INDEPENDENCE, Ky. – The idea came, she said, from the place that produces all great inspiration: real life.
It was the frightening pre-term delivery of her son, mixed with the raising of her adopted Chinese special needs daughter, that eventually sent her to the computer.
Stephanie Knipper, mother of six, wife, author and teacher, lives in Independence, Kentucky, with her large family. For 10 years she worked, off and on, creating a novel, flushing out a character based on her daughter. She would steal a minute or two of time when she could to update her manuscript and little by little, the story came out.
Now, “The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin,” published in summer 2016, is being translated for audiences around the world.
“The reception to the book has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Knipper, 46, who added that the book rights have recently been sold to Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway. “Of course having anything you’ve worked so hard on be well-received is rewarding, but because I based so much of 'Peculiar Miracles' on my own experiences, it means even more to me.”
The book focuses on sisters Rose and Lily Martin. When Rose becomes ill, Lily must return to their family farm to help care for Rose’s 10-year-old daughter, Antoinette, who has a form of autism. Antoinette doesn’t speak, but she does have a special power: She can heal with her touch. Of course, every power comes with a price, and the family must learn how to care for the remarkable girl.
“The main character of Antoinette is based on my daughter, Grace, and when people tell me how much they love Antoinette it feels like they’re really saying that they love my daughter,” Knipper said.
Writing from the start
Knipper said she’s always wanted to be a writer, ever since childhood trips to the library would produce stacks and stacks of books. When a poet came to speak to her third-grade class, something clicked in her young mind.
“I realized a person could actually write for a living,” she said. “That seemed like the coolest thing ever, and from then on I hoped that one day I would be a published author.”
Fast-forward seven or eight years and at 17, Knipper started dating Steve, the man she would eventually marry. On an early dinner date, he became the first person to hear her life goal.
“Being a writer didn’t seem like a ‘real’ job so I had never told anyone about my dream,” she said. “In fact, I was nervous to tell Steve. But he took it in stride and told me if that’s what I wanted to do, I should do it.”
He became her biggest cheerleader and, eventually, her husband. Later, the couple would struggle with infertility. They thought of adoption.
Then, in 2003, life intervened.
“We had just started the adoption process when we found out I was pregnant,” Knipper said. “We weren’t matched with a child yet, so we put the adoption on hold. My pregnancy ended up being extremely difficult.”
Knipper was sick. She went into pre-term labor and her son, Zachary, was born 10 weeks early. During the delivery, doctors discovered she had developed peritonitis, a life-threatening abdominal infection that left her in multisystem organ failure. Doctors told Steve she likely wouldn’t survive and her family was called in to say goodbye.
To everyone’s surprise, she woke up.
“I was in ICU on life support,” Knipper said. “I didn’t see my son until he was 3 days old. I spent a total of six weeks in the hospital and I was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.”
Once she was home, she adjusted to motherhood and started wondering what it would be like for a child to grow up knowing that their birth had caused their mother’s death.
That was the initial idea for the book.
A state of Grace
Almost three years after her son was born, the Knippers wanted to enlarge the family. But instead of struggling with another pregnancy, they turned back to adoption.
“We traveled to Nanjing, China, to adopt our daughter Grace,” Knipper said. “When we got there, we realized that Grace had several severe special needs that we hadn’t anticipated. We were faced with a choice: Either leave her in China, where she would likely be labeled as ‘unadoptable’ and left to die, or bring her home.”
They brought her home, hoping her needs weren’t as severe as they feared.
“Unfortunately, her needs were worse,” Knipper said. “When we got home, we discovered that Grace had autism, developmental delays, seizures, tuberculosis, and needed braces for her feet. It took a long time to adjust to all of Grace’s needs. In fact, I cried most days that first year.”
But once she adjusted to parenting a special needs child, she started thinking about that book idea from 2003. She started wondering what it would be like for a child like Grace, with severe special needs, to have a sick mother. With that, the character of Antoinette was born and the story started falling into place.
By 2013, Knipper was a mother of six children, five of them adopted. She’d earned a master’s in English from Northern Kentucky University and she was teaching a fiction writing class. She’d also struggled with Crohn's, having been hospitalized multiple times.
But nothing stopped Knipper.
She finished her novel, landed an agent and about 10 years after conceiving the idea, she sold the manuscript to Algonquin Books.
“I was surprised when the book sold, but (Steve) wasn’t,” she said. “I think he’s always had a bit more faith in me than I’ve had in myself.”
Knipper added that she's still surprised every time she gets an email from someone who connected with her book.
“People from all over have shared their own experiences with special needs family members and I’ve met so many wonderful people through this process,” she said. “In fact, a few months ago, a reader called me and told me that after reading 'Peculiar Miracles,' they were at a restaurant and a stranger had a seizure. Because they had read my description of what to do if someone is having a seizure in 'Peculiar Miracles,' they were able to help the person until paramedics arrived.”
An advocate for special needs adoption
As Knipper works on her second novel -- another standalone, not a sequel -- the reviews continue to roll in for Knipper’s work.
Publishers Weekly, for instance, loved the book.
“The originality of the plot in Knipper’s debut will keep readers turning the pages,” the review stated.
The Library Journal wrote that her “charming debut will appeal to those seeking elements of magic realism, family relationships, and personal growth.”
But was it difficult writing about something so personal?
Yes and no, Knipper said.
“Some of the easiest chapters to write were those from Antoinette’s perspective because I based many of her mannerisms on Grace,” she said. “The sections from Rose’s perspective were also easier because I know what it feels like to be that ‘sick mother.’ I know how it feels to worry about who will care for your child if something happens to you.”
But exploring how outsiders look at children with special needs was a bit tougher.
“I sometimes struggled with writing Lily’s chapters, especially the early chapters where she is struggling to get close to Antoinette,” Knipper said. “Because I’m so used to my daughter’s ‘differences’ now, it was hard to think back to a time where I was just like Lily: afraid I couldn’t handle a child with such severe needs.”
Her life has led her to become an advocate for both adoption and for children with special needs. They are two topics readers can expect to learn more about in her novel, along with the importance of acceptance, knowledge and love.
“I’m especially passionate about special needs adoption,” Knipper said. “We tend to shy away from anyone who is different -- especially physically different -- but after parenting children with all types of disabilities, I can honestly say that we are all more alike than different.”
To learn more about Stephanie Knipper, visit her website by clicking here.