25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Heather A. Clark

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Heather A. Clark

Heather A. Clark talks to Open Book about the inspiration for her newest novel, Chai Tea Sunday. She also gives insight into how she balances writing, her marketing career and motherhood.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Chai Tea Sunday.

Heather A. Clark:

Chai Tea Sunday tells the story of Nicky Fowler ? a woman who thought she had the perfect life, including a fulfilling career and a loving husband. But as complicated fertility issues reveal themselves, and ultimately lead to a devastating tragedy, Nicky?s marriage crumbles.

Emotionally lost, Nicky decides to move to Kenya to volunteer as a teacher at an orphanage. But life in Africa is more of a struggle than she anticipated; drought has forced the country into famine, violence is everywhere and, worst of all, the children at the orphanage are not safe.

Crushed by both her past and what life is like in Africa, Nicky turns to her host mother, Mama Bu, and finds love, understanding and what she needs most ? hope. With newfound strength, Nicky realizes what she must do to help the endangered children she?s grown to love ? and ultimately discovers they have given her much more than she could ever give them.


What was your inspiration for writing this story?


My cousin, Rachel, went to Kenya to volunteer at an orphanage. When she returned, I couldn?t get enough of her stories, particularly as they pertained to the children at the orphanage. It wasn?t the sad stories that we hear so often or her chronicles of the devastation that exists there ? but what connected all of these stories together: hope. It was her tales of the children at the orphanage who have nothing ? less than nothing, actually ? and still have so much unconditional love to give.

I remember calling my husband on my drive to work a few days later (using Bluetooth of course!), and choking back sobs because I was still feeling the power of Rachel?s stories. I knew then that I needed to write about her journey in Africa.


Chai Tea Sunday is your first novel. What was the most challenging aspect of writing it?


I really need to answer this question in two parts ? technically and emotionally.

Technically, this novel was difficult as I?ve never been to Kenya. I needed to figure out a way to accurately write about it.

Writing this book was also very emotional for me. Firstly, Nicky and her husband deal with complicated fertility issues; although their story is not the same as ours, my husband and I required fertility treatments and it was a very painful and complicated time. I was reminded of that difficulty when I did the research for this book.

Secondly, I learned a lot about what it is like for a child to live in an orphanage in Kenya. They often don?t have enough of anything they need. I heard the real stories directly from Rachel, and I wrote many of them into Chai Tea Sunday. It was tears flowing onto a keyboard as I typed. I became emotionally connected to the children at Rachel?s orphanage, even though I?d never met them. It?s one of the reasons it?s so important for me to give back; a portion of the proceeds of every book sold will go to an amazing charity called Artbound, which is a non-profit volunteer initiative that harnesses the power of the arts in support of Free The Children.


How did you conduct your research for the parts of the novel that take place in Kenya, and how did you make this setting come alive for readers who may never have been there?


I?ve never been to Kenya so I knew I needed help. I approached Rachel, my cousin who volunteered at an orphanage there, with my idea for the book, and interviewed her at length about her experiences. I videotaped our conversations, and scoured her journal and photos. But it was when she returned to volunteer in Kenya for the second time that I was really able to get the information I needed to make the story come alive. I would send her emails with a question (something like what walls in homes looked like or how long it took to walk to church) and she would shoot me back emails with the answer. It was a bit like a blind person whose other senses are heightened as I was forced to really experience Africa through Rachel.

And then I added to it with a lot of my own. I extensively researched the information I needed on both Africa as well as infertility in North America. I also drew on experts for their guidance, including a renowned fertility physician, an Ontario court judge and Swahili translators.


How do you make time for writing along with your marketing career and motherhood?


It isn?t easy, as every mother knows. We?re all so busy, and making sure there is time for everything is tough. I?m fortunate to have a great support system ? an amazing husband, fantastic parents/in-laws and a strong nanny. It allows me to be able to focus on my work when needed, and also spend quality time with my family.

In the case of Chai Tea Sunday, I actually wrote it while on maternity leave with my second child. I needed a creative outlet and a ?me project?, so I just started writing. During my son?s naps, or after the kids were tucked into bed for the night, I would cozy up to my laptop and write about Nicky?s journey.


Who are your favourite novelists, and why?


I don?t know that I have a favourite novelist as I tend to read a variety of different books. However, I would say that I?m drawn to plot-driven stories with strong characters who go through very emotional journeys. A few that stick out are The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.


What are you working on now?


I?m working on my second novel, which is due out in April 2014. To be honest, I?ve gotten as far as knowing when it will be released, and will be using the next few months to figure out what to write about! Most importantly, I?m focused on my family and being a mom. I have a four-year-old daughter, a two-year-old son and a newborn baby girl. Life right now is extremely busy and very fun.

Heather A. Clark was born and raised in St. Catharines, Ontario. A graduate of the University of Guelph with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, she worked in advertising before moving on to the marketing department at one of Canada?s largest media outlets. She currently lives in Oakville, Ontario.

For more information about Chai Tea Sunday please visit the ECW Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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