Rachel Howard’s new book “The Risk of Us” is about surviving childhood trauma and the exacting process of adopting a foster child — things she personally has experienced.
But she’s not the first-person narrator of her poignant debut novel, which she’ll discuss at Green Apple Books in The City this week.
“I don’t blame the reader for having curiosity,” says Howard, mentioning that she shares a history in common with the book’s main character — most notably that they’re both authors of memoirs about their father’s unsolved murders. (Howard’s acclaimed title is 2005’s “The Lost Night.”)
Howard thought it would be interesting for her fictional mother-to-be to have her own childhood trauma as a point of empathy, to see whether it helped or hurt her during the year-long period when prospective parents are subject to the intense scrutiny of the foster care bureaucracy before an adoption is finalized.
After working for seven years on a 450-page philosophical novel (à la Milan Kundera) that never quite came to fruition, Howard said the idea for “The Risk of Us” came to her during a car ride from her home in Nevada City to a party at The Grotto, the San Francisco center for writers.
She heard the voice of a woman talking to her husband, and thought, “If I can get this voice down, then I can write this whole book.”
Upon arrival at the Grotto, she went into a closet off the hallway for two hours and got started.
She wrote the rest of the 200-page book in eight months, inspired by the unique voice of Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” in which the heroine is simply “the wife.”
In “The Risk of Us,” the nameless woman speaks directly to her husband Sebastian and 7-year-old Maresa, the foster child she hopes will become her daughter, giving readers the sense of eavesdropping.
A writing teacher in Grass Valley and with Stanford Continuing Studies, Howard herself tries out experimental assignments she gives her students, from whom she learns “a lot.”
While her aim with “The Risk of Us” is not primarily advocacy, she hopes it may get people to consider the possibility of adopting vulnerable children.
“Kids in the foster system are way more capable than we recognize, way more resilient in the face of trauma than we recognize. People are capable of shocking and surprising rebirth,” she says.
Meanwhile, as she launches her first novel, Howard is working on another memoir — about learning to sing at The Alley, Oakland’s iconic piano bar, where she found a great community.
“My debut was terrible, I never sang before,” she says, adding, “Today my go-to is ‘Moonlight in Vermont.’”
The Risk of Us
Written by: Rachel Howard
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
April 9 — Green Apple Books, in conversation with Vanessa Hua, 1231 Ninth Ave., S.F., 7 p.m.
April 11 — The Alley, 3325 Grand Ave., Oakland, 8:30 p.m.
May 5 — Stranger Than Fiction Reading Series, Edinburgh Castle Pub, 950 Geary St., S.F., 3 p.m.
May 18 — Babylon Salon, Armory Club, 1799 Mission St., S.F., 6 p.m.