By Daniel Ford
Author Camron Wright’s recently published novel The Orphan Keeper dramatizes the true story of Taj Rowland, who was kidnapped from his village in India when he was 7 years old and eventually adopted by a couple in the United States.
Booklist called The Orphan Keeper “a novel that is sure to be a book-club favorite,” and author Richard Paul Evans said it’s “an enlightening book that gently reminds us we are all searching for home.”
Wright talked to me recently about how writing found him at a later age, his research process for The Orphan Keeper, and his advice for social media-addicted authors.
Daniel Ford: When did you know that you wanted to become a storyteller?
Camron Wright: My background is in business, not English. I found writing (or did it find me?) as I was approaching 40, passing through a midlife crisis of sorts. (It was strictly career related—no girlfriend or sports car involved.) We had just sold our business, and I was struggling to find a new professional direction for my life. I thought it would be easy to jump into corporate America, but I’m the type of person who needs to wake up and feel like I’m making a difference and I was struggling to find that. My wife happened to be in a couple of book clubs at the time, and I remember picking up her books, reading through them, and then exclaiming, “I could write this stuff!”
Weeks later, as I naively attempted to pen my first novel, I learned it was an agonizing, insufferable, forlorn occupation—and yet equally magical. I couldn’t get enough.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
CW: I love Nick Hornby’s early work. I remember being mesmerized by his dialogue in About a Boy. Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi is also terrific. One of my favorite early books on writing is Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads, by Roy Williams. I stumbled across it while working on an ad campaign for a client and found it to be one of the most profound books on fiction writing I’ve ever read.
DF: What’s your writing process like?
CW: I don’t write chronologically, but rather in scenes as I see them in my head. It means each story turns into an array of puzzle pieces that eventually need to be assembled.
When I write, the door to my den has to be closed, even if I’m the only one home. I wish I could say that as I sit at my computer, brilliant prose spews out. Sadly that’s seldom the case. I write and revise, write and revise, write and revise. By the time I have a manuscript ready for another person to read, I’ve read and revised it easily more than a hundred times.
DF: What inspired your recent novel The Orphan Keeper?
CW: The Orphan Keeper is based on the journey of Taj Rowland. As a 7-year-old boy, he was kidnapped from his village in India, driven three hours away, sold to an orphanage, and then adopted by an unsuspecting couple in the United States. It took months before he could speak enough English to tell his parents that he already had a family back in India. Horrified, they tried their best to track down his Indian family, but all avenues led to dead ends. So they did what adoptive parents do best—they loved him.
His name was changed to Taj. He was enrolled in school, involved in sports—and his story might have ended there had it not been for the pestering questions in his head: Who am I? Why was I taken? How do I get home?
More than a decade later, the answers came in remarkable ways. In short, The Orphan Keeper is a story about Taj’s journey—both physical and emotional—to reconcile the circumstances of his life. It’s about discovery and determination as it explores how we find our place in the world.
DF: Since the book is based on a true story, how much research did you do before you actually started writing?
CW: With The Orphan Keeper, the process started with extensive interview sessions with Taj, each providing new insight and information. Once the story began to breathe, I moved to other players, mainly Priya and then Taj’s adoptive parents, Linda and Fred Rowland. It was important to understand all perspectives, since the writing needed to reflect varied character viewpoints.
As for the culture and backdrop, I read books about India, both novels and guidebooks. I watched movies, both documentaries and dramas. Taj also felt strongly that I needed to walk the actual roads where his story took place and so I traveled to India to view it all firsthand. The trip turned out to be crucial. In India several critical story elements fell into place.
DF: Adapting real-life stories can be a challenge, and there’s a fine line between capturing the tale accurately while still providing readers a compulsive read. Was that something you thought about during the writing or editing process? Was there anything you had to exclude or tweak?
CW: Absolutely, though as a fiction writer, I weigh reader interest more heavily than I do exactness. That said, I felt oddly compelled with The Orphan Keeper to remain as true to the actual story as possible. Certainly there were cracks that needed to be puttied, but generally it’s a story that took very little sprucing. Taj’s journey is astounding and could easily have been written as non-fiction.
As for exclusions or tweaking, many of my changes related to timing. For example, Taj’s mother in India actually visited with an astrologer a few months before Taj returned. The astrologer told her, “Your son will return, and when he does, he will fly.” Eight months later Taj flew to India to find his family.
In my story the scene had already shifted from the family in India to Taj’s experience in the United States. Putting this event in its proper place on the timeline would have meant shifting focus back to the family in India, and that wouldn’t have worked.
Instead, I included it near the beginning, shortly after the child was taken. It’s still there. It’s still accurate. It’s just technically in the wrong spot. These are the types of decisions I made for the sake of story.
DF: I’ve come to find out that authors hate talking about themes, but I’ll ask this anyway. Were there specific themes you wanted to explore in The Orphan Keeper? And did those themes change at all once you starting writing or editing?
CW: With my previous book, The Rent Collector, even before writing the first word, I knew of specific themes I wanted to address. The Orphan Keeper, however, was different. Because I was writing another person’s story, existing themes were inherent. Early themes that began waving their arms, demanding they be noticed included chance, perseverance, coincidence, belonging, and the power of a mother’s love (two mothers, actually).
DF: All of your works, including The Rent Collector and Letters for Emily, receive rave reviews from readers and critics alike. Have those reactions made you more confident in your writing and publishing processes?
CW: I think it’s fair to say that positive feedback nurtures confidence. However, it was Hemingway who said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” At times I feel the weight of those words. As I slog through the never ending process of improving my writing, I suspect there will always be moments of doubt and worry. Mostly I find the praise humbling and I can’t help but be grateful.
DF: What’s next on your writing agenda?
CW: There are always a handful of stories swimming around in my head. That said, I’m one that gets very involved in the marketing side of a project. As such, it’s likely I won’t start the next book until The Orphan Keeper is well on its way (or until Oprah calls, whichever comes first).
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
CW: Spend more time writing your story and less time on social media talking about writing your story.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
CW: When I was 15, I accidently knocked out my older brother’s two front teeth with a hammer.