Family Relationships

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Virtual Book Tour: Mother Daughter Show

Today we’re delighted to welcome Natalie Wexler to our Virtual Book Tour. Her recently published novel, The Mother Daughter Show, is both hilarious and poignant. We know it will appeal to anyone who's ever had a daughter, and to anyone who's ever been one. So let’s get started:

Nourishing Relationships: What inspired you to write The Mother Daughter Show?

Natalie Wexler: I wrote The Mother Daughter Show partly to try to maintain a sense of humor about a situation I found myself in - the real Mother Daughter Show, a longstanding tradition at Sidwell Friends School, where my daughter was a senior.

Every year the mothers of graduating senior girls write and perform a musical revue for their daughters, and it seems like almost every year peculiar things happen between the mothers. I wanted to understand why - what was it about this situation that made people act in ways they usually don’t? One obvious possible reason was that the senior year of high school is a stressful year, for mothers as well as daughters: there’s the pressure of applying to college, the stress of wondering where your child will get in, and the emotions stirred by the prospect of your precious little girl leaving the nest.

So I wanted to explore that, but I also saw the novel as an opportunity to write more broadly about the mother-daughter relationship. I gave each of my three main characters (Amanda, Susan, and Barb) a mother of her own as well as a teenage daughter, to allow for a multi-generational aspect to the book. There are tensions between these older mothers and daughters as well, and one of the mothers, Barb, is stretched thin caring for her ailing mother while trying to control her rebellious daughter.

Also, Susan and Amanda begin to see some parallels between the way they interact with their daughters and the way they’ve interacted - or perhaps still interact - with their own mothers. (There’s nothing like having a teenage daughter to give you some empathy for your own mother!) And Barb realizes that her difficulty confronting her daughter may be a reaction against her own mother’s penchant for criticism. Inevitably, our relationships with our kids are affected by our relationships with our own parents, one way or another, and I wanted to examine that.

N R: Who is your favorite character in the book, and why?

Natalie: I suppose I feel closest to Amanda, although she is no more “me” than any of the other characters are real individuals. But she fills the role that I did in planning the show, which is to say writing funny lyrics to a bunch of existing songs. Just as I did, she gets totally wrapped up in the creative process, unable to stop herself from churning out song lyric after song lyric, even when it becomes clear that other mothers want to take the show in a different direction.

I also sympathize with Amanda’s dilemma as a longtime stay-at-home mother who needs to make money and cherishes what seems to be an impossible dream: to find a job that not only pays well but also provides an outlet for her talents and gives her a sense of self-fulfillment. That can be tough at any point in life, but it’s a real challenge for someone in their fifties who’s been out of the workforce for twenty years - and is trying to re-enter it in the middle of a recession.

N R: What turned out to be your greatest challenge in writing The Mother Daughter Show?

Coming up with a plot that worked. My first several drafts hewed much more closely to the show itself, and several readers told me that I needed more dramatic action. Apparently the mechanics of the show just weren’t that interesting to the general public! I wanted to keep the show as the background that framed the story, though, so the challenge was to come up with another plot that I could somehow shoehorn into the one I had. At first I didn’t think I could do it, but eventually I figured it out.

N R: Your own children attended an elite private school in D.C. How much of your story was drawn from real life?

Natalie: In terms of the details, not that much. To some extent I’m satirizing things that probably go on in any private school milieu (although as far as I’m aware, Sidwell is the only school that has a Mother Daughter Show - and I’ve learned they’ve decided to discontinue it). Of course, there’s a Washington, D.C. aspect that’s distinctive. For instance, a President’s daughter attends my fictional school, and the Obama girls currently attend Sidwell. But the Presidential daughter in the novel, who is an extremely minor character, is clearly not Sasha or Malia, any more than any of the characters are real people.

What I did borrow from real life about that situation is the excitement surrounding the presence of the First Family at the school, at least when they first got there (the novel begins in February 2009). In the book, tickets to the annual auction and the school play sell at an unprecedented rate, because people think the President and First Lady might show up. That really happened, more or less. Of course, as in the book, the President didn’t end up attending many school functions, apparently because he was a little preoccupied with trying to solve the nation’s problems.

All that having been said, I think many of the themes in the book transcend the private school milieu, and I hope that just about anyone - whether their kids go to private school or not - will be able to identify with them.

N R: You are an accomplished author, having written the award-winning historical novel, A More Obedient Wife and now the contemporary satire The Mother Daughter Show. Can you speak to the differences in your approach to each project?

The two novels are quite different, and the creative process was different in many ways as well. To write a historical novel, you have to immerse yourself in the period you’re writing about (in the case of A More Obedient Wife, the 1790s). That requires a lot of research, and even then you’re always worrying that you’ve gotten something wrong (at least I was!). So it was a nice change not to have to grapple with that for The Mother Daughter Show. Instead of burying myself in the library, I could just use my observations about the world around me.

Also, with A More Obedient Wife, my starting point was real letters between real people who lived 200 years ago. I saw my task as recreating, as much as possible, the lost lives and personalities of these people, while at the same time constructing a coherent plot. With The Mother Daughter Show, my goal was more to get away from what really happened. In a way, I knew the situation I was writing about too well—it was tempting to just write down what happened rather than create a well developed story. And at the same time, I knew too little. To create characters that work, an author needs to know them inside out, and I simply didn’t know the other women working on the show that well. Maybe it would have been easier to just write down what really happened, but it wouldn’t have worked as a novel.

Thanks, Natalie, we really appreciate your spending time with us today. You can learn more about Natalie and her writing on her website. And now it’s your turn, readers – click on ‘Comments’ below, follow the prompts and share your remarks or ask Natalie questions. We'll be glad you did!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

My daughter is in her senior year and I'm often confused by how much she's distancing from me. By writing this book, what did you discover about your relationship that was most elightening?

8:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you don't mind me asking.... Any regrets about being a stay at home mom when your kids were young? And is writing your work now or do you also have an additional job? I'm struggling with some of these questions myself.

8:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Words of wisdom now that you're seeing all this in the rear view mirror, Natalie?

9:25 AM  
Blogger Natalie Wexler said...

To answer the first question: I don't know that I discovered that much about my own relationship with my daughter through writing the book, but I was poking some gentle fun at myself in portraying my main character as someone who was kind of obsessed with figuring out what was going on in the life of her extremely uncommunicative daughter. I exaggerated the real situation, but both my kids -- my son even more than my daughter -- wanted to maintain more distance from me than I would have liked during their last years of high school. I'm sure it's a common parental experience!

The good news is that once they got to college my kids actually seemed more willing to open up, and our communication improved quite a bit. It seemed to me that their need for psychological distance decreased once they achieved some actual geographical distance. I hope that will happen for you too!

And now for the second question: I think whatever path mothers choose -- staying home or continuing to work full-time outside the home -- there will almost inevitably be some regrets. I was lucky that I was able to work part-time throughout my kids' childhood, which proved to be a good compromise in my case. Some of the time I was working 20 hours a week as a legal historian, and some of the time I was doing freelance writing or working on a novel and could more or less set my own hours.

As I said, I was lucky -- there aren't that many good part-time jobs available, unfortunately. And while things have worked out well for me, I do sometimes wonder where I might have ended up had I chosen to stay on the fairly high-powered career track that I jumped off to stay home with my kids. On the other hand, I wasn't really enjoying that career track, which is one reason I chose to stay home. Right now I do a combination of things, none of which have anything to do with my former career as a lawyer: I write, I teach ESL to immigrants, and I serve on some boards. I don't miss being a lawyer at all!

I would say that if you've had a career that means something to you and you choose to stay home with kids, it would make sense to try to keep your hand in your old line of work at least a bit while you're home -- if you can't find part-time work, then maybe you can find some volunteer work you can do in the field, to keep your skills and contacts up. That should make it easier to re-enter the field later on, should you decide that's what you want to do.

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Solar Power Ontario said...

After being referred to your blog, I am glad I decided to read it. Your writing is very inspirational and insightful. Thank you.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have written a novel based on my personal experiences caring for my parents in their later years. How did you find an agent or a publisher? Debra

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great interview, thanks! Natalie, you say that the creative process was very different for your two novels. What were some of the differences and which style will you choose for your next book?

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't have any daughters - only sons - but it sounds like I could identify with some of the issues between the mom and her uncommunicative child and the mothers and their mothers. What do you think? Do you have any sons too?

12:38 PM  
Blogger Natalie Wexler said...

To answer the question about how I found an agent or a publisher: the answer is, with great difficulty! It's very hard to get a novel published these days, unless you're already an established author, and in both instances I was fortunate to know someone who could give me an inside track. Even so, my novel was rejected by a number of publishers before it finally found a home at a small press.

I don't want to sound too discouraging -- it's certainly worth a try, even if you don't have connections. But one possibility you might want to consider is self-publishing. While it's much harder to attract attention to a self-published novel, if you have a niche (as it sounds like you might, among others who are caring for elderly parents), you can promote the book through speaking engagements, etc. I self-published my first novel, a historical novel of interest to certain constituencies, and although it never became a best-seller, I've heard from quite a few people that they really responded to it. So while it hasn't been a money-maker (few novels are!), it's been a very gratifying experience. Even if an agent or a publishing house doesn't think your novel is publishable, there may well be readers out there who will love it.

And now, to the question about the differences between my two novels and what style I'll choose for my next book: As I mentioned, my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, is a historical one, set in the 1790's and based on the lives of two real women. I needed to do a lot of research for that book, and I still worried that I was getting some period details wrong, so it was kind of a relief not to have that particular anxiety about The Mother Daughter Show. It was fun to just look around my own world and insert my observations into the narrative.

On the other hand, I do enjoy historical research, and writing about another era -- using 18th-century diction, more or less -- helped me propel myself into an imaginary fictional world.

Right now I'm working on another historical novel, set in 1807, and I'm having a great time with it -- for one thing, I love constructing the kind of flowery sentences that you can't really get away with in a contemporary novel.

But I also have a couple of ideas for contemporary novels, so I suspect that in the future I'll alternate between the two genres, since there are things I enjoy about each of them.

Thanks for all the great questions and comments!

12:38 PM  
Blogger Natalie Wexler said...

About sons vs daughters -- yes, I have one of each. And in fact, my son was even less communicative than my daughter when he was in high school. The uncommunicative daughter in my novel is a fictional character, but I would say I was drawing on my experience with my son more than my daughter. So I certainly don't think a heightened sense of privacy is anything girls have a monopoly on! It depends very much on the individual kid.

1:51 PM  

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