Author Q&A: Emily Urquhart
Emily Urquhart is the author of Beyond the Pale.
What inspired you to write Beyond the Pale?
In the beginning I wrote to process what was happening in my life. I was a first time parent and my newborn was showing signs of albinism, a genetic condition I knew nothing about. People with albinism have little to no pigment in their hair, eyes and skin and have low vision. Now I know this is not a tragedy, but in the beginning it frightened me. Researching and writing about this helped to distance me from the situation. When I took notes in a doctor’s office I recorded medical information about my child, but also the color of the walls, and what the physician happened to be wearing that day. In those moments I was able to be a journalist, not a scared parent. Similarly, as I researched cultural stories about albinism, I was an academic, drawing on my background as a folklorist to analyze these tales—which were both positive and negative—for meaning. When I started to weave all of these elements into a cohesive narrative it felt natural. It felt like I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. My passion for writing is what knits all of my other identities—mother, academic, journalist—together.
What was the hardest part of writing the book?
Like any concerned parent would, I Googled ‘albinism’ when it was suggested that my daughter might have this condition. Along with medical information, horrifying news stories from Tanzania popped up detailing gruesome attacks against people, and often children, who have albinism. Witchdoctors are using the bodies of people with albinism in potions that purportedly bring good luck in life, love and business. This has created a gruesome black market trade where poachers attack and murder people with albinism to sell their limbs to these practitioners. At first I couldn’t read these stories. Particularly because my child shares the same condition as the people being targeted. I couldn’t shake the idea that if she’d been born there rather than in North America, I would be afraid for her life.
I visited Tanzania to learn more about this and met with people who were directly affected, including two little boys who survived attacks but lost limbs in the process and children who’d been abandoned by their families. As a parent, and as a human being, this is the most disturbing and deeply sad atrocity I’ve ever witnessed. The research was difficult and so was writing about these horrifying crimes.
What was the greatest challenge bringing the book to market?
Beyond the Pale is a mix of reporting, memoir, folklore and genealogy, and the cast of characters extends far beyond our story at the heart of the book, so it was a bit tricky to classify the genre. I had to work hard to distill the book idea into the pitch that my agent sent to publishers. Ultimately this unusual mix came to be the book’s strength.
What do you wish the reader to take away after reading Beyond the Pale?
The story that grew into the book was first published in the Walrus magazine (http://thewalrus.ca/the-meaning-of-white/), and then excerpted internationally in Reader’s Digest (http://www.readersdigest.ca/health/fairest-them-all-childs-rare-diagnosis/) and republished in full in the Italian news magazine Internazionale (http://www.albinismo.eu/en/articolo.asp?id=34). I imagined other people with albinism or parents of children with some form of genetic twist would relate to my story. However, each time the story was published I received messages from across the globe. There was no connecting thread between these people, they related to the story on a human level. We are all different in some way, and we all tell stories to explain our worlds. My wish is that the book reaches people in the same way.
Of course I also hope that the book helps to educate people about albinism, show the challenges that people with this condition face, but also the successes, and even the mundane regularity of living with this genetic condition. People with albinism are no different than anyone else. I think this education can have a positive impact on my daughter’s future. Perhaps a selfish wish, but we all want the best for our children.
What books have had the greatest influence on you?
When I was a young teenager I began reading Alice Munro’s work. I read The Lives of Girls and Women under my desk during grade eleven math class. I failed that class, but what I gained from reading Munro’s work has had a far deeper impact on my life.
While working on Beyond the Pale I read a lot of non-fiction works. I learned about fearless reporting from Susan Orlean (The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup), voice from Joan Didion (The White Album), empathy from Andrew Solomon (Far from the Tree), and writing about motherhood from Rachel Cusk (A Life’s Work) and Ann Enright (Making Babies).
How do you balance motherhood and writing?
I’ve had to embrace opportunistic writing. Right now I’m answering this question in the waiting room at my dentist’s office. No joke! I carry recipe cards in my purse and stash them around my house so that I can jot down a sentence or idea or even a string of words that comes to me while I’m with my kids. I’ve written in a parked car with a sleeping baby in the back seat (sometimes I can finagle a good view, other times it’s a brick wall or a parking lot). My background is in journalism so I’ve been trained to write fast, and under whatever conditions are available.
All that said, when I am working on a deeper level, forming a narrative or shaping a chapter or interviewing a source, I need longer, quieter hours. During this time I cannot be with my children. Parenting is full-time. Trying to file an assignment or write a chapter while placating a baby or a toddler is miserable for everyone. I think childcare is essential. I’ll elaborate on this in the next answer.
What is your advice to mother writers?
Childcare is imperative to writing. My daughter grew alongside Beyond the Pale, both informing and inspiring the story as I wrote. But we sometimes had to be apart for me to complete this work. Some of the research couldn’t involve her, and unless she was asleep I couldn’t write, read, or conduct interviews. To accomplish these tasks, I had childcare—a roster of trusted hardworking women to whom I’m hugely grateful. Their names are Lesley, Melissa, Serene, Emma, Sarah, Danielle, Sasha, Taylor, Katie, and when geographically possible, Grandma, Nana and Aunt Robbie. These women are the silent voices behind my work. They are the reason I was able to sit down and write. Not lists, or sentences, or a few paragraphs, but an entire book.
Read an excerpt