Home is where the heart is
28 June 2019
Camron Wright was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a master’s degree in Writing and Public Relations from Westminster College. He has owned several successful retail stores in addition to working with his wife in the fashion industry, designing for the McCall Pattern Company in New York.
Camron began writing to get out of attending MBA school at the time, and it proved the better decision. His first book, Letters for Emily, was a Readers Choice Award winner, as well as a selection of the Doubleday Book Club and the Literary Guild. Letters for Emily has been published in North America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Korea, the Netherlands, and China.
His next book, The Rent Collector, won Best Novel of the Year from the Whitney Awards and was a nominee for the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award. The Orphan Keeper won 2016 Book of the Year, Gold accolades in Multicultural Fiction from Foreword Reviews, and was winner of Best General Fiction from the Whitney Awards.
In this interview with Swetha Amit, he talks about his book The Orphan Keeper, his visit to India and the concept of home.
The Orphan Keeper is based on a true incident. How, and when, did you initially come across this story?
I was introduced to Taj through a neighbor of mine who was a screenplay writer. He had met Taj many years ago and was possibly looking to write a screenplay on Taj’s story. However, Taj at that time wasn’t ready to tell his story and turned down my friend. When my friend and I met up one day and started chatting, we started talking about stories as how two writers end up doing. At one point, he narrated Taj’s story to me. It was about how he was kidnapped as a boy and sold to an orphanage. I was mesmerized and was keen to meet Taj. When arrangements were made, Taj was reluctant initially. I gave him a copy of my earlier book The Rent Collector. He loved the book and was convinced that I could tell his story.
What prompted you to write the book, since Taj was reluctant? How did he respond to it?
It was a story that needed to be told. I usually am very involved with the marketing of my books. So, once I was done with the last leg of The Rent Collector, I had my ears open for another story. When I heard Taj’s story, I felt that this was the story that I wanted to write. It took two-three months to convince Taj but when he realized that it was a story that could help others, he started to change his mind. He wondered how his story could help anybody. I told him that people were bound to resonate with it even if they haven’t been kidnapped as everybody goes through certain hardships. When he finally agreed, it was just a matter of doing interviews. While 95 p-er cent of it is a true story, I have called it a novel as there were certain things that Taj couldn’t remember and I had to fill those gaps.
Since your book is on a story set largely in India, how did you go about the entire process of gathering material ? Did you visit the subcontinent and speak to the people involved?
The first thing that I started to do was read books on India and Hinduism. I watched Indian movies and spent a lot of time researching on the internet. I was halfway through writing the book when Taj called up and said that I definitely have to go to India. I went there with Taj and actually walked through the places in his story. I visited the old orphanage, the spot where he was kidnapped and the restaurant where he would go through the garbage. I met his mother and visited the villages.
It’s one thing to write about walking through the Erode bus station but another thing to visit the place in person. It gave me a new depth of understanding of what the place was like. I had another chance to visit again as a TV station wanted to do a little documentary on his story. We walked through his story and they were able to record the entire thing. It was an amazing experience.
Could you tell us more about the books that you read and the movies that you watched?
I was reading books on Hinduism to try and grasp the essence of the culture. I was reading history books on India and a couple of novels. I just Googled books on India and picked up two-three categories. I would watch documentaries on India — anything that I could find that would give me a little bit of grasp of what was it like. Having said that, nothing could beat the experience of visiting India in person and walking through those places.
An instance in your book mentions how the protagonist Chellamuthu is trying to address the crowd despite being laughed at. This can be quite discouraging. How does one overcome this fear of addressing strangers?
I think we all have different fears in life. For some, its public speaking and for others it’s something else. As I wrote in the book, Taj had this problem of communicating in English. He couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. All he remembers is that it was a terrible thing being unable to communicate. He realized that if he had to fit in, then he had to forget the past and move on by learning English. It was just a moment of the survival instinct kicking in. As a personality, he is very independent and driven. I am not sure if he was born that way or it was a result of being forced into an unexpected situation. I guess the best way to overcome our fears is to just try and face them.
The concept of home raises many questions in the mind of your protagonist. What according to you constitutes a home?
Home is where we feel loved and welcome. For Taj, this is one of his struggles. Though he has a beautiful home with his wife and child and a successful business today, he felt he missed out on that love of the family during his growing up years. His mother had a recording of him in which he talks about having more number of siblings than he actually has. That’s because he counted his cousins as his own and could not distinguish between them.
There was one time when he was sitting in the car next to his mother. He couldn’t have a direct conversation with her as he had forgotten his native language. He had to communicate through a third person. I think that’s what he misses — the closeness with his family. He knows he can’t go back and change the fact that he was kidnapped. He realizes that he got a better life because he was kidnapped. He has been able to do so much for his village which he couldn’t have had he remained where he was. The journey has been hard and I guess that’s his internal conflict that he’s battling with constantly.
Your book also showcases the persistence of the protagonist during his search even when he hit a dead end many a time. What propels an individual to keep going when the odds are against him?
It’s true that Taj hit a dead end many a time. In his place, I’d have probably given up when I heard that the orphanage was closed. However, he wasn’t willing to give up. He felt that there was something more and kept persisting. He possessed a sort of drive and went by his instincts. It’s probably this quality that made him taste success as he was very determined. I realize that in life, we can’t complain that miracles never happen to us. We have to get out there, work and struggle. Only then will such miracles happen. In Taj’s case, he wasn’t willing to accept failure. He continued to pursue in an unrelenting manner which is why he could experience a miracle. I found that personally very inspiring.
There is one particular line in your book uttered by one of the characters: “what if your father sold you?” I think there is a subtle reference to the possibility of Taj’s father selling him to the orphanage as he couldn’t afford him. What is your take on this? Have you come across any such case?
There is evidence that points to the fact that Taj’s father was involved. But there is also enough evidence that counters that. So, in Taj’s case we really don’t know. In fact, he was able to reconnect with a few kids who were a part of that orphanage. One man who was there for three years before Taj came in, said that he remembers his family selling him to the orphanage as they couldn’t afford to keep him. So that’s one case we know with surety that it was a case of parent’s involvement. It’s a really sad plight that such cases exist.
During your visit to India, how did you view the culture of the place that is quite different from your own country?
A lot of things were quite intriguing for me especially understanding the caste system. In Taj’s case, his wife Priya’s parents didn’t want them to date as they were worried that Taj may be from a lower caste. The irony was that when they did find Taj’s family it turned out that he belonged to a higher caste. It was hard for me to grasp the intricacies of the caste system as it was all new to me. I was also fascinated with the concept of arranged marriage. It’s a culturally different thing and we are not used to here. As a parent who has grown up kids, I now feel that maybe the concept of arranged marriage isn’t a bad idea.
It is mentioned in your book that stories are redemptive. How do you as an author/writer feel about this?
Well I think that there are so many stories about redemption. I get intrigued by how some important lessons are repeated over and over again in classic literature. These are lessons about not giving up hope and people deserving a second chance. These are stories that have been written hundreds of years ago and yet the moral of these stories still seems relevant today. It’s so fascinating about how it’s a big part of life and human experience. As a writer, I cannot write a story without this theme of redemption.
Your book is based in India largely. How was it received by the audience in the West?
It’s been received very well. It’s helpful that Taj grew up in the United States. To me it feels like a bridge between two countries. People here loved to read it as they learnt so much about the culture of India — something that they didn’t really know. Usually folks love to read stories where they can learn something new and where they can take back something.
The Orphan Keeper reminds one of the movie Lion, which released around the same time as your book.
Yes. In fact, it was fascinating as there are a lot of similarities. However, there are some differences as well. In the case of Lion, he was not kidnapped but fell asleep on the train. He was adopted by an Australian couple and grew up in Australia. He uses Google Earth to trace his family home. Taj’s story was a case where there were numerous coincidences that occurred in his life, helping him trace back to his village. Yes, the entire thing about reuniting with his mother was similar.
One thing that struck me while watching Lion, was the trivia that was displayed at the end of the movie. It said that every year 80,000 children go missing. What is surprising is that a dozen stories come out at the same time. It’s just sheer coincidence that Lion and The Orphan Keeper came out at the same time.
Lastly what are your plans? Any more books in the pipeline?
I am just starting a new book. It’s too early to talk about it. I love the writing process and am fascinated with storytelling as it relates so much to the human experience. I hope to write many books and stories. For now, I will just take it one at a time and see how it goes.