Q & A with Jennie Melamed, Author of Gather The Daughters
We had a great month this month with our Salt Water Reads bookclub pick, Gather The Daughters by Jennie Melamed. Kourtney Dyson, (co-curator and one of my favorite book babes) and I were fortunate enough to recently chat with Jennie about the inspiration behind her phenomenal debut and what is in store down the road for the girls from the island.
SA: I read where you first got the idea based off an anthropological paper on corporal discipline in different societies and how in some places behaviors that we would consider abuse are viewed as perfectly normal. How long did it take you to develop the plot and write the book once you had your inspiration?
JM: The kernel of Gather the Daughters came to me a very, very long time ago: the girls, and the church, and the island. So really the plot has been swimming inside my head for eighteen years. However, it was the research on child abuse that really helped me flourish out the bones of the society, and how children might respond to it.
Writing Gather the Daughters took three years, total. I already knew some things about the four main characters, but I had no idea how they would pan out. I didn't know Janey would be so ferocious, or Amanda so headstrong, or Caitlin so sweet. I wish I could say there was a process for how I got there, but I just wrote, and it kind of happened. In a sense, my characters began taking control of themselves.
I also owe a lot of the plot to my editor. Gather the Daughters was only about 50,000 words in its first iteration. She really helped speed things up, make things more tense, and add some major plot points to the book.
KD: From the moment I discovered Gather the Daughters was being marketed as a 'book cult' I knew I wanted to read it. Did you have any idea that this particular non mainstream genre with a cult world would be so easily accepted by readers?
JM: I think we're fascinated by cults. I know I am. We don't quite understand how people could live clinging so fiercely to one ideal, or how their minds could get to the place where they believe things that are anathema to use are unalterable truth. We look at cult leaders and think, how did people end up worshiping them? The vast majority of us just can’t wrap our minds around it. I think people are fascinated by things they cannot wrap their minds around. I have to say, I had nothing to do with the book cult idea. That was all the marketing team!
SA: Your background as a psychiatric nurse practitioner who specializes in working with traumatized children is evident in your writing. There is nothing gratuitous about the abuse scenes with the fathers and the girls never saw themselves as victims. How much did you draw from the work that you do when you were writing the girls characters and the way that the girls responded to their home lives?
JM: My work, and the education that got me to this professional position, were huge in formulating the book. We respond to child abuse with utter hatred and horror- and rightfully so- but children often don't. Many children still love their abuser deeply, even while they hate the abuse. Or some don't even hate the abuse, at least not in the way we would expect. Their normal routine includes abuse as part of everyday life. It might be unpleasant, but they don't know anything else. That's what I wanted to get at: there is truly no idea, unless one is a wanderer, that it could be any different. How could the girls see themselves as victims, when they were surrounded by others who had been treated exactly the same way, when the entire world- albeit a small world- was doing exactly the same thing?
KD: We all definitely want more from Vanessa and those left behind on the island. Rumor has it there will be a sequel to Gather the Daughters, is there any truth to that?
JM: There is! It won't be my next book, however, so I'm not proclaiming it too loudly as I don't want people to get frustrated with the wait. There's something else I've got to write first.
SA: It seemed obvious that there was a normal world outside of the island. Was the wastelands just modern day America? Are you going to provide more background about the break away from modern life to the island in your second book?
JM: So some people think that it was our modern-day US, others think it was smoldering wastelands. I'll just say that there are a lot of possibilities outside of those two. I'll explore it more in the sequel!
KD: I know the majority of our readers loved the strong female characters in this book. Do you have a favorite character in Gather the Daughters?
JM: I think they all have their good points, and I feel differently towards them, but I can’t choose one as my favorite. They engender very different reactions in me; I would love to be more like Janey in many respects, while I just want to give Caitlin a hug and some cookies. I will say that Rosie is my favorite non-narrator character. She's one who I didn't expect to play the role she did, but there she was, being the voice of truth.
SA: One powerful moment in the story is when Caitlin is thinking back about the vats and what happened to her there and makes the statement "She should be standing in front of me" in reference to her mother. Was it a challenge to write the mothers as so completely submissive? I kept hoping that at least one of them would rise up and protect her children.
JM: I looked at examples like female genital mutilation, where in a lot of cases (certainly not all), it is the women carrying on the tradition, in the belief that it will benefit their children in the end. I can't think of anything more traumatic and painful than the severe forms of FGM, and yet the majority of mothers in those cultures submitted their children to the same procedure they suffered through. You can find a similar concept with foot-binding in China. Basically, throughout time parents have subjected their children to unspeakable things because that's what society demanded, and as far as I can tell, the vast majority went along with those demands- even though I’m sure it caused them intense pain to do so.
There are mentions of women on the island who spoke out against some of the more heinous traditions, and were quickly silenced by the wanderers. They were there, they just had no power. And the prohibition against women meeting with women was created with this in mind.
SA: Was the virus that occurred towards the end of the book actually purposefully released by the men in the village?
JM: No. The virus killed as many men as it did women, and the wanderers wouldn't want their population as decimated as it was. What I was getting at with the virus was how incredibly vulnerable the population was to disease from the outside world. They've been interbreeding for generations, and their immune systems have become completely useless against viruses or bacteria that they don't encounter in everyday life- or even things similar enough that their immune system might have adapted. When you read about the 1918 flu, it's the islands- the South Pacific, particularly- that were the hardest hit, with up to half the population dying. So you have a disease crop up that’s bad in the wastelands, and becomes incredibly deadly in such an isolated population. The girls' rebellion was defeated by their own biology.
KD: If Amanda or Janey were to have tombstones what do you think they would say?
JM: Oh, that's a good question! Let's see. Amanda's: SHE FORGED THE WAY TO FREEDOM. Janey's: HER FIRE BURNED BRIGHTEST.
SA: What are your thoughts when someone compares your novel to The Handmaid's Tale?
JM: I'm thrilled. I love The Handmaid's Tale. I don't think there would be so many comparisons if the show (which I haven’t yet seen) hadn't just finished its first season. That said, it’s always an honor and I'm not going to argue!
Kourtney and I extend our thanks to Jennie for taking time our of her busy schedule to answer our questions and provide such interesting insight in to the book. Gather the Daughters is available in bookstores everywhere!