Necessary Lies was a powerful story that unexpectedly touch me in a variety of ways. After losing her parents, fifteen-year-old Ivy Hart is left to care for her grandmother, older sister and nephew as tenants on a small tobacco farm. As she struggles with her grandmother’s aging, her sister’s mental illness and her own epilepsy, she realizes they might need more than she can give. When Jane Forrester takes a position as Grace County’s newest social worker, she doesn’t realize just how much her help is needed. She quickly becomes emotionally invested in her clients’ lives, causing tension with her boss and her new husband. Set in rural Grace County, North Carolina in a time of state-mandated sterilizations and racial tension, Necessary Lies tells the story of these two young women, seemingly worlds apart, but both haunted by tragedy.
I loved the narration of two strong women from vastly different backgrounds, which raised issues of social inequalities in a startling new way. I was thrilled when Diane agreed to answer some of my questions about her approach to the book. Enjoy!
Thank you Diane for sharing your thoughts about Necessary Lies. Let’s get to the interview.
What inspired you to write Necessary Lies?
When I moved to North Carolina in 2005, the news was full of stories about the state’s old eugenics program, i.e. the forced sterilization of women and girls (and men and boys) who were retarded, mentally ill or epileptic. Many states had similar programs, but North Carolina’s was different in that it allowed social workers to refer people to the eugenics board. In other states, only the heads of mental institutions or prisons could make those referrals. So in North Carolina, people receiving welfare were often targeted for sterilization. As a former social worker, I wondered what it had been like to have that sort of power over people’s lives. I wanted to explore the situation from the perspective of both the powerful (social worker) and the powerless (teenaged girl living in poverty).
How did you research the time period and events described in the book?
I have a good writer friend who lives in the county where the story takes place (although I did fictionalize the county!). She grew up on a tobacco farm, just like my character Ivy, so she taught me everything there was to know about Ivy’s life on a tobacco farm in 1960, as well as what the community was like. For the information on the eugenics program, I read extensively about the program, interviewed social workers who did rural welfare work in 1960, and listened to interviews with some of the victims who are still living. The researcher who was able to get the records of the eugenics board unsealed in the early 2000s was very generous in sharing her information with me, so I was able to read transcripts of her interviews with administrators of the program. I intentionally did not seek out the victims themselves to interview. I didn’t want to exploit their personal stories, or have to twist those stories to fit into my novel.
Why was it important for the story to have two strong women from vastly different backgrounds tell the story?
For the reason I mentioned above: power vs powerlessness. Jane, the social worker, is married to a doctor and lives in one of the wealthiest communities in Raleigh, North Carolina. But she comes from a family committed to helping others, and rather than be a housewife like other women in her class in 1960, she yearns to feel needed. Ivy, the fifteen-year-old girl with mild epilepsy who lives with her family on the tobacco farm, is at the mercy of the farm’s owner and the welfare worker’s decisions about her and her family. Although they do come from very different backgrounds, Ivy and Jane have a lot in common, and that commonality is, for me, the heart of the book.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Are you passionate about women’s issues?
I consider myself a feminist, but I am also a “masculinist”. I care about the rights of all human beings. One thing that bothers me about fighting for women’s rights or men’s rights is that we end up in competition with one another rather than working together for the good of all. I guess I am also an idealist!
Who are your favorite authors?
These days I find it easier to answer ‘what are your favorite books?’ In the last couple of years, books I’ve adored are Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, Stephen King’s 11/22/62, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and Dianne Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. I like books that are a little bit different.
What books are on your bookshelf?
My literal bookshelf is full of research books, books by friends, and books that have inspired me as a writer through the years. My e-book reader is currently filled with books on Tuscany (I’m going in a few weeks), books on behavioral therapy (research for my work-in-progress), and many, many novels I hope to find the time to read!
Diane Chamberlain was an insatiable reader as a child, and penned a few truly terrible “novellas” at age twelve. She grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey and spent her summers at the Jersey Shore, two settings that have found their way into her novels. Her stories are often filled with twists and surprises she hopes tug at the emotions. Relationships — between men and women, parents and children, sisters and brothers – are always the primary focus of her books. Diane Chamberlain can’t think of anything more fascinating than the way people struggle with life’s trials and tribulations, both together and alone. She now lives and writes in North Carolina, with her significant other, John, a photographer, and two sweet Shetland Sheepdogs, Keeper and Cole. Her real joy of writing is having the opportunity to touch readers with her words and Diane hopes her stories move readers in some way and provide hours of enjoyable reading. Find out more about Diane Chamberlain on her website, http://dianechamberlain.com/