Julianna Baggott

Conversations with Successful Contemporary Women Writers… who are also Moms.

JULIANNA BAGGOTT

“To be a successful writer, you have to have time — long before you ever make a dime or publish a damn thing — you need time. Period. Having children makes this harder. Time shrinks. It has to be fought for. A mother who writes has to demand time. If she isn’t given time, she will not progress as a writer.”

Our first interview is with acclaimed author Julianna Baggott, who’s long been a hero of mine.

Not only does she write prolifically (she’s published at least twenty books of fiction, young adult and children’s, and poetry in the past fifteen years, which means more than a book a year), but she’s also (get ready for it…) the mother of FOUR children ranging in ages from teenager to kindergartener!!

As an author, Julianna has been praised as having “achieved a premier place among American writers” (Fred Chappell, from her website).

I’ve read (and loved!) her poetry collections THIS COUNTRY OF MOTHERS * and LIZZIE BORDEN IN LOVE (amazingly convincing persona poetry written from the voices of historical women figures, such as Mary Todd Lincoln), and two novels GIRL TALK and the first in a startling & achingly beautiful post-apocalyptic trilogy PURE  (slated to become a movie), and I am anxiously awaiting the next book in the series.

Check out the trailer for PURE.

Her writing is gorgeous. (Seriously, read her work and find out for yourself. It’s incredible). Clearly, Julianna is a successful mother writer.

With my own two young children, I often struggle as I find myself juggling the multiple roles… mother, wife, poet, (new!) novelist, teacher, publicist, etc.

I’ve long asked myself: How does Julianna do it?

So, I decided to ask her! 🙂

The following is a refreshingly honest conversation with Julianna that I find most encouraging as a fellow writer (and, as a mother writer). I hope you will, too. (And then, go buy her books! Let’s support each other, women/mother writers!)

Love,
Jenn


A Conversation with Julianna Baggott:


1.   How do you find the balance between mothering and writing? Do you ever find the lines crossing in interesting ways?

I don’t cordon motherhood off from writing. Because I had my four children at 25, 27, 30, and 37 — as well as two miscarriages — my process has had to grow to accommodate, well, interruption, noise, needs, fears … In fact, having children made me a more efficient writer. I learned to write while not writing — and that vivid work of the mind, when loosed from words and then reapplied to words has been good for me. I’ve become a more visual writer, I think. I’ve realized that time is not infinite — not my own, at least, and so both mothering and writing are precious. I would say my process has grown like a tree around a fence but I’m not sure if motherhood is the tree or the fence, actually. Better to put it this way: my children have mined me emotionally — other things would have done this too, but children have excavated my soul, given me depth and made me a more empathetic person, which are good traits in a writer.

2.   Was being a mother always a goal/desire for you, and was being a writer always a goal/desire for you? How does the reality of being a mother-writer compare with your expectations?

Yes. I didn’t know if I’d get married. I wasn’t ever really the type to dream about a wedding day, but I always wanted children — a good number, too. And I always wanted to write. I never expected to have published as much as I have. I didn’t know how essential writing would be to my life, but it is. It’s how I process the world. I also never daydreamed about having my name in print or my books on shelves. I just wanted to write and raise children. Thankfully, I married someone who wanted me to write and who wanted a big family. He makes this possible — I’ll talk about marriage in a minute here …

3.   You mentioned in a blog post that at your first Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a writer told you that poets who begin writing/publishing novels will eventually abandon poetry but that you never will. How does poetry bring or add meaning to your life?

Michael Collier, yes. And I’m thankful for it. I don’t think he meant it as goading, but I took it as a challenge. My relationship with poetry, however, is on-again, off-again. I love fiction because a certain aspect of it is very blue-collar. There’s just so much to hammer. But poetry can get overworked and my need to write it — it’s a very need-based art form, for me — isn’t consistent. So I hit a vein and write in that vein for as long as it’s there. But I believe deeply in need. Writing — prose or poetry — without urgency is flat.

4.   Did you continue writing while you were pregnant? While your babies were newborn? Did writing become any easier or more difficult once your children were school-age?

I wrote while pregnant. Yes. In fact, when my agent called to say that my second novel had arrived at his office, I was in the hospital having my third child. Nothing like a due date to apply a little pressure. After my first was born, I didn’t write much for 13 months, and then I had to go to a colony to get that space back. After my second, I didn’t write for about six months. After my third, it was a few days. I was renegotiate my contract with Florida State while in labor with my fourth, and gave a talk 11 days after a c-section. I wrote right up to the due date and was again back to writing within days.

Now my kids are 17, 15, 12, and 5. When the kids are little, it’s best for them to know that they can come in whenever they need me so that the babysitter doesn’t become a gatekeeper to my office and so that they don’t feel cut-off from me and therefore don’t really want to bother me as much. With the older kids, you’d think that they’d understand that I’m writing and not available. But with teens, you never know when they’re going to be in the mood to talk and to talk with depth. They need you in a very different way. I have to be available — and not just to snuggle for a few minutes — but to shut off my writing brain and really listen.

The hardest for me are beginnings and endings, and there are a few days in a year where I tell the family that I’m really in deep and can’t be interrupted. But that’s about it.

5.   Do your children ever read your work? And have you written anything specifically for them or with them in mind?

Ha. Well, I write books for kids as well as adults, but my children really don’t want to think of me as a writer. They want to think of me as their mother. That said, my 12 year old was assigned one of my books in school when a bit younger. He’d come home and look at me very differently — as if I had some secret. Of course, my books are in the house. The kids can pick them up whenever they choose. In about 4th grade or so, I wanted to write a poem but wasn’t quite sure how to get at it. “Write a poem about me!” my daughter said, as if this were novel. I told her that I’d written a whole book of poems that centered around her. She wanted to hear them. I read a couple, but it was clear that she wasn’t interested. There’s a wall that’s important.

That said, I did read opening pages of PURE to my now 17 year old daughter. She loved them and pushed me to write the rest. I wrote that novel, in large part, for her.

6.   Have you ever felt that your work might not have been taken seriously if it explored issues of motherhood?

I’ve heard many women writers — poets in particular — talk about this. I’d already written THIS COUNTRY OF MOTHERS when I got the message so it was too late. That said, I have a poem coming out in Best American Poetry this year and it’s about a nursing baby. So, I think that things are shifting. The idea of motherhood itself is shifting, I think.

*Editor’s note: Check out the opening to Julianna’s poem on breastfeeding, forthcoming in THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2012, cited in NPR’s recent article “It’s a Genre! The Overdue Poetry of Parenting.”

7.   Have you found that there are particular challenges facing mother-writers than those of other writers?

To be a successful writer, you have to have time — long before you ever make a dime or publish a damn thing — you need time. Period. Having children makes this harder. Time shrinks. It has to be fought for. A mother who writes has to demand time. If she isn’t given time, she will not progress as a writer.

And so that brings me to The Kitchen Debate — not the one with Nixon in Russia … The one between partners — and I’m going to default here to men and women because I want to talk about traditional gender roles. This debate happens over and over in kitchens across America. A couple, especially those with kids, has to divide labor. For biological reasons, much of this falls to the woman. For societal reasons, another massive chunk falls to the woman. The debate is really about time — who deserves it, who should be given it for practical reasons of making money, and whose work should be put on the back-burner. I believe that male writers are given more time to develop their craft and are taken more seriously — history supports the idea that men can have important writing careers more robustly than it supports the idea of famous women writers. These debates go on in kitchens and family reunions and barbeques and cocktail parties as well as in tenure meetings and in Best-of debates in the publishing industry … The successes of women writers — in respect or readership and whether they have children or not — help other women writers make a claim for the need for time. Their arguments are more compelling. Time is the reason I believe in equal praise for equal work in the industry.

8.   How does keeping a blog fit in with your overall creative endeavors and your family life?

The blog at present is very very quiet. We’re having a very busy summer. But blogs can simply sit and then rev and then sit again. I mainly keep the blog up to make my editors happy. Social networking etc … I’m not at all convinced that a blog helps promote books by an author — or not this author. But the blog is also a place where I talk about issues that don’t really feel right for any particular other outlet — I’ve written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, NPR, Real Simple … — and yet these are things I still want to talk about so I post. Sometimes I write something personal — a birthday wish or something. The kids glance at it, but only about as much as if I’d written it in a card — but, worse, it’s a card with no cash.

9.   Have you any advice to share with mother-writers who may be struggling to continue their craft or to find the path toward publication?

My fear was that if I gave up writing because of my children, I’d resent my children. If I didn’t spend time with my children — or didn’t have them to begin with — for the sake of my writing, I’d resent my career. I had to do both. If you have to do both and if you’re early on in your career, find workshops, conferences, and, of course, read madly — every book you love contains a blueprint in its conception and execution. If further along, try to swing a colony. (Some colonies give breaks for those with low incomes.) Overall, fight for your time.

10.   What’s next for you?

I’m finishing edits on FUSE — book two in the PURE TRILOGY — and writing the first draft of the final book of the trilogy, BURN. I’m waiting for edits on another novel which doesn’t yet have a title, but leans more literary. I have two collaborations that I’m pretty deep into with two writers I admire. We’re also moving north so the summer is about uprooting and rerooting. We’re in the uprooting stage.


 

Thank you, Julianna. It’s been a pleasure. And I wish you continued success…

*Author’s note: “My first book of poems THIS COUNTRY OF MOTHERS is free. Write to davegwscott@gmail.com and put “Request for Poems” in the subject line,and you’ll receive a PDF version of the collection.”

(And to that I say, woohoo! Do it now. Read some amazing poetry! 🙂 )

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Motherhood and writing and why we sacrifice | Vanessa Martir's Blog
  2. Trackback: Parenting Sacrifices and Priorities | MeReader

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