Thursday, April 4, 2019

Q&A with Polly Rosenwaike

Polly Rosenwaike, photo by Michael Lionstar
Polly Rosenwaike is the author of the new story collection Look How Happy I'm Making You. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013 and The New York Times Book Review. She is the fiction editor of the Michigan Quarterly Review, and she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  

Q: Why did you decide to focus on motherhood and babies in this story collection?

A: Well, these things have significantly occupied my mind, my life, over the past decade. My daughters are now 8 and 5, and I’ve found motherhood endlessly fascinating and perpetually challenging. 

The particular time during which a woman is seriously thinking about having a baby, experiencing pregnancy, and then becoming a new mother can be incredibly emotionally volatile and demanding, but the image we often get is of a beatific pregnant woman, followed by a shining, happy mama and baby. 

I wanted to create a fuller portrait of some of the complexities of this stunning experience—stunning in the sense of both amazing and confounding.  

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in this book, and how did you decide on the order in which they’d appear in the book?

A: I wrote the first draft of one of the stories over a dozen years ago and most of the others since my daughters were born. There are 12 stories in the book, so I guess you could say I’ve averaged one a year: a snail’s pace. 

The writing of them actually resembled a game called Snail’s Pace Race that my partner and younger daughter like to play on Saturday mornings. A bunch of wooden snails of different colors edge toward a finish line based on the throw of colored dice. They thus all move forward at an erratic pace—sometimes green is way ahead, sometimes pink is stuck at the starting line—until everyone finally gets home. 

So each of my stories was a snail, and I kept throwing the dice, taking turns inching each one forward. I enjoy working on multiple stories at once; yellow looks pretty refreshing when all you’ve been seeing for a while is blue. 

Because the collection has a chronology to it, the order didn’t require much deliberation. The first story is about a couple struggling to conceive, and then subsequent stories focus on abortion, miscarriage, early and middle pregnancy, postpartum depression, life with a new baby. 

The book ends with a story about sleep training, which, if you’re like I was, you might not attempt until the baby is close to a year and you’re at your wit’s end trying to get her to fall asleep on her own.  

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: For a long time, I had no idea what to call this thing I was working on. 

When I submitted it to agents, I’d settled on the tentative title of Baby Person. One of the characters, who wants to have a child, but is drawn to the idea of parenting an older kid rather than a baby, says, “I’ve never actually been much of a baby person.” 

This is the sense in which I intended that title, to get at what it’s like to become a mother to a baby when you’re not really a baby person, as well as what it means to bring a baby into the world: a new person, and yet someone who doesn’t quite seem like a person yet. 

But the agent who agreed to represent me was concerned about submitting it to publishers with that title. She was afraid people wouldn’t get it. Also, a friend told me that “Baby Person” made her think of an infantile-looking man with very small hands. Like in Boss Baby. That was no good. 

I spent countless hours searching for the right title. I wanted it to hint at the collection’s themes, but not to be too on the nose. I wanted to avoid the sentimentality that often congeals around the images of mothers and babies. Hoping to steal someone else’s great idea, I pored over lines from poems, phrases from stories, quotes about motherhood.

Finally, combing through my own manuscript again, I lingered over a line of dialogue in the first story, “Grow Your Eyelashes.” When the narrator’s sister tells their mother that she and her husband don’t want to have children, the mother tears up and says, “You can’t know the joy until . . . You just can’t know it.” The daughter replies, “Look how happy I’m making you.” 

It’s an ironic moment, of course—the daughter calling the mother out on her declaration of the joy children bring. Considering the statement in isolation, I like the oddness of the direct address: who would say this to someone? And it resonates with the collection as a whole. Children do bring their parents happiness, but there are a lot of other emotions involved as well, if we’re being honest about it.  

Q: Who are some of your favorite short story writers?

A: Lorrie Moore, Lauren Groff, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, Helen Simpson, Anthony Doerr, Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones, Aimee Bender. 

As fiction editor of the Michigan Quarterly Review, I’ve had the opportunity to select fantastic work by emerging writers to publish in the magazine. I can’t wait to see more stories out in the world by Anthony Inverso, Jai Chakrabarti, Onyinye Ihezukwu, Ally Glass-Katz, and so many others.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on some essays and feeling humbled by how tricky I find it to try to follow the thread of an argument, to be clear and sufficiently detailed about my own experiences and perspectives. I’m also stockpiling a bunch of books I want to read as research for my next fiction project.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Now I understand why writers thank their agents and editors so effusively in the acknowledgements to their books. After years of being on my own with my writing, it’s been amazing to have other people so dedicated to improving, supporting, and promoting it. Hooray for all the publishing midwives who bring books into the world.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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