Heather Tierney is an English teacher and author of The Freedom of a Tangled Vine (Wise Ink Press, 2014), a quietly beautiful novel about family and forgiveness. When I sent her these questions, she was literally days away from giving birth to her third child, but still she took the time to give me some thoughtful answers.
What is your novel about, and who would enjoy reading it?
The Freedom of a Tangled Vine tells the story of a Midwestern family’s journey toward redemption and healing. As this family unearths the secrecy behind an adoption procedure in the 1960s, the characters find themselves caught between two generations’ concepts of truth.
The first narrator is Fawn, a 32-year-old teacher, who finds photographs of a young woman in her mother’s jewelry box and must retrace her mother’s past to discover who this woman is. Complicating her search is the chronic illness of her father and her family’s fierce nostalgia.
Lea, Fawn’s mother, is the second narrator. The reader is able to see Lea as a young woman with a secret and as an adult, attempting to heal a wound she has kept covered for most of her life.
The Freedom of a Tangled Vine is a story for the reader who enjoys literary fiction about family, choice, and community. I hoped to tell the story through what is felt (rather than just said) on the page. I love imagery and symbolism. Like the image of the vine that reemerges in its passages, The Freedom of a Tangled Vine reminds us that we are most free when we allow life’s tangles to embrace us.
There are real-life events that inspired the novel. What made you decide to write fiction instead of a memoir?
There are definitely real-life events that inspired this story. My mother chose adoption after a pregnancy in the 1960s, and she has since reunited with her birth-daughter. I wanted the reader to see a birthmother, such as my mother, in her past and present. And my father has a progressive form of multiple sclerosis, so I also wrote that into the story.
I chose to write fiction instead of a memoir because I wanted to give myself liberty with the characters and plot. When I first started writing, I would wonder, “Is that what this person would really say?” or “Is that how it actually happened?” It was too limiting, and I always felt sensitive about not offending anyone or casting anyone in a negative light. When I decided to write it as fiction, the story took off much more easily from there. The characters became completely separate people from anyone I know in real life.
What did your family think of the novel?
My mother loves it. It makes her teary because the topic of adoption will always evoke that reaction in her. But she’s read it a number of times. Writing the book threw us into conversations we’d never had before. The rest of my family has been encouraging and enthusiastic as well.
Tell about your experience working with your publisher, Wise Ink (based in Minneapolis). What was the process like?
My experience was wonderful. Amy Quale (co-founder of Wise Ink) and I had been in touch for years, but I was never ready to publish. When she contacted me about starting her new publishing company, it felt like the right time to move forward with the manuscript. The story had been sitting on my computer for years.
The first step was to work with an editor, and Amy connected me with Angie. We worked together online almost daily for eight months or so. This was the most exciting part of the process: having someone (who wasn’t a friend or family member) work with me on the text and offer professional feedback from a reader’s standpoint, not just from an emotional angle.
Wise Ink connected me with a graphic designer, an imprinter (who was incredibly patient with me as I made numerous last minute changes), and a printer. The whole process was a great experience.
You are a mother of (soon-to-be!) three and a full-time high school English teacher. When did you decide to write your book, and how did you make the time to do it?
I have no idea. It took seven years. I wrote when I could, and there were months when I felt very inspired to write, and months where I didn’t even look at it. There was more work done during breaks from work, such as in summer, and I would write late at night. If writing feels like a burden, it loses its fun.
Once I began working with Wise Ink, I was more motivated, because we set up timelines to get things accomplished.
In Freedom of a Tangled Vine, Fawn teaches Their Eyes Were Watching God and My Antonia to her English students. Are these books you teach? Why did you decide to include them in the novel?
They are books I enjoy, and I do sometimes teach Their Eyes Were Watching God. I chose to reference Hurston’s book in my novel because Their Eyes Were Watching God, in my opinion, is about accepting the idea that we don’t have the answers for why people we love make the choices they do. This is the very theme of The Freedom of a Tangled Vine, so the reference fit.
Are you working on any writing projects now, or do you have some in mind for the future?
I have just barely started another book, and I plan to work on it this summer. It’s on hold for now.
What is your favorite piece of writing advice?
Definitely a quote from Willa Cather. She said, in regards to writing one of her books, that it felt like “taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding.” She said this when she wrote about places and experiences she knew.
Another piece of advice she gave on writing was to “Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.” These ideas changed the way I wrote. I stopped trying to write about people, emotions or places that were unfamiliar to me. Instead, I wrote about what I know, and that made the writing more authentic and believable. It also made me care about it so much more.