One of the best things about social media is that it lets us connect to people we wouldn’t ordinarily meet. One of my favorite new online pen pals is Author Yona Zeldis McDonough, a fellow author at New American Library. Here, Yona spills some surprising secrets as she describes what inspired her to write her newest novel, You Were Meant for Me. Enjoy!
For me, writing a novel usually begins with a character tapping me on the shoulder, urging me to get the story down, and to get it right. In the best of times, I feel more like the conduit than the creator—pretty heady stuff. But the inspiration for my most recent novel, You Were Meant for Me, came to me in a different way: an actual news event in which a man found a newborn infant on a subway platform and eventually ended up adopting him.
I found myself returning to the story again and again. What had driven that baby’s mother to leave him not in a hospital, police or fire station—safe havens, all—but on a subway platform? And what random stroke of luck or divine intervention averted all the horrific ends to this tale—and there could have been so many—and instead turned it into one of salvation and grace?
As I mulled over these questions, it occurred to me that the story was working on another level as well, one that was both mythic and archetypal. The foundling, the infant abandoned and rescued, is a motif that occurs over and over in literature and can trace its roots as far back as the Bible. Wasn’t Moses himself a foundling, set in the ark and concealed in the bulrushes by his mother, whose fear for his life was so great that she was willing to give him up to save him? And wasn’t Moses rescued by the most unlikely of saviors, an Egyptian princess who found and then raised him as her own?
It was the Moses connection the clinched it for me; this story was too good, too juicy, to leave alone: I had to write it. But because I am a novelist and not a journalist, I made several major changes along the way. I turned the man of the real story into Miranda Berenzweig, a single woman who has not thought of having a child but whose biological clock is nonetheless ticking loudly. I changed the baby boy to a girl. And unlike the real story, in which no one came forth to claim the child, I introduced the birth father, a successful black real estate broker who did not know he had a daughter. Once his paternity is established, he steps up to claim her.
This plot turn raised issues about what makes a good or fit parent and once again, brought the novel into Biblical territory, more specifically, that of King Solomon who adjudicated between the two women who came to him with an infant each swore was her own. Each of my characters has a claim to the baby as well but which claim should prevail? That was what I attempted to work out on the page.
Novels can come from surprising sources and lead to equally surprising destinations. I did not know that by reconfiguring a contemporary news story I would find my way to two of the ancient stories that help form the backbone of Western civilization, and that those stories in turn would offer a surprisingly modern lens through which to view the world.