We talk to North Carolina author Diane Chamberlain about why The Dream Daughter is different from anything she’s written before and how she pushes the boundaries of faith and science in what might be her best novel yet.
“Chamberlain writes with supernatural gifts akin to those she chronicles in the book,” says Pam Jenoff, author of The Orphan’s Tale, about The Dream Daughter. Diane Chamberlain does weave in supernatural elements through her time-traveling characters Carly and Hunter, but this novel is so rooted in reality and the tough choices mothers must make for their children, that time traveling will seem completely natural by the end.
The author says she didn’t research time travel so as not to be influenced by anyone else’s ideas, and we won’t give away any spoilers as to how she accomplishes it. The Dream Daughter opens with a prologue set in April of 1965 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Chamberlain then takes us to April of 1970 to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where Carly receives confirmation that her unborn baby girl has a life-threatening heart defect. She is devastated and, in 1970, there’s not much that can be done. Her brother-in-law, Hunter, is a physicist and pulls her aside a few days later to tell her that there might be a way to save her baby.
Hunter appeared in Carly and her sister, Patti’s, lives as mysteriously as his past. With no family, friends and more knowledge about world events than seems normal, Hunter embraced the Sears family and never looked back. Now he tells Carly his secret and proposes that she travel to 2001 to have surgery on her baby in the womb. Carly must make a mind and time-bending leap of faith to try and save her baby—a feat that’s not impossible in the world Chamberlain creates but one that may not go quite as Carly and Hunter planned.
Erin Z. Bass: You say in your Acknowledgements that this story was in your mind for years but that it was “unnerving” to write something so different from your previous books. How and why did the subject of time travel first enter your mind? And how much research did you do into the subject?
Diane Chamberlain: My first career—long ago—was as a hospital social worker in a high-risk maternity unit. When I look back at that experience, I think about the babies who couldn’t survive back then because their conditions couldn’t be treated. If they had been born a few decades later, however, medical advances might have given them a better chance at survival. That started me thinking: what if a woman in 1970 learns that her unborn baby will die, but someone—in this case her beloved brother-in-law—confides that he’s from the future and there is a way to help her baby in 2001. Once I had that idea, it begged to be turned into a book. I did no research at all into time travel. I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone else’s ideas. I did plenty of research into the different time periods, however. I wanted to make them true to life.
EZB: I can imagine this book was challenging to write in so many ways, but you mention just juggling the calendar itself. Why did you choose the years of 1970, 2001 and 2013 to focus on?
DC: Yes, I had a few calendars going! I chose those years based on the ages I wanted my characters to be at different points in the story. The fact that one of those years was 2001—with the historical implications that come along with that year—was purely coincidental.
EZB: One of the most gut-wrenching parts of this book is when Carly has to leave her baby in the hospital. As a stepmother and grandmother yourself, was it difficult to basically put Carly through the wringer and have her make so many tough decisions?
DC: No, I think my training as a social worker comes in handy here, in that I know I have to separate myself from the angst of my clients/characters in order to help them/write about them. I do feel my character’s pain, of course, but I am always thinking one step ahead and that saves me from being overwhelmed by what’s happening in the moment.
EZB: I really thought that Carly was going to decide to stay in 2001 with her baby and make a life for herself there, but you had other plans for her. Did you always know the path this book would take or did you imagine different scenarios for Carly?
DC: No, I didn’t know what Carly would decide to do until quite late in the writing of the book. I was very surprised by the turn of events myself.
EZB: Although this book is different from your others, it still has the theme of family and the different ways in which that can be defined. All of your characters tie into the idea of “family” in one way or another and I think this is what makes them so relatable. Is there an overall message you’d like readers to take away?
DC: It’s not so much the theme of family that inspired this story for me, but rather the length a mother will go to save her child. I also, personally, was touched by the relationship between Carly and her brother-in-law, Hunter. Yes, men and women can be friends!
EZB: Carly’s home in the Outer Banks contrasts perfectly with your alternate setting of New York City and the Northeast. With the recent hurricane in mind, why did you choose to highlight the beauty of the Outer Banks and North Carolina coast as a place for Carly to return to?
DC: I personally love the Outer Banks and all of coastal North Carolina, plus the old family houses—the Unpainted Aristocracy—in Nag’s Head have always fascinated me and I wanted to set a book in them. I selected New Jersey because that’s where I grew up and it was fun to use my home state as a setting, but it made sense that the cutting-edge medical care would be in New York, and I knew New York would turn Carly even more into a fish out of water.
EZB: One final, fun question. If you could time travel to any year or era, what would it be?
DC: I would like to go back to my own youth so I could correct some of the mistakes I made!