Beaufort author John Warley fictionalizes personal story of adopting child in 'A Southern Girl'

eshaw@islandpacket.comMay 3, 2014 


  • 1-3 p.m. May 10 at Beaufort Bookstore, 2127 Boundary Street, Beaufort

  • 1-3 p.m. May 11 at McIntosh Book Shoppe, 917 Bay Street, Beaufort

  • 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. May 29 at Barnes & Noble, 20 Hatton Plaza, Hilton Head Island

John Warley knew that when he and his wife decided to adopt a child from Seoul, South Korea, he would face some resistance from his conservative Southern family.

His parents had long family lines in Charleston and Florence. His mother kept a genealogy book on her coffee table. Did Warley see any Asians in that book?, she would ask. Of course the answer was no.

Warley also had his own hesitations to contend with. Would he be able to love this stranger as much as his two biological sons?

Overcoming them -- and learning that he could -- inspired Warley to write "A Southern Girl," a novel about a fictional family that adopts a Korean daughter and must deal with the ramifications of bringing her into a sheltered society of purity and prestige. In the book, protagonist Coleman Carter finds himself a reluctant participant in an international adoption, but discovers the depths of his parental love after the arrival of Soo Yun, later called Annie.

"I think the impetus to write the book was a way of explaining to myself what I had learned about fatherhood," Warley said. "I always thought fatherhood was the most serious thing you could do as a human. And I knew there were dynamics to this adoption that were powerful and had not been previously explored."

Warley wrote the original draft of "A Southern Girl" in 1993. Then it sat in a drawer for 20 years. It probably would still be sitting in a drawer if he hadn't connected with Jonathan Haupt at the University of South Carolina Press, which was looking to publish regional fiction under novelist Pat Conroy's imprint Story River Books.

"A Southern Girl" was Conroy's first pick for the new imprint. He and Warley are friends and former classmates at The Citadel.

During school, the two used to argue the merits of fiction versus nonfiction, Warley said. Conroy championed fiction. Warley preferred nonfiction. Eventually, he came around, after graduating law school, working as a lawyer and briefly pursuing politics.

"I don't know why, but it took into my mid-40s for fiction to connect with me," Warley said. Once it did, he carved out time to write, usually in the early morning hours before going to work and practicing law all day.

Warely is now retired from law and writing full-time in Beaufort. "A Southern Girl" is his third book. He said it's an interesting coincidence that it is finally being published when international adoption has become such a hot-button topic.

When Warley went through the adoption process, it was vastly different from the maze of red tape prospective adoptive families face today, he said.

When Warley and his wife adopted MaryBeth, they did not go to Korea to pick her out. They went through a reputable adoption agency and were given one small photo with a paragraph description and a box to check: Do you want this child? Yes or no?

"It's a very powerful box," Warley said, but it was simple. Today, countries are hanging onto their orphan children longer and longer, thus delaying their integration into a loving family. As an advocate for foreign adoption, Warley has been following the progress of the Children in Families First Act, a bill that aims to streamline intercountry adoptions.

"I'm alarmed at the current trend," he said.

For both Warley and Coleman, the adoption process expanded their horizons and challenged their family identity in a not-always-welcoming Southern society.

"You have boundaries you're naturally born into. It's important to expand them," Warley said. "That's what I hope the book does. That's what it did for me."

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Author's Corner: A chat with Allan Winneker, author of "Border Line: A Novel"

John Warley's website

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