“A Lot of Big-Name Women Writers Don't Want To Be Asked About Motherhood”
A Conversation with Julia Fine
In a tucked away corner of my local children’s museum sits a replica of the great green room that is the centerpiece of the classic children’s book, Goodnight Moon. You can peer in through a window and see the little bunny tucked into the bed, the fire blazing in the fireplace, and the old lady rabbit sitting in her rocking chair keeping watch over the little bunny, for now. There’s a light switch that allows you to make the room lighter or darker and a knob that, if you turn it, will cause the moon to rise or set through the window opposite the one through which you’re peering. In short, you can interact with a space that usually only exists in a book and my kids have always been delighted by it, like an extremely low-key version of meeting Anna and Elsa in Disney World. Reading novelist Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House, which publishes next week, is like an adult version of that exhibit in that it recognizes that the adults who read Goodnight Moon to their children often have an intense relationship with the book as well. The book is a frequent gift to new parents. Perhaps, like me and like Julia, you read it over and over while trying to create a sleep routine for your wakeful baby.
The Upstairs House is a postpartum tale about Megan Weiler, a new mother who is haunted by the ghosts of Margaret Wise Brown — the author of Goodnight Moon and the subject of Megan’s in-progress dissertation — and her lover, Michael Strange. And for me, reading the book was like visiting with a version of my former self, the self that was thrust into new motherhood (does anyone ever feel anything but thrust into parenthood?) while also trying to do intellectual work of my own. I was creating another human being while also trying to create myself as a scholar, as a writer, as someone who had thoughts and opinions about Literature.
I’m in the third trimester of pregnancy for the fourth time so sleep is elusive and I found myself writing this introduction at 5:30 in the morning, trying to make the most of the quiet time before my three kids would wake up and I would be compelled to engage with the whirlwind of making breakfast and packing lunches and making sure that everyone has everything they need for school (I know, I know, I’m lucky they go somewhere else during the day). But about 15 minutes in, I heard a thump and knew that my five-year-old was awake.
I was all set to be firm with him (we have one of those traffic light clocks because otherwise he would just never stay in bed or sleep) but he was upset because of a bad dream. Someone was chasing him, he said, and he couldn’t find me. He cried and I held him while looking out the window at a snowy scene that still looked like night, a full moon high in the sky. I wasn’t running away, exactly, when I tried to steal those early morning moments to write something about a book but someone was chasing me all the same. It struck me that sometimes parenting small children can feel like another Margaret Wise Brown classic, The Runaway Bunny, but in reverse, with our children emerging from the tableaus around us even when we think we are alone.
After we talked it out and my sad boy calmed down, we both looked up and out the window to see that the morning light had come and the moon had set behind the trees, as if we had turned the knob and reverse Goodnight Mooned until it was day again.
All of this is to say that when we talk about what constitutes literature and engagement with literature, as I do with Julia in this interview, we need to remember that every person reading a book was once held or not held by an adult while they cried. The stakes of parenting are nothing short of world-changing and if that’s not a literary subject, I don’t know what is. Read on for our conversation about Julia’s book, writing as a new parent, and the different voices we have as parents and writers.
Lives in: Chicago
Lives with: my husband, my 3.5 year old, my 6 month old, and a very patient cat
Favorite place to write: coffee shops (RIP)
Favorite time of day to write: late morning, though I take what I can get
What are you reading right now? Bad Habits by Amy Gentry, Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi, a night-nursing reread of all of Tana French's Dublin Murder mysteries
What are you watching right now? Promising Young Woman, and very, very slowly making my way through back episodes of The Crown
I found you because of your tweet that you had written your new book while your baby napped. Does that sound familiar?
Oh yes, actually it's amazing how many people I have met because they also wrote novels while their babies napped.
The second I read that I knew I had to add you to my interview list! So I want to first ask about that process because I have been trying to write during naps for a couple of years now and it's not always as easy as it sounds. I’ve always had trouble with not knowing when they were going to end or how much time I had.
It felt unlucky at the time but it actually was lucky that I sold my first book when I was three or four months pregnant and I ended up finishing edits on it when my son was probably about two months old.
Sounds like an intense time.
Oh, it was so crazy but because I had to do it, I had a deadline, I think it got me started with this idea that when he's sleeping, I can be working in a way that I think it would have been a lot harder to motivate myself had I not been forced into it. Although, he was — and is — a terrible sleeper so I actually didn't get any writing done during naps for a while because I was rocking him for like eight or nine months. So I had a period of naps and writing when he was in that always asleep phase and then I had a period where I really didn't do anything at all. And then once he was sleeping in his crib and having naps where I knew he would go for at least an hour on a regular basis, I think I felt like oh my god, my time is back, and I really dove in. And I'd had such a long time to, in the back of my mind, be thinking about this particular book. So it was almost like marinating. And then when I finally sat down to do it, I was just like, I'm not going to worry about cleaning the kitchen, I'm not going to do laundry, I'm not going to do anything that I could ostensibly do while he's awake and just pound it out. And I'm not going to reread, too. That was another thing that really helped because I think a lot of us sort of have a habit of, when you start in, you want to reread what you wrote the day before but then you want to change what you wrote the day before. And so I said to myself, I'll read the last few sentences to get back into it but I'm just going to push forward. And, somehow, it worked.
It's interesting what you say about letting it marinate. For me, writing as a parent has shown me how much of writing is actually not writing. Because you can't always be writing, or trying to write, you realize how critical the thinking is to the process.
I hope so, having not had time to do anything in the past- what has it been now, like 11 months of just kids all the time? I would like to think that when childcare resumes and they can go to school and I can be in a coffee shop, it will all just flow out. But I do believe that, because I was writing about an experience that I had had so recently and was, in a way, still having of being a new parent, I think it made it a lot easier. Although as I say this I'm realizing I also was doing a lot of research on Margaret Wise Brown. I'm a before bed reader and so instead of reading a novel, I would read the biography or I would do the research and I would use that and so it felt like I wasn't just totally separate from the project, I wasn't just floundering around.
It wasn't writing but it was still working.
It felt like work, yeah. I'm not somebody who can handle not having work to do and so I think that being a writer and a parent, in that regard, is really nice because, except for like these weird periods of time when you're giving interviews or have deadlines for things, when you're just starting a project as a novelist, at least, the time works so well with having kids because when your kid needs you, you can be there and then hopefully when you can, you get the work done. Everything's out the window this year, though!
It sounds like you had two probably pretty different experiences. Your first novel – not the final revision and stuff which you did as a parent but the initial drafting and selling of the book – was pre-kids and then for this one you had a small child.
One and then two.
What was different about the process of writing this book, post-kids?
Before I sold my first book, I had another book that I wrote and abandoned, my burnt pancake book that is never going to see the light of day. But I do think that having written my first published book, What Should Be Wild, I learned a lot about what to do with the second one and about my own writing process and what I wanted to do. I had an easier time writing the second book, which is not common, I don't think, but I think that I knew how to write a book in a way that I didn't really know before because I had done it and I had seen what I could have done differently. It's obviously very stressful, having the time constraint, but for me having the time constraint was also really good because otherwise I would struggle to sort of get to the point in the writing. [with the first book] I was much more like 'what if this happens' or 'what if that happens,' or you know, maybe I'll take a day and stay in my PJs. It was a lot less direct and I had a lot I didn't really know about what I wanted to do with the book and I was sort of flitting around and I had a lot of time. I was adjuncting and I was nannying but that meant that I had a few days a week plus the weekends where I didn't have any work and so I could say, 'this is my writing day' and it was very loose and very sort of flighty almost in a way that I think translated to the book itself just in terms of how structurally it worked. Again, it's hard to know how much of that was first book versus second book, but I do know that the urgency of this book is partially the urgency I felt in like 'I gotta just get this out before he wakes up. He could wake up at any second,' you know? And this is the type of book where that sort of energy ended up working well.
And you didn't have to think back too far to remember what the newborn period was like.
Oh, yeah, and I was trying take notes on my phone and I was trying to think through- the real reason I wanted to write about this period is because I felt like I hadn't seen a lot of literature that represented it in a way that I felt was accurate and I also felt like I had a lot of conversations with other parents. I was the first of my close friends to have kids and so, for my son, the first six months or so were really lonely in that my friends were all doing the things they had done before I had a kid and I couldn't do those things anymore, but I hadn't yet really found a new group of friends who were having the same experiences as me. And once I did and once I talked to people, I realized that a lot of the things that I felt like, ‘oh is this how it's supposed to be? Maybe it's wrong that I'm having these feelings, is there something wrong with me that I'm so frustrated in these moments,’ as soon as I got close enough to my new parent friends to talk about it, I realized that everybody has these feelings. With pregnancy, I think, we talk about, like, this is hard. But with the actual parenting of the baby, I feel like the mom's feelings get thrown out the window a little bit.
I think there's also that thing of, 'it makes me a bad mother to be feeling this way.'
Exactly, but everybody feels that way and so I sort of felt like okay, what I can do with this book- I mean, it's not that interesting to read about someone like me who for half an hour here I'm so frustrated at the baby and then after she burps or whatever it is suddenly like, 'oh, I like being a mom again.' But what about someone who sits in those feelings for longer and how do you really push that to the extreme? And how do you take a postpartum mood disorder and push it to the extreme and write about it in a way where people can see themselves reflected? The feelings that most of us have aren't quite as intense or extreme as Megan but I hope that while reading people can say, 'oh, yeah, I remember the time that I just wanted to throw my kid out the window because he wouldn't shut up,' you know? Because that's normal, everyone feels that way.
I mean, I have to say that I personally experienced some form of mild PTSD while I was reading it because I was once a graduate student working on a dissertation-
With a new baby?
With a newborn. Well, actually, I wish I had been working on my dissertation. When my first child was born, I was just finishing my coursework in my second year of a PhD program. And I think the book is so terrifically on point in capturing not only the challenge of new motherhood, an extreme of something we all feel as new parents, but also the challenge of new motherhood when so much of your identity is tied up in writing, or thinking and producing ideas. I often wonder what my postpartum life would have been like if I was just working a regular job where you go in and do your work and then come home. For me, I always felt like I should be working, I should be writing.
Yep. Oh, yeah, I feel it.
I've never really had that the experience of that separation. And I think that feeling of simultaneous alienation from motherhood and from your pre-motherhood identity is amplified when that's the kind of work you're doing. And it's interesting because I think with each subsequent kid, I have been able to think again earlier?
Yes, I mean, I've only had two but I also had that experience where I sort of was prepared for it to be significantly harder than it was the second time around.
Do you think it's because your brain already went through the hazing process or now you've become this person who's a mother?
I think for me it's just like, ‘well, I'm already not sleeping!’ Whereas the first time around, it was such a shock to the system of what it means to physically be the sole source of everything for another human. It's so physically exhausting, and mentally. It's just so different. Adding a second- I mean, I could not have written this book with two of them at the age that they're at now. I now have a three-and-a-half year-old and an almost seven-month old and I wrote the book when I had a one year old to a two-year-old basically and that was like sort of the sweet spot in terms of napping and in terms of, you know, I had time. And now there's two of them and they're on different schedules and it's just a very different experience. So, logistically, it's harder to have two but emotionally, that transition is just so much easier.
Yeah, that's been my experience too. I loved your unpacking of the word "unserious." I know it's a small part of the book, toward the end, but the main character, Megan, is talking about leafing through tabloids in the grocery store and also wearing postpartum underwear and she comments on that by saying, 'both of these things are unserious and I know that's how people think of me,' that it’s a label that's ascribed to her. And I remember feeling terrified when I first got pregnant that I was going to have that label of “unserious” because there's definitely a large swath of academia that considers having children at all or having children too early in your career as a mark of unseriousness or a lack of commitment. You got an MFA before you had children — do you think it's the same kind of thing for career writers?
I think it is. I think it's similar because it's a field in which you are expected, like you said before, to just give your entire self all the time and there's something wrong with you if you're not working constantly, which is so unhealthy, but that is just the way that I think, especially on the academia side of writing, that things are. And so when you have a kid, you necessarily can't do that. You just can't. I wasn't worried about having a kid and I think part of that was- like I said, the timing for my first book just worked out quite nicely. I think it would have been a lot harder if I were still looking for an agent and had just had a baby because then how do you devote the time? Or if I hadn't sold a book and I didn't have money on the line where it's not just a hypothetical situation in which this could be my job, this is my job right now. But so much of working on a book – and I think working on a dissertation is kind of similar – it's just such a long game where it's hard to then map the hour for hour cost-benefit analysis thing. So there's that and I was lucky in that regard.
But writing a book about motherhood, I definitely still feel that a lot of big-name women writers don't want to be asked about motherhood. They are mothers but they don't want to talk about it because it's not serious and it's not serious literature. And I guess I've decided I'm going to lean into this and say, why not? I don't understand why we have a million books about men struggling to get it up and that's literature but when we talk about childbirth somehow that can't be. And so I just think it's ridiculous and I think it does other women a disservice if you're a mom and you've figured out how to do it and you're a writer and people are taking you seriously and you sort of close off that aspect of your life. I'm not saying share your kids all over the world and introduce everyone to your kids, but I do think talking about it and talking about how you make it work and the sacrifices you had to make and letting that be a part of your identity is really powerful because I think that's how we push past this. I know a decent amount of writers who have either just had their first kid or who are writing more about motherhood in a serious way and so I think that it's pushing on that label. Ultimately, I think it comes from a male-dominated literary world but I think it's not just the men who are providing this motherhood as unserious.
Yeah, I mean, it's got to be some sort of internalized misogyny. Because when you defamiliarize for a second you realize that this is maybe the most serious topic you could possibly tackle. Human beings would not exist if people were not gestating and birthing them and then, you know, taking care of them. Becoming a parent is kind of foundational for the continuation of our species.
Oh, for sure it is.
But at the same time, it's sometimes seen as this cheap thing, writing based on one’s own experience of motherhood. I loved the back and forth of tone in the book between the first-person confessional Megan uses to tell her story and the academic tone of her dissertation chapters on Margaret Wise Brown. Those are two different voices that I think a lot of us have and use, and to see them side-by-side was really striking. And it made me think about the different levels of respect we give to different types of writing, you know, the "serious" academic writing versus the more confessional first-person essays about motherhood, and which of those we consider to be “real” or literary and which we don't. I wondered how you were thinking about that when you were constructing the book.
I definitely thought about the different aspects of Megan and how she was trying or not trying to reconcile the two and it's sort of funny because each of the dissertation sections were initially twice as long as they ended up being in the published book because my editor, rightfully, was like, well people aren't buying this book to read a dissertation about Margaret Wise Brown and Modernism.
I mean, I would have, but sure.
And she's like, you're losing the plot momentum and let's think about this in terms of a narrative first which is sort of funny because I was super into writing the dissertation! I didn't get a PhD and, I mean, I made up some sources and if you actually sort of push on my arguments there, I suspect that they are probably not a sound as they would need to be to actually be somebody's dissertation.
But you nailed the tone, I'll say that.
It came out of several things and one was how to how to reconcile those two parts of Megan and how to show how they're sort of slowly bleeding into each other and that turned out to be a nice way to do that. And the other was like how to get this information about Margaret Wise Brown that you sort of need to have in order to understand what's happening in the book.
It's such a great structure.
Yeah, it came out of a need to convey all this expository information in a way that made sense and wasn't just sort of like, you know- this is this happened to me a lot in grad school, you would go to a reading and they'd say, you know, you have five minutes to read but before I start let me set the scene for you for 20 minutes, you know what I mean? That's what I wanted to do and how was I going to do that? And the dissertation ended up being that and then I realized I could do more with it by having it morph as her experience changes and as she's writing it.
Did you start with Megan's story or did you start with an interest in Margaret Wise Brown?
I think that I was interested in writing a postpartum psychological thriller/horror story because I think I at one point was awake with my baby in the middle of the night and everybody else is asleep and I was like looking out and I said, I feel a little bit like I'm Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window where I could watch something happen but I've got this baby, I would never be able to do anything about it. And so that sort of led to like, well this whole postpartum period is so ripe for psychological horror and suspense because the world, especially with the first baby, just feels shifted off its axis and you don't really know, like, is this something normal? Is something wrong with me? Am I just so exhausted that I think this is happening when it's not really happening? It’s a really rich time in someone's life to be setting a suspense story in. And I think while I was having those thoughts and taking notes and thinking through what the suspenseful moments could be, I was trying to sleep train my kid, who still wakes up at 4:30 in the morning so it didn't work, but part of the sleep training routine that they suggested was to read the same book, sing the same song, you know, do the same thing over and over. And the book that I had was Goodnight Moon and I'm not sure if it I realized this after or I picked it because I didn't get bored of it but it is a book where I feel like I could just read it over and over and over and not be sick of it.
It was also our sleep training book that we read literally every single night.
So many kids’ books, after halfway through it, you're just like oh my god, you know?
Yeah, Goodnight Moon is soothing, it's interesting, you sort of notice things about it that are different. And the “goodnight nobody” page was where I was like, this is weird. I really liked it. I mean I had read it as a kid and I knew about it, but I hadn't read it, you know, a hundred times in six months before. And so at one point I think I was just curious about who she was and the second that I saw who she was and how different she was from what I expected her to be, I wanted to read more about her. And probably about halfway through reading a biography of her, I knew. How has nobody done this yet? Has somebody done this? Am I going to be able to do this? Just because she's so fascinating.
I know, I was like, how come we don't know this already?
I know, I know, it's just crazy. And I think for our parents' generation and the generation before that, Margaret as she was sort of runs counter to what people wanted out of their kids' book so I can sort of see why she wasn't pushed-
Why those aspects of her life weren’t publicized.
Yeah. But I think for us, for Gen X and Millennials having kids now, I think knowing who she was makes these books so much richer and, I mean, I'm much more likely- I went out and bought a ton of her books. I have all her books for my kids. But I don't think I would have done that had I looked into her and I was like, oh, an old lady great, which is sort of what I expected.
So, mild spoilers of Margaret Wise Brown’s life: she gets to be the writer, but she never gets to be a mother. And Michael, her lover, is a mother but never really gets the writing career that she wanted. And Megan, in the course of the book, is kind of caught between those two poles. And obviously people like you and everyone I interview for this newsletter, are proof that you can do both of these things but the challenge is definitely significant. What do you think has to be true for you to be able to be both of those things?
I think you have to really want the writing at the expense of other things, like, sometimes, a social life or being caught up with TV or cooking nice meals. I don't know, it has to be sort of both your hobby and your job in terms of when you're really working on something there just isn't the time. But I also say this as someone with very young children and I have friends who have kids who are even elementary school-aged when it suddenly becomes a lot easier because they have their own stuff. Not now but someday, again, you know, they have their own inner world and they're not as dependent on you. But to do this while you have young kids, I think it really does require a lot of dedication and you have to derive some sort of enjoyment from the process itself. As much as it's painful or hard, I think there's got to be something in you that is drawn to it in such a way that you feel fulfilled and it just fills something that you need.
Yeah, I think but I think to be a writer in general you kind of need that. I've tried to just be really aware of the choices that I'm making and I think that helps too. Instead of just thinking, oh man, it's so frustrating that I haven't had the time to write, I try to think like, okay, but what I chose to do is spend actual time with my kids where I'm focused on them. Easier said than done but, you know, put my phone away, put my everything away. I am trying to view it less as a loss of time and more as this is what I chose for right now and when they're older the calculus will be different and it will weight out differently. Obviously, I didn't plan to be in a two-bedroom condo for ten months straight so it feels a little different now.
Talk to me about that. We're in this period now where there you can't necessarily make the choices you would ordinarily make so how has that been? Are you working on anything right now? How have the last 11 months been for you?
I have not done much. My daughter was born literally the day after I turned in my final draft for The Upstairs House. It's like she knew. She was three and a half weeks early. I thought I was going to have a little time. And my son had been in school but he has not been in school since last March. I was handling things fairly well while pregnant with just him but then as soon as I had the two of them, it was really hard. And then even like a month ago, I was like, okay, I'm ready to get back into the next project. But now I have the work to do for this book in terms of promoting it so we'll see. I mean, I feel much more drive toward working on another project, whereas for a while I just wanted to eat ice cream on the couch once the kids were sleeping. Now I'm sort of like, I have ideas, I can do things. “Do things” is a really relative term, but the ideas are there. Do I tell myself I would have half of a third book already if it weren't for the pandemic? I tell myself that but who knows what it would actually look like.
So you've had no real child care.
Nope. We're actually about to move, which is great but right now we have four of us in a two-bedroom condo and because my kids are both bad sleepers, one of the bedrooms is the master bedroom, nursery, and office. And so it's just very tight for one place. What we have tried to tell ourselves are the pros of this time is that he has lunch and he can come and be with us and in the mornings, he's not commuting and in the evenings he's not commuting. And so I've taken some of those times where I probably would have had to be on were he working out of his office and I've been able to get some work done then and we sort of balance it out. I also feel very lucky to have a genuine co-parent in a way that I think a lot of women don't and so that makes everything better on the career front and better on the personal life front. It would be very, very difficult to do this if it wasn't a sort of a joint goal.
Speaking of joint goals, there have always been people who compare pregnancy to possession. You know, you've got this strange something inside of you, living off of you, and there have been stories about possessed babies. But in this book, the baby is kind of possessed by her mother's work and the work becomes the baby and the baby becomes the work. You alluded earlier to the way that the dissertation and the narrative kind of blend together or play off of each other. So I'm wondering how you came to that kind of depiction of possession.
I was always really interested in this idea of a mother being haunted by herself, or another version of herself or her past self or the desires that she has but can't fulfill and so it made sort of a narrative sense that the baby would sort of be the host for this but I think sort of on an emotional, thematic level, it's much less about the baby and much more about the way that Megan views the baby and the way that the baby impacts her work and her desire for the work, too. I think something that I was really interested in – and this is not something that I experienced necessarily – but with Megan, I think she doesn't really know what she wants. She doesn't know if she wants to be a mother, she doesn't know if she wants to do the work, but she sort of wants to want the work. And I think that is a fairly common feeling. I knew pretty early on that l would be a lesser mother if I didn't have my own work, but I also know women who went back to work and were like, wait, this is not what I want to be doing or who felt like this was the way to do it, if I want to be taken seriously, I have to go back to my job even though what I really want is to be with the baby and financially it's a wash. So I think Megan is experiencing a little bit of that, where, like, I've invested so much time into this graduate school program and I want to want it but what do I actually want? It's almost like this is her motivation to figure that out. I definitely don't mean it to be a sweeping generalization on what women can and can't do. To me, it's much more about what this particular and what she's capable of.
What advice do you have for people who are trying to write as parents who may be in those first few months?
Oh gosh. I think to not push yourself. I definitely felt a lot of pressure having had one book come out to have another book and to say, this wasn't just a fluke, I'm not just a mom now. And i think I was physically, because my kid would not sleep or my habits meant he would not sleep anywhere but my arms for eight months, I was sort of forced to slow that down and I think that was ultimately better. I think it was better that I would watch TV on my phone with my headphones in while rocking him in the dark and have a moment of rejuvenation. And then when it became the right time, it was the right time. I guess what I'm saying is to be gentle on yourself. It's hard enough already without forcing yourself when you aren't physically or mentally ready and I think having patience with yourself and with the entire process of parenting to know that you will reach that again, and even if it takes a year or longer, we'll get there. Trying to force yourself early isn't going to necessarily be fruitful.
If you preorder The Upstairs House here it will come to your house next week and you can read it!