June 11, 2012 · 10:24 PM
Jaime Boler: Did you always want to be a writer?
Jillian Medoff: I’ve been writing ever since I was a kid, crafting stories as a moody adolescent and even moodier teenager and then studying fiction at Barnard and in graduate school at NYU. My entire life has been centered around my writing, and by that I mean finding the time to write. I have a career, a job-job, in corporate communications, and I work four days a week at a very traditional, very buttoned-up consulting firm. I also have a family—a husband and three daughters, parents and two sisters. So there’s constant drama, and I’m busy, busy, but at the center of the madness is the desire to write, the need to write. That desire, that need, is as palpable and relentless as any junkie’s craving, and will possess me all day until I can park myself in a chair and do my work. I love it, I hate it, it’s ecstasy when I’m writing well, it’s despair when I’m not. I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone, nor would I, could I, ever give it up.
JB: You write so strongly and beautifully of the bonds among sisters. As an only child, these ties were alien to me, yet I envied them. Do you have sisters? (If you do not, then that only makes you an even better storyteller!)
JM: Yes, I have two sisters, just like Eliot. Although they’re not as annoying as the sisters in the book—whose personality traits are magnified for fictive and often comic effect—they do get on my nerves as much as Maggie and Sylvia. At the same time, they are my go-to people when the chips are down, and we love as other as deeply as my characters. I would go to the ends of the earth for my sisters, and know they would do the same. My sisters and I have a complicated, exhilarating, maddening relationship but they’re my history, my memory, the two people in the world who have known me the longest. They also love to make fun of me—ask them about my Lady J license plate.
JB: How did you come up with the idea for I Couldn’t Love You More?
JM: I received an MFA at NYU. While I was there, I took a master class with the very brilliant writer, Grace Paley who said, “Write what you don’t know about what you know.” It didn’t occur to me until a few years ago that this is exactly what I do. I’ll take moments from my own life, from my family’s life, from strangers’ lives and I’ll look at what would normally happen—what I know—and then I’ll consider everything I don’t know, the big “what if’s.”
I actually wrote an essay about the evolution of I Couldn’t Love You More, and about my writing career called “This is a True Story.” It’s available in both the print and eBook versions of the novel. One point I make in this essay is that I Couldn’t Love You More, like my other novels, Hunger Point and Good Girls Gone Bad, evolved very much the way Grace Paley suggested. For instance, when I started to write I Couldn’t Love You More, here’s what I knew: I’m a mother and stepmother. I have three children. I love them each equally but all differently. I’ve always been a writer who tackles complex themes and risky subjects—I write about the things that people think but never say aloud. If a book has a predictable storyline or familiar situations, there’s little satisfaction for me in writing it. A woman deciding which man she’ll spend her life with? I’ve read that story a million times, but a stepmother deciding which of her children she’ll save in a freak accident? Now that’s a challenge. I had no idea how I would react if forced to choose between my daughters, and figuring that out became my obsession for the next decade. In fact, even though the novel is finished and published, I still grapple with the question. I mean, how can any of us know what we would do in that situation?
JB: How is I Couldn’t Love You More different from your other novels?
JM: What an excellent question! All three of my novels are first-person, with a female narrator, which is the voice that feels most natural for me. I’ve written novels in other voices with and male perspectives, but until now, they haven’t been as successful, largely because the characters weren’t as likeable or honest as they could’ve been. But my first two novels were written by a younger writer. I Couldn’t Love You More is different only because I’m different—I’m fifteen years older, fifteen years wiser, and have had fifteen more years of rejection. I’ve also had kids, so I think it’s a deeper, richer novel in many ways. The first two have the same intimate feeling and funny, honest voice, but I Couldn’t Love You More is a much more risky and ambitious book, especially from an artistic standpoint.
JB: What role does birth order play in shaping the personalities and lives of your novel’s two sets of sisters?
JM: The birth order—and personalities—of the characters were created intentionally so that they could be subverted. I developed the three sisters using the stereotypes normally associated with three sisters—the first is too good and selfless, the second is crazy and begs for attention and the third naïve and clueless. The idea is that by the end of the book, they’ve each been totally transformed: Eliot proves she’s not so good, Sylvia proves she’s not so crazy, and Maggie, the youngest, is neither naïve nor clueless. The personalities of the second set of sisters (the daughters) are more a reflection of their parents—Eliot, Grant and Beth, the Sculptress—than birth order. I suppose, however, that I do suggest that birth order also plays a role in their personalities, and how they relate to one another. The eldest sister, Charlotte, does feel responsible for her sisters the way Eliot does, which is how I feel toward my own sisters. Although in the book, Gail, the middle daughter is more like Eliot than her Aunt Sylvia.
JB: In this story, Eliot is named for George Eliot; Sylvia for Sylvia Plath; Maggie for Margaret Atwood. Are you fans of these women writers?
JM: Yes, I am a fan—very much so.
JB: Grant likes to display his juggling prowess, but it is Eliot who is the real juggler in their family. In fact, the women in this novel wear so many different hats: mother, daughter, sister, wife, and friend. Women, far more than men, in our society must put on a constant juggling act. Why do you think women like Eliot feel the need to do everything? Are women today more likely to try to be “super” women?
JM: I think there’s an unnatural amount of social pressure on women, particularly mothers, to conform to certain standards of behavior, particularly in regard to our children. Take birthday parties, for instance. When I was growing up, we’d play some games in the backyard, sing some songs and have some cake. At some point, though, we collectively crossed a line where our children became these pampered little fetish objects that need more, more, more. And if we don’t give it to them or can’t give it to them, then we’ve failed them—as parents, as women, as providers. I’m a working mother, and although I don’t feel guilty necessarily about working, I am definitely guilty of trying to more for my daughters, sometimes at the expense of myself. When I think of how much money I spent on my youngest girl’s second and third birthdays at Gymboree, I want to smack myself. I tried to capture this contradiction throughout I Couldn’t Love You More—how we overindulge our children in weird, often hysterically funny ways, and how we know what we’re doing is ridiculous, and yet don’t stop. I was also very interested in creating an archetypical “good” woman and then having her take a public fall. None of us is so good or so virtuous that we’re exempt from making mistakes, but somehow we’ve internalized these unrealistic ideas about motherhood and parenthood and try to behave accordingly. It’s maddening because it’s impossible to be perfect, and yet we all try and then feel badly when we aren’t.
JB: I Couldn’t Love You More is getting a lot of buzz. How do you feel when you hear both good and bad reviews?
JM: When I was younger, the bad reviews would crush me—really, truly devastate me. Everything was so personal and I couldn’t separate myself from the work—not the characters because they weren’t me, but from the heartache of having put so much time and energy into the books. Now the bad reviews still sting, but I’m able to separate myself from them a little bit. It’s the art they’re critiquing, not the artist. A do think, though, that everyone should get bad reviews from time to time. They’re humbling, and it’s important to be humbled as a novelist. It’s painful, sure, but it’s a vital part of breathing life into your characters. You can’t lord yourself above them; bad reviews can cut you down pretty quickly.
JB: Have you ever come across someone you did not know reading one of your books? Did you approach the person?
JM: This has only happened to me once. I saw a woman reading my first novel on the subway. But I couldn’t approach her. It was too strange and felt too intimate. I didn’t want to put her on the spot, especially if she didn’t like it. Even if it happened today, I would keep my distance. Reading is such a personal experience; I wouldn’t want to infringe on anyone’s space.
JB: How do you respond to critics who constantly devalue women’s fiction?
JM: This is a very tricky question because I have very strong feelings about the subject, and no matter what I say, I’m going to offend someone. I myself have devalued women’s fiction because a lot of women’s fiction is lousy. But so is a lot of literary fiction, science fiction, historical fiction, and every other type of fiction out there. For some reason, though, women’s fiction gets a worse rap, as though it’s somehow less difficult to write a four-hundred page domestic novel than it is any other kind of novel. Is it because women are an easy target, or because women love to take each other down? All I know is that it takes me a minimum of four years for each novel I write. I do research. I revised and rewrite. I inhabit the characters as intimately as I inhabit my own skin. And you’re going to tell me that this work is less than, or inferior to, another novel simply because of my voice or point of view? Really?
To be perfectly frank: I don’t write women’s fiction. I write intimate, gritty, realistic, character-driven fiction that happens to be thrown into the women’s fiction category. Yes, I wrote this particular novel in a first-person female voice. Yes, I am discussing a stepmother: her work, children, sexual relationships, sibling rivalries, etc. However, this stepmother was created as an archetype, an Everywoman, and through the quotidian details of her very typical, very ordinary life, I Couldn’t Love You More explores all the themes of great literature: love and betrayal, the capriciousness of fate, fall from grace, and noble sacrifice.
As a writer who happens to be a woman, I am constantly devalued—even by other writers who happen to be women—simply because of a marketing decision. Am I truly less talented, less audacious, less erudite, less brave than my more quote-unquote literary colleagues? With a different cover, different blurbs, different marketing, different social circle—a book can be categorized any way a publisher desires. I am truly grateful for all the support I’ve been shown by many male and female reviewers (so far, reviews have been raves) but I also feel snubbed by a lot of other papers, magazines, and blogs, including the paper of record.
This also raises the question of humor. Women writers—particularly women writers who are funny—are even further devalued. The very brilliant Jen [Jennifer] Weiner referred to it as the “other other.” I have a predisposition to finding the absurd in the everyday, that is, looking at ordinary random moments and seeing what’s funny about them. We are each absurd in our own way, and to accept that—to celebrate it—is critical to our survival. Think about it: we live and then we die. How dark is that? Therefore, we absolutely must find humor—otherwise life would be too depressing. Of course, my philosophy doesn’t lend itself to all literary subjects. You won’t find me writing about, say, the Holocaust or missing and murdered children. But family relations, sibling rivalry, true love, the devaluation of the American dollar—all of these are perfect opportunities for humor, even in their darkest moments.
But despite what people may think, writing funny is not easy and it’s not fun. It’s deadly serious and very hard. As a writer, you (and by that I mean “me”) have to be humble as well as realistic and accepting of your place in the world. If I were too impressed with myself, I could never be funny. You (again, “me”) have to be willing to see—and exploit—your flaws and those of everyone you come in contact with. It’s a brave thing, writing humor, because it’s so easy to fall flat. I wish I could write a Pulitzer-prize winning novel about the history of slavery, but alas, who would find that funny?
JB: Of all the books you’ve written, do you have a favorite? If so, which one and why?
JM: This is another great question. I’ve never been asked this before, nor have I thought about my books in a comparative way. But now that I’m thinking about it, and because we’ve been discussing birth order, my first novel, Hunger Point, was truly a first novel and very akin to—dare I say it?—a first child. (I can hear how precious that sounds, but it’s true, it’s true.) It was risky, brazen, independent, and given lots and lots of attention. Continuing the metaphor, my second novel, Good Girls Gone Bad, was not as well liked and orphaned, and I Couldn’t Love You More is my special needs kid. All three have taught me a lot, and they all demanded a lot, but to pick a favorite isn’t fair to the years I spent on each one. I love them the same, but different.
JB: What part has social media played in your publication experience? What do you think about book blogs, in general?
JM: Although this is my third novel, it’s the first time I’ve ever worked with social media and so far, so good. The Internet has really helped to facilitate communication between authors and their readers, so it’s interesting to talk to people who have read my novel. To this end, book blogs act as a unique link between authors and their readers, and I’ve loved working with most of the book bloggers I’ve met. Of course, if a blogger hasn’t read my work, or worse, doesn’t quite “get” it, the experience isn’t as meaningful, but everyone I’ve met so far has read at least one of my books, and even better, really loved them. I’m very grateful for the book blogger community for supporting authors—with traditional coverage waning, it’s really the one way that non-industry people (“civilians” we call them) can find out about what’s new and what’s worth reading. So here’s a big shout-out and a big thank you to book bloggers everywhere!
JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?
JM: What I like to do and what I have to do are two separate things. I like to read, swim, watch TV, spend time with my family. But I have to work, so I do that. I also attend a lot of my daughters’ school functions, which I don’t dislike but they’re time consuming, and for the past few years, I’ve spent many, many hours carting my kids to play dates and weekend activities.
JB: What was the last book you read?
JM: I just finished The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright. It was very masterfully done, and I highly recommend it. I also read Catching Fire, the second book in the Hunger Games series with my daughter. We both loved it!
JB: What are some of your favorite books and/or who are a few of your favorite authors?
JM: My list is far and wide. When I really love a book, I will research the author and try to find everything he/she has written. Sometimes, too, I’ll write a fan letter, which I know is corny. If I love a book, it will haunt me for days, weeks even, sometimes years. Here are a few that I still think about: Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison), The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner), And then We Came to the End (Joshua Ferris), The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien), anything by Philip Roth, especially American Pastoral and Patrimony, Anywhere but Here and My Hollywood (Mona Simpson). I also read a lot of non-fiction. I loved Random Family (Adrian Nicole LeBlanc) and most recently, Wild (Cheryl Strayed).
JB: If you weren’t an author, what would you be doing?
JM: My dream was always to be an FBI agent, like Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs, or even a detective like Olivia Benson from Law & Order.
JB: What words of advice do you have for aspiring authors?
JM: Read a lot—classics as well as contemporary fiction to learn how successful books are constructed, why writers make certain choices (point of view, setting, tone, etc.). Write the kinds of books you want to read otherwise you’ll be less inclined to go back and revise again and again and again. My novels are never truly finished, even if they’re published and sitting on the shelf. While I may no longer be interested in spending time with that particular set of characters, I can’t help but think about all the ways the book could be different, the small, insignificant tweaks that no one but me would ever notice. (It’s one reason why I never reread my books once they’re bound and shipped.) Finally, consider trashing your outlines. Work without a net. When I start a novel, I have a general idea of where I want to end up, but I never know how I’ll get there. Part of what compels me to write day after day, chapter after chapter, is the discovery process, seeing the characters evolve as I get deeper and deeper into the story. It means many more revisions (I go forward and back, forward and back over a period of four years (at a minimum) for each book I write), but your novel will be richer and more honest for it.
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading I Couldn’t Love You More?
JM: To be honest, I want readers to be wrung out. As a novelist, I don’t have a political agenda or specific philosophy; I’m trying to create a gut-wrenching, intimate, memorable experience. I hope I’ll keep people up at night, unable to stop turning pages. That’s my goal: exhausted, emotionally drained readers who can’t stop crying.
JB: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
JM: We actually sold I Couldn’t Love You More two years ago, so I’ve been working for a year and a half on a new book. All I can say is that it’s a corporate book—one I’ve been dying to write for a long time. It’s set in the HR Department of a small, failing company. The head of the group, an aging executive has a stroke, and then…
JB: We’ll just have to wait to read it! Thanks for doing this interview, Jillian.
JM: Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity! I’m thrilled to be talking to you about my book and my writing career with your readers. I’d also love to hear what people think of the book, so if you’ve read it and liked it, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Thank you to Amy R. Bromberg at KMSPR for setting it all up.