To those of us who do not (yet) have children, parenting over the last couple of decades has looked more and more like a cult. The helicoptering, the hyper-attentiveness, the life-or-death stakes surrounding pool parties and mac-n-cheese. Still, these zealous moms and dads should not be blamed for trying too hard or caring too much. It’s better than the alternative.
In OUR SHORT HISTORY, Lauren Grodstein has presented us with a parent, Karen Neulander, who tries too hard. Who cares too much. But there are qualifications. Karen is a single mother who is dying of cancer. The conceit of the book is that it’s a letter to her 6-year old son, Jake, to be read on his 18th birthday (presumably after her passing). It’s part diary, part how-to manual for manhood, and part explanation for some of her decisions — most notably her choice to bring him to term and raise him unbeknownst to the boy’s father, Dave. That might sound like a sob story, but Grodstein resists mush and melodrama at every turn, injecting Karen with unseemly flaws and dark humor as she attempts to navigate her family, her career, and the end of her life.
Grodstein is the author of four previous books, including the New York Times bestseller A Friend of the Family and the Washington Post Book of the Year The Explanation for Everything. She was kind enough to answer some of my questions regarding OUR SHORT HISTORY, out now from Algonquin Books.
The hero of this book is also kind of the villain. She is our narrator, so we, as readers, identify and sympathize with her. But she is also stubborn, and prone to knee-jerk reactions and, occasionally, bad decisions. In particular, I’m thinking about her persistent objection to Jake’s father having any role in his life at all. We see him as a mostly decent guy who just wants to spend time with a kid that he didn’t know he had. But Karen is blinded by hurt and the half-remembered details of their breakup and by her own overwhelming protective instincts as a mother. So my question is about how to execute this from a craft perspective. How do you write a protagonist that you can root for, but who also makes readers say, “No! Why are you doing that?!” Who is her own worst enemy much of the time, and perhaps, in some ways, both the protagonist and antagonist of the book?
When I was writing the novel, I didn’t think of Karen as both sympathetic and flawed, or both hero and villain, or as any kind of binary, really. I thought of her as human, and rooted all of her behaviors in what a person — this person — might actually do in this particular set of circumstances. Karen is stubborn, loving and protective (of herself as much as her son). When confronted with heartbreak her immediate instinct was to put up an angry shell. And she never once broke a hole in that defensive shell. During her pregnancy, she was acting out of anger, and once the baby was born, she discovered what a lot of new mothers discover: an all-consuming love that leaves no room for anyone else. So she never let Jake’s dad into their lives. Now, from a craft perspective, I knew that I had to keep Karen’s lousy argument consistent: she was right, he was wrong, that’s all there was to it. But what undergirded her logic was my belief in her humanity, and the understanding that she would act, in this particular set of circumstances, the only way she could — which is to say in accordance with who she really is (stubborn, loving, protective, defensive). So, again, she was never the antagonist to me, only a real, three-dimensional, flawed human being.
Similarly, underlying this entire book is the fact that Karen did what some might consider a very bad thing: she failed to tell the father of her child that she was going to have the baby. She raised this boy on her own without making any attempt to tell him about it. So while it appears that she is a good and admirable single mother, the fact of her single motherhood itself is borne of a less than admirable decision. Can you talk about the tightrope of presenting these conflicting aspects of her personality?
True — although, in what is perhaps a risky move for a female author, I never worry too much about likeability, or about whether my character is behaving nicely. Is Karen a good person who made bad decisions? Or is she just a person who made the best decisions she could, given who she was and what she was working with? I suppose, if you pressed me, I think that what she did was “bad,” but I also think she had her reasons. The truth is she truly didn’t believe Jake’s dad would have any interest in the kid. She probably did lead him to believe she was having an abortion, but when he didn’t protest her decision, that sealed it for her: he didn’t care, he didn’t want this baby, so screw it, she was going to do it on her own. Maybe in the end that was a good and admirable decision? Or maybe it wasn’t necessarily a bad one, given her assumptions at the time?
There is a strong theme of the public vs. the private in this book. Specifically, the lies we tell ourselves compared with the lies we tell others. This is exemplified by Karen’s persistent cancer-patient need to decide on whether to wear a wig or makeup or just let her illness be what it is. To down some codeine and clean herself up and pretend to be the competent person she used to be, or to let those around her know that she is, literally and figuratively, dying. The subplots also drive this point home. The man-of-the-people city councilman who tries, unsuccessfully, to hide a penchant for young girls; the sister whose family looks perfect on paper but has its own imperfections and challenges. How did you approach the various faces your characters use to confront the world?
This is such an interesting question! I think I need to be a little bit broad in answering it: when I consider how my characters behave, I always root their behavior in who I think they really are. The humanity, the personality of the character always comes first for me, and the choices they make or their reactions to certain predicaments come out of who they are. So I conceived of Karen, say, as this defensive and stubborn and funny and smart and loving person, and put her in this awful position: she’s sick, but she’s a public figure, and she’s responsible for providing for herself and her son. What is she going to do? Well, on the days when she can fake a sort of healthiness, she’ll fake it, and that’s most days. And on the days when she can’t, she’ll hide —and she doesn’t talk about it much, even with us, so that by the end of the book, when you realize how sick she really is, you’re both surprised and not surprised by that. The other characters are similar: they behave in accordance with who they are and what’s expected of them. Ace chases young girls because he can’t help himself, and lies about it because everything in his life demands that he must. Allie leaves her troubled adolescent at home to take care of her sister because she’s a wonderful person, but also because sometimes it’s a little bit easier to take care of someone else than it is of yourself. And so on. These people aren’t consciously thinking about themselves as public vs. private — they’re just trying to negotiate the space between the two, like we all are.
Another tightrope: the dying mother, the cancer patient. We have seen these types of stories that lapse into melodrama. And we have also seen these types of stories that consciously resist the melodrama by providing the dying mother/cancer patient with a plucky sense of humor and a dark side. You have, in fact, provided Karen with a plucky sense of humor and, as discussed above, something of a dark side. But this story does not feel formulaic. How do you think you managed to navigate those tropes, avoid the melodrama, and find an original voice for Karen?
Well, I’ve met young women with cancer, and the truth is that this has always seemed to me how they’ve dealt with their illnesses, in varying degrees: they are tough. They are scared. They use a little gallows humor. Often they just power through what they have to do while also dealing with nausea or their hair falling out. The young women I’ve met who were also mothers never had the luxury of time off: in between chemo and doctor’s appointments they were still shuttling their kids to karate and packing lunches. So I think I just tried to dig into the truth of the situation, and look toward how someone like Karen would behave. Karen is funny, so sometimes she’d be funny. And Karen is scared, so the undercurrent of fear would never be far from her surface. And Karen’s character — tough and funny and scared — was informed by the stories I’d heard, the mothers I’d met, and the way I envisioned her fully.
You alluded to the fact that, as a woman author, there is pressure to make your protagonist likable. Why do you think that is, and how have you resisted the pressure?
Well, I think people are made uncomfortable by nasty women, right? And this is especially true for nasty women characters, who are often portrayed as psychopaths or home wreckers or, worst of all, bad moms. I like writing characters who are complicated, the way real people are, and who are both likable and pains in the ass, the way real people are. I was scared, though, of writing a woman this way for a long time, so I didn’t — this book is actually my first from a woman’s perspective. I think I avoided the challenge for so long because I was trying to avoid the problem of the likable woman. And then finally the character of Karen started whispering to me and I knew I had to take a chance on her, even if she wasn’t always very nice.
Many writers struggle writing children, either telling a story from the kid’s POV or just getting the age and the voice and the behaviors and the mannerisms right. What was the process of writing Jake like, with these factors (or other factors that I might be missing) in mind?
Jake was actually a challenge to get right. For a long time, he was just a little too perfect — compliant, sweet, often silent. Kids are really not like that very often. So I started to insert little true-to-life six year-old events (it helped that I was living with one when I wrote this book). In the novel, Jake has a temper tantrum because he wants to go to a store that nobody feels like taking him to — that’s a temper tantrum I’ve witnessed in real life. I also stole Jake’s addiction to the Wii and his fondness for pizza from my own son.
However, the best advice I have for writing children is simply to remember that they’re not cute. I mean, of course they are cute, but the things they say and do are not intentionally cute — kids, when they talk, are just trying to convey information like anybody else does. So if you try to write a kid “cute,” you’re destined to write an implausible child. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for, their jokes are usually pretty bad, and they are capable of being petty and also loving, just like adults are. I think if you remember those truths about kids you’re likely to write believable ones.
Okay, let’s talk about death! What’s it like to write a protagonist who is confronted with her own mortality?
Well, this was in many ways the most uncomfortable part of the book, because it forced me to imagine dying, which is something I was rarely in the mood for. But in some ways, these parts of the book were the most personal to me — I tried to consider how I would feel, what I would want the world to remember about me. And of course, throughout the book, I was trying to think of what I’d want my own son to remember about me, and what advice I’d want to give. So much of this book is about Karen creating a legacy of words for Jake. That project gave purpose to her dying, and I think comforted her in the face of what she knew would happen.
And now let’s talk about immortality. Because that’s also what Karen is trying to do here. To be part of Jake’s life even after she’s gone, to live on in his memories, to (hopefully) inform his choices as he grows into an adult. Specifically, since we have been talking about some of Karen’s flaws, I was wondering to what extent this is a selfish act? How much is she doing this because she really wants Jake to grow into a good man, and how much is she doing this to ease her own mind, to satisfy her own maternal instincts, to make sure not only that he’s a good man, but the kind of man that she wants him to be?
That’s such a good question. I have a friend whose mother, when she was dying of breast cancer, wrote her letters to open on significant life events — marriage, graduation, childbirth, etc. Those letters were both a blessing and a burden to my friend: she loved getting them, but they forced her to relive the pain of having lost her mother, and also gave her only one half of the conversation — there was no way to have a dialogue with her mother after reading a letter. She could only be left with her mother’s instructions and hopes.
As for Karen, I think that this project of hers is selfish but in the same way that having a child is, in itself, sort of selfish. You bring a child into the world not because the child asked to be here but because you decided to do it. Then you construct the child’s world according to your own values and hopes and goals, which the child will either assimilate or reject, but must confront either way. You build a world full of stories for your kid, even if you’re not dying, even if you’re just going about the day. This book Karen is writing is trying to further that world-building. Is it selfish? Maybe. But no more than parenthood in itself is in its own way weirdly selfish.
This could get a bit broad, but I wonder if you could talk about how the other adults in Karen’s life deal with her looming death. You mentioned Allie, but what about the people who are involved in her work life? They’re in the awkward position of needing/wanting to carry on with business as usual, of wanting Karen to be her previous successful self, but also recognizing that she is not who she once was. How did you get that fine line they have to walk between emotion and cold distance onto the page?
I’ve spoken to people who are very ill, and one thing they’ve all mentioned is the awkwardness of it. Who talks about it? Who doesn’t? How do they talk about it? How do they know what to ask or say? The adults in Karen’s life depend on her for specific actions, actions Karen herself desperately wants to fulfill (running a campaign, partnering at her firm). But she can’t do her job anymore, and eventually, the people who depend on her must find other people who can. In order to write their reactions to the reality of her illness, I tried to include their feelings of awkwardness, guilt, and resignation. I also let them bounce off of Karen’s denial, so that her behavior informs the truth of the other characters’ behaviors.
Karen actually loves Dave. That much is clear. But, of course, it’s complicated by the circumstances of the book. And then she pretty much gives up on romantic love, and Jake becomes the love of her life. How did you come to those three love stories: the traditional romantic love she had with Dave; the traditional motherly love she has for Jake; and her conscious or unconscious decision to put romantic love on the shelf after it goes south with Dave?
I think it’s actually pretty common for women, after they have babies, to reject romantic love (or simply not have the energy for it). It’s hard to feel all sexy-like in the face of the all-consuming love and work that is having a child. You actually read about this sort of thing in women's magazines, like, “Why don't I want to have sex now that I’ve had a baby — and will I ever again?” (In my experience, not for at least a year.)
So for Karen, who’s been so very burned romantically, it makes sense that she’d put all her capacity for love into loving this child. Jake gives her so much of what she needs: affection, comfort, joy, pride, and, of course, mutual adoration. Why would she focus on anything else? I don’t think it was a conscious decision to reject romantic love after having Jake. It was just the easy thing to do. And of course, as a single mom, it’s not like she has a lot of time or energy to go looking for it anyway.
Shifting gears, I was curious about the tone and style of the writing. Did you approach this book any differently from your previous work? Do you think it’s different from your previous work, or the same?
I think in many ways, this book is a natural extension of everything I’ve ever been interested in writing about. My topic — not by design, but simply by natural inclination — is parents and children. Even before I became a mother, I was fascinated by the all-consuming love that parents have for their kids, and how that love can twist itself into something selfish, something needy, something not 100% pure. That’s what this book is about, on top of everything else it’s about. Also, my books tend to be a mix of funny and sad (as I’d like to think this one is) and they tend to involve characters who are very smart but not always self-aware. In this way, Karen feels like a close relative of all the other characters I’ve written about and loved for who they are.
Along the same lines, I’m interested in the pacing. The meting out of information. There is some suspense to this work, and I’m curious how much you thought about that, given all of the other emotional information you had to get across?
Well, as a sort of follow up to your previous question, this book is similar to my earlier ones in that I always like to create an element of page-turning-ness, a sort of built-in suspense, even though I don’t really write “suspense.” Here, the suspense is around the questions of what Karen will do and how she’ll survive. I think that even though this book is written in first person, it’s never entirely clear that Karen will survive this experience intact. But this suspense isn’t intentional, and it isn’t a question of advance plotting as much as it a matter of reading and rereading and tweaking so that the information is meted out slowly and deliberately. Or it might just be a question of never quite knowing what my ending will be when I write my beginning. Or it might be a product of simply loving a good page-turner as a reader, and wanting to write what I like to read.