"If There’s Any Inspirational Kernel, It’s That I Didn’t Quit"
A Conversation with Jessamine Chan
I recently had the pleasure of talking to Catherine Ricketts, a writer who runs the Mother/Artist Lunch/Break Instagram series, and she asked whether there were any particular insights from author interviews that stick with me. This conversation with Jessamine Chan was fresh in my mind and so I talked about how great it’s been to interview women who have worked for years before hitting their literary stride. In a culture where 30 under 30 lists and wunderkind conversations predominate, it is marvelous to read a book by someone who just…spent a lot of time getting to their debut. We don’t talk enough about literary patience, what it takes to sit with ideas and words as they change over time and become what they are meant to be; what it takes to believe in yourself for years, decades even. I know I tend to remember the stories about ideas that pounce and demand to be written, about books completed in a fugue-like state over a couple of weeks or months. But the more common path is longer and less straightforward. It looks more like Jessamine’s: an early obsession, a work-in-progress that doesn’t…progress, an article that unknowingly plants a seed, years of writing into an idea, and revision, revision, revision. We read the end product and we celebrate it, as we should (and we look forward to the Jessica Chastain-optioned TV series!), but we should not paper over the process, all of that persistence and internal fortitude. Read on for my conversation with Jessamine on her funny, frightening, and thought-provoking New York Times bestselling debut, The School for Good Mothers, the stigma of taking anti-depressants while pregnant, social media as the enemy of writing, and much more.
Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Talk to me about the road to this book. This is your debut but you’ve been writing for a long time.
I started writing in January 1997 and I can tell you that because I started writing in a beginning fiction workshop in spring semester of freshman year of college. Maybe I wrote some terrible poems in elementary school because they forced you to do that. But I took that class because I knew I wanted to be a book editor one day, I wanted to read for a living, and so I thought, ‘oh, I’ll take a writing workshop and just be a more empathetic book editor knowing the creative process.’ And that class really changed my life. I don’t know how to even put it into words but suddenly it was just a decision of this is what I want to do with my life, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I think it’s now like 25 years later that I’m publishing my first book. So if there’s any inspirational kernel to be taken from that, it’s that I didn’t quit.
That’s not a kernel, it’s a whole plant of inspiration.
Yeah, I started writing as a college freshman, and I'm now 43. The journey to the first book is my whole adult life. It's been about 25 years of writing and wishing and hoping and wondering if I was ever going to get a book done and is this ever going to happen? Certainly because of grad school and Breadloaf, most of my friends are writers at this point in my life and a lot of my friends are on book two, book three. Some of them on are on book five, the really productive of ones. It certainly has been challenging to watch everyone do the thing that I've always wanted to do and wondering if it would ever happen for me. So my story is just that it took a really long time and I didn't quit and I had a lot of really supportive and loving people in my life believing in me, which was very, very important. And I just want to also put it out there that I had childcare.
Ah yes, childcare, that’s usually my first question.
I just am trying to put that out there because this was not a novel written by magic. I didn't write it with my baby on my lap. I didn't stay up till 5 AM every morning writing it. I had her in preschool or we had a nanny. My husband does way more than 50% of the childcare. So I don't want it to seem that I figured out a magical balance between being a writer and a mom. The magical balance was having childcare.
It always is. It always, always is. I sometimes joke that the name of this newsletter should just be You Need Childcare and then there doesn't need to be any newsletter, actually.
I also wrote dramatically more when we enrolled her in full-time preschool rather than picking her up at noon. Once she was there till 3 PM and once she was there till 5 PM, wow, I got a lot more done.
You need those stretches.
Yeah and suddenly my glacial pace became a tiny bit faster. Certainly, during the pandemic, I could not have gotten through because my edits for my original editor Don Davis, I was only about two weeks into them when the entire shutdown began. I had edits that were due on contract by a certain time. I was not any more focused than anyone else and was definitely losing my mind but we also hired one of her preschool teachers to be our nanny during that time.
Right, and that was a time when people were just on their own.
Yeah, we were sometimes on our own and it was not eight hours a day, but having childcare during the quarantine was how the book got written because I would not have met any of my book deadlines or copy edits or proofing or any of it without having childcare help. It costs as much as rent and we were very, very lucky to be able to afford childcare in America and then we were very lucky to have childcare during the pandemic because I know a lot of people are on their own. In my acknowledgements, there's a lot of nannies thanked and it looks like my daughter had five nannies at a time or something because there's so many people listed. The reason is because we always had to piece it together. In one summer, she sometimes had four different babysitters or in one quarantine year, I think there were three different nannies. There are a lot of people thanked, not because she had three nannies at a time, but because it was never one continuous stretch with one person.
Thanking childcare providers in acknowledgments is a real hero move. Regular childcare is the scaffolding that holds so many people up while they’re doing the work and I love when we talk openly about it. But to go back to your story, that's so many years to keep on writing. Did you ever think about giving up? Did you despair and think, it's not going to happen?
Yes, but at the same time I think there was something in the back of my mind that believed that it would happen eventually. I definitely have to just scribble my way into ideas and that is an incredibly slow way to work. It's been a funny thing to do press and to have to create a narrative out of a process that's been very trial and error and meandering and slow and to make it sound like a plan when a lot of it was just surviving hard years of my life and dealing with the aftermath of- I have a very sedate home life now but my 20s were a big mess in my personal life so that definitely slowed things down in a dramatic way. I didn't actually send any short stories out until my mid-30s, even though I was working on them very, very slowly. I always had the dream of writing and publishing, but I also was trying not to rush myself to start sending work before I felt like there was something that needed to be committed to print. A lot of my grad school stories just really don't need to see the light of day and that's okay, I learned from them. I grew a lot as a writer and it's okay if those are not published.
Was this the first novel you had the idea to write? Were there others before?
There is a big stack of pages somewhere in my files, maybe I recycled them already but right before grad school, I started a kind of impossible-to-ever-develop novel about a birth cult where all the women are named Alice and they're all a bunch of pregnant ladies and there's this mystical preacher. But the problem is there was no plot and not many characters and no action and it was just a bunch of floating images with strong sentences that didn't go anywhere. I managed to write 100 pages of something but I was really interested in cults and I was really interested in reading about Mormon fundamentalism and I was interested in some secular fiction version of that and it made for an interesting premise to talk to agents about but it didn't really go anywhere.
So you were already interested in pregnancy and you started writing this book, too, before you became a mom.
I started writing this long before becoming pregnant and part of the journey of this book is that I had motherhood on the brain because I was heading into my late 30s and it was time to make a choice. In a world where women's biology is different, I would've been happy to wait till my late 40s, early 50s.
It may seem hard to believe since I have four children, but I would have waited forever if biology wasn’t a thing.
Yeah. I didn't feel ready. I felt very ambivalent. I think there should be more room to talk about that in our culture because I guess I have now become the maternal ambivalence person for my friends. Several of my writer friends are like, ‘So, you had a hard time deciding, right? I am having a hard time deciding.’ I'm like, ‘Yes, I am here for that ambivalence.’ My husband and I are both artists. It was a very hard decision. At the time we were living in Brooklyn, which made having a baby seem even more impossible and I was working on a collection of short stories. My professional trajectory has definitely been as an editor. In my 20s, I worked at the University of Chicago, I went to grad school at 30, so already going to grad school at 30 is like you're a late bloomer.
Yeah, I started grad school in my late 20s and it felt late.
You know how it goes. The book began well before I started calling it a book. I began the project in February 2014, which is like I'm telling you about 40 years ago or something in pandemic years. It was a very different political reality in 2014 and I started it as a short story because at the time that was what I could envision myself doing in terms of the time I had available to write and what I thought my capabilities were. It grew out of my obsessive anxiety and thinking about motherhood and feeling not ready for it and how much fear and pressure I felt. A few months before that, I had read a nonfiction piece in the New Yorker called “Where is Your Mother” by Rachel Aviv which I don't think sparked anything creatively at the time, and I didn't even think about it at all between when I read that article and when I started the project, it's just the way some stories just lodge in your mind and you don't know when they're going to become creative fuel. I just remember feeling really full of rage after reading that piece. It's about a single mom who leaves her toddler son at home and after that day, after the act of leaving him home, she never gets him back. The idea that one day's terrible decision could change your life and your family's life forever was just so scary and the odds that she was against in terms of arguing her own fitness as a parent to family court judges and social workers. I think in the article, it talks about how the bar for good enough kept rising. It felt like she was trying to meet this set of impossible standards that were always changing. So I think the creative spark kind of came from the premise of a mom leaving her child at home but also something about that article really reminded me of science fiction in a way, because the way they talked about parenting and the way they talked about a mother's love for a child and expressing affection just felt so clinical. It felt like they were trying to measure this impossible, intangible thing and trying to be objective about it when it's inherently subjective. I was asked in an interview with Qian Julie Wang who is the author of the memoir, Beautiful Country: when you read that, did you start planning it? And I'm like, ‘No, no, no. I just had a really good writing day where I made a big mess,’ and so a lot of my tour has been explaining how my very big mess turned into a novel that's fast-paced and sleek and stuff.
That's the work, right?
Yeah, that's the work. It's hard to boil it down to two sentences because it was more like a lot of crying and going to therapy a lot and making my husband put up with my moods working on this project.
That’s so validating. I sometimes feel bad that my mood is so dependent on how well the writing is going at any particular time and it's not fair to the people I live with.
The other day I was telling my husband that I was hearing from people who'd done a lot of crying near the end of the book, not to spoil anything, but he reminded me that whenever I was revising chapter 17 or 18, I kind of had a little breakdown every time and I would stop sleeping. I would get really agitated. He's like, ‘Yeah, that just happened over and over again for years.’ I'm like, ‘Oh, sorry.’
I was going to say that some parts of the book were hard for me to read. There was definitely pleasure involved – it's beautifully written, the pacing is fantastic – but when I started it, I was quarantined with my kids. My husband had COVID and he was in the basement and so I was parenting alone. And it also happened to be that it was the same weekend that we had those freak winter tornadoes here.
Oh my god. So many disasters at once.
It's Friday night, everybody is finally in bed, and the tornado siren goes off. There are four children in three different bedrooms and I'm wondering, which is the safer option, up here or in the COVID basement? Can I go and get them at the last second if it gets bad? It was a very stressful situation, to say the least. Anyway, everyone ended up in my bed except for the baby and that’s when I started reading your book. So that’s all to say it made reading some of those tense scenes even more tense.
Honestly, it really helped that they were written for the first time before having a baby. I had a whole first draft done before having a baby. I started the project in 2014 and my daughter was not born until January 2017. It took about a year and a half to have a complete first draft and then it took several years to turn that first draft into a manuscript that anyone besides me could read. When I was going back to those scenes, it wasn't necessarily writing them all from scratch but yeah, it's a very strange thing to do to write a book like this while raising a child.
That was going to be my next question. Did anything change once you actually had a baby and went through that whole gauntlet?
One thing that I'm trying to talk about more, just because I feel like there's not much space in our culture for talking about it is that one thing that was amped up for the version of the book that's being published that was not necessarily in the first draft was Frida's experience of depression, which is one of the main threads in the book but wasn't there before because I hadn't had a major depressive spell since undergrad or my early twenties. My internist took me off my antidepressants before becoming pregnant because she advised that it wasn't safe to be on the drugs that I was on. I really should have questioned that. If I had done my research- I'm blaming myself for something that was- I'm telling you this and I'm saying sentences that are blaming myself when actually this was a terrible decision on the doctor's part. I was on Effexor, which is a class of antidepressants that pregnant women are not allowed to take, and she knew that I was trying for baby and she transitioned me off the medication really fast and the taper should have happened over a year, not over three months. Then I should have gone on a different antidepressant but the terrible advice she gave me was like, ‘Who wants to take a pill every day?
I don't know, someone who depends on it for their wellbeing? I mean, I take a pill every day. My thyroid doesn't work anymore, thanks to my second child. Lots of people take a pill every day.
It just falls into the category of silent suffering that a lot of moms have to do and I think I'm just trying to talk about it more because, to the people that I have spoken about my experience with going off meds to become pregnant, they're like, ‘Oh my sister-in-law did that and had a total mental breakdown.’ Everyone I talk to has a sister or cousin or friend who's gone through this because a lot of us are on antidepressants but if you're pregnant or nursing, you're supposed to just suffer and I guess try not to die. She said, ‘Who wants to take a pill every day,’ and then like, ‘See how you do without it,’ and it turned out without it, I just had a major mental health crisis, which was a very raw place from which to work on my very raw book. I think that Frida's experience of depression was very colored by my sudden awareness of what depression and anxiety was like because it had been controlled by medication for so long. I was able to tap into that feeling of losing control and the spiraling thoughts because suddenly I had some fresh suffering to draw on. The other thing that changed was, I think Frida's relationship with Harriet became a lot richer. I think Frida became a much more competent mother because before I became a mom, I could only imagine all the ways that I would fail. It didn't occur to me that I'd be able to bathe a baby correctly or feed her or be tender. I could only imagine myself being terrible at it, so Frida became much warmer and more competent.
That definitely comes through and it also comes through in Frida's relationship with Emanuelle. I don't know if that's too spoiler-y [mild spoilers ahead].
Oh, I thought it would be but I have been surprised how many reviews are just like, ‘And this is the way the dolls work,’ because the readers who have come to it without reading anything, they're really happily surprised. That's been a funny part of the press.
So, not to give away too many of the details but it was so enraging that one of the ways the mothers are evaluated is by the authenticity of their emotions because so much of parenting is pretending! Am I interested in Pokemon? No, not in the least. Do I pretend to be interested in Pokemon because this person that I desperately love is extremely interested in Pokemon? Yeah. That's the whole gig.
Yeah, I'm so glad that that spoke to you. Honestly, a lot of the crazier lessons I came up with before being pregnant. Before motherhood, a lot of the lessons and the idea of instruction was me kind of raging at society because I just felt like, ‘Oh my God, I'm entering a system.’ I'm not just having a baby and I don't just have this responsibility, but also I'm now entering American mothering culture and the culture has always just seemed so scary and oppressive to me. Watching all the pressure that my friends put on themselves and also it's just in the air. It's hard to avoid modern mom culture, which is predominantly upper middle class and white and very American. It's just everywhere. So I definitely had opinions about it that got manifested in the lessons and playing it as satire rather than writing an op-ed about it. I guess I built some absurdity into the book because I find a lot of the demands on mothers, the pressure, the impossible standards to be really absurd, especially in in a society where the culture exalts mothers but the government offers absolutely nothing.
So well put. Did it end up being as scary as you thought it would be, motherhood?
Oh no. I love being a mom. I think once I actually became a mom, the competing demands were my baby and my book and so I've called it my book baby for a long time, which has an incredibly long gestation period, much longer than a human. I do find the message you're supposed to be cheerful and grateful and inspired and happy every moment of the day, otherwise you're a bad mom, to be really oppressive. I think I find the predominantly upper middle class white privileged idea that you're supposed to be cultivating your children to be these- that is that you're not just raising children and loving them, but you're sort of crafting this perfect enriched childhood. Whatever is happening with motherhood on Instagram is terrifying to me. Whenever I see moms doing that, I totally go down the rabbit hole of looking at their grid and going through all their pictures and I'm like, ‘My house doesn't look this. Will I ever have dried eucalyptus in a vase and will I ever have a nursery that's that clean with that many beautiful wooden toys?’
I so wouldn't.
And oh my god, I haven't had family photos for two years because of the pandemic. I've missed out on something from my daughter's childhood and I'm going to have this hole in the family album. I look at all those images, too, and feel great envy and shame, but it just didn't really exist when I was growing up. The sort of focus on the cult of motherhood. I feel it was a different beast when I was growing up in the '80s and '90s because the '80s and '90s motherhood message, it was just, can women have a career? That was the question. Now the question is actually can women do five full time jobs at the same time? While also never needing antidepressants or any support at all.
Right and while wearing very beautiful flowy dresses.
Right. You also need to have really good abs and beautiful clothes. I love those images, though, I spend far too much time looking at those images. My online life was definitely very curated. I didn't take pictures of ‘here's my months of depression.’ It all looked very happy. All my daughter's baby year looked very happy but I was suffering greatly in the background. I think that the book is emerging at a time when there are a lot more transgressive motherhood narratives. I always recommend the novel Nightbitch. I think that is the perfect companion book to mine and one that I wish I had written.
Oh Nightbitch, so good. Your book and Rachel’s book both do so much with the tension between being a mother and trying to do…anything else. The message of the school in your book is that you can only be a mother. A distracted mother is a bad mother. Your whole function is to be a mother. I know you didn't plan it this way but it's particularly resonant for a moment where half the internet is like, ‘Well, you shouldn't have had kids if you don't want to be home with them or take care of them.’
Oh my God, I've been trying not to read that half of the internet.
Sorry to bring it up.
Honestly, Twitter to me- it's great to discover writers like you and a lot of other writers and thinkers on Twitter but Twitter to me is a really scary place with all-
Oh my gosh. I'm so frightened by it.
With all due respect to the people who Twitter has helped, I've only been on Twitter since my book sold because I received some gentle advice that it was probably not wise to be completely offline in the way that I was all this time and one thing – this is a total digression that's not useful for your Substack at all – but I'd been using Twitter by logging into it for 10 minutes, looking at things, posting something and logging off. I can tell you that that is a way to not have anyone see your tweets because it turns out you have to have it on all the time for anyone to see your tweets because-
Okay, and let me tell you why this is actually very germane and we need to talk about it. I do think that people who are trying to write- I guess I could speak for myself personally, I think that Twitter is by and large the enemy of writing and yet you kind of need it. I think there’s this bind of it seeming necessary to be on Twitter in order to write professionally and yet I personally do my best writing when I totally ignore it but then nobody's seeing what I’m doing. That's all to say I think you did it exactly right. You wrote your book and then you got on Twitter.
Right. I wrote my book and then I got on Twitter. When I was in the process of selling my book, I did have some editors say, ‘So, it's very hard to find you online. What do you think about that?’ I explained that when there's a book to promote, I will have an author Instagram, I will have a Twitter account, I will do all the things but I stayed off those. I had no public internet life because I was just trying to write and I'm a very distractible person. And so one thing I discovered was if you log into Twitter for 10 minutes a day and post very, very little, no one sees your tweets at all. Only my agent saw my tweets and then when the book was coming out, I just decided to leave Twitter on and all of a sudden, hundreds of people saw my tweets. I'm like, ‘Oh, that's the way you have to use this? You have to just have it open all the time?’ Having it open all the time has completely destroyed my brain. It’s been great for getting words out about events and sharing good news. It's been really exciting to share good news and talk about my book and promote other people's books, but having it open on my phone is definitely destroying my brain.
It's a tough one. I feel a nostalgia for a life that I never lived, which is that you used to be able to be a writer and just lock yourself in your cave and do your work and still be able to sell it and I don't know that that's a possibility anymore.
I'm going to plant my flag and say that I did not have any social media following before selling my book. I was just unfindable on the internet and I still sold my book. This is an example of it's okay to be offline and it's okay to not go into the book sale thing like, ‘I have 5,000 followers.’ I had zero followers because I only had private accounts. Even in an interview I did a few days ago, they said, ‘So, there's not much of an online footprint for you.’ Over the years I would get editor or agent queries through my Facebook that always began, ‘I'm so sorry to contact you on Facebook. It's really hard to find your email address.’ It's okay to live that way. In the years before I had a baby, I wrote by turning off wifi on my computer, turning off my cell phone and I would just be non-contactable. The only reason I started turning my phone on was because my daughter started preschool and I think on day three, I missed a call from the school saying that she had fallen down the stairs. They're like, ‘We just want to let you know if there's a big bump on her head at the end of the day, it's because she fell down the stairs.’ Then after that day forward, I decided I had to have the ringer on on my phone. Before that, I would just have the phone completely off, wifi completely off, writing long hand and that was what I needed to do to stay focused. I just got a new computer and my first thing that I needed to do is to figure out how to turn off all the notifications. I definitely also long for my pre-internet, pre-smartphone life. It's been very gratifying to see how hard bookstagrammers have been working to spread the word about my book and to connect with so many people and the Read With Jenna audience. A lot of it is online and that's been so exciting. It's definitely not in my nature to interact with the internet in this way. Sometimes I get very envious of someone like Sally Rooney who can just be like, ‘I'm private. I don't want to talk about that.’
Yeah, no thanks. I'm opting out.
Yeah but that's a privilege to be able to do that. I would love people to read my book and it's a very gratifying thing also to be an Asian American author in this position. To be read widely is very exciting but I'm a very private person by nature. Going from complete anonymity to interacting with the internet has been kind of its own emotional journey.
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Order your copy of The School for Good Mothers here.
What a wonderful interview. I'm doing a review of The School for Good Mothers for Literary Mama in the May/June issue and there was such a flavor of Jessamine's personality here. I loved that she shared her story of struggling with depression and that that informed the book itself. The book was such an important commentary on the impossibility of modern motherhood, I'm thrilled to hopefully bring even more readers to it.