Sometimes, your mission is right there in front of you and you don’t even realize it.
That’s how it came to be for Lauren Francis-Sharma, the author of ‘Til the Well Runs Dry, an historical novel based on her own mother’s journey of being born in Trinidad and being left behind when her mother traveled to the States. Francis-Sharma’s mother came to the United States when she was 19, and the author was born two years later.
A resident of Kensington, Maryland, the first-generation Catholic American is married to a Hindu and is the mother of two children. A former corporate attorney, she always wanted to be a writer, “but I lived in a house with immigrant parents and that was poo-pooed. I did what every immigrant child does, goes on to become a doctor or lawyer. During that process, I was secretly writing, and I could not get published.”
She wrote two novels before temporarily giving up. She became a mother and stayed home with her children, when her grandmother had a debilitating stroke.
“She was always very independent and she’s kind of a hero in my family,” she says. “My mother would say, ‘If it weren’t for her choosing to leave Trinidad, you wouldn’t have the life you have here.’ That was always in the back of my head.”
She traveled to Brooklyn to sit beside her grandmother’s hospital bed and realized, “I don’t even know this woman. I knew her story, but I didn’t really know her.”
Can we ever truly know our forebears? We hear the stories they choose to tell us, and those shape us, definitely, but what of the stories we never hear? The photos locked away in a cabinet, only to be stumbled upon after someone’s demise?
“I spent a lot of summers in Brooklyn with her, but I knew nothing and I felt this incredible sense of loss at that moment,” says Francis-Sharma. “I realized even if she could speak to me then, I would never really know the story.”
A few months after that awakening moment, the author traveled to Trinidad for a funeral and happened to travel to a village where her grandmother was from. That’s the setting where this captivating novel begins.
“I was thinking about her growing up there, and one decision, to take a job as a domestic in the U.S., changed the course of everybody’s life in my family,” she says.
She knew the story was compelling but wavered on whether she could succeed with writing, as she’d been trying to do for so many years. Ultimately, Francis-Sharma was determined to succeed. She enrolled in a class called Extreme Novelist, which forced her to write for 90 minutes every day, and she “learned to write even with noise in the background,” an important talent because she was the mother of a 3-year-old and 5-year-old at the time.
It took two years to finish the novel. Then, Francis-Sharma attended a Thriller Fest conference in New York to meet literary agents, transformed from her daily Under Armour gear to her blue lawyer’s suits, dusted off and pulled from the back of the closet.
“I sat down in front of 12 agents, apologizing about how I didn’t have a thriller, but insisting, ‘You want to hear about this book.’ I was shaking. I left that day with 12 requests for submissions, and a week later I had an agent.”
And the book came to fruition.
In a surprise, writing this book deepened the author’s sense of identity.
“Because I grew up in Baltimore, there wasn’t a huge Caribbean population around me,” she says. “My parents had a few friends, but I heavily identified with being American and African-American. I think people knew that my parents were from some place, and I would say Trinidad, and they’d be like, ‘Oh your parents are from Jamaica.'”
“What was going on in my home was very different from what was going on outside of my house. My private life was very closed, I didn’t share the food we ate, we hid our differences.”
Writing this book, she says, was a self-discovery of sorts, sometimes from a touristic viewpoint at arm’s-length and sometimes deep in the core of who she is and always has been.
“There’s a part in the book where my protagonist shows up in New York and she is standing outside Port Authority,” she says. “I physically went to Port Authority to write this scene, and I was standing there, and I was like, it’s not just me, Lauren from Baltimore, writing this. Now, I am this person who grew up in a small village in Trinidad and I am thrust into this city and I have no connection, no idea of what to do or where to go, that sense of being so alone, how am I going to make it, that fear, and I thought about my grandmother at that moment.”
“This is who she was at the core. She wasn’t very adventurous; she was borderline fearful of a lot of things. How does that person with all these fears turn into the person who makes it? Who comes here and doesn’t run back home, but sticks it out? I learned a lot about her, even if she wasn’t telling me that story, by trying to trace some of those steps.”
The journey of writing this book also taught its author to understand the sacrifices that all mothers make.
“When we parent, we begin to dream mostly for them,” she explains. “And that dictates so much of what we do from day to day.”
Check out the book. (You can buy it here.) It is a worthwhile read that will have you hanging on every turn of events.
And stay tuned for Francis-Sharma’s next project – still in the historical fiction genre, with strong women characters of color. “I like stories that are deeply character-driven but also have plot and so I’m trying to stick with that,” she says.