Secrets and scandals good enough for fiction, but some of it's true

For The Baltimore Sun
She never really understood her grandmother. She decided to write a book based on her life.

Growing up in Baltimore as the child of Trinidadian immigrants, Lauren Francis-Sharma saw her hardworking parents pursue the American dream, while holding fast to nostalgic dreams of a Caribbean homeland an ocean away.

"From an early age, I straddled two cultures," says Francis-Sharma, 42, who was born in New York City but spent her formative years with her parents and younger sister in a Northwood rowhouse. "Sometimes it was a struggle to be truly accepted."

Theirs was a loving household where calypso music by The Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener got spins on the turntable, along with Motown classics. At mealtime, "my mother prepared traditional dishes — roti, curry chicken, salt fish," but gave into pressure from her daughters to serve hamburgers and hot dogs. She regaled her daughters with stories of their "Trini" roots.

"We experienced the country through her eyes and heart," Francis-Sharma says.

That openness wasn't the case with maternal grandmother Jane DeGannes. After migrating to the U.S. back in 1969 and blazing a trail for future generations, the matriarch mostly stayed mum about her former life. Her demeanor was stoic and stern, says Francis-Sharma.

Decades later, her granddaughter would embark on a journey for answers, one that took her to Trinidad and eventually turned into a novel: "'Til the Well Runs Dry," published by Henry Holt and Co. last year.

"I knew very little about 'Ma' as we called her — only that she grew up in the tiny community of Blanchisseuse," says Francis-Sharma. Caught in an abusive relationship, she "was given the opportunity to come to America as a domestic."

When DeGannes arrived in the United States, her first stop was Maryland, where apparently, something went awry.

"All I know is that she was working for this family and she says they were treating her horribly, verbally abusive — perhaps more. Meantime, her 'papers' had come in the mail, but they hid them from her. When they were out one day, she found them," the author explains. "My grandmother wound up running away to New York City, where she found work and spent the rest of her life."

In 2007, "Ma" suffered the first of two debilitating strokes. Relatives around the country rushed to Brooklyn, where the octogenarian was hospitalized. "She'd always been strong and fiercely independent, so seeing her lying there was devastating," says Francis-Sharma, whose mother was one of DeGannes' six offspring. "I remember thinking: 'I hardly know this woman.'"

DeGannes never fully recovered and died in 2011 — one day before her 87th birthday.

"My mother always said that one woman made the choice to come to America. Were it not for her courage, our family wouldn't be here," says Francis-Sharma. "I knew I had to tell her story."

Love and determination

"'Til the Well Runs Dry" is dedicated in part to Francis-Sharma's grandmother and is loosely based upon her early life.

The nearly 400-page book is a sweeping epic that spans generations and cultures, encompassing a woman's love for a man and a mother's love for her children. It's also a love letter to Trinidad, with its salty sea air, Carnival and calypso beats, sweet fruits and spicy stews, and games of cricket.

The tale opens circa 1943 in a seaside village, where readers meet Marcia [pronounced Mah-see-a] Garcia, a 16-year-old seamstress of mixed black, French, Spanish and Portuguese heritage; she is raising two small boys on her own, and harboring a family secret.

When Marcia meets Farouk Karam, an ambitious young policeman of East Indian descent, their destinies become linked. The novel chronicles the pair's passionate and, at times, uncertain courtship. Tumultuous events unfold in Trinidad and the United States — including murder. Before the story concludes, Marcia's secret is threatened, the couple and their children are entangled in scandal, and the collective future of these imperfect characters is in jeopardy.

The narrative draws readers into the characters' love, grit and determination — all of which were needed as each draft took shape.

"It took me four years from start to finish to write this book," says Francis-Sharma, an attorney, who spent years practicing corporate law in New York and Washington before becoming a stay-at-home mother to two young daughters.

"My girls were 3 and 5 when I started the book, and most of my writing was done in the middle of the night because that was the only time I had to myself," she says.

Besides finding blocks of free time to write, crafting the prose proved challenging. "There were many days when I cried, because raising a family and writing a novel both require stamina — emotionally, mentally and physically," she says.

Francis-Sharma says her husband and other relatives were supportive.

"There were many late nights when I'd come downstairs and she'd be tapping away at the computer," says her husband, Anand Sharma, a patent attorney whose family hails from Guyana. "Lauren actually trained herself to stay up late, by doing Sudoku puzzles. I marveled at her stamina. And I'm so proud of what she did with this book."

A graduate of Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute high school who studied English literature at the University of Pennsylvania, then earned a law degree from the University of Michigan, Francis-Sharma has long been considered an overachiever.

But writing was different. Weighing heavily on her mind was the prospect of failure: two prior books she'd penned (one a "buppie" romance and the other, "dark fiction") had been shopped to publishers years ago, and roundly rejected. "I put them away in a box. I felt as if being an author was not for me."

This time around, however, she was determined, driven perhaps by the same spirit that brought her grandmother to the United States for a better life.

"Once the adrenaline kicked in, I was fine," says Francis-Sharma, who typically writes from her Kensington home. "There were moments when the process felt spiritual — a higher power would let me know that I was on the right path."

The novel

" 'Til the Well Runs Dry" was released in hardcover last April, with an official launch party at The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore.

Since that time, the novel has accumulated glowing reviews from publications, including The New York Times Sunday Book Review, and O, the Oprah Magazine. It was also chosen by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association as its 2015 Honor Book winner in the fiction category.

Such praise doesn't surprise Barbara Jones, executive editor at Henry Holt in New York City.

After the manuscript came in from Francis-Sharma's agent, Victoria Sanders, "there was a bidding war for Lauren's book — other houses in town all wanted it," says Jones, who immediately "loved" the story.

Apparently, so did Holt's publisher, Stephen Rubin, an industry veteran who has worked with John Grisham and Dan Brown.

"I remember walking into his office and he was rocking in his big chair," Jones says. "He was about 200 pages in and said, 'It takes me someplace I've never been.' If the characters are fresh, if the story is not like anything people have read before, you have something special."

So far, said Jones, the book has sold about 17,000 copies during its hardback run.

"Fiction is very hard to sell, and a debut novel is very hard to sell," she adds. "This was a successful hardcover venture."

A paperback version is slated to be released by Picador in September, Jones says.

Hopes are high that it will draw a whole new audience, although the book already has its fans.

"The characters were so vivid, so vibrant," says Beverly Cooper-Brown, a member of a Baltimore-based book club, Sisters Together Always Reading Something (STARS). "Many in our circle were able to relate to the depth and strength of the women in the book."

Last year, Cooper-Brown hosted a Caribbean-themed book bash at her Glenwood home. "Lauren was our special guest and everyone enjoyed it. It's not every day that you get to meet a real author in person."

Indeed, it's been a whirlwind for Francis-Sharma, who has done signings and appearances all over the place — from Miami to last fall's Baltimore Book Festival. There, her dramatic readings from the book were received with applause from the mostly female crowd.

"I now feel comfortable calling myself a writer," says the author, who is working on a new book — also historical fiction — that will be largely set in Baltimore during the early 1920s.

"It will deal a bit with World War I, Cuba, Grenada and Trinidad," she hints. "It's very ambitious and dramatic. I want to read books that transport me, and I want to write them, too."

As for "Ma's" story, Francis-Sharma has come to a place of peace.

"I had to tell it because she wouldn't tell us or me anything. By molding Marcia Garcia after my grandmother, I began to understand her — that firmness. I began to understand better why she wouldn't hug and kiss but would instead make fresh bake [a type of fried dough] and sorrel [a popular Caribbean drink] and save up her money to buy me a gold ring or pair of earrings.

"She expressed her love through industry, working, financial support, not at all in the typical ways I was brought up to think about grandmothers, or women, for that matter. ... Finally free of stereotypes and expectations, I learned to love my grandmother after I wrote Marcia's story."

Lauren Francis-Sharma

Personal: Married for 11* years to husband Parmanand (known by "Anand") Sharma. Two daughters: Sage is 10 and Ava is 7.

Education: St. Matthew's Catholic School (elementary/middle — Tom Clancy went there too), Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, University of Pennsylvania (English major, African-American studies minor, Cum Laude), University of Michigan Law School.

Favorite authors: "I don't usually follow authors as much as I follow books. However, I love everything by Toni Morrison. Her prose is magical to me. And I love Hilary Mantel's work and wickedness, and Stephen King for the mastery of his craft and Khaled Hosseini for writing stories that make me feel satisfied and whole."

Favorite time to write: "In the late evening into the early morning. Favorite place is in my kitchen or at the Writer's Room in D.C., if I am on a deadline."

If you go

Francis-Sharma will appear at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Bethesda Writer's Center, 4508 Walsh St., Chevy Chase.

* A previous version of this article misstated the length of Francis-Sharma's marriage.

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