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Daughter's bravery helped Vardalos write Mom memoir

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ON Wednesday night in Toronto, Oscar-nominated screenwriter-actress Nia Vardalos scored a formidable addition to an already impressive resumé: bestselling author.

Vardalos was in T.O. on a book tour for her memoir/adoption guide Instant Mom. Over the phone, she practically bubbles with recalling how she got to share the news of the literary coup.

As is often the case with Vardalos, members of her family and friends were involved.

"(They) came in for my book signing at Indigo, and we all went for dinner. I pulled my phone out and I saw a bunch of emails, so I checked to make sure everything was OK."

More than OK. The book had hit bestseller status for pre-sales alone. Not all the book store outlets have checked in with physical sales figures.

"It's amazing that it happened so quickly," Vardalos says.

Maybe not that amazing. The Winnipeg-born Vardalos pretty much proved she has a way with connecting to a huge and appreciative audience following the unprecedented success of the 2002 movie she wrote and starred in, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a modest US$5-million comedy that grossed in the neighbourhood of a quarter of a billion dollars.

But where Greek Wedding was a highly fictionalized account of her betrothal to fellow actor and hubby Ian Gomez, Instant Mom is a revealing account of Vardalos's inspiring relationship with her adopted daughter, Ilaria.

The book encompasses an inside account of the adoption process, the journey of getting to know her daughter and Vardalos's own difficult battle with infertility. (On the rainy morning she learned she was nominated for an Oscar for writing My Big Fat Greek Wedding, she recounts driving to a fertility clinic for a third attempt at in-vitro fertilization.)

Bear in mind, Vardalos is an extremely private person, and fiercely protective of her daughter's privacy. She never allows her to be photographed, and comes up with creative ways to stymie paparazzi. When Vardalos was shooting the American Girl movie McKenna Shoots for the Stars in Winnipeg in 2011, she wouldn't even reveal her daughter's name.

She acknowledges writing the book did not come easy.

"It was terrifying, and very difficult," she says.

Vardalos knew she had a book in her. When she originally conceived it, it was "a dry textbook of how to adopt."

When she took meetings with some publishing houses, many seemed eager for her to title the book My Big Fat Greek Baby.

There were, she says, "people who truly didn't get what I was trying to do, which was keep my daughter's privacy and anonymity and yet provide information on how to adopt.

"But because Harper Collins was so compassionate and truly understood what I was trying to do, they said the magical words that any writer wants to hear: 'We want you to write the book that you want to write.'

"They also said: 'How about with a little bit of personal anecdote?' And I said: OK."

"It was very difficult," she says of the process. "I have a writing office and I would close my computer and leave it at the end of the day and go and wash my face because I looked like I had just come from a workout class.

"So as I started to chronicle how to adopt, I put that personal story in and then I put this personal story in.

"And as I began to describe the bravery that my daughter chooses to live her life with, the incredibly formed character and backbone of this child, I thought: What am I afraid of?

"I can still hopefully keep my dignity, which is why I don't go into the gory details, as I call them, but I can perhaps provide a forum for people who are going through this to say: It's not that bad. It's OK."

In fact, Ilaria, now nearly eight, proved to be supportive of the book.

"She finds it hilarious," Vardalos says. "She told me to put in the part in the story where she bit my finger."

"It was exhausting to write it and now I feel it's cathartic," Vardalos says.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 G1

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