The Rumpus Book Club chats with Lauren J. Sharkey about her debut novel, Inconvenient Daughter (Kaylie Jones Books, June 2020), how the book began as a memoir but turned into fiction, life in suburban Long Island, writing about domestic violence, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Matthew Salesses, Alison Stine, Beth Alvarado, Jenny Hval, Mattilda B. Sycamore, Randa Jarrar, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club’s chat with Lauren J. Sharkey about her debut novel, Inconvenient Daughter!
Lauren J. Sharkey: Hey everyone! I’m so excited to chat with all of you. Thank you for the warm welcome, Marisa, and thank you to everyone logging on right now!
Bret M. Weaver: I loved your book! You’re a very talented writer! Was this a true account of your life?
Nat: Congrats on the book! It really drew me in, and I loved how the story lines were woven together.
Lauren J. Sharkey: Thank you so much for your kind words, Bret and Nat!
While my experience as a transracial adoptee definitely informed how I constructed the character of Rowan, Inconvenient Daughter is definitely not a memoir. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t give some of my experiences to Rowan.
Marisa: Lauren, can you start us off by talking about the genesis of Inconvenient Daughter? How long did you work on it for? What was the road to its publication like?
Lauren J. Sharkey: Sure thing, Marisa! The first draft of Inconvenient Daughter was actually my thesis for my graduate school program, which had started as a memoir. I think I’d been writing this book most of my adult life, but I was writing it “seriously” for probably five years.
My road to publication was unconventional. I had worked with my mentor, Kaylie Jones, on my thesis. When I sent her the final draft, she emailed me a few days later and told me she wanted to publish it.
Marisa: That’s awesome! How soon after you graduated did you get that email?
Lauren J. Sharkey: Hmm, I’m not sure! I remember it was in April—so I think I might have received the publication notice before actually graduating. I’d have to look back in my emails lol.
I was really surprised. I just wanted to pass and graduate—I never expected I would be here.
Bret M. Weaver: I liked the raw approach you took. Spoke so “straight,” and real.
Lauren J. Sharkey: Thanks so much, Bret! Something I was nervous about with Inconvenient Daughter was that the voice was very different; I was worried it would alienate people.
Nat: How did the project evolve from memoir to fiction? Did you feel like it would be more freeing [to write the story as fiction]?
Lauren J. Sharkey: Personally, for me, I was trying to stay true to the form of memoir, and it was inhibiting the whole process. With memoir, I was getting caught up with dates and details and accuracy. When the suggestion was made to me to make it a novel, it felt like a weight had been taken off me and it became about the story.
Marisa: Every grad student’s dream, I think! The novel is set on Long Island, where we both grew up. Can you talk about the role of setting in the novel, and why you chose to set Rowan’s story there? I think I’ve been noting this a lot recently when reading books, so maybe it’s my own preoccupation, but it feels like Long Island is almost a character in your book.
Bret M Weaver: Yes it does. I agree.
Lauren J. Sharkey: So, Inconvenient Daughter is sort of like a love letter to the ’90s… but it’s also a love letter to Long Island, which, yes, is where I grew up. I think I chose to set the book there because it’s just so suburban. I feel like that’s kind of obvious, especially if you’ve ever been there. But for me, growing up on Long Island, it always felt like the last place you would find an Asian person (which, thankfully, isn’t true anymore!) and I think the sense of otherness really comes through in a setting like this.
Marisa: The suburbs are definitely very present. And the Roosevelt Field mall! I think you’re probably a bit younger than me (I graduated high school in 2001) but I still knew every reference: the schools, the motels, Roosevelt Field, etc.
Lauren J. Sharkey: Not that much younger! I’m class of 2004! And yeah—Roosevelt Field all day!
Bret M. Weaver: Why did you choose to have Rowan’s character mislead doctors in the flashbacks [at the emergency room]?
Lauren J. Sharkey: The answer is kind of two-fold: I wanted to establish Rowan as an unreliable narrator, and hammer home the fact that we’re seeing everything through her PoV, which might not actually be what’s happening—just like in life. The second reason is because her being in the ER is sort of the entire culmination of all her trauma and she just doesn’t know how to verbalize how she ended up here because she’s still trying to figure it out.
Marisa: We move back and forth between the present-day and Rowan’s life in high school for a lot of the novel. How did you land on the book’s structure? I love how we start in the middle of the end, and then go back and forth as needed.
Lauren J. Sharkey: I knew from the beginning I wanted there to be two timelines, but if we were in an English Lit class I’m sure a teacher would be saying there are like six, lol. I refer to the hospital timeline as the anchor because it grounds the reader and it’s where we keep returning to. I guess I wanted to structure it this way because when I think about my life, I always think of where I am not and reflect on how I got to where I am.
Marisa: That makes perfect sense; inside our heads we so often move quickly between past, present, and future.
Bret M. Weaver: Then you tie it up with an affirmation by her adoptive mother saying “you’re my daughter” which I thought was like a homing beacon, to settle her down.
Lauren J. Sharkey: For sure. I think Rowan has been looking for something she didn’t realize was there her entire life. And I think Rowan’s mother is definitely of a time and generation where it was more difficult for her to show love in the conventional sense.
Bret M. Weaver: She sounded like my mom. Lol. It kind of felt like my life with self-sabotage, and having my family to ultimately rely on. I felt I had to sort of “fight” for their love as well.
Lauren J. Sharkey: Yeah, you know I think that’s what’s so great about Inconvenient Daughter is that you don’t have to be an adoptee to relate to it. I think we’ve all self-sabotaged, or had struggles with family that we battle through.
Nat: I was really interested in the relationship (or lack thereof) with Aidan—what Rowan maybe imagined it would be like to have a sibling, and then how they really grew apart in high school. I’d love to hear any thoughts on the thematic ideas you were playing with there.
Lauren J. Sharkey: I actually didn’t know this while writing, but it’s apparently true that adopted siblings sometimes have difficulty bonding. My own brother and I aren’t particularly close, and I think it speaks to Rowan’s loneliness. Rowan and Aidan share the same primal wound of being separated from their birth mothers, yet it doesn’t bring them closer together. I think he’s just another person in her life she can’t get close to.
Marisa: I was thinking about the book’s end, and am wondering if you can speak to where/how you end Rowan’s story—without spoiling the story, of course! I think I can safely share that it’s not all tied up in a pretty bow, though Rowan has certainly learned a lot. Why did you choose to end her story where you did? Did you always know it would end that way, and then write toward that point?
Lauren J. Sharkey: It was really important to me that Rowan not end up with a guy, and that Rowan not be “saved”. I think we’re left with the hope that Rowan is on her way to healing and saving herself, but that there’s still work to do. Because that’s kind of like how life is—we don’t get all the answers. Even though it’s fiction, I wanted it to feel real.
Marisa: Yes! I love that she doesn’t end up with any of the guys we meet along her journey.
Lauren J. Sharkey: OMG me too! They were all kind of terrible hahahaha.
Marisa: Terrible, but also: so real.
Lauren J. Sharkey: Yeah, I think we’ve all met those guys or people who remind us of those guys lol.
Marisa: Ohhhh yes.
How did you land on the book’s title?
Lauren J. Sharkey: So, the title was like a super-long text exchange between me and Kaylie. We had some terrible ones—I wanted it to be “Trials and Tribulations of a Crazy Asian” lol which is so long. But I also wanted to encapsulate how Rowan thinks of herself, and the two defining qualities for her are being a daughter and feeling like an inconvenience.
Marisa: I love a good long title, but yes, “Inconvenient Daughter” really does let us know how Rowan sees herself from the get-go.
Lauren J. Sharkey: Absolutely!
Marisa: What were you reading, listening to, and/or watching while writing Inconvenient Daughter? Are there authors (or other artists) whose work you turned to while writing, or who you think Inconvenient Daughter is in conversation with? I’m especially curious because I do think the voice and protagonist here are, as mentioned earlier, both quite unique.
Lauren J. Sharkey: I listened to a lot of ’90s jams just to transport myself back to that time period. I actually create playlists for each character to help me get into a mood. There is an “official” soundtrack to Inconvenient Daughter here:
And one for Cole here:
As far as authors who inspired me: Cheryl Strayed, Celeste Ng, Leslie Jamison, Nicole Chung, Jessica Sun Lee, and so many others. I think Inconvenient Daughter is very much in conversation with Little Fires Everywhere, as it does raise questions about motherhood and knowing one’s own history for certain.
Nat: It seemed like the expectation that Rowan should feel “lucky” for being adopted set her up for a lot of the resentment she experienced. Are there other harmful narratives about adoption that you wanted to explore?
Lauren J. Sharkey: I think in the gospel of adoption, adoptees are so often told they’re lucky or blessed. However, I’ve been told so many times, “Your parents are so wonderful to take in an unwanted child.” I heard the term “unwanted” so much growing up and it really shaped how I thought of myself.
Nat: I’m so sorry—that’s really awful.
Lauren J. Sharkey: Aww, thank you.
Marisa: Did you talk with your parents, or share writing with them, as the book got closer to publication? Although I guess another benefit of fiction (vs. memoir) is you can always just say, “Mom, that’s not you. That’s a character.” Lol.
Lauren J. Sharkey: Since publication was kind of sprung on me, I didn’t have a chance to really talk with them about it because I didn’t expect it to ever be out there. I only found myself getting nervous when I got the email that ARCs were going to press, which is when I realized, OMG this is really happening. My parents were the first people to get an ARC because even though it’s not based on me or them, it is a reflection of the lives we’ve lived if that makes sense.
My mom wasn’t thrilled with the title and I was like, “Mom it could have been called Inconvenient Mother but it’s not so chill out” lol.
Marisa: Hahaha I love that story. You can always hold that over her, a potential sequel perhaps?
Lauren J. Sharkey: I am working on another project, but I’m not sure if there is a sequel for Rowan. I’ll never say never though!
Marisa: To turn our attention to the character of the mother more seriously for a moment, and take the heat off your own real-life mom, for me the relationship between Rowan and her mother is the heart of the book. The mother character loves her so much, clearly, but also gets it so wrong, so often.
Did you have a favorite character in the book? Or, was there a character who was especially difficult to inhabit the mind of?
Lauren J. Sharkey: Yes for sure. I think the main artery of the book is the relationship between Rowan and Marie.
Hunter was the character whose space was the most difficult to inhabit. Without a doubt.
Marisa: I can imagine. How did you find ways to empathize with Hunter enough to make him feel real/not one-dimensional?
Lauren J. Sharkey: As a domestic violence survivor, and reflecting back on my own experience, I can now spot behaviors that I once thought were endearing and realize they are in fact a form of manipulation. Hunter is really charming and I think that’s key—he gives Rowan attention, he makes her a cake for her birthday, etc. And I think having those sweet moments—although they are veiled in a horrific truth—was important to his development.
Marisa: Agreed—it’s a part of the cycle of domestic abuse, and important to show how Rowan (or any of us) gets trapped in the cycle.
Lauren J. Sharkey: Totally. And I think in media—whether it’s books, movies, etc.—I feel like when we see domestic violence, it’s always after all that has happened. Like we might get flashbacks of those nice moments where the couple was in love, but then we automatically cut back to the violence. But, for me at least, it didn’t start out violent; it started with me falling in love. So it was important for me to show how Rowan found herself in this situation. My hope is that maybe it might save someone.
Marisa: I think it rarely begins with violence. And yeah, movies and TV and even books don’t show that as much as they should.
So, there is a lot of ground covered in this one novel. What are you most hoping readers will come away from Inconvenient Daughter thinking about?
Lauren J. Sharkey: My hope for the book is that it makes people feel seen and recognize they’re not alone in their experience—whether it’s being adopted, their parents not understanding them, or looking for love. I also hope Inconvenient Daughter starts a larger conversation around adoption and what we can do to better support adoptees.
Marisa: What is it like to have your first book come out now, amid the COVID-19 crisis (and various other world crises)? Are you finding ways to celebrate the book being out in the world?
Lauren J. Sharkey: It’s definitely presented its challenges. I was super bummed not to have that in-person launch I’ve been dreaming of most of my life. But the online launch drew in so many people from other parts of the world who otherwise might not have been able to attend. COVID-19 has helped me connect with more people than I might have otherwise. I’m also really active on Instagram; I do giveaways and play games. Like over the next few days, we’re playing at dreamcasting!
Marisa: Okay, I’m gonna ask, because I don’t know: what is dreamcasting? (I’m almost never on Instagram!)
Lauren J. Sharkey: Oh lol no worries! I’m posting who I’d want to play particular characters in the book! We’re starting with Rowan, and my pick is Lana Condor! But others have suggested Awkwafina and T.V. Carpio!
Marisa: Ohhh, that makes sense and in hindsight is quite obvious. It’s also a question I love to ask in these chats (who would play your characters in a movie/TV adaptation, that is).
Lauren J. Sharkey: It’s so much fun and I’m excited to see what other people come up with!
Marisa: I’m going to have to check it out for sure!
We’ve got just a few minutes left, and I always like to end with this question: what’s in your TBR pile right now? Any new and forthcoming books you’re especially excited about?
Thank you so much for having me, Marisa, and to everyone who logged on today. This was so much fun! Please feel free to follow me on Instagram at @theljsharks and if you loved Inconvenient Daughter, please consider leaving a review on Amazon to help spread the word!
Marisa: Thanks for your time this afternoon, Lauren! And, for this wonderful novel!
Photograph of Lauren J. Sharkey by Danielle Highland.