Last week I reviewed one of my favorite books this year, I Couldn’t Love You Moreby Jillian Medoff. It is my pleasure today to post this Q and A session with Jillian today. It makes me even that much more excited to meet Jillian during BEA week! While I have a minor panic attack about BEA being just over a week away (eep!), why please get to know Jillian Medoff a little bit better. In addition to this post, you can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and on her website.
Literate Housewife: Jillian, I am thrilled to have you with us today. I know my readers will enjoy our chat as much as I will.
Jillian Medoff: Thank you so much for the opportunity to meet your readers! I scrolled through your library, and it turns out we like so many of the same books, which always enhances any conversation. I’m thrilled to be here.
LH: After reading In One Person, I find that I’m curious about what it is that inspires writers to become writers. What inspired you originally? Is it the same thing that inspires you today?
JM: I wrote an essay called “This is a True Story” that’s available in both the print and eBook versions of I Couldn’t Love You More. My publisher suggested I focus on my inspiration for this particular novel, but I took it a step further, and discussed my evolution as a writer. I’m the eldest daughter of a travelling salesman, and my family moved 17 times in a span of 17 years. Although now I see that moving so frequently is unusual, growing up, I thought it was perfectly normal. In fact, it didn’t occur to me until I was in my late 30’s that moving almost every year was a weird way to live. Similarly, while it was difficult to be the new girl all the time, I always made friends—maybe not at first but eventually. Usually, though, these friends were misfits because I felt like a misfit myself. From the time I was young—really young, like six—I was always acutely aware of being other, of feeling two steps removed. I’m sure I would’ve felt this way even if we hadn’t moved so often, although the moving definitely compounded my sense of otherness.
I think these contradictions are what inspired me to start writing, and yes, still inspire me today: (i) that everything appears normal on the surface but isn’t, and (ii) that even I’m writing fiction, my stories are absolutely true. As a novelist, I’m an observer, but I’m also a participant in my characters’ lives. None of them are me, but they’re all me, and I’m invested in doing each of them justice on the page. Therefore, it’s important not to hold them at arm’s length. A good writer, an honest writer, can’t be afraid to go deeper, deeper. She has to get as close to the bone as possible.
Moving around so often also made me fearless and empathetic. As a child, I learned to be independent and assertive; otherwise, I would have gotten lost in the shuffle. So I’m not afraid to tackle risky material. And because I was constantly thrust into unchartered and uncomfortable situations, I became overly attuned to other people’s feelings. Nine times out of ten, I care about other people, I do for other people, more than I care about and do for myself, and while this is exhausting in real life, it actually enhances my fiction. I take a 360-degree view, which is vital when your novels are character-driven. I was also alone a lot, so I read a lot, and as you know, compulsive readers often become compulsive writers. For me, writing made me feel less lonely, less other, although I never thought I’d write professionally. I never thought I was good enough, frankly. In many ways, I still don’t, which is why I work so hard—to prove to myself, over and over, that I can actually do this. Finally, and most importantly, as a new girl, a lonely girl, an other, I was constantly rejected. Birthday parties, sleepovers, trips to the mall—the new girl was always left out. I’m still rejected—all the time. But that’s the dirty secret of writing: we’re all rejected every day; the secret is to never give up.
One more thing about inspiration: I’m not inspired to write as much as I’m driven, I need to write. That desire, that need, is as palpable and relentless as any junkie’s craving, and it will possess me all day until I can park myself in a chair and do my work. I love it, I hate it; it’s ecstasy when I’m writing well, it’s despair when I’m not. I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone, nor would I, could I, ever give it up.
LH: What was the last book you deeply loved? What was it about that book that made it stick out for you?
JM: I read a lot, so it’s very difficult to pick a favorite. In the past couple of weeks, the most book I truly loved was a novel called The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright. It’s about a flawed woman—vulnerable, selfish, self-absorbed but wholly honest—who has an affair with a married man. In recent years, publishers (and readers) seem only interested in stories about “likeable” people, which I find ridiculous. Who wants to read about likeable people? I want to read about raw, courageous, funny, off-putting people, and the narrator of this book was unsparing and real, bitter and ungenerous yet insightful about other people as well as herself. I found it incredibly moving. I also loved Let The Great World Spin, a novel by Colum McCann that I re-read a few weeks ago. I normally don’t re-read books, but this was a masterpiece, truly.
LH: What does your writing space look like? Do you have any props or other writing accessories that you simply can’t do without? If someone were to venture into this space, would this person be welcomed, be politely asked to leave, or be threatened with a huge paperweight?
JM: I actually have three places where I work on my novels, and I alternate among them depending on the day. The first is my office on 34th street and 8th Avenue. I’ve had a corporate career since graduate college, so I’ve trained myself to write on my lunch hour during the week (Monday through Thursday). Luckily, I have my own office with a door, but my firm is very conservative, very buttoned-up, so my workspace is as anonymous and white-collar America as you can get—bland furniture, built-in consoles, fluorescent lighting, bare walls. My second writing space is my desk at home. It’s in the corner of my kids’ playroom, so there’s no privacy at all, and it’s very messy. Finally, I rent space in an artist’s loft in New York—on Broadway near Astor Place called the Writers Room. I’ve been a member for almost twenty years, and I’ve written all my books there on Fridays, Saturdays and sometimes at night. Basically, it’s an enormous room with cubicles, some lamps, no phone and no Internet. Although the Writer’s Room isn’t private, it’s surprisingly quiet.
Because I immerse myself so deeply in my work, I can actually work anywhere. I’m constantly interrupted no matter where I am. I’m always polite, but when people talk to me, I think it’s obvious I’m completely distracted and dying to turn back to my computer.
LH: The first thing I read when I picked up I Couldn’t Love You More was your Author’s Note. I thank your friends for believing in this book because I am loving it. Why did you originally abandon it? You understand that this is the real reason why Eliot needed therapy, don’t you?
JM: I Couldn’t Love You More has a long, twisted, heartbreaking but ultimately triumphant history. I spent four years working on the manuscript, but my former agent was unable to sell it to a publisher (see above: unlikeable characters). Although this wasn’t the first time I had written a book that failed to sell, it was the first time I felt so strongly about the material that I disagreed with my agent. After working together for fourteen years, she was as beloved to me as a family member; but she felt the book was dead, and I didn’t, so we parted ways.
Eventually (after uncurling from my fetal position), I called my current agent Jennifer Gates for advice. Jen and I had worked together many years before (she co-edited my first novel, Hunger Point), and I thought she might have some ideas about what to do next—not necessarily about I Couldn’t Love You More because it seemed unlikely that anyone would ever buy the book, but about how I could resurrect my very dead career. (My second novel, Good Girls Gone Bad, had tanked and I was really at loose ends.) It never occurred to me that Jen would be interested in the manuscript, but once I explained the situation, she asked to see it. In addition to being a brilliant agent, Jen is also a gifted editor (and stunning and tall and generous and kind). She and Rachel Sussman (who’s no longer with the agency), read the book and offered their opinion. Their feeling? Nothing in the novel worked except the architecture; that is, the book’s structure. Everything else—characters, storyline, tone, pacing, everything—had to be completely reconceived and rewritten. So I sat down at my computer, took a deep breath, and started over. With Jen and Rachel’s help, I stripped that manuscript, literally, down to its bones and rebuilt it. Two years later, I finally had a decent draft, and two weeks after that, the book sold–at auction.
LH: The novel begins at the Princess party Eliot throws for her 4-year-old daughter. Why do you think that mothers today go out of their way to plan and throw elaborate birthday parties for their young children? The only memories these children will probably have of these parties will come from the pictures and videos taken at the event. I’m definitely one of those mothers. Do you think we do it because we feel guilty about the time we spend working?
JM: I think there’s an unnatural amount of social pressure on women, particularly mothers, to conform to certain standards of behavior, particularly in regard to our children. When I was growing up, we’d play some games in the backyard, sing some songs and have some cake. At some point, though, we collectively crossed a line where our children became these pampered little fetish objects that need more, more, more. And if we don’t give it to them or can’t give it to them, then we’ve failed them—as parents, as women, as providers. Although I don’t feel guilty about working, I am definitely guilty of wanting to give more to my daughters’ than perhaps is wise. When I think of how much money I spent on my youngest girl’s second and third birthdays at Gymboree, I want to smack myself. I tried to capture this contradiction throughout I COULDN’T LOVE YOU MORE—how we overindulge our children in weird, often hysterically funny ways, and how we know what we’re doing is ridiculous, and yet don’t stop. I was also very interested in creating an archetypical “good” woman and then having her take a public fall. None of us is so good or so virtuous that we’re exempt from making mistakes, but somehow we’ve internalized these unrealistic ideas about motherhood and parenthood and try to behave accordingly. It’s maddening because it’s impossible to be perfect, and yet we all try and then feel badly when we aren’t.
LH: Let’s talk about sisters. I am blessed to be the oldest of four sisters (and a brother, but does he really count? Love you, Rob!). I am lucky not to have a drama queen like Sylvia in the bunch (unless I’m the drama queen and just don’t see it – NEVER!). I have witnessed that very same situation, though. Why do you think drives women like Sylvia to act the way that they do? Is it simply for attention?
JM: I’m endlessly fascinated by the idea that two or three kids can have the same parents, be raised in exactly the same way, and yet end up not just with different personalities but also with completely different perspectives about their childhoods. How does that happen? Is it birth order or favoritism or something unique to that family system? Or are some children just born that way? Sometimes I see patterns among my sisters and my friends and their children: first-borns seem more independent, middles more needy, youngest most clingy. I tried to show this by repeating traditional patterns in Eliot’s kids, but there are always exceptions, of course. (I tried to show this, too, by Sylvia “saving the day”). I do think some kids need more love or attention from their parents, but they don’t know how to express themselves so they act out. Sylvia, for instance, learned very young that to get her mother’s attention, she needed to create tension or lie or cause a scene, so that became her default behavior because it always worked. Unfortunately, as she got older, her bad behavior escalated. To me, women like Sylvia are a little broken inside, and the only way they feel better or normal or present is through constant reassurance that someone is listening to them or seeing them, even if that attention is negative. As long as someone is focused on Sylvia, she feels worthwhile. It’s exhausting to be around people like her, but imagine how exhausting it is to be her? My heart breaks for Sylvia. She’s my favorite character, which is why she’s the most redeemed, why she’s the novel’s hero.
LH: In Chapters Ten and Eleven, we learn more about Eliot’s relationship with Finn in college. I have underlined the heck out of some of those passages because that was me during my freshman through junior years of college. I was so Eliot for a particular guy in college that I was blinded to all else. I don’t even want to talk about what happened when that went south. Did you stalk me at Central Michigan University during the 89/90 and 91/92 school years? In all seriousness, every part of Eliot’s story with Finn, even after they meet up again in Atlanta is so authentic. Did you have a similar experience yourself?
JM: I did love a guy who kinda-loved me, kinda-didn’t in college. Like Eliot, my one and only had a girlfriend and then another girlfriend and then a wife. I was always in the background. He loved me, though, as deeply and passionately as Finn loved Eliot, and there was a period when I was his one and only. But that period was very brief, and then he cheated on me. Still, if I were to see him today, I would completely fall apart, and you know what? He would too.
LH: I have one last question before you go. Will you let me know if my company ever approaches Eliot to help them turn lemons into lemonade?
LH: Thanks once again for spending time with us today!