, situation) life outside its own body. Paradoxically, I know to leave a story just when I feel it coming alive in that more sustained sense.

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Q: Recently I had a conversation with my local bookstore manager about short story collections. She said that short stories don’t sell, except to people who buy books by particular authors. How do you feel about this statement, and why do you think readers don’t want short stories?

A: The conventional wisdom that short stories don’t sell is, like all conventional wisdom, pretty instructive until it’s not. There’s an element, of course, of self-fulfilling prophecy about it, as well as a somewhat institutionalised sense that short stories are merely training grounds for novels. Another strain of conventional wisdom proclaims itself baffled that short stories aren’t more popular in this age of sound bytes and fragmented attention spans; I don’t buy this at all – I reckon it’s fair to say that given half an hour, a complete short story usually requires more concerted, careful attention than a novel chapter – particularly if it’s not the first chapter. It’s people like you and your friend who are on the front lines of the effort to challenge this conventional way of thinking.

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Q: Hari Kunzru of The New York Times suggested the subject matter of the stories in The Boat was “calculated to tug at the heartstrings – and wallets – of liberal American readers…” How do you respond to this?

A: As I understand it, Hari Kunzru was referring not to the subject matter of the stories in The Boat in general but to what he called ‘war porn’ of the first story. After the quote you reference he actually goes on to ask: “Could the writer, just possibly, be lying? For money?” It’s unclear whether he’s referring to the character “Nam” in the first story, or to me as the author. Either way, I thought it an odd question – for many reasons – but particularly given that that first story, “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” makes no secret of its calling out of ‘ethnic’ narrative exploitation. In fact, that’s maybe the primary point of the story (and one that I’ve received flak for). For example: at one stage in the story, the protagonist, trying to justify the appropriation of his father’s ‘ethnic story,’ muses “If I write a true story … I’ll have a better chance of selling it” – that is, he’s asking the very question Hari Kunzru accuses him/me of ignoring. So I’m not sure I understand Kunzru’s point. Nor, come to speak of it, do I understand his premise: if indeed I wanted to pluck and pick-pocket those sucker Western liberal heartstrings and wallets, wouldn’t I (per his reasoning) then stick to Viet war porn? Why would I digress into the globe-trotting hodge-podge that’s the rest of the book?

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Q: Finally, I’m a big fan of the shortlist. What books are on yours?

A: Okay, arbitrarily limiting myself to fiction (and with all the usual caveats): Melville’s Moby Dick, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Nabokov’s Lolita, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory and The Heart of the Matter, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, fiction by Kazuo Ishiguro, Robert Stone, Mary Gaitskill, Martin Amis, William Golding, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Peter Carey, short fiction by John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Andrew Dubus, Tim Winton, Charles D’Ambrosio, Isaac Babel, Leonard Michaels, and on and on.

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