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Thursday, August 4, 2011

a double life: discovering motherhood

I’m so pleased to have another author interview to post this week. Today, I have the pleasure of introducing Lisa Catherine Harper, whose debut memoir, A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood, won the 2010 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize.

This is a lovely, meditative memoir that takes the reader through Harper’s first pregnancy and early motherhood. The book blends narrative and research, and, for me, is a wonderful reflection on the complexities of life and celebration of fully living in the moment. I won’t say too much more about the book here, because I’ve written a full review of it for Literary Mama.

So without further ado, please welcome Lisa to Mother Words!

KH: I’m wondering if you can talk a little about the process of writing this book. Did you know when you began writing that you were working on a memoir?

LCH:  I did. I began writing nearly as soon as I became pregnant. I have a PhD, and one of the things I do as a matter of course is research. I realized almost immediately that my body was changing in ways I hadn’t anticipated and which no one had told me about. I researched extensively in OB/GYN textbooks and medical journals and soon began to understand that the biological changes of pregnancy were just the beginning of the enormous emotional and psychological changes of motherhood.  I wrote the book because I wanted to translate the experience of a very ordinary pregnancy for a general reader.  I believed that becoming a mother was an interesting category of experience—not an isolated experience for women only, but an experience tied to life at all corners.

KH:  One of the things I love about A Double Life is your essayistic style. You ponder concepts like movement, dance, pain (to name a few), and circle around and around each of these, really trying to search out meaning and figure out what you really think and believe. I’d love if you could talk a little about the construction of the book, and whether this essayistic circling was a conscious choice or if it’s just how the narrative emerged in the writing process.

LCH:  The style was a conscious choice. I love the essay form.  On the one hand, I wanted to write a book in the very American tradition of long form journalism, which can take the form of (personal) narrative supported by research.   I intended from the start to support my story with research and the kind of rigorous reflection I was trained in by my doctoral studies. On the other hand, I wanted to write a story that was more than my own.  I aspired to write a story that investigated the universal changes of maternity. The essay form was perfect for both of these ambitions.

KH:  Another thing that I really love about the book is how you so deftly wove research into the narrative. Can you talk a little about the research you did in writing this book? Is there anything that surprised you as you began your research?

LCH:  I read everything I could get my hands on:  every book in the bookstore, all the material from my own doctor, pregnancy websites, etc.  But it wasn’t enough, so I turned to medical textbooks, OB/GYN textbooks, and medical journals. I did a lot of research in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association).  I read extensively about all aspects of the evolving pregnancy. Some days the research itself was so interesting I had to make myself stop to get to the writing. I read a lot more than I had to (which is so often the case with research!). Only a small fraction of my research made it into the book. I had to translate all this sophisticated material for a general reader (and check and double check my facts). I also spoke extensively with my own doctors at UCSF and with a good friend who was a labor & delivery nurse.

Everything surprised me—but most especially the totality of the changes that occur in pregnancy.  The fact that your lung capacity changes, that you have more blood in your body, that your brain is washed by hormones that can cause you to have an orgasm in your sleep –those things seemed to me astonishing and deeply weird.  They still do. It’s not just your reproductive system that changes. Your entire body is transformed. This, of course, is a metaphor.

I was constantly surprised by the metaphors I found in the research. This was one of the most rewarding aspects of writing. In researching, then writing the morning sickness chapter, for instance, I understood for the first time that pregnancy overtakes your whole body in much the same way just as the nausea can: completely and without warning. Working on the sciatica chapter I found the biological explanation for how we experience pain to be the perfect explanation for some of our most cherished notions of identity (I think, therefore I am). These things helped me understand my own maternity better.

KH:  I love the way you write your relationship with your husband, Kory, and this part of the book really feels like a wonderful love story to me. How did you handle writing about your relationship? Did you get his approval before you went to print? How do you balance your need to create as a writer with your family’s privacy?

LCH  I am, however, in everything that I write constantly balancing the true facts of the story (personal details, revelations, confessions, etc.) with the real demands of the story.  I ask myself: is this fact really necessary? How much do I really need to tell? And in the telling, am I really saying something new? I’m even more conscious of this now that my children are older.  I won’t write a story that involves personal details unless I feel I have something significant to say, it does not violate their privacy, and I am not telling it simply to broadcast a seemingly interesting experience. There must be something more at stake when you write about personal history.  For me, restraint must always temper the use of personal facts when important relationships are at stake.  However, I also believe that if you have to tell the story, you also can’t avoid the hard facts for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.
KH:  Lisa, you are a mother, wife and a full-time professor (and dancer, friend, etc.). How do you balance writing, your career, and your family?

LCH:  Over the years I’ve learned to accept and embrace the changes that being a parent brings to my work life. I’ve learned to cultivate discipline and silence in my work life, to work very hard during my work time and to set my work aside completely when the kids come home.  (Though I am not always successful at this latter task.) These things, of course, took years to figure out. The most important practical things I’ve done to protect my work life include: 

·      Cultivate discipline: write during the children’s naps, every day.
·      Before my children were school-age, I took Grace Paley’s advice and resigned myself to “writing at different paces.” It was okay if I worked more slowly some weeks or months. I knew that would change.
·      Don’t stop writing until you know where you will start the next day.
·      Give yourself small, specific assignments: one scene, one section, one chapter revised.

I still use these precepts, even though my writing life has changed enormously with the book publication and the beginning of kindergarten for my youngest.

KH:  What was the most challenging part of writing A Double Life

LCH:  Getting published.

Writing the book joined my geeky commitment to research and my lyric love of narrative. It was a joy to write. I found it interesting to dive into the material, investigate the story, and tease out the larger meaning. 

But I had a long road to publication.  Motherhood journals/sites often asked me to take out the research. Literary journals were not so interested in the story of motherhood. And the first publishers we approached didn’t know where it would be shelved: memoir or parenting? It’s both, of course, and readers understand that now, but it took years of perseverance.

KH:  Can you talk a little more about the process of finding a home for A Double Life? What would advice would you give to other writers as they embark on this process?

LCH:  In addition to the where-to-shelve-the-book problem I mentioned above, I had editors who loved my prose but found the book too quiet. There are a lot of stories about motherhood that are sensational or exceptional, but this was not my story. But I had a deep belief in my approach and my book, and I worked very hard to write the most incisive, compelling narrative I could, and then I knew I just had to be patient.  I actually got to the point where I was convinced I would have to publish another book first, and then A Double Life would come out as my second book once I had a better platform. But then I submitted the manuscript to the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, and won, and with that award came the publication deal. Most gratifying was that the Prize series editors understood the book’s mission and ambition completely—as have the readers since publication.  Since then, my agent has been able to sell foreign rights in Taiwan, Brazil, and Italy, so it’s been incredibly satisfying after such a long wait to have readers who understand the book as I envisioned it. The thing is, in spite of the challenges writing this kind of a book posed, in the end the it just took that one editor saying “yes” at the right time. This is always the case: “right editor, right time, right place.”

My advice is always to perfect your craft and write the very best story you can. This is the first and paramount responsibility of any writer. Then the writer’s job is to figure out how to enter the conversation.  To whom are you speaking? Seek out publication in the places having the conversation you want to be part of.  These might be local, regional, online, print, niche markets. There are many ways to begin.  Expect editors to say no, but don’t take that no personally. Be brutal and objective about your work, revise if necessary, and persevere. I often think of the opening lines of Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Well Dressed Man with a Beard”:

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
KH:  I love that, Lisa. And I love how the message of perseverance is echoed among so many of the writers I know and love. Don’t give up, writers. And never let the “no” stop you. 
Lisa, thanks so much for taking the time to be here at Mother Words! 

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