When you come from a place like the Bronx—a place that isn’t often represented in fiction—and when it is, it tends to be represented in an exploitative manner, it’s natural to have your guard up when you hear about a novel set there—and even more so when you hear this novel was written by a white dude who isn’t even from the Bronx. You can imagine, then, my suspicions when I learned about Frank Santo’s novel, The Birthparents (Tortoise Books, 2023).
The novel follows a young foster care caseworker from New England who takes it upon himself to try and single-handedly repair one broken family in the Bronx and one particularly stubborn and chaotic birth mother. It depicts characters struggling with drug addiction, abusive relationships, and poverty. It takes you inside an under-resourced system responsible for caring for hundreds of thousands of children each year, that, despite its best efforts, often fails at that monumental task.
But what makes the book special and memorable is how Santo imbues his ill-fated characters with stunning humanity. You’ll find none of the stock thugs or helpless victims I feared I might encounter. These beautiful people laugh, love, flirt, and dream. They brim with vitality and have real agency to make decisions most wouldn’t, but that makes perfect sense to them.
They make it hard for you not to fall in love with them and root for them, even as they let you down.
Santo and I spoke over Zoom recently, after the two of us tucked our own children into bed. We spoke about how his time as a caseworker in the Bronx informed his novel, what it felt like to write it during a time of heightened conversations about representation in literature, how he tried to turn the white savior narrative on its head, and how his characters evolved into complex, gripping people who are hard to forget about once you put his novel down.
The Rumpus: You’re a Boston boy. How did you end up working in the foster care system, and in the Bronx of all places?
Frank Santo: I was pretty recently out of college and I knew a woman who became a child welfare worker. I saw that and was like, “Wow, that sounds like a really interesting thing to do.” Then the woman ended up leaving the job and recommended me for it. At the time I was working in Brooklyn with people with mental disabilities. I guess the woman saw that and thought I’d be good for this job.
When I interviewed, it was originally supposed to be in Manhattan, but two weeks after I started, they transferred me to the Bronx. So it was kind of an accident. It wasn’t like I specifically wanted to go to the Bronx, but I did think it sounded cool, just because it was another place that I really didn’t know anything about.
Rumpus: Did you already fashion yourself as a writer and have ambitions to write a novel one day?
Santo: I was an English major and a creative writing major, but I felt as though I didn’t really have too much experience with the world to write anything. That said, I didn’t take the job because I wanted something to write about. I guess my thinking was that if I was thrust into this different part of the world and was able to function there, then my mind would expand one way or another.
I don’t know if I knew if I wanted to write a novel yet. I sort of always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t really have much to go on. Before I took the job in the foster care system, I actually wrote a blog for the New York Daily News about the literary world. But I only got that because some other guy had seen my writing as an undergrad and asked me if I wanted to do it. As soon as I got the job working in the foster care system, I stopped writing for a few years because I didn’t have any time. Also, I thought it would be kind of weird to write about the job while I was in it.
Rumpus: So when did you realize that you did want to write about the job, and how did that process begin?
Santo: It sort of started as a coping mechanism. The job and the things you’re dealing with, as you can probably imagine, are pretty intense. Seeing bad stuff happen to kids is not something that I was at all prepared for.
So after about two years in, I would come home and start writing about it just to get it out of my head. Margarita was the first character that came to me because a huge part of my job was dealing with the mothers. They were just such characters. They were such interesting people. And the nature of the job is that you really get to know them. You see their motivations, you see the things they say are their motivations but really aren’t, you see the way they interact with their kids, the way they interact with their husbands or their boyfriends. You see the full 360 panorama of a person. And once I realized that, that’s when I started to become inspired because those are the sort of characters I love to read about in books.
Rumpus: What are some of those books that inspired you, or perhaps informed your decision to start writing your own?
Santo: It changed a lot over time, because the tone of the book changed a lot over time. Some of that had to do with my age. When you’re twenty-four or twenty-five, you need a bit of an ironic distance from things and your inclination can be to not take things seriously enough. Early on, I imagined the book was like Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, but about social work. But that sort of tone didn’t really work. I had to grow up a little bit more and even get some distance from the job before I could really make things come together. I realized that my way of coping with everything was to put too much humor into it. There was a point where I wasn’t taking the protagonist, Lee, seriously enough.
When I started to realize the book would be playing with this white savior theme and that a theme like that would give it better tension, The Quiet American by Graham Greene became important to me.
Rumpus: In a recent interview on the Beyond the Zero podcast, you mentioned that you started writing this novel in third person before switching to the first person. What prompted that shift?
Santo: It was third person, but it was a really tight third person that tried to get inside of each character’s mind and perspective. And it kind of ran into this whole question, this big third rail issue in literature: Can a white person write from other people’s perspectives? And at first, I hadn’t really thought about it, to be honest. I was sort of like, “Oh yeah, sure, why not?” But now I can see the other side of that conversation.
Rumpus: What is your answer to that question now?
Santo: I think it all comes down to execution, really. Everything comes down to execution. If you can pull it off and the reader likes it, then you can get away with it. And I guess I realized I wasn’t able to pull it off in the third person. It just wasn’t good enough. I was trying to put myself in the mind of a mother from the Bronx with addiction issues. I tried my best and I thought it was good enough, and I stubbornly held onto it for a while. Then I thought, let me just try first person and see what happens. And I actually think that because I put all that effort into trying to empathize with other people and trying to see the world through their eyes, that effort helped me see them and build up the characters a lot more. But once I went to first person and kept the story a little closer to my own experience, it sort of just came to life on a different level.
Rumpus: Lee is a great person to tell this story through. He has good intentions, is cognizant of his relative power and privilege, but he’s also way in over his head. How did he evolve over time?
Santo: One of the biggest problems I had in the third person was actually getting Lee right. In the third person, I kept making him cartoonishly stupid. I think I was trying to make it extra clear that I don’t actually think a white kid can go to the Bronx and fix things. I tried to make Lee the butt of every joke, so much so that the story just wasn’t interesting. In the end he’s still sort of a tragic or deluded character, but he really came into focus when I started to take him more seriously as a person.
Rumpus: As you’ve alluded to, the writing of this book happened amidst big conversations in the literary world around representation and who can or can’t tell certain stories. What did it feel like to be a white guy writing this kind of book, featuring mostly characters of color, during that time?
Santo: Well, when Trump was elected I thought to myself, “This book has no chance.” Just because I got the sense that no one really wanted to hear from the white contingent anymore, which in a lot of ways was fair. But I was in so deep at that point. I had become obsessive about the book and was writing two hours a day every day. I thought, “Well, if I’m trying my best at this, doesn’t that at least give me the license to attempt this?” I don’t know if it did. But I do know that the more that I became aware of these conversations around representation, the more they affected the writing of the book, and the worse the book became. I found myself focusing a lot of energy on making sure the book sort of said, “Don’t worry, this isn’t bad, Lee is clearly an idiot so that makes the book okay.” I also felt like I had to make characters like Margarita and her boyfriend Ty more victims of circumstances as opposed to real, full people.
Rumpus: Which is ironically worse, right?
Santo: Yeah. Well, I eventually came back around to realize that what I was actually doing was robbing people of humanity. To pretend that someone like Margarita was just this pure hearted woman trying to get her kids back felt false. That is not ever what I saw on the job. It was people trying their best but people who also had a lot of flaws and problems too. Most of them had been through foster care themselves and inherited some of that trauma. Their circumstances were horrible in many ways, but they were still people. You still had to give them the full, human touch.
Rumpus: So how did you push past these concerns and keep writing?
Santo: Once I came to terms with the fact that no one would probably publish my book anyway, it became sort of freeing. I thought, “Now I’ll just write it the way I actually think it should be written.” The experience was helpful, actually because I did learn a lot from rejection and that is partly why I made the switch to first person.
Rumpus: Were you already trying to get it published at that point?
Santo: I had an agent during that whole period and she was like, “I like this book, but I’m never going to be able to sell it.” There was a dark moment when she literally told me: “They’re just not publishing any white people anymore.” And I was just like, well, okay then. I knew that wasn’t true. Obviously, they still publish white people. I figured they just didn’t want to publish me.
Rumpus: So what didthe eventual publication process look like for this book?
Santo: Well, even after making changes to the perspective, my agent at the time still told me it would never get published. So I started sending it around to smaller, indie presses. I sent it to Jerry Brennan of Tortoise Books and he liked it, but it still wasn’t the best version. Lee was still a little bit too much of a villain, so we did one more pass together and everything just sort of connected.
Rumpus: You became a father during the course of writing this book. How did that influence the writing of it and the development of your characters?
Santo: It definitely impacted the book. Having my own children allowed me to empathize on another level with characters. On the job, I was sitting in a room with these parents and you have to say some messed up stuff to them, like, “You can’t feed your kid in the room. You can’t talk to them unless it is at a level that I can hear it.” Having my own kids really allowed me to understand how annoying it would be to have some fucking guy sitting in the corner watching me interact with them. Even before I had kids, I was aware this was a weird thing, but actually feeling it like the parents must have felt it is a whole different thing. The writing came out in a very different way. I was able to stop and really think: “What would I do if I felt like I was in danger of losing my kids?” I would do things just as crazy as the stuff that I saw.
Rumpus: You’ve worked in the foster care system, and now you’ve written this novel about it. What do you make of the system today?
Santo: That’s a big question. I don’t think of myself as an issues writer or a political writer in any way. But there are somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 foster kids in the country, and in some cases there are twenty-three-year-old case workers who don’t know what they’re doing who are responsible for these kids’ care. It’s just a very under-resourced system, and because of that the system just has to make do. That said, everyone that I worked with—from the supervisors, the directors, everyone that I met—had their heart in the right place. No one was trying to be cruel, but at the same time you don’t have enough resources to do the job that these kids need and they don’t have, for the most part, parents who are able to advocate for them. I’d say 95 percent of the foster parents I met were great and were really mission-driven people who were doing this for the good of the world. But even that is not enough to make a kid feel loved. So it’s tough, but to be honest, I didn’t mean for this book to be an indictment of all that. I really just meant it to be a look at what it’s really like.
Rumpus: It didn’t seem to have this aim, where it’s like: “I’m going to show you how messed up this system is and whose fault it is.” It’s more like: “This is what it is, for better or worse.”
Santo: That is exactly what I was going for. Because the truth is there is a lot of horror and horrible things about it, but there is also a lot of grace and things that show how strong people can be. It’s really the whole gamut of humanity.
Rumpus: I really appreciated that amongst all the dysfunction in the characters’ lives, there are beautiful, touching moments of joy. Why were those moments important to include?
Santo: I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t writing this in a way where it’s like, “Look at these poor people and how sad their lives are.” That’s not what life is. There are moments of joy. Everybody has ups and downs, and to create a full character you have to have all of that. You have to show the way people are, not just when they’re being oppressed or have horrible things happen to them, but the way they are in the nice, little moments that everybody has. And also, I think you have to not only show moments when they’re good, too, you have to show moments where they’re doing things wrong and making mistakes. The full scope of humanity.
Rumpus: So what is next for you?
Santo: It’s hard to move on from this book. I was so engaged in it for so long, but I have started working on something. I want to completely leave the social work world. So far, this new thing is about a marriage. I find myself reading these advice columns about open marriages and people wondering why they don’t work out. And I just love the hubris in that. I guess I’m just looking for another setting where I can find the richness of humanity again, but in a weird way.
Author photograph by Andrea Jaresova