Wednesday, July 27, 2011
mothers and daughters
If you’ve been reading my posts in the last few weeks, you know that as I sat next to my grandpa the week he was dying, I was reading Rae Meadows’ new novel Mothers and Daughters. It was the perfect novel to read as I said goodbye to Spencer because so much of the story for me was about grief and loss and letting go.
The novel is told from the perspective of three generations of women—a grandmother, mother, and daughter. Violet left New York for the Midwest at age eleven on one of the turn-of-the-century orphan trains. Iris, Violet's daughter, now dying of cancer, has relocated to Florida and reflects on her mother, Violet, her daughter, Sam, and the love she discovered late in life. Sam, an artist and new mother living in Madison, is dealing with her mother’s death and the loss of her first pregnancy as she navigates early motherhood and tries to find her way back into her creative work and out of the secretive isolation she has created for herself.
So much in this novel resonated with me: needing to find balance between creativity and motherhood, coming to terms with loss, finding one’s way back to oneself. So I’m very pleased to have Rae here today to discuss Mothers and Daughters, writing, and how motherhood has affected her work. Welcome, Rae!
KH: Can you talk a little about how this book started? Was it with an image, a character, an idea?
RM: Learning about the orphan trains really was what got this novel started for me, and, soon after, the character of Violet was born. I actually based her on a photograph of my grandmother when she was young.
KH: You’ve woven together three stories in three voices and alternating chapters. Did you always know that the book would be structured this way? Did you write them separately and then splice them together? I’d love if you would talk a little bit about your process.
RM: I started out wanting to write a three-story structure—I was inspired by The Hours by Michael Cunningham—but when I got started, I had a hard time envisioning the novel as a whole. It seemed more manageable to write each part separately. I wrote Violet first, then Sam, then Iris. The revision process was very important for this book because I had to make sure the spliced stories worked with each other, both thematically and chronologically.
KH: What did this involve? I’d love a sense of how long this revision process took. I’m picturing you on the floor with chapters spread out around you.
RM: At one point I really did have chapters and scissors! And lists of who was born when, what happened where, etc. But I liked the challenge of it. It was kind of like a puzzle. And then I added details and scenes to fill out the narrative and cohere the novel. In the end it didn’t take as long as I feared.
KH: A big part of this story for me was about the power of loss and how loss can isolate us from the people in our lives. One of the things we learn early in the book is that Sam terminated her first pregnancy because the fetus had genetic anomalies. How did you settle on this kind of loss to haunt Sam?
RM: I had my children on the older side, so my husband and I had to weigh the risks of genetic testing and address all the possibilities. I felt like for Sam, it’s a complicated loss because she chose to terminate yet on some level she regrets that decision and doesn’t feel she’s allowed to grieve. I wanted to make her complicit in her loss, because it becomes a secret for her that gathers weight instead of fading.
KH: What was the most surprising and/or challenging thing that happened in the process of writing Mothers & Daughters? (In terms of the narrative itself, your writing process, or how you approached the material.)
RM: I started out writing the novel as pure historical fiction, with two other characters at the turn of the century, including a doctor at the Wisconsin Insane Asylum. But when I returned to writing after having a baby, the idea didn’t feel right. After this tremendous life change, I knew I wanted to explore motherhood in some way. It was very much a lightning bolt moment to do a three-generational novel about women. (I’m still waiting for the lightning on my next project…)
KH: I love this, Rae. Each of the women in the story has a very different experience mothering and being a mother. Was this a deliberate decision? How did your own experience with early motherhood help shape (or not shape) the ways Violet, Sam and Iris experienced motherhood?
RM: It was a deliberate decision. Sam was heavily influenced by my experience as a new mother, but I really wanted to explore motherhood in different iterations. As a writer, I found it compelling to imagine how the circumstances of one’s life (and even one’s mother’s and grandmother’s lives) affect how one mothers. I liked the idea of legacy, for better and for worse. I couldn’t have written this novel before having children.
KH: You have two children, and one is a baby. Can you talk a little about how your writing life fits in with the rest of your life—mothering, family?
RM: It doesn’t fit! As you know, it’s a crazy juggling act to be a mother and a writer. I am a full time mom, so writing happens in short bursts, late at night. I try to remind myself that this stage, with the girls so young, is a short one. My writing life will open back up. I try to remember that writing is not a race. If a novel takes an extra year to complete, that’s okay.
KH: Can you describe the editorial process? (How much did you revise the manuscript after it was sold? Can you also talk a little about what it’s like to work with an editor?)
RM: I spoke with my editor (Helen Atsma) before I sold the novel to Henry Holt, so I knew that I liked her and trusted her vision. It’s always a little scary to get the first round of editor’s notes back on a manuscript—I generally have a mini freak out—but Helen’s comments were clear and felt doable for me, and not that extensive. Most were about adding here and there to fill out the stories. For instance, she wanted more items in the box of Iris’s, and she wanted the box to arrive earlier. The story of Sam needed the most help, probably because she’s the character most like me! There were a couple little things I didn’t agree with, but Helen didn’t make me do anything I felt strongly against.
KH: How does it feel to have this book out in the world? What kinds of responses are you getting from readers?
RM: It’s wonderful to have the book out and I feel incredibly lucky. It’s so satisfying to have people read your work and have it resonate with them. Often people have a favorite character of the three—usually Violet. A lot of women tell me they cried, and that is a huge compliment. One of the most flattering comments came from the owner of a bookstore in Chicago. Given the character of Iris, she thought I would be in my seventies.
KH: One more question: what are you working on now?
RM: I loved the research part of this novel so much I decided to do it again. I’m writing an interwoven story about a family in the Oklahoma panhandle during the Dust Bowl and the photographer Dorothea Lange.
KH: Fascinating! I look forward to reading. And thank you for taking the time to be here today.