Columns > Published on September 16th, 2021

Leaving a Legacy of Equality and Hope

Top: Rhonda Voigts, Dawn Hogan, Grace Agnew. Bottom: Trish McDonald, Maria Price

I’ve had the unique opportunity to work with five debut authors—Emory Easton, Trish McDonald, Dawn Hogan, Maria Price, and Grace Agnew—who have found their voices while crafting memoirs and novels focused on a range of contemporary issues—climate change, sexual fluidity, adoption, abortion rights, abuse, loss and grief—that emerge from, and shine a light on, the trauma so prevalent in the world as we know it. That these authors have illuminated these themes with such an abundance of grace, love and hope is a credit to their talent and vision. What follows is a conversation about their respective, at times interconnected, journeys, stories and aspirations.  

Please introduce yourself, the title of your book, and the marketing pitch for it.

DAWN HOGAN: I’m Dawn Hogan. I live in Huntsville, Alabama with my husband of 30 years. I’m the mother of four grown children and have two grandchildren. I’m a full-time author and enjoy reading and all things creative. Unbroken Bonds is my debut novel, launching on October 5th, 2021. It’s a tale that looks back on a time when being unmarried and pregnant was the worst thing a young woman could do. In 1956 four teenage girls bond in lifelong friendship when they are incarcerated in the Frances Weston Home for Unwed Mothers in Knoxville, Tennessee. Together they endure a culture of shame dispensed by the Catholic nuns in charge; the ultimate goal is for the girls to surrender their newborns to sealed adoptions to white wealthy families. With their vow of sisterhood the four young women rebuild their lives in the Deep South during the upheaval of the 1960s, while finding their place within a society where the long-held roles of women and single mothers transform in the decades that follow. When tragedy strikes, they must decide whether to keep their past secrets or to find the truth about the children they were forced to give away.

MARIA PRICE: Hello! I’m Maria Price and I am the author of Love You Stilla memoir that chronicles the unexpected loss of my daughter, Julia, who was stillborn at term, and the beginnings of the grief journey that followed. How could I say goodbye to my baby before I could even say a proper hello? Then, how could I go on living in a world where my baby was not? Despite having an incredible support system, those days were the darkest of my life as I grappled with depression, a crisis of faith, and, later, an unplanned pregnancy after loss. Love You Still is an effort to bring awareness to the largely unspoken tragedy of stillbirth, and support for the millions of other families who experience this kind of loss each year. It’s a story of inexplicable heartbreak, unexpected healing, and, through it all, unfailing love.

RHONDA VOIGTS: My name is Rhonda Voigts. I write under the name, Emory Easton. I have four kids and eleven grandchildren. I am very happy in a 36-year relationship. My debut novel, Mother Can You Hear Me Now?, is a memoir about my life with my Narcissistic alcoholic and drug addicted mother and my loving brother. My brother practically raised my siblings and I. My book launched on Sept. 7th, 2021.

GRACE AGNEW: My name is Grace Agnew, and the title of my debut novel is Sanctuary.  I am a librarian at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a data management specialist. I first became aware of climate change in the mid-1990s when I began to work with the best scientists in the country to develop large networks of data about the health of our planet—everything from air and water to animals and earthquakes. So I learned, long before Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth, that as we went about our daily lives, convinced we were on the solid ground of families and careers, we were really teetering over a raging hell mouth—global warming, or as we now call it, climate change. I learned about deep changes to the planet from fossil fuel burning and factory farming that wouldn’t magically go away or get better. In fact, without massive lifestyle changes, the world would come to a literal boil before the turn of the century. I (and they) would not live to see the worst effects, but the next generations—our children and grandchildren—would confront it head on, if they even survived.

I couldn’t accept this. Being the librarian that I am, I turned to books for help. I read a lot of good, scary nonfiction books on climate change. But I couldn’t find what I needed—a story to make sense of what might happen and to show us a way out. The apocalyptic fiction books I found were just that—cynical, world weary, in a word: apocalyptic. I needed hope.  And I needed protagonists who were like me, not plucky and beautiful teenagers or super heroes, but the scared, middle aged woman I saw in the mirror each morning. Sanctuary is the story of a woman and her son living in a protected bubble, a city that has solved the problem of climate change by shutting it out. Unfortunately, we can never build strongly or securely enough to hold nature permanently at bay.  Miranda and Alex confront a climate changed world that seems beyond repair, but the planet has powerful tools we can work with for healing itself and sustaining life. Sanctuary asks and answers the hard question: can we love our planet enough to make the sacrifices needed to save it?  I wrote this book for me, because I needed to know. But also for you, because you have the same question, and, like me, you really need an answer.

TRISH MCDONALD: Hi, my name is Trish McDonald.  My novel is Paper Bags. When Kat McNeil leaves her husband of thirty-four years and escapes to a camper in the Florida Keys, she falls for a ramblin’ man, Sal, who’s elusive and secretive. Obsessed and curious, Kat stalks Sal and discovers his stunning secret. “There’s something I never told you about me,” Sal finally admits, and Kat runs away from what she believes is perversion. Torn between her love for Sal and her parochial upbringing, Kat is a woman who has always done the right thing—she stayed married, was a perfect wife, followed all the rules. Now, driven by desire and curiosity, Kat embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Paper Bags is Kat’s exploration of gender, sexuality, and cultural expectations. 

Whether writing literary fiction, science fiction or memoir, you all write about trauma. You also write about experiences that can impact men, women, the nonbinary or gender fluid. Yet your work feels uniquely female to me. Do you agree, and either way, how important was it for you to share these stories?

MARIA: As the reader delves into the physical and psychological traumas of an unexpected stillbirth and its aftermath, it becomes clear that Love You Still is unmistakably written from a woman’s perspective. The death of our daughter clearly impacted me, as her mother, but Julia’s loss and the events that unfolded before and after also had significant impacts on her father, grandparents, brother, our family, friends, the professionals who served us, and even strangers. Their stories, reactions, and perspectives are woven into the story as well. Stillbirth is not solely a women’s issue—it’s much more than that. Death is universal, and we grieve deeply when we have loved deeply. I think this is part of the reason why our story is so important to tell. For many years, women have been made to feel as if they are to blame for miscarriages and stillbirths and that they need to carry shame in secret. Bereaved families have not been given the grace to grieve or even discuss the heartbreak that they have felt. My purposes in sharing our story are to honor Julia, to say her name, and also to give grace to others to know that they are not alone or at fault. We grieve because we loved our children well, and that we continue to love them still. 

GRACE: I think there has been the assumption—and all assumptions are rooted in some sort of experience—that women relate most to the emotions of a trauma while men relate more to the facts. This is a very broad generalization, but in the traumas I have experienced—losing loved ones, many natural disasters (the inevitable result of growing up in Louisiana), the disappointment of a marriage breaking up or the loss of a job—the men I know seemed more interested in analyzing the why of it, while the women felt free to be swept away by emotions. When my beloved grandmother, the matriarch of the family, died in a fire, my uncles were gathered in the living room discussing what she could have done to save herself, while my mother and aunts put together a potluck lunch, shared memories, and cried. I was only six, but it was clear to me that the women would move on more easily for grieving openly, while the men were stuffing something away—perhaps the guilt that my grandmother had died burning trash, a chore the uncles who lived nearby should have handled—that they would have to unpack someday. 

While I believe there are different ways of handling trauma, and some ways come easier to women and other ways perhaps easier to men, there is one trauma that blasts away any learned or expected ways of handling it, and that is a threat to your child. I think any parent feels everything—anger, fear, sorrow, panic, steely resolve, the whole repertoire in fact—when their child is threatened. And while climate change threatens us all, the greatest threats fall, unfairly, on the next two generations—our children and grandchildren. While the primary characters are a mother and son, the parent-child relationship is the central, animating relationship for most characters in the story, the good and the not so good. It is the one relationship that doesn’t care about your defenses or learned behaviors and it is why the stakes for climate change are so high for all of us.

We all care a lot that we have already lost upwards of a billion birds to climate change, that polar bears and elephants are on a sad, inexorable march toward extinction, but only the idea that our descendants may follow them is unbearable. Florida reopened Disney World and its tiki bars with hardly a murmur in the height of the COVID pandemic. Business is business, and adults know the risks. But when the governor issued the no mask mandate for schools, we saw the first serious opposition, by parents on both sides of the political spectrum, to protect their children. So while I might agree in many cases that driving straight to the emotional core of an existential trauma like climate change is possibly a feminine approach, I would also state it depends on the nature of the threat. In any species, a threat to the child is paramount, and neither sex hesitates to throw their own life into the balance to save their child.  Threaten a lion cub, and you won’t have time to wonder if the animal attacking you in return has a mane. And you will realize, as you are dying, that it didn’t matter.

RHONDA: My work is uniquely female because it is my memoir and I am a woman who had a lot of abuse in my past. It was a cathartic experience telling my story. It speaks to all genders in a way that can help them understand abuse, neglect, shame, pain and guilt in their own lives.

TRISH: Kat McNeil, after a brutal beating by her father, makes a fateful decision at twelve years old to be perfect. She would smile, get the boys, make people love her. This resolve will go on to define her life. “I lost my voice that day, under the blue satin quilt,” she says. Fifty years later, lying on a blanket she wove with her stitches of perfection, an intervention occurs where she is surrounded by love. As Kat begins to relax, a healer places her hands on Kat’s head and neck, gently massaging her shoulders. From this loving touch, something inside her breaks. As Kat struggles to breathe, she feels vines choking her throat. It’s through this body pain Kat begins to understand her reticence to speak up, to stand up for herself, to talk back. Her trauma from childhood has been lodged in her throat. Paper Bags is an important story for the 67% percent of American adults who have adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs (Kaiser Permanente/CDC Survey.) Research suggests that not only does the trauma pain reside in the body, it literally becomes biological. Trauma, if not healed, can result in disease and even early death. My decision to use fiction to tell this tale of trauma is a belief in the power of story to create change. I hope readers will ask themselves some of the curious questions I pose, and will explore their own early life experiences with a sense of wonder.

DAWN: Unbroken Bonds is definitely uniquely female. It has to be. It is about young women who are faced with the consequences of unplanned pregnancy in an era when they had very little control over their own reproductive health. During my research about the Baby Scoop Era and the secretive homes for unwed mothers, I felt very strongly that this was a story that needed to be told. It seems even more vital today, when we just had the Supreme Court uphold a Texas law that punishes women who choose to have an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, at approximately six weeks. Many women don’t even know they are pregnant this early. In recent years there have been unrelenting attacks on Planned Parenthood. But what these seemingly good intentioned pro-life people ignore is that Planned Parenthood is much more than an abortion clinic. They provide health care, birth control, counseling, cancer screening and many other services, especially to underserved communities. If we do not know the history of women’s reproductive rights and allow the advances of the last 50 years to be abolished, we will find ourselves back in a time when birth control is only accessible to those who can financially afford it. Abortions will continue to be performed, unfortunately, we will be back to the days when they are dangerous illegal back ally butcherings that are life threating. We will see a dramatic rise in teen pregnancy and unwanted babies that will swamp an already broken foster care system.

In her last answer, Trish refers to how her protagonist “...lost my voice that day." As debut authors however, you've all found your voice. Please talk about the experience of being a debut author, finding your voice and having your books come out in the world.

MARIA: I’ve often said that Love You Still is the book that no parent would ever want to write. I never expected, after a perfectly healthy pregnancy, the day after a glowing report from our medical team and two days prior to a scheduled labor induction, to be staring at an ultrasound screen that was heartbreakingly still. Those moments and the ones that followed were impossibly dark and difficult. I didn’t know if I would survive them, or if I even wanted to do so. I started writing as a way to process, to communicate my thoughts and feelings to Julia, though I knew she would never read them. Strangely, although I’d consider myself a pretty private person, I felt the need to share my writing, to somehow express the pain that would have otherwise destroyed me from the inside. In sharing, I found my voice. I was able to tell about the little girl who was no longer here, yet would forever be a part of me. I felt compelled to share that even the tragedy of losing her had somehow changed me for good. In this process, I heard from so many other families who had wrestled with the same thoughts, feelings, fears, but had felt alone in them. Some had spent years grieving in secret because they had not felt the freedom to address the taboo subject of stillbirth and miscarriage. Others shared that they had no idea what our family, and so many like ours, had suffered. In some cases, people discovered that their own family members had suffered losses and were able to have long-overdue conversations about them with a new sense of awareness and empathy. I didn’t start out to write a book. It can feel intimidating to be a debut author, especially when the story is as raw and vulnerable as ours. I am grateful, however, to have a voice, to be Julia’s voice, to declare my love for her and to comfort other hurting families in knowing that they are not alone, that they are not to blame, and that true love can and does endure, even in the midst of tragic loss.

RHONDA: In my life I had known only abuse and neglect. I was abused so much by so many people that my spirit and voice was taken from me. I had no voice. No one listened and no one cared. I spent time in psych wards trying to resolve my feelings and thoughts. When I decided to write this debut memoir, the calm but crazy facade broke open and came screaming out. Writing was a cathartic experience that slowly gave me my voice. I feel a little scared but very excited about my story being able to help someone.

GRACE: One of the protagonists in my story, Sanctuary, finds a way to help the earth heal itself. He tries to analyze his feelings about his momentous discovery and realizes his principal feeling is—relief. His life will have meaning, after all. There is something he can do. Like a lot of you, despite the daily pleasures of a privileged life, I have felt like a coiled spring of anxiety, waiting for the cataclysm to come tumbling down. Climate change has reached the point that it threatens all of us, and what we hope to accomplish in life, regardless of whether you call it climate change, or God's will, or simply nature being nature. There is no question that storms are getting more deadly, forest fires more uncontrollable, summers are hotter, new viruses are emerging, all the things we were warned would come toward the end of the century but that are coming much sooner than expected. To survive the mental and physical consequences of a damaged planet lashing back at us, I needed to face my fears, because the monster we invent is always worse than the monster we confront. Think of all the books and movies about pandemics. COVID has been as severe as the pandemics described in any of them, but we haven't become a crazed, feral society. There are tragedies of a massive scale in many parts of the globe, but civilization as we know it has survived. We can face our fears about climate change, and we can work with the earth to make it better. It will never be what it was before man "conquered" it, but we can survive, and even thrive, with who we are and what we are. My voice is one of hope, as well as relief. I hope my book will make people fear a bit less, think a bit more about their footprint in the world, and come together as one voice to demand changes in how we live and work on our beautiful planet. 

DAWN: The first time a total stranger called Unbroken Bonds “literature” was empowering for me. The book was years in the making and after numerous rejections I stored it on my hard drive and moved on to other stories. In 2019, I pulled it out again and found a renewed passion to see it published. Much like the young women in the story, with age and experience comes confidence. I knew what I’d written, although not always pretty, was honest. To me, the characters must ring true, or readers will reject them as fake, one dimensional and unbelievable. When it has come to marketing Unbroken Bonds I have not put limits on opportunities. My attitude has been I have nothing to lose. If I approach someone to promote the book and they say no, I haven’t lost something I already had. I’m finding, more often than not, that the answer is yes. With each new gained opportunity, I am emboldened to go after the next promotional idea. I will admit there have been times that this experience has felt like a rollercoaster ride with plenty of highs and lows. But as I’ve gotten closer to the launch date the highs are outnumbering the lows. 

TRISH: When Paper Bags is published, I’ll be 77. Clearly, I’m focused on leaving a legacy of equality and hope for my grandchildren. When I started writing my novel, I wasn’t sure I had the courage that would be needed to tell a story of gender, sexuality, and cultural expectations. At the time, I believed that boldness and determination skipped me and went straight from my mom to my daughter. I can say today that is not the case. Passion, focus, and purpose have given me a new and stronger voice. Each morning as I begin to write, I repeat this mantra: “I am bold. I am fearless. I am determined. I am courageous.” I say these words to myself because I live in a conservative area surrounded by older people who do not think like I do. They’re going to be shocked their neighbor would write about LGBTQ issues. I need to be emboldened—fearless. Most of all I love that this time in my life when I could be watching TV all day, I’m going to be out selling books and maybe even helping to change people’s minds.

With your books coming out now, what are your hopes and dreams about what happens next and how do you plan to make those hopes and dreams happen?

 MARIA: As we approach the release of Love You Still, my hope is that people will read it and find comfort and a new level of awareness within the heartbreak of our story. Even this week, I have been approached about three different families experiencing their own recent losses due to miscarriage and stillbirth. Another told the story of a baby lost decades ago and loved ever since. Though their circumstances are all different, they all report the same feelings: devastation, fear, loneliness and crushing loss. While the book’s words cannot erase the devastation, I hope that families like these will be able to find solidarity, feel a little less alone and a little less fearful as they read our story and discover connections to their own. I hope that the ones who love them will also read the book and discern which words hurt and which actions can help to bring some level of comfort. I hope that people of faith will read our story and learn a bit more about grace and love and how to live that out with a hurting friend. I hope that others who experience a crisis of faith, like I did, will find reconciliation with a Father, who is close to the brokenhearted and desperately loves them still. I hope that Love You Still will spark a new sense of awareness and empathy for those suffering from one in four pregnancies that end in loss, and that in so doing, we can begin to further break down the stigma surrounding miscarriage and stillbirth. My dream is that Julia will be remembered well, and that the story of her life—and death—would bring awareness, empathy and comfort to hurting families like ours. I hope to accomplish this dream with the release of this book and online social media support for individuals and families. I hope that we can provide a sense of community and connection for fellow grievers and those who love them. No one should have to endure this kind of pain alone.

TRISH: Paper Bags, a romance novel, uses the power of story as a conduit to open a conversation about gender and sexuality. As Kat McNeil, the protagonist, agonizes over decisions and judgments, a modern morality play ensues; she must reconcile something she doesn’t understand against the expectations of her upbringing. It’s here where her curious nature is most forceful, as it drives Kat to begin to look at her own childhood trauma and the ensuing perfectionism that has defined her entire life. My dream is to see my novel open up a dialogue about gender with the focus on curiosity and wonder, not judgment. To that end, I will host book clubs to discuss the book over Zoom, participate in podcasts, speak publicly, and continue to write and advocate for gender equality.  A Discussion Guide is available on my website  

RHONDA: As my book launch was Sept 7th, I think you’ve helped me achieve my goals. Hopes? I hope to help people. My book is relatable to many people. I have several issues in the book that might help people understand how to help themselves and realize they aren't alone in their struggles. My dream is to sell a lot of books and to continue working on my second book.

GRACE: My greatest hope is that the book reaches a lot of people and is a catalyst for change for ordinary people like me, who are facing the consequences of climate change daily but feel helpless. When I learn that heads of government have met and once again failed to set meaningful carbon emission standards or that climate change provisions have been stripped from an infrastructure bill as “too political,” I feel helpless rage that I can see so clearly the consequences of climate change, but the powerful feel so insulated, so beholden to commercial interests with deep pockets, that they can ignore the terrible reality the rest of us are facing. But I have learned that there are steps all of us can take—in our daily lives and by coming together to speak with one voice--that can slow climate change and force the most indifferent politician to take action to reduce damage to the planet.  I want my book to catalyze these steps. I believe it can do this best by expanding into other genres, in particular, as a streaming series. Miranda and Alex are powerful characters because they are not special; they are just like us. Anyone reading the book will identify with either the parent or the child, or both. My goal was to make climate change real because you see yourself in the midst of it—not divorced from it because it takes place on another planet or the protagonist is beautiful and tormented, but because the characters have lives just like yours—until they are not.  A streaming series would enable one of the strong women actors of our time to explore climate change as it affects her and her children and would encourage anyone watching to take the steps we need to take to ensure that we all have futures. I am actively working to market my book to the wonderful and talented 40 something women actors who are coming into their own in Hollywood through the professional choices they make and the growing power they wield. 

DAWN: The New York Times Best Seller list would be nice. Really, I hope that readers love my characters. When they finish the last page my wish is those four girls and their experiences will stay with them like old friends. I want people to say, “I just read a book I couldn’t put down, Unbroken bonds! You have to read it.” To accomplish this, I’ll market the book to every book club possible. I’ll do every podcast and interview I can reach. My full-time job is getting this book into the readers’ hands. That means personal appearances, Zoom meeting and book festivals. At this point, I give total strangers by business card and tell them about my book, just ask the lady at the DMV who asked me my occupation yesterday! The way to ensure success for Unbroken Bonds is to create a buzz and I will look into every opportunity to do just that. What’s next? I plan to publish many more novels. I truly love researching and writing fiction.

Thank you for your time, and in conclusion, what haven't I asked you and/or what do you want to ensure the world knows about you and your book?

 MARIA: Thank you so much for this opportunity! I think it is important for people to know that while our story is raw, vulnerable, and heartbreaking, we are not alone in our suffering. When we lost Julia, I felt desperately alone, and had no idea that 1 in 4 pregnancies in the United States ends in loss. Love You Still is the book that I needed to know that the same thoughts, emotions, and fears I had were deeply felt by so many other families. In the years since, I have had the privilege to hear the stories of so many parents who have lost children at a variety of ages, and though our circumstances differ, our heartache is much the same. Love You Still is for them, too. As the reader explores our experience, I hope that it will open up opportunities for dialogue and courageous telling of other people’s stories. I hope that we can raise an awareness that these stories need to be told and their tellers need to be supported. I am eternally grateful to all the supporters who encouraged me to tell our story of a little girl tragically lost, but forever loved.

TRISH: Paper Bags is a novel written from the point of view of a woman in love with a man who secretly dresses as a woman. Her world shatters when she finds out her male lover not only has the heart of a woman but the soul also. “What am I,” Kat wonders, “if I love a man who identifies as a woman?” Paper Bags is Kat McNeil’s journey of self-discovery, acceptance, and sexual awakening.

RHONDA: I want to continue with you so you can assist me with marketing. I want to assure the world that I have a good book that is timely and deals with todays issues. A little money on the side would be helpful. LOL.

GRACE: Sadly, I would say is that we have reached such a tipping point with climate change that my book is probably mislabeled as speculative fiction. It is barely speculative and perhaps not even fiction. I don’t know whether it can be labelled as “dystopian” or just as “a decade from now, at most.” One of my best friends messaged me that she received her copy yesterday but was buying another. When I asked why, she said that her suburban town had a hard rain—five inches in two hours—and the creek her condo sits above flooded its banks, inundating her living room with eighteen inches of muddy water. My book was now floating somewhere in the debris. Sanctuary has sadly become so timely that if you want to read it in the comfort of your home, you should probably store it on your highest bookshelf.  

DAWN: Thank you for granting me a platform for talking about Unbroken Bonds. This has been fun. I guess I want people to know that I wrote this book from a place of compassion for the young women who lived the trauma of the Baby Scoop Era. Their stories inspired me to write a fictional account of what actually took place in the secretive homes for unwed mothers; hoping a fictional story would reach a wide audience. It would be great if my readers pressure the states which still keep those adoption records sealed to release them to their rightful owners. I want young women, who have no idea, that this is a part of history in the United States to be enlightened to just how far women have come in regards to their rights and access for reproductive health. I hope that it influences them to stand up and protect those rights, which are facing abolishment this very year in the Supreme Court. For well over a hundred years brave women have risked so much to establish the rights of womenkind. My fervent wish is that the young women who read this book continue to fight for equality and demand that we, as a nation, do not move backwards.

About the author

Ben Tanzer is an Emmy-award winning coach, creative strategist, podcaster, writer, teacher and social worker who has been helping nonprofits, publishers, authors, small business and career changers tell their stories for 20 plus years. He is the author of the soon to be re-released short story collection Upstate and several award-winning books, including the science fiction novel Orphans and the essay collections Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again and Be Cool - a memoir (sort of). He is also a lover of all things book, taco, Gin and street art.

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