When The English American
was published in Spring 2008, I was invited to give one of my very first talks at Powell's, which was the perfect place for me to begin my tour. I felt immediately at home in the wonderful multi-story bookstore that reminded me of Foyles in London, where I used to spend my weekends browsing, long before I ever thought of writing a novel myself.
During that first talk at Powell's, I told the audience of about 40 people that, like Pippa, the heroine of my novel, I was born in the U.S., adopted at birth into a happy English family, and raised in England. Then, when I was 28, I found my birth mother in America, moved to New York, and became a stand-up comic.
"You went from being a serious actress and playwright to doing stand-up in NY? How did that happen?" came the first question.
Soon after I met my birth mother, in the throes of "I've just found out I'm really an American" euphoria, I found myself in a comedy club in NY.
"Hallo," I said, in my very British accent, "my name is Alison Larkin and I come from Bald Mountain, Tennessee."
People laughed, so I carried on: "I think everyone should be adopted. That way you can meet your birth parents when you're old enough to cope with them."
"As far as the side effects are concerned, the key to dealing with a fear of abandonment is to date people you don't like, so if they do leave you, it doesn't matter."
"I've always thought of infidelity as wrong because it means betrayal of the most hurtful kind possible. But if my birth father had not cheated on his wife, I would not exist. So if there are any couples here this evening having a secret extramarital affair — I encourage you to breed."
When people discovered that I was actually telling the truth, they'd ask me, "What was it like meeting your 'real' parents?" To me, my 'real' parents were and always would be the parents who raised me.
So I wrote a one-woman show, to show them why this was true for me. I played a comedic version of myself, my ultra-English adoptive mother, and my American birth mother — her diametrical opposite. The show combined stand-up and theatre and led to CBS and ABC developing sitcoms for me to star in and a run in London.
It was heady, exciting stuff, but I knew I had still only touched the surface of the deeper, funnier story I wanted to tell one day. One which might help people understand, at a gut level, why someone from a happy adoptive family might feel the need to learn the truth about the people she came from. And how that journey might ultimately bring her closer to her adoptive parents — while answering key questions about her identity.
I finally found the right form for it when I figured out how to write a novel.
Even though The English American contains a universal love story that's as much about the hilarities of the Anglo-American culture conflict as anything else, no one who has read my novel has ever suggested that Pippa's adoptive parents are anything other than 'real.'
That first talk at Powell's was followed by my first Q and A. There were the usual questions about how much of the novel is fiction, how much isn't — while the heroine's emotional journey mirrors my own 100 percent, the rest is fiction.
Then a 40-year-old woman in the front row raised her hand and told me she too was adopted. Unlike myself, she was unable to find her birth mother owing to the fact that in all but seven U.S. states, adopted people are routinely denied access to their original birth certificates.
Knowing that 94% of birth mothers actually want contact, I stopped cracking jokes and listened to her story, which turned out to be the first of thousands of similar stories I have heard since.
The paperback of The English American is coming out November 17, and I'm off around the country on another book tour. I'll be entertaining again. And I'll be ready for the more serious questions.
Do I think that any human being should be denied the right to know the truth about their own genetic history? To hear my answer to that question, here's me singing my DNA Song at the end of a keynote speech I gave earlier this year: