Saturday, July 21, 2018
Books

Tom and Kelley French talk 'Juniper,' the story of their daughter's premature birth

"I cannot believe we survived it," Kelley Benham French says.

She could be talking about the subject of the new book she co-wrote with her husband, Thomas French. Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon is a riveting chronicle of the first months of the life of their daughter, who was born extremely prematurely.

But right now, on the phone from the family's home in Bloomington, Ind., she's referring to writing the book with Tom.

"I recorded some of our arguments for writing conferences," Kelley says, just to illustrate how difficult it was for two professional writers to collaborate — especially on so personal a story.

Longtime Tampa Bay Times readers will likely remember both Frenches. Tom, 58, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for "Angels and Demons," his account of the murders of three tourists and the eventual capture of their killer, Oba Chandler. Kelley, 42, was a Pulitzer finalist in 2013 for "Never Let Go," the series she wrote about Juniper's birth. The two are now on the journalism faculty at Indiana University.

READ THE SERIES: Micro preemie parents decide, fight or let go of their premature baby?

When it came to writing the book together, Kelley says, "Where to begin? That was the hardest part. I'd say we spent at least a year" deciding.

The story's center is obvious. Juniper was born at 23 weeks, six days gestation, a stage when few babies survive, and even fewer do so without major complications. She weighed 1 pound, 4 ounces and was "11.4 inches long — the length of a Barbie doll." Her skin was so translucent her parents could see her heart fluttering in her chest.

For more than six months, Juniper would live in the neonatal intensive care unit at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. She would undergo surgeries, stop breathing, struggle in unimaginable ways to live. Her parents' lives would be turned upside down.

But the book begins long before that. It tells how Tom and Kelley first met (he gave a journalism workshop at her high school), met again years later, went through a long and difficult approach-and-retreat courtship before finally marrying. It also describes their frustrating fertility problems and their unusual solution: conception using a donor egg from a close friend, who is now, along with her husband and children, very much a part of Juniper's life.

Including all that backstory wasn't an easy decision. "We resisted it, especially me," Tom says. "To all intents and purposes, I'm the villain of the first part of the book. But if we started it later, the story didn't make sense.

"It's important for the reader to know we're flawed, we're fragile, we're messed up and imperfect. We didn't want it to be like some Lifetime movie. ..."

Kelley breaks in, in a cheesy voice: "From the first moment, we knew. ..."

"It wasn't like that," he finishes.

They also struggled to find a method for presenting the story. Kelley had already written a version from her point of view for the Times; Tom had felt from the early days in the NICU that he wanted to write a book. "It was a defense mechanism to go into reporter mode," he says, and he made notes constantly.

But when it came to writing a book, "Tom was at a total disadvantage," Kelley says, "because in the series I had written all of what I thought were the most powerful scenes." Eventually they realized, she said, that throughout those months in the hospital, "we were really traveling on two very different paths," and decided to write the book together.

"The word baton did it for me," he says. "I thought of it as a relay race." In alternating chapters, each of them moves the story forward in different ways, only occasionally overlapping.

Their processes and voices as writers are very different, but both found that working on the book brought back traumatic experiences. "I wrote a lot of mine crying my eyes out," Tom says. "But I could go home and there (Juniper) was, doing great."

Kelley found that she had to report the story "as if it were someone else's." She had not made notes in the hospital, and as a reporter she knew that "trauma affects memory." So she interviewed dozens of people, reviewed hundreds of photos and dug into Juniper's massive medical chart — all 7,000 pages of it. "They brought it out on a cart in banker's boxes."

They thought long and hard, she says, about revealing the donor's role in detail. "I thought, this is Juniper's private information," Kelley says. "But a theme of the story is that she's a sci-fi baby. She was not just gestated in an artificial womb, she was conceived in a petri dish. How do you bond with a baby in a plastic box? And one of the big questions is, how am I her mother?'

It was easier to talk about, she says, because "our families have fused. It's just one of the most beautiful things in the book."

With Juniper being published on Tuesday, its authors are bracing for the response. Their daughter's story has already been out in the world, in Kelley's series and in a popular documentary by Radiolab.

"We don't know how people are going to react," Kelley says. "When a story hits the Internet, different outlets pick up different pieces, and people will connect with them."

She says that at first, "I didn't let photos of her go out on the Net. Those are my baby pictures. I don't want to see one of those on an anti-abortion billboard."

Tom says, "We never, never want it to be that. That's not what it's about." But a writer's duty, he says, "is to put the story out there, out into the ether."

Stories played a huge part in their family's survival of the ordeal, Tom says. While Juniper was in her incubator, they played music for her, especially songs by Bruce Springsteen, a master storyteller. And Tom sat beside her through the quiet hours of the night, reading out loud all the books of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

"That's my religion," Tom says. "Stories help us find meaning. That's what we did in the NICU."

Juniper is now an irrepressible 5-year-old who does gymnastics, rides horses and just started kindergarten. Kelley says their book about her "is journalism. It's for a mass audience. But underneath it's just a love letter to my little girl."

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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