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Interview: August 15, 2018

This July marked the release of Jennifer Gilmore's second young adult book, IF ONLY. The narrative follows Bridget, a 16-year-old, who finds herself pregnant and alone with only her best friend Dahlia to support her. Bridget's story alternates with her daughter Ivy's story 16 years later. Despite the safety and comfort Ivy has enjoyed surrounded by her two loving moms, she feels that it's time she finally learned about her past. Ivy will emabark on a journey where she might not only learn more about her mother but also more about herself. In this interview, Jennifer Gilmore reveals her motives behind the adoption theme, her writing process for IF ONLY, and tells us a bit about her future projects. Keep on reading to learn more about IF ONLY and its acclaimed author! Your book, IF ONLY, deals with both sides of adoption --- that of the birth mother, and that of the adopted child. Can you tell us a bit about the background of the book? What made you decide to focus on adoption?

Jennifer Gilmore: I’m an adoptive mom and I have thought a good deal about the birth mother’s experience as well as the possibility of her having chosen someone else to parent her child. There is a lot of culturally airbrushed stuff about adoption but the fact remains that it’s a difficult situation and a lot of people are suffering. I feel lucky every moment of my life that my son’s birthmother chose us. But I have thought of some of the other lives he could have had as well as all she had to go through to make her decisions. The book I think comes from that, especially the If Only sections that look at the alternative lives Ivy, the adopted daughter, might have had.

TRC: Your main characters, Bridget and Ivy, are both 16 and feeling a little lost. Can you introduce them to us?

JG: Bridget is 16 and  pregnant in 2000. Her boyfriend has broken up with her, before he knew about the baby, and she feels alone in the world but for her best friend Dahlia, who is her soulmate. They make a lot of Bridget’s decisions about placing the baby together. Ivy has just turned 16 when we meet her in 2017 and she wants to learn more about her birthmother. She has been adopted by her two moms and she feels safe and loved and happy, but there is a missing piece for her. While the adoption was open, Bridget stopped contact when Ivy was about 1 and Ivy wants to know more about who she is.

TRC: In your book, you alternate perspectives and timelines between Bridget and Ivy. Why did you choose to format your book this way, instead of telling one girl’s story or the other’s? Was one character harder to write than the other?

JG: That’s a great question. Originally I had Bridget’s story and then Ivy’s --- but I found Ivy’s story to have more movement to it, and I wanted her journey --- which is literally a road trip at times --- to be the reader’s journey as well. I wanted the reader to know her and not play the trick that makes the reader think the point of the book is to puzzle out who is the adopted child. I wanted the If Onlys to bridge their two voices and for the reader to read them both simultaneously, at the same age. Bridget was harder for me --- not because I didn’t understand her as well as Ivy but because placing myself in her shoes, especially in the scene where she tries to keep her child, was really hard for me. I’m glad I did it, but it was a very sad section to write. 

TRC: During Bridget’s chapters, we follow along as she meets several prospective adoptive parents for her unborn daughter. You have done something really creative in IF ONLY by then giving us glimpses into the futures of these other families and what their lives --- and Ivy’s --- might have been like if Bridget chose them. Where did you get this idea? What was it like writing these “what if” chapters?

JG: I loved writing these chapters so much. There was a freedom I felt working on them that I don’t always feel while writing. While I knew the character, I got to place her in all these hypothetical situations --- it was fun and it was also just using my imagination and sort of pasting her upon all these scenes. While they’re not all problem-free scenerios, she is safe in all the alternative lives she might have led, which was important to me. Her Moms are not the only people who could have parented her.  I also have different characters who appear and reappear if the reader is paying attention and that was fun to play with as well.

TRC: Because your book takes place in both the early 2000s and today, there is a sort of historical aspect to Bridget’s chapters. I loved reading about her fashion choices and seeing the ways the world has changed since then, especially since the early 2000s don’t seem very long ago! What was it like to journey back into the early 2000s?

JG: I write adult novels as well, and those have always dealt with history in some way. There is also a section of IF ONLY that takes place in 1955 and deals with the issue of abortion, which I thought was important to include in a book about teen pregnancy and adoption.  I love thinking about the past and seeing the often slight and often major changes in the world and how my characters navigate it. 2000 is history now, which amazes me. Our world changes fast --- politically, visually ---and I think that was part of my work in writing this. I liked thinking about Bridget’s clothes (her Docs, her babydoll dresses) and her life without an iphone, what she does to pass the time. It’s one of the many reasons her life is so different from Ivy’s.

TRC: We learn early on that Ivy’s adoptive parents are two moms. Following along with Bridget’s story, it becomes very clear that she chose them for a reason, but what made you decide to give Ivy two moms?

JG: I felt that was an organic choice for Bridget to make. Even though she comes from a religious background where being gay is not supported, she sees Ivy’s moms as wonderful loving and authentic people, which they are. They feel genuine to her, unlike many of the heterosexual couple she meets who offer her presents or try to show her how much money they have. Bridget has not had great experiences with men and I think she sees safety for her daughter in Joanne and Andrea. Also her close friendship with Dahlia allows her to think of raising a child with her. Even though her feelings for Dahlia aren’t sexual or romantic, she sees how that configuration --- the girl triangle as Ivy comes to call it --- is appealing.

TRC: In your book, Ivy’s moms (all three of them!) agreed on an open adoption, but it did not go quite as planned. Can you tell us a bit about how open adoptions work? Why did it not work out as planned for Bridget and Ivy’s moms?

JG: In an open adoption all parties know each other in varying degrees. The theory is that the adoptee can know who her birth family was and doesn’t have to imagine everything. She can know the decision was made out of love, which it most always is, and she can see where she got her eyes or her laugh. Most adoptions in this country are open. In the case of Ivy’s Moms, Bridget chose them and they were in touch. The plan was to have visits with Bridget and open communication, but she disappears when Ivy is one for reasons we learn about.

TRC: One of the strongest and most beautiful parts of your book is the letters Bridget writes to Ivy. Can you tell us a bit about writing these?

JG: I love letters in novels because they give the reader information she can’t get in another way. In this case it’s the one opportunity to show what Bridget feels once she has her child. She is trying to be hopeful but she is grieving for the loss of Ivy as well. Letters are so precious --- they are private and intimate and from one person to another and that’s not what the narration is usually doing in novels, so the reader gets to eavesdrop.

TRC: What do you hope young readers, especially teenage girls, will take away from IF ONLY?

JG: I hope that readers who have adoption in their lives will feel there is finally a book that deals with open adoption that includes them and makes them feel seen and hopefully a little understood. I hope that it can offer understanding for those not in the adoption community as well. But I think we all think about our If Onlys. There are so many ways our lives can go depending on the smallest decisions we make. I hope that Ivy and Bridget are remembered for the wonderful characters they are. I think as teens what we read matters so much to us, like the music we listen to. For that reason it’s a privilege to write for and about teenagers. I hope this books reaches them and means something to them.

TRC: Lastly, what are you working on now?

JG: I am in limbo! I teach full time and going back to school like everyone else! But I’ve been working on an adult novel for a long time now --- it just keeps getting pushed aside for all these other projects. I’m also re-working the screenplay of the adaptation of  my last novel for adults, THE MOTHERS, which is going to be a movie starring Rachel Weisz.