Please welcome Stephanie Knipper to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin was published on August 2nd by Algonquin Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Stephanie: Thank you! It’s a pleasure to be here.
I started writing when I was in third grade. A poet came to our school. She gave each of us journals and held “workshops” for several weeks. I loved it! I was already a big reader, but it wasn’t until meeting her that I realized someone had actually written all those books I loved. I still remember the wonder I felt when I realized that I could do that too.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Stephanie: I’m definitely a panster! I’ve tried plotting but it just doesn’t work for me. Once I have the character(s) in mind and a bit of the story-line, I start writing. In general I only have the characters, a setting, and the vaguest notion of plot when I start writing.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Stephanie: Well, I have six kids so finding the time to write while managing all of them is definitely the hardest thing! Other than that, the first draft always makes me want to pull my hair out. I’m always relieved when that first draft is finished, because that’s when I can really start to see the shape of the book.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Stephanie: So many things. I’m inspired by great stories, genre doesn’t matter. If I fall in love with the characters, I’ll keep reading. Music inspires me. Often I’ll hear a song and it will trigger a story idea. I especially love American folk music. Patty Griffin is a particular favorite of mine right now. I also derive a great deal of inspiration from the land around me. I come from a long line of Kentucky farmers, and although as a society, we’ve become somewhat removed from the land, I always feel better with my hands in the dirt. But most of all, I’m driven to write because I’m a mother. I found my voice, and the issues that matter most to me after I had children. Several of my children have special needs. Through them, I’ve learned that although some of us might seem “different”, we’re more alike than we realize.
TQ: Describe The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin in 140 characters or less.
Stephanie: Estranged sisters reunite to care for a girl with both severe special needs and the ability to heal people.
TQ: Tell us something about The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin that is not found in the book description.
Stephanie: The book is as much a love song to the land of Kentucky as it is about the love of family.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin? What appeals to you about writing a contemporary novel "...with a touch of the magical..."?
Stephanie: The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin was inspired by two events in my life. The first was the birth of my son. My husband and I endured several years of infertility when I finally got pregnant without medical intervention. We were overjoyed, but our happiness was short-lived. I went into preterm labor, and our son was delivered 10 weeks early.
He was little but fine. I, however, wasn’t so lucky. I had developed peritonitis, a life-threatening abdominal infection. I was on life-support and spent six weeks in the hospital. I was later diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. After I recovered, I started wondering what it would be like if my story hadn’t had a happy ending. What if instead of a manageable illness like Crohn’s, I was diagnosed with something fatal? What would it be like for a child to grow up knowing her birth had (indirectly) caused her mother’s death?
The story didn’t fully form though until a few years later. My husband and I decided we wanted more children, but given my history, pregnancy wasn’t an option for us. We decided to adopt from China. We were matched with a little girl who had a small heart condition that had been surgically corrected. We flew to China in December of 2005 and met our daughter, Grace.
When we got there, we realized that something was very wrong with Grace. Her needs were much more severe than had been stated. We were faced with the decision to either leave her in China where she would likely be labeled as unadoptable and left to die, or bring her home and face the unknown.
We brought her home. I secretly hoped that we would be that family you hear about where love magically makes everything better. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Grace was diagnosed with tuberculosis, fitted with ankle braces, started having seizures, and was diagnosed with severe developmental delays and autism.
It took a long time for me to adjust, and honestly I spent most of that first year with Grace in tears, overwhelmed by all of her needs. But gradually, life improved, and I started thinking about my story idea again. But this time I wondered, What if the child losing her mother was a child like Grace? How would a child with severe special needs cope with a sick mother? With that thought, the character of Antoinette was born, and the rest of the story fell into place.
Antoinette’s magical ability to heal didn’t come into play until later. One of the things that people with special needs face is a lack of control. My daughter Grace can’t control her own body. She can’t speak. She can’t use a fork or a spoon to feed herself. She’s twelve and still in diapers. Often, this lack of control over her life frustrates her.
Antoinette has similar challenges when it comes to controlling her body and speaking. I wanted to give her something that she had control over in her life. That’s where the healing ability came into play. Antoinette can’t say the words, “I love you, Mommy,” but she can express that love by attempting to heal her mother.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin?
Stephanie: I was already a gardener when I started writing the book, but I wanted a deeper understanding of flower growing so I enrolled in a Master Gardener certification course through my county extension center. In addition, the character of Lily is fascinated by the Victorian language of flowers so I spent a lot of time researching meanings for various flowers. I also talked to several people dealing with physical and/or mental difficulties in order to accurately portray the characters of Antoinette and Lily.
TQ: In The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Stephanie: Antoinette was definitely the easiest. This might seems strange given her limitations, but she is modeled after my daughter, Grace, who is severely disabled. While writing Antoinette, I pictured my daughter, Grace, which made it easy for me to get into Antoinette’s mind.
Lily was probably the hardest character to write. She’s very analytical and has a strong aptitude for numbers—the exact opposite of me! In addition, when writing Lily, I had to tap into the pieces of my life that I wasn’t particularly proud of; for example, the fear and anxiety I felt when we discovered that our daughter Grace was disabled. To do Lily’s character justice, I had to wade into my darker emotions and that was uncomfortable at times.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin?
Stephanie: I never consciously choose to include or exclude any issue when I’m writing. The characters dictate what shows up in the story. In this case, Antoinette is severely disabled, so the way she interacted with society and conversely, the way society interacted with her were issues that made their way into the story. In addition, the book is very much about what it feels like to be “different” which is something that I think a lot of people have felt. You don’t have to be disabled to be excluded, and I wanted very much to explore the pain caused by not fitting in.
TQ: Which question about The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Question: Are you Team Will or Team Seth?
Answer: I could never pick just one. I love them both!
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin.
“You’re the only one who sees me. Not my messed-up family. Just me. Do you know what a gift that is? To be able to be myself around someone?”
“Everyone’s life is hard in some way. Yours just happens to be easier to see than most.”
TQ: What's next?
Stephanie: Right now I’m finishing up my second novel and starting to work on the third.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Stephanie: Thank you for having me!
The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin
Algonquin Books, August 2, 2016
Hardcover and eBook, 336 pages
In the spirit of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers--and with a touch of the magical--The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin is a spellbinding debut about a wondrously gifted child and the family that she helps to heal.
Sisters Rose and Lily Martin were inseparable when growing up on their family’s Kentucky flower farm yet became distant as adults when Lily found herself unable to deal with the demands of Rose’s unusual daughter. But when Rose becomes ill, Lily is forced to return to the farm and to confront the fears that had driven her away.
Rose’s daughter, ten-year-old Antoinette, has a form of autism that requires constant care and attention. She has never spoken a word, but she has a powerful gift that others would give anything to harness--she can heal with her touch. She brings wilted flowers back to life, makes a neighbor’s tremors disappear, and even changes the course of nature on the flower farm.
Antoinette’s gift, though, comes at a price, since each healing puts her own life in jeopardy. As Rose--the center of her daughter’s life--struggles with her own failing health and Lily confronts her anguished past, the sisters, and the men who love them, come to realize the sacrifices that must be made to keep this very special child safe.
Written with great heart and a deep understanding of what it feels like to be different, The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin is a novel about what it means to be family and about the lengths to which people will go to protect the ones they love.
“This is the kind of book that invites you home, sits you down at the kitchen table, and feeds you something delicious and homemade. You will want to stay in this world where new relationships bloom out of broken ones, sisters find one another again, and miracles really do occur.” —Tiffany Baker
Stephanie was born and raised in Kentucky, where her love of books began at a young age. Her mother fostered that love with weekly trips to the library. Though they struggled financially, Stephanie's mother always made sure she had books. At the same time, Stephanie's father began cultivating her love of the land. He taught her the best time to harvest blueberries and which plants tolerated the thick Kentucky soil.
Stephanie's twin loves of literature and land would shape her life. She went on to major in English at Northern Kentucky University (later earning her Master's degree in English from the same university), and she studied to become a Master Gardener.
The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin is Stephanie's debut novel. The title character, a young non-verbal girl, was inspired by Stephanie's daughter, Grace. Stephanie and her husband adopted Grace from China in 2005 unaware that she had several severe special needs.
Stephanie lives in Kentucky with her husband and six children, five of whom were adopted from China with various special needs. She is currently at work on her second novel.