Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Q&A with writer Natalie Wexler

Natalie Wexler
Natalie Wexler is the author of two novels, The Mother Daughter Show and A More Obedient Wife. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: In your novel The Mother Daughter Show, you made use of your own experiences as a parent at Sidwell Friends School to examine mother-daughter relationships at an elite private school, in a somewhat satirical way. How is the fictional "Barton Friends" similar to, or different from, Sidwell, and how did other Sidwell parents react to the book?

A: Barton Friends is definitely not meant to be an accurate portrait of Sidwell. I certainly borrowed some things I’d observed in that milieu and used them as grist for the novel, but—this being fiction, and not just fiction but satire—I exaggerated certain things, omitted others, and invented freely. There are many things I loved about Sidwell that didn’t make it into the novel because, basically, they didn’t serve the plot and/or they weren’t funny. Needless to say, satire works best when you focus on foibles and defects rather than on things that are working beautifully.

Beyond that, I’ve heard from readers in the non-Sidwell community that Barton Friends is a lot like other elite private schools—and probably some elite public schools as well. So—although as far as I know, there’s no other school where mothers of graduating senior girls write and perform a show for their daughters every year—there’s a lot in the book that really isn’t specific to Sidwell.

As for the reaction of Sidwell parents, I would say that it has varied. The people I’ve heard from directly have generally been very positive, with some telling me that the book really resonated with them. But I understand there are others who aren’t so happy. Not having talked to them directly, I can only speculate on their reactions, but at least some of them seem to think that my characters are thinly veiled portraits of real people—which is not the case. While the characters might say or do a few things that real people said or did, they are fictional creations. And it was a lot of work to create them!

Q: Did you identify more with one of the characters in the book than with the others, and if so, why?

A: I put pieces of myself into each of the three main characters, but Amanda—who is really the protagonist—is the one I identify with the most. Like me, she’s a writer, and she finds the creative process exhilarating. In the novel, she can’t seem to stop churning out funny new lyrics to old songs, even when it becomes clear that the show is going in a different direction, because it’s way more fun than other aspects of her life (she has a daughter who won’t talk to her, and she’s under pressure to find a job after 20 years as a stay-at-home mom). In my own life, I was working on a novel that wasn’t going so well, and writing these song lyrics was definitely a way of distracting myself from that particular problem!

But in many ways Amanda is not me, and I’m wary of being confused with her. For one thing, she takes the Mother Daughter Show far more seriously than I did. And her song lyrics (which are, in fact, my song lyrics) are clearly better than anyone else’s (which, of course, I also wrote when I wrote the novel). That was most definitely not the case with the real Mother Daughter Show. Other people were writing terrific song lyrics. But for the plot of the novel to work, Amanda’s lyrics had to be better than everyone else’s.

Q: Your previous novel, A More Obedient Wife, is very different--it takes place in the 1790s, and focuses on two wives of Supreme Court justices. Was it difficult to switch from one time period and style to another?

A: No, it was surprisingly easy. I’d actually finished writing A More Obedient Wife several years before I started The Mother Daughter Show, so it wasn’t as though I plunged directly from one to the other. But aside from that, the material clearly demanded a different voice—contemporary, obviously, and lighter—and that’s the voice that emerged.

In some ways it’s easier to write about the world around you as opposed to that of a different era. You don’t have to do research to figure out what your characters would eat for breakfast, for example, and you don’t constantly worry that you’re getting some detail wrong. And it can be very satisfying to put in little riffs and observations about what’s right in front of your eyes.

On the other hand, there was something about adopting an18th-century voice (or rather, two 18th-century voices), as I did in A More Obedient Wife, that made it easier to enter a fictional world, one that couldn’t possibly be confused with my real world. Maybe partly because I was writing out of my own experience, it was a little more difficult for me to come up with a plot and characters that worked for The Mother Daughter Show.

Q: How did you gather material about these two 18th century women, and did your own background as a lawyer help you with the research?

A: I came across the two women, Hannah Iredell and Hannah Wilson, while I was working as an editor of a multi-volume project called “The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800.” In those days the Justices spent as many as six months of the year traveling around the country holding circuit courts, and while they were gone they wrote and received many letters from their friends and families. Reading those letters—which had been gathered by the staff of the Documentary History project before I joined it—I became intrigued by these two Hannahs and wanted to find out more about them. Of course, there wasn’t much more to find out. There were biographies of their husbands, the Justices, but women’s lives weren’t considered important enough to record in detail. So eventually I decided to write a novel about the women, using the letters as a jumping-off point, to fill in the gaps with my imagination.

I could never have done all the research myself—the other staff members at the Documentary History let me have access to the thousands of documents they’d accumulated, even after I’d left the project and was working on the novel. I would say that my background as a lawyer helped me only in the sense that it helped me get hired at the Documentary History project. They were under the impression that it was a good idea to have a lawyer around, even though what I’d learned in law school was of very little help in understanding the legal system of the 1790s. (I also have an M.A. in history, which may have helped a little more.)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve gone back to that novel that wasn’t going so well when I was working on the real Mother Daughter Show—except that it’s changed quite a bit since then. As with A More Obedient Wife, I’m fictionalizing the life of a real but obscure historical figure, someone whose life I can partly record and partly imagine. Her name was Eliza Anderson Godefroy, and in 1807, at the age of 26, she founded and edited a magazine in Baltimore. As far as I can determine, she was the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States, although historians don’t seem to know about her. The novel focuses on that one tumultuous year of her life, 1807, and instead of interspersing my fictional narrative with real letters, as I did in A More Obedient Wife, I’m including excerpts from the magazine.

One interesting parallel: Eliza’s mission in editing this magazine was to raise the level of culture in Baltimore, then a young and raw city, and her chosen method was to satirize the foibles and follies of her fellow citizens. Some of them didn’t appreciate that, especially when they thought they recognized themselves in sketches that she insisted were meant to be “general” and fictional. I’m not sure I completely believe Eliza’s defense (she really wasn’t writing fiction), but it was odd to be writing about someone who was experiencing something vaguely similar to what I was.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I’m delighted to have been interviewed by you, Deborah. Thanks so much!

Interview with Deborah Kalb

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