This week I’m welcoming the wonderfully thoughtful Lea Grover to the Aspiring Voices hot seat. Lea is a prolific blogger over at Becoming SuperMommy and writes fiction on the side. Lea and I had a chat about historical fiction as a connection point to your past and present, the paradox of wanting your children to understand suffering without having to suffer, the social aspect of writing, and why you can’t believe anything anyone says over the phone.
Paul: You’re a blog writer and have done work on a number of sites, many in the so-called mommy blogger realm. What is it about fiction that attracts you? Does it scratch a particular itch that slice-of-life or journal-style non-fiction doesn’t? If you had to choose only one, which would you pick?
Lea: Fiction has always attracted me. Making up stories, inventing characters… it gives you control over not only some version of the physical world, but over your own emotions as well. It definitely allows for a creative expression that non-fiction doesn’t. If I had to pick only one, I would probably pick fiction, but that’s only because I’ve had the opportunity to write about my life—which has had its fill of extraordinary events. I feel like my non-fiction is something that I write because it can be used to help people, and my fiction is what I write because I quite simply can’t not write.
Paul: Do you have any theories of where that notion of control comes from? Is it a by-product of having kids and the inherent chaos of that [laughs] or is it more of a personality trait? Does it affect the kinds of genres you like to write in?
Lea: Definitely more of a personality trait. I created universes to control long before I created people to control! That said, you really don’t have control over either—universes or children. You get them started and then they grow minds of their own. Characters come to life, disagree with you about where you want your story to go, about how they react to things. In a lot of ways, a story is like a child. Only when it really pisses you off you can torture or abandon it.
Lea: Children you cope with in their worst moments, and that teaches you more about coping with conflicts that are entirely internal. Sorry for the tangent, back to the question.
Yes, I think it does affect my genre choices. I’ve drifted away from sci fi and more into history since having kids, since needing to exert a different kind of control. I’ve been working more in historical fiction (20th century) and dealing with different sorts of issues that I relate more to now than I used to.
That said, I anticipate that I’ll be back to sci fi eventually. It’s hard to ignore your first love.
Paul: By 20th century historical do you mean like late 20th century that you were familiar with as a means of creating a bridge to your past or earlier 20th century? What kind of issues do you mean, and how does historical fiction appeal to that need to address them?
Lea: Mostly early 20th century, WWI through the 1950s. I’m using the beginning of what we consider modernity to explain the issues I have in my own life, living as a feminist housewife and mother with an at-home job (writing) to girls who want to play Princess all the time. It’s a confusing set of emotions—on the one hand I feel empowered to make my own choices, on the other hand I’ve made choices that led me to essentially the same life I would have had without any choices. By going back in time and imposing my own creations upon the societies that led to my own, I can better understand how I came to be where I am. Historical fiction lets me play with characters who don’t have the kind of options for life that I do. Young men who ship off to war instead of studying abstract concepts in college, who never dreamed of college. Young women without families, forced into a workforce that feels alien and unforgiving. Mothers chain smoking in their living rooms while their sons run wild and free in Leavittowns, terrified to leave the house and bored by staying in. Stay at home fathers coping with their own lost senses of identity in the post-feminist 1980s, supporting empowered wives and unsure how to relate to daughters and neighbors. Immigrant children sorting through photographs of countries that feel foreign, but simultaneously feeling lost in their own American experience.
Essentially, I’m exploring the complexities of life as an adult without a blueprint by exploring other methods, other styles of adulthood with which I am familiar. History, particularly this sort of recent history, gives me enough information to extrapolate. “This is what was expected, this is what was normal, these are the options you had.” From that I can say, “But what if I didn’t want that? What if I couldn’t find that?” And it helps me sort through my own current experiences. All writing is autobiographical, to an extent, isn’t it?
Paul: To the extent that writing has to come from, at the very least, an individual’s interpretation of the ideas they’re expressing, definitely all writing it autobiographical. I think it’s just one more way people try to make sense of their lives.
It’s interesting that you mention this notion of finding yourself in a circumstance that’s not too far removed from one you might have found yourself in if you were born into the previous generation or two. I read a book not too long ago discussing this notion of what modern femininity really is, especially in the context of the early experiences where you have all this princess subculture that is maybe more of a full-blown culture. There are feminist mothers and enlightened fathers who are looking at this and wondering, “is this just a thing girls do or are we sort of pushing this on them and enabling a kind of materialistic/damseled/entitled worldview that is going to have to be deconstructed at some point?”When you think about your writing and the way it helps you work through the irregular pathways that led to you where you are now, do you ever think about your children and how your writing may help bridge the gaps between their unique perspectives and the place you’re coming from?
Lea: Absolutely. In particular, when I write about somebody’s unhappiness. I feel like parents are generally supportive of their children’s emotional growth, but hedge when it comes to exploring negative feelings. Which is understandable, nobody wants to see their child suffering. But at the same time, it’s important. When I write, hopefully with depth and compassion, about a fictional persons feelings of entrapment or disillusionment or confusion, I sometimes set it aside, as a blueprint for how to communicate with my children when the time comes for them to begin exploring those emotions. They’re still very little now, and I anticipate a good ten years before some of the deeper, more painful emotional experiences of life come knocking, but as a writer and as a rational adult I want them to experience them. I want them to suffer, just a little bit, so that they can understand suffering. So they can understand its value. And at the same time, the idea of their suffering just breaks my heart. So I hope that when that time comes, I’ll be able to leave the bulk of the conversation or instruction to my writing- hand them a stack of short stories or a novel and say, “Read this, and then we’ll talk about it.” And regardless of how unlikely they might be to come to me and talk about the details of their lives, they will know that I fundamentally sympathize, that I understand the emotions they’re experiencing, and that I am not passing judgement on their value.
Which is, really, what I think all people want of any social or personal interaction. Acknowledgement of the value of their emotions and thoughts. To not be dismissed.
Paul: I completely understand that notion of the paradox of wanting your children to suffer a little while at the same time doing every single thing in your power to prevent it at every turn. Almost like you want it to be a tap you can adjust the flow on.
I think it’s telling that you include writing into the broader categories of social and personal interaction. There is such a view of writing as being a very solitary, almost lonely activity. But when you break it down, it’s really just communication, albeit a very indirect form of it. With a family that includes small children and the inherent busyness that demands, how do you handle finding time to write? Do you have to just take your opportunities as they come, or are you able to have a bit of a schedule?
Lea: It’s true, we often think of writing as solitary. And there are enough writers throughout history that required solitude to write that it’s a fairly ingrained perception. But for me, writing has always been social. When I was in second grade, I “published” a book of my poetry at my school’s “press.” I showed it off to anyone and everyone, relishing in the praise. When I was in fifth grade, I had a poem published in the school newsletter, and performed it for two classes. Starting in middle school I began frequenting poetry readings and open mics, workshopping with other writers. In the last decade, most of my writing has been done in the context of blogging.
I see writing as fundamentally communication, and the way in which I communicate requires feedback. I know I’m not alone in this. There are dozens of sites dedicated to writer support, all under the umbrella of “social networking.” And while part of writing must be done somewhat alone, that’s no different than a slowed down thought process, as a conscientious communicator doesn’t just spew whatever comes to mind out of their mouth. They take the time to consider the way it will be received, and if it’s a message they truly want to convey.
As far as finding time to write, it’s easier with such small children. I strictly enforce naps and bedtimes, giving me two to three hours in the middle of the day and as many as four hours at the end of the day of “me time,” frequently dedicated to writing if I’m in the middle of a project. I also carry a notebook wherever I go, and I pretty much constantly write haiku when I’m out and about. It’s a great way to put down an image, or a thought, or an impression quickly, while still giving it enough thought to flesh it out and make it memorable. I have thousands of terrible haiku scribbled into notebooks in purses and diaper bags.
Paul: Can you share the last haiku you jotted down in that notebook?
Lea: “Waiting again ad nauseum”
Moments of quiet
Time is never really lost
Just misplaced a while.
Paul: That’s really lovely!
I wanted to get back to this idea of writing as a social activity, because I fully understand what you’re saying and agree with what you mean by writing being communication. But at the same time, the act of writing is individual and solitary. And it usually isn’t until that act is complete that it can become communication and open the doors to social interactions. Do you think the way online interaction has compressed the timeline for that transition has helped writing start to feel more like an immediate social transaction, versus, say, the early 20th century when the fastest written communication was still a matter of however many days it took the postal service to deliver?
Lea: Well, the act of writing is individual and solitary, until it isn’t. Consider the Exquisite Corpse. I write something, blindly based on a fraction of what somebody else wrote, and so on, and it becomes a game and a learning experience.
I think I see writing as fundamentally communication, because it is used for so much more than fiction. Fiction is only one aspect. Successful fiction does communicate something, but only when you are adept enough at writing in general to convey deeper meaning within a story. Letters, memoirs, dissertations are no less writing for having a basis in solid fact. When I tell a story, orally, you could say it’s a solitary act. Nobody interrupts me, I can continue until my story is over. But I am still communicating something. A book is a way to communicate a long story without back and forth, but let’s be realistic. Part of the joy of reading a book is the sense that you are communicating. That there’s an emotional relationship you share with the characters. You feel for them, you feel you know them, even though you know they are, strictly speaking, fake. But your reaction to them is real. Your interaction with them is real.
I do think that online interaction has made writing feel more like an immediate social interaction, precisely for the reason you mentioned. If it weren’t for the internet’s immediacy, I have no doubt people would still write volumes to each other at once, rather than accumulated over a week’s worth of IMs or texts.
I think it’s interesting to consider how honest people are when they write. There have been a number of studies done, and it seems that people are most likely to lie over the phone, and least likely to lie in an email. Because when you write something down you’re confronted by it, but when you say it it disappears into the weird nowhere of speculative memory.
Even in fiction writers have to be honest. They have to treat their creations as real people with real emotions, because when the reader experiences the book, it’s through those creations’ eyes. To be dishonest with your characters is to be abusive to your readers, and they don’t generally take kindly to that.
Paul: I really like this idea of truth in writing as opposed to spoken words, and especially in spoken words that don’t have a face-to-face recipient. Because a phone really is like a void of communication, right? You’ve got this disembodied voice and… nothing. You could practically tell it anything and there is no reliable way to distinguish the viability of that communication until you get a reply. When you’re writing something, it stares back at you and maybe there is this instinctual sense that if anyone else sees those words, they can touch them or hold them or show them to someone else. They have a sense of reality that even in-person conversations lack a little, but phone conversations are practically devoid of.
How easy is it for you when you’re creating fictional characters to get a sense for their emotions and perceptions? Do you have any techniques you use for helping them to resonate with readers?
Lea: How easy it is depends on how thoroughly developed the character is. Every time I need a new character, I start with a picture of them in my head. I think about why I need them, and why they look the way they do. And then I put together their whole story, separate from my story.
I need somebody to come and stare at the ducks in the pond. Why is he staring at the ducks in the pond? Who is he? He’s an old man, and he used to come to the park every day with his wife until she died. She always brought the bread. No matter how often he walks to the park, he never remembers to grab the bread. It’s part of his routine to walk without it, and expect it to materialize in his hand when he’s there. Once he arrives, it’s as though his wife has died all over again. He stares at the ducks as though he owes them something, unable to turn and walk away after so many decades of routine.
I need a little girl in Germany in 1932 being sent by her mother to live with distant relatives in the American midwest. So who is this mother? I need her to be a single, professional woman. She needs a creative job, something that explains her lifestyle. She is a widow, she and her husband were a team—traveling to research tourist guidebooks. Through her friendship with their publisher, she continued after his death from tuberculosis. She is still young, by modern standards, and has lovers in other countries—including the girls father in England. This gets the girl out of Germany. The mother uses ill-gotten lemons to bleach her two year old daughter’s hair to a less conspicuous shade of blond. The girl grows up with only vague memories of her mother, always brought on by the smell of lemons.
At this point, both characters are real to me. I understand their motivations as they came to this moment—the mother humming to her daughter, laying under the cold windows in the sunny winter, holding her daughter to keep her still while the lemon and sun lighten her hair.
I understand the daughter now, as she grows up not knowing her mother. I understand her romanticism, her social anxieties. I understand that everything about her personality as she grows comes from knowing how much her mother loved her, and that her mother chose to send her away.
I need a man to fall in love with this girl once she’s an adult. I know he has to have a strong mother figure. He has to feel some sort of maternal need to care for her, an orphan, and that dictates almost everything else about him. He has older brothers. His father was working class, mostly in the peripheries of his childhood. When he died, the result of poor working conditions, it was this youngest son who stayed at home to help his mom. The orphan girl appeals to him because she represents the glamour of worldliness, and also possesses a need he knows he can fill.
Once you understand why you need your characters, they can almost build themselves. They don’t do anything without a reason, and those reasons exist in their own histories.
The only technique I’m conscious of is visualizing them and writing their histories, brief as they might be. But I always describe them in terms their familiar relationships. “He had his father’s aquiline nose,” “Her hair was the auburn of her mother’s people, but curled,” “His wide set Nordic eyes seemed out of place on the narrow cheek’s that recalled his mother’s Spanish face.” Even if I never use these descriptions in my stories, I know them. Every bit of a person’s history builds them. Nobody is generic.
Paul: [laughs] Wow, that’s so much better than my technique of, “Oh I need a girl here; hey I haven’t done a character with diabetes before, let’s try that…” But I think this is incredibly insightful not just from a writer’s perspective but from a human perspective as well. Everyone is a product of their collective experiences. It can be next to impossible to really get a handle on people without having a sense for where they came from.
Has working on 20th century historical fiction helped you to get a better understanding of or connect you more closely to the people in your family, like your parents or grandparents?
I wrote a character who was loosely based on my paternal grandmother. Same age, same era, similar life circumstances, also with sons. And remarkably, instead of giving me insight into her life, I found myself suddenly sympathizing more with my dad. What it must have been like for him to grow up in that environment, how it informed the person he became. It’s weird, because now I can always see in him this little boy trying to impress his mom, and never being able to because she was fundamentally depressed. It explains so much about him, and as a kid I never thought to think of him as sort of a peer. When you eliminate linear time, and spend a lot of your energy envisioning yourself as contemporaries of your parents and grandparents, it kind of shatters your childhood expectations of them. You empathize.
And frankly, it’s easier for us to accept our parents and grandparents in the sole context of their relationship to us, regardless of their relationships to the world at large.
Paul: It’s true. I used to think that the moment you grow up enough to realize your parents are people too was just a one-time, revelatory moment. I’ve since discovered that it’s actually much more of a process as you learn to decouple them from their role in your life and re-frame them as fellow human beings.
Okay, one more for you, the kicker everyone gets: Describe for me the best book you’ve read recently.
Lea: Oh man, that is a kicker. I try not to read crappy books, so it’s a tough call!
I think it’s got to be “Year of the Flood” by Margaret Atwood. I cannot say enough wonderful things about that book. First of all, I loved “Oryx and Crake,” which is the first book she set in that particular dystopia. But YOTF takes everything a step further. It’s an incredibly detailed look at another part of the same universe, same city even. What I loved the most about it was how completely real the people and their problems were. She left it as a given that the world existed, and instead of focusing on one person and their perspective, as she did in the first book, used several characters to paint a complete picture. It was dark, and gritty, and dealt with real issues that really face people today. So much of the drama relied on human flaws- it made everything really believable.
If there were a little less fear of intellectualism in our society, paired with a continuation of the growing social class divides and accelerated consumerism, you could totally end up in the Oryx and Crake universe.
I can’t wait to read the final installation in the series, which just came out.
Like I said, deep down inside, I’m fundamentally a sci fi nerd.
Lea Grover is a writer and toddler-wrangler living on Chicago’s South Side, which is what happens when you drop out of music school, art school, and philosophy school. When she isn’t cultivating an impressive dust bunny collection, she writes for the Huffington Post, Ideas For Women, and Social Good Moms. In her free time you can find her writing at Becoming SuperMommy, where she waxes rhapsodic about raising interfaith children, life after cancer, and vegetarian cooking. You can also find her revising her manuscript, singing opera to her toddlers, or smeared to the elbow in Townsend pastels.