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In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Lana Orndorff, a fellow advocate and local author is donating $1 of each purchase of her second novel, The Narrative of Mary James, throughout the month of October to CAWC!

The Narrative of Mary James is told through the lens of a survivor, Mary James, and takes the reader on a journey to understand one woman’s process for healing and finding love after leaving an abusive marriage.

We were thrilled that earlier this month, Lana sat down to talk with us about the novel as well as to share about her writing process and why she connected with CAWC.

How long have you been writing or when did you start?
As a child I would write things, but I never really got into creative writing until I was in my early 20s. I was an English major in college, but I never felt comfortable enough to take creative writing classes. Right after college, I went to South Korea for a year to teach English and I was living by myself for the first time EVER. That’s when I started what would eventually become my first novel, Missing Colors.

So how did writing, while living in South Korea, lead to a career as a writer?
While continuing to work as an English teacher after my return to the US, I gained more confidence in writing and started to work that into my ESL lessons. I started running a class for writing and worked on the student newspaper and I really enjoyed it.
It wasn’t until I had been writing, off and on for seven years, as a side project, that I realized Missing Colors could be a thing. I realized this could and should be a finished product. Three years after that is when it was published.

So, when was that finally published?
August 25th, 2020. It was peak pandemic, so the release was blip and everything was online. For being online it was wonderful. I did an online book tour, but I never did any in-person events for it. I focused on the online aspect, which did help me grow an amazing community of readers and authors as well as my Instagram and social media. It was wonderful but now I am very much looking forward to doing in-person things to promote The Narrative of Mary James.

What inspired the idea for the Narrative of Mary James?

Mary James, the lead character, is the mother of one of the narrators in Missing Colors. When people started reading Missing Colors a lot of feedback I got was, “we want to know more about Jack and Mary.” In Missing Colors, they are background characters, parents/foster parents of the two male narrators, and based on their backstories, they couldn’t have always been that stable. So, I thought, what did their early marriage look like? How did they get to that point? What brought them there? That’s what inspired it and what happened. I consider the Narrative of Mary James a very loose prequel because I think it could be read as a stand-alone, you don’t have to have read Missing Colors beforehand to enjoy it.
What I wasn’t expecting was people who read The Narrative of Mary James first and then Missing Colors had a different reaction to Jack and Mary because in Missing Colors, Jack’s sexuality is discovered and it’s a thing. It’s surprising, shocking, and confusing and I was worried that surprise was going to be lost for the people who read The Narrative of Mary James first. And it was, but what I didn’t realize was that people were so much more attached to Mary and Jack when they got to read Missing Colors second. They weren’t as surprised, but they had stronger emotional connections to what was happening.

Beyond someone just mentioning that Jack and Mary’s backstory should be told, did you have any personal connect to those characters?
I did. Because Mary mentions that she was married before, and that it was an abusive marriage, and I felt like I was ready to explore that more in my writing. I feel like my writing reflects the things I am exploring at the moment. In Missing Colors, I was exploring and trying to understand men and the way they see the world and the way they see women. Hunter James, one of the narrators, is an angry guy. He’s a misogynist and a bigot despite his parents being wonderful, loving people. I used that character to kind of help me work through some of my experiences with men. With Mary James, I was working through experiences from my own perspective as a woman.

In The Narrative of Mary James were you exploring the connection between Mary having suffered abuse and her child being a perpetrator?
Yes, Hunter expresses more of the emotional manipulation and violence toward women but there is also a bit of physical violence. Also, Hunter struggles with alcoholism.

Given the connection between the two books, were you consciously exploring generation trauma like how alcoholism runs in families?
Not directly, but that was the idea when I went back and tried to figure out who were Jack’s parents and what did his childhood experiences look like. While Jack wasn’t an alcoholic, those things are genetic, they are still in the family. I didn’t directly make that connection but that was part of the thought process.

Which of the characters in the novel do you relate to the most and why?
Definitely, Mary. Her exact experiences are not mine but a lot of the fears that she had and the purposeful way she interacted or didn’t interact with the world, came from me. A lot of people wanted to see the marriage to Christopher, her first husband, but I didn’t want to portray that. I wanted to show how Christopher was in past but also how he was still there. He was the shadows, he was this blanket over everything she did and everything she was doing, even though he wasn’t physically there. It was the threat of him being there that affected her and her actions.
I also really love Gloria, her friend and neighbor. She was just somebody I would love to be like. She is a wonderful friend who isn’t just a traditional side character. She has her own things going on as well.

What part of the book did you have the hardest time writing?
The cutting scenes were tough to write. Cutting, or self-harm, is not something I personally have experienced but it came to me one night while I was writing. I was like, “oh my gosh, Mary is a cutter!” It made sense based on her experiences and what she is trying to get over and the control she is trying to get back over her body and her life. Note: Given the self-harm and contemplation of suicide, I did put a disclaimer and trigger warning in the beginning just in case.

What part of the book was the most satisfying or even joyful to write?
I think the scenes with Billy. He just makes me smile. He is just so bright and unapologetic and kind of like Gloria but in a totally different way. He makes people their best selves.

In the novel, Mary James is making a journal entry and she says something profound that stood out to me: “Just consider yourself lucky that this doesn’t make sense to you. That you don’t understand how dangerous it is telling little girls that they have to put themselves in a man’s presence, even though it makes them uncomfortable. Because it is… The kiss today is harmless. This man is harmless. That’s not the point. Making her kiss him on the cheek today slowly trains her to ignore that gut feeling that’s telling her something is wrong… ‘We’re teaching her to be polite,’ they will think. But no, they are training her to ignore herself. To value someone else’s desires above her own instincts. It makes sense to those who have experienced trauma.”
Can you say more about this, which seems like a universal experience almost?
It’s something that I had experienced, and I was pretty sure that lots of other women had as well. I remember talking to another parent-friend who had a daughter and she mentioned how her daughter didn’t want to hug her grandfather, my friend’s dad, because he had a scratchy beard. She said she didn’t want to teach her daughter to ignore that feeling and push her into doing something she is uncomfortable with… Then one of our male friends asked, ‘well do you not trust your dad? Is there something wrong with him?’ She replied, ‘no, there isn’t.’ But she didn’t want to establish that pattern for her daughter. It was something I was thinking about, and it feels like something that Mary would feel or say.

Tell us about the cover art. What was the process for that?
I knew that I wanted a woman’s face, and I wanted it to be a little obscured. I’ve been using a site for authors who self-publish, and I saw this and I loved it! It gave me the ‘70s vibe that I wanted. The way she is confidently looking out, with her hair in her face, I just thought it was beautiful.

How and/or why did you decide to self-publish?
It was something that I went back and forth with. I did write query letters and talked to some agents for my first book. Nobody was super interested, which is fine because writing is an art, and I don’t have a big name and I couldn’t promise them it was going to sell and make a lot of money. For me, it was more important that Missing Colors be published. I would much rather devote my time to learning how to do that then to write query letters trying to convince agents and publishers that it had value, so I decided to self-publish. Had people said, ‘this is terrible, I don’t want to read this,’ I wouldn’t have been as inspired to write another one. But I got incredible feedback, not just from friends and family, but strangers and readers I have never met. It inspired me to continue to write.
I think there is a stigma against self-publishing, that it’s not as good or nobody else has approved of it. I didn’t want someone to be my gatekeeper, so I was glad that I was able to put it out into the world.

How do you celebrate when you finish your book?
I don’t have a ritual or anything like that, but I am very much looking forward to having a celebration and being able to have in-person conversation about it in October.

How did you decide to share your work with CAWC?
In the last 2.5 years, and everything going on with Covid, I wanted to do things that would benefit my community. I have been living in Chicago for 10 years and feel connected to this city and the people here. I wanted to combine the fact that I do have a readership, with trying to raise awareness for a cause, and survivors of domestic abuse just seemed natural given Mary’s character and where she was coming from. In doing research, I came across CAWC’s website and the mission about empowering women and people who’ve had their power taken away from them. It spoke to me. It was something I wanted to be a part of and that’s why I reached out.

If you had to describe yourself in just three words, what would those be?
I’d say, friendly, creative, and adventurous.

Before we close, is there anything you want people to know and/or understand about domestic violence?
I think this is something we’ve been talking about a lot recently as a culture. People are slowly starting to understand that it’s not a black and white situation: like he hits you, you leave. The whole question about signs of potential abuse and red flags are only visible after the fact, and you look back and you are like, ‘ohhhhh, right.’ And that’s the thing, it usually doesn’t start with a punch or physical attack. It’s often emotional or mental, and those things are not as easy to see.

The Narrative of Mary James will be officially released October 3, 2022. It is available for presale purchase through Amazon (Kindle version available) and Barnes and Noble and coming soon a local bookseller near you.

Join your friends from CAWC, along with other Chicagoans, and meet the author, Lana Orndorff, Saturday, October 8th from 3-6 PM at Roger’s Park Social. 10% of all bar proceeds from the day will donated to CAWC! Go to the Facebook Events Page for more information. Additionally, follow Lana on Instagram and/or Facebook.

 At Connections for Abused Women and Their Children (CAWC), we believe that everyone has a right to a life free of violence. Our mission to end domestic violence is rooted in education, service, and advocacy. In addition to working toward broader social change, we provide empowerment-based and trauma-informed support in the form of shelter, counseling, and advocacy to individuals affected by domestic violence and their children. If you or someone you know is struggling with domestic violence, don’t hesitate to call our 24-hour hotline at (773) 278-4566. To support our work, consider volunteering or donating