Meet Heather A. Clark: Author Of 'Chai Tea Sunday'
Meet Heather A. Clark: Author Of 'Chai Tea Sunday'
Heather Clark began writing her debut novel, Chai Tea, on Sunday while on maternity leave with her second child. She is a mother of three with a successful career in marketing and, yes, she also wrote a book (don't hate her).
Where did the inspiration for the book come from?
My cousin, Rachel, went to Kenya to volunteer at an orphanage. When she returned, I couldn’t get enough of her stories, particularly the ones about 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 a few days later and choking back sobs because I still felt the power of Rachel’s stories. I knew then that I needed to write about her journey in Africa.
Why did you choose Kenya, and how did you research it?
I chose Kenya because it was the place Rachel had travelled to, and her stories were so inspirational. However, after deciding to write a book about Rachel’s journey there, I was faced with one not-so-little problem: I’ve never actually been there myself. Knowing I couldn’t write about it without a lot of help, I approached Rachel with my idea for the book. She immediately (and excitedly!) agreed, and I interviewed her at length about her experiences in Kenya. I videotaped our conversations, scoured her journal, and spent hours watching her videos and looking at her photos.
But it was when she returned to volunteer in Kenya for the second time that I was really able to get the granular details I needed to make the story come alive. I would send her emails with a question (something like ‘what do the walls in the homes look like?’ or ‘how long does it take 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.
I then added to her stories with a lot of my own research on both Africa, as well as infertility treatments in North America. I also drew on experts for their guidance, including a renowned fertility physician, an Ontario court judge and Swahili translators.
You deal with difficult subjects in the book, such as struggling to conceive and the death of a child. How hard were they to write about?
They were extremely difficult to write about. From a fertility perspective, my husband and I went through our own fertility issues. Although they were quite different (from a technical/scientific perspective) from the issues Nicky and her husband go through, it was still difficult to write about as the heart-wrenching emotions that accompany any fertility treatments were certainly there. Thankfully, my husband and I were ultimately blessed with three beautiful children, however the time when we went through fertility treatments was a very painful and complicated time for us – and when I was researching and writing about it, the painful emotions quickly came back.
Writing about the death of a child was nothing short of heartbreaking and, to be honest, I didn’t know if I could do it. In fact, I wrote the entire book except for that part, and then went back and wrote it because I was really nervous to do it. But I knew that Nicky and Eric needed to have experienced an extremely complicated and devastating tragedy for their marriage to crumble. Plus, I wanted to push Nicky from the world she was used to living in to the world of Africa so I could juxtapose the two, and she needed to have gone through something overwhelmingly heartbreaking for someone as strong as her to quit her life and move there.
However, even with all of this said, for me the true transcendent theme of the novel is hope. The tragedy Nicky suffers early in the book causes her to lose her way and it’s only when she finds love and understanding in her host mother, Mama Bu, as well as from the children at the orphanage, that she is able to regain the hope she lost. It’s the portrayal of the power of the human spirit, and the true resilience of the heart. Despite the unimaginable pain and personal tragedy Nicky had previously gone through, her tenacity, determination and courage ultimately ensured that she could once again find hope.
Have you learned insights over chai?
I’ve never been to Kenya, so I haven’t had the true chai experience, but I’m very keen to go and know I will love my time there. However, if Chai Tea Lattes from Starbucks count, I’ve learned a ton. Three of my very best girlfriends and I frequently sneak out of the house after our kids go to bed, and we have (long!) and wonderful conversations over Chai Tea Lattes. We’re always the last to leave - we actually have to get kicked out every time we go!
How do you balance full-time work with writing and releasing a book while on mat leave?
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. And it was actually because I was busy taking care of a newborn and a toddler that I started writing the book. I love my children to pieces but, after changing diapers and feeding kids all day, I really needed a creative outlet and passion project that was just for me. Since I had always wanted to write a book, I decided to start writing to see where it would take me. After my husband and I would tuck our kids into bed for the night, I would cozy up to my laptop and continue on Nicky’s journey. I absolutely loved writing and, before I knew it, the pages had turned into chapters and I eventually had a completed manuscript.
How do you regularly find the inspiration and time to write? Do you write daily?
Admittedly, finding the inspiration and time to write on a regular basis is hard at times. There are many nights when I would prefer to watch a movie with my husband or go for some (much loved!) red wine with a few of my girlfriends than write yet another page in my manuscript.
My best trick is to make the deal with myself that I need to write just two more pages of the manuscript before I can give in to whatever is calling my name. If, at the end of those two pages, I still want to do something else, I am able to close my laptop and not feel guilty about it. However, I don’t know that I’ve actually ever abandoned my book for something else given that the two pages always seems to draw me into the story and, before I know it, the next chapter is written.
A portion of the proceeds of your novel are going to a charity called Artbound. What can you tell us about this initiative, and why is it so close to your heart?
Artbound is an amazing charity that harnesses the power of the arts in support of Free The Children. In addition to providing clean water, medical care and food to children who need it, they raise funds to build schools in developing nations so they can provide children with a full education, including art. Their programs are designed to teach children skills that will improve their living conditions and generate sustainable income to help break the cycle of poverty. So, for example, the children might learn how to bead in school, and then sell that bead work in a market.
When I found out Chai Tea Sunday would be published, it became very important for me to give back as I had fallen in love with the kids from the Kenyan orphanage that I had written about, and knew I needed to help. I wanted to find the right charity, and was thrilled to partner with Artbound as I believe wholeheartedly in everything they stand for and all of the work they do around the world. I believe it is important to teach children, particularly in developing nations, the skills they need to generate income so they can ultimately provide for themselves and their families – and Artbound does exactly that.
What do you want to write about next?
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.
Chai Tea Sunday is published by ECW Press.