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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.

Add Mothers and Daughters to your reading list! And to read more about orphan trains, visit Rae's website

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

celebrating spencer


Saturday we held the service for my grandpa, and it was lovely. There were tears, of course, but there was also lots of laughter as people stood up and shared their memories of my grandpa—his optimism, his integrity, his sense of humor, and his extraordinary golf swing.

I read the piece I wrote last week about Grandpa’s nine lives (which I’ll now tweak and submit), and we watched the short video that was made about him a couple of years ago. (I wish I could stream it online, because it’s perfectly my grandpa…)

And Saturday morning, there was this wonderful news obituary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Check it out here.

I know I’ve spent a lot of time writing about him here recently, and I’ve all but abandoned my author interviews. But I’m back now, and am looking forward to having Rae Meadows as a guest later this week and Lisa Catherine Harper in the next month. So stay tuned!

Thank you, as always, for your words and for reading. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

on being a writer


I haven’t had much time to sit down and really write these last weeks. Between my grandpa dying, a trip up north, a non-writing related freelance project, and limited childcare, I just haven’t had the time to spirit myself off to the coffee shop.

And this bothers me. It makes me feel unmoored, as if there is nothing holding me in place, keeping me from scattering here and there with the details of my life.

It’s interesting, then, that in the last few days, three friends have e-mailed me essays and quotes about being a writer. It’s as if they knew, somehow, that I needed that reminder.

This is the first. It’s an Ira Glass quote from Sally McGraw’s blog Already Pretty. Sally takes the quote and writes a wonderful post about how style evolves. But I love it for what it says to beginning writers:

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me —  is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

You’ve gotta fight your way through. I love that, and it speaks to something that I often say here and to my students: don’t ever give up. Keep writing. Even when it’s hard. Even when you get rejected. Even when you don’t have time. Take an hour or twenty minutes and sit down and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

The next piece sent to me was a link to M. Molly Backes’ post on how to be a writer. A mother, whose daughter wants to be a writer, asked Molly what she needed to do to help her daughter. The mother was looking for some formula, some camp that would help her daughter realize her dream. I love Molly’s response. And it reminded me, as a mother, how I can best support my daughters’ dreams: love them, support them, and let them see me following my own dreams--working hard, never giving up.

And the last piece, also sent by one of my wonderful former students, was Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent essay, “Trading Stories: Notes from an apprenticeship,” in The New Yorker. I love Lahiri’s stories, so I loved reading about her journey into writing, her determination, the way she found a home at her desk.

Each of these pieces buoys me, and each reminds me that I am, indeed, a writer.

I have cleared my morning today, and will make my way to the coffee shop after I run and after I drop the girls at their 2-day-a-week summer program. And I will sit down and write the piece for my grandpa’s memorial service (which is Saturday). And I will let the words that emerge ground me in my dreams once again. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

trees for faith's lodge

Faith's Lodge, where I hold my annual writing retreat for mothers, was devastated in a storm that hit Western Wisconsin on July 1st.

The lodge provides a place where parents and families facing the serious illness or death of a child can retreat to reflect on the past, renew strength for the present, and build hope for the future. And one of the most amazing things about spending time there is being able to walk (or snow shoe or ski) through the 80 acres of forest that surround the lodge. A huge portion of the trees on those 80 acres were destroyed, and the families who were planning on spending time at the lodge this month have had to postpone their visits.

There will be an open house on September 17th to restore the hope at Faith's Lodge, but if you want to donate money to plant a tree, contact the Lodge at 612-825-2073 or info@faithslodge.org or donate online here.

I have seen how time at Faith's Lodge can help families heal. Help them replant today!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

ready


Thank you all so much for your thoughts and prayers over the last couple of weeks. I know all of you have experienced the deaths of loved ones, and I know many of these loved ones were too young to die.

At 102, Spencer wasn’t too young. But as I sat by him in those last days I realized that the fact he was ready to go and had lived an incredibly long and happy life didn’t take away the hard parts of letting go.

When my mom called early Thursday morning and D answered the phone, I knew Grandpa was gone. When D hung up, I said, “Grandpa died.”

“Yes.”

“Thank God,” I said. And then, “I’ll go.”

Because Spencer had been so determined to live life on his own terms, I thought his determination to die—when he decided he was ready—would make it happen quickly. I was convinced that he would go Monday night. But Tuesday morning when I arrived at my mom’s, he was there, still ticking, though much weaker. I sat by him and swabbed his mouth when he was thirsty. He was still able to talk, to say goodbye to those who visited him. But he seemed uncomfortable. And Tuesday evening, as my mom was sitting by him, he said, “Why can’t I just die?”

His wonderful doctor, who has cared for him since he and my grandma moved into the apartment in my mom’s house fourteen years ago, came to the house on Tuesday night after a full day of work, to see Grandpa. I know Grandpa was hoping for something to end it—he’d said as much to my mom a few days earlier—and I imagine that when the doctor explained that he couldn’t do that, my grandpa was devastated. I wonder if Grandpa was thinking of all the hunting dogs he had owned in his life. They were dearly loved, but when they became too old or sick to walk—to enjoy being dogs—he put them down.

It does seem unjust that we can do that for animals and not people. But I wonder if there is something in that hard letting go, the slow shutting down of organs, that is somehow necessary—to experience, to witness. I’m not sure.

Early Thursday morning, my younger sister and I both said goodbye to Grandpa’s body. But of course it wasn’t really Grandpa anymore, just a shell. He was gone. My mom called my older sister, who was just leaving her house to catch an early plane to the Twin Cities. We could hear her crying through the phone. She didn’t make it on time to say goodbye. But she hadn’t seen his deterioration over the last week, and I think the shock of seeing him as he was the day he died—when he looked very little like the man she had seen a couple of weeks ago—would have been almost incomprehensible. She decided she didn’t want to see the body.

My younger sister had to go back home and sleep before heading to work, but I decided to stay at my mom’s until the Cremation Society people came. I tried to lie down on my mom’s couch, but it seemed wrong to leave Grandpa alone downstairs, so I returned to his bedside, and my mom and I alternated sitting there with him.

At 5:30 a.m. they came for his body, and I left, not wanting to see it taken out.

When I got home, both girls were curled up next to D in our bed, as if they sensed the need to be together. I scooted the girls over and lay down on the sliver of bed remaining. And I just lay there, half asleep, half awake, until the girls woke up. I told them that Great-Gahgee had died. I told them again that he had lived a long life, and they we would remember him. They both looked serious, and we hugged, and then D took them down to get them ready for their two-day-a-week summer program. And I slept deeply for three hours.

On Friday, we left for my mom’s cabin, where my family converged on Friday evening. We sat on the deck that my step-dad had just built, with the ramp for Grandpa’s wheelchair. “Great-Gahgee would have loved to sit out here, wouldn’t he?” I said to Stella.

“We’ll have to sit here for him,” she said.

I nodded. “That’s a wonderful idea.”  

I’ve been dreaming of him, and they are odd, confused dreams. I’ve been sleeping a ton. (Partly because I woke with a bad cold on Saturday morning.) But this morning, I woke up ready to write again.

A couple of years ago, when my piece “Becoming a Sanvicente├▒a” appeared in Brevity, I took my mom’s computer down to show Grandpa. (It was a publication of which I was/still am particularly proud.) He sat in his recliner, squinting at the computer, and when he finished he looked up and said, “Pretty good stuff.” And then he said, “You know, you could write a piece like that about me. About my nine lives.”

I put away the computer and found a tiny piece of paper and began taking notes, recording his brushes with death.

Last week, as he lay dying, I searched desperately for these notes, but I couldn’t find them on the mess of my desk. And when I tried to get him to recreate the details for me, he couldn’t. It was too late to talk about near death as he lay dying.

I found them on Thursday morning after I woke up from my long nap. “Thank God,” I said again. “Thank God.”