[The following interview continues a series I started back in September 2009 on my family and faith blog, Peace Garden Mama. I’m truly honored to have my blogging pal Amy Wilson be the subject of my first spotlight interview on Peace Garden Writer. Hang on to the end to find out details on how to win a copy of Amy’s brand-new memoir, When Did I Get Like This?]
(Photo credit: Laura Doss)
About a year into my blogging journey, I was “digging” for some fun, new blogs and came across one from a blogging friend’s list bearing an interesting name. When I clicked on MOTHER LOAD, I felt like I’d, in fact, hit the mother load. Not only did I find great writing, but the blog author also had written and produced an off-Broadway play by the same name that had taken to the road. Watching the online video of Amy Wilson’s dramatic creation stirred something within me. I found her writing refreshingly honest and hilarious, both poignant and revealing in an almost healing sort of way. Here was a regular mom writing about her regular life as a mother in NYC in a way that resonated with me and my mom-life in ND. Since I’d recently begun work as a newspaper columnist, through which I also write about the sometimes quirky, oftentimes chaotic, slightly upside-down life as a parent, the connection became all the more vital. I’ve been reading MOTHER LOAD ever since, and took note when Amy “disappeared” for a few months to write a parenting memoir.
I’m now happily in possession of a copy of Amy’s newly-released book, When Did I Get Like this?: The Screamer, The Worrier, The Dinosaur-Chicken-Nugget-Buyer & Other Mothers I Swore I’d Never Be. Having just finished it, I’m thrilled to shine the spotlight onto new book author Amy Wilson. Welcome to Peace Garden Writer, Amy!
Amy, though I know parts of your journey through your blog, and even more now through your book, I’m curious, and I know other writers-mothers will be as well: how did all this happen? First, what prompted the off-Broadway show, and did the book come forth in part as a result of that show?
I had written other solo shows in the past as part of my acting career. That career got off track once I had two kids in two years- I know that’s something a lot of mothers will identify with. When my second child was about four months old, I got approached by a theater where I had done other shows in the past, and was offered the chance to bring in a new solo show. “I’ll do it!” I said, although I don’t know what I was thinking. “It’ll be about being a mom. And it’ll be called Mother Load.” Nine months later, I performed the show for the first time. A year later, it was running off-Broadway. Then I started my blog. Then Mother Load got picked up for a national tour. Then I started getting some writing assignments for parenting magazines, and it was one of those—plus my blog—that led to the opportunity to write a book.
Was it more difficult to write a play or a book? What were the similarities in that process, and what were the marked differences? Was one more satisfying than the other to produce?
It’s funny- the difficulties lay in how completely opposite they were. The play was easier to write than the book just because it was shorter, but there was a continual learning process for me, of paring it down. “Say less,” my director (Julie Kramer) kept telling me, and she was right—on the stage you show, you don’t tell. We could cut a whole page of the show and replace it with a raised eyebrow, and it would be so much better. So I learned how to write in a very lean and active way. Then I started working on sample chapters for the book proposal, and my literary agent kept telling me, you need more detail. Tell us more. Go deeper. I had to take the shorthand I had learned to write in and expand it out again.
As far as what’s more satisfying to produce- I couldn’t believe it when I first held my finished book in my hand, and I still get a thrill whenever I pick it up. The play never felt as “finished” as that—but that’s also what’s fun about it, I continue to tinker with it every time I perform, which obviously I can’t do with a book .
I noticed in your acknowledgments that you mention your sister as a helpmate, a first editor as you moved along in the creation of this work. My sister has helped in my early drafts as well and is also a fine editor. I like that I can trust her with my work, and I know she’ll be honest if there are flaws. Describe how this process worked for the two of you:
My sister Mollie and I are so much alike. We have similar senses of humor, we admire the same sort of writing… it was an incredible opportunity to have her as my “first reader” because it was almost like having an objective version of myself. There was no question of her “getting” my voice, but she could also have a clear vision of where it wasn’t coming across. As soon as I finished a first draft of an essay, I’d send it right off to her. Nobody else, not even my husband, saw things before Mollie had given me notes and I had completed a second draft based on her thoughts. I trusted her so completely, and her edits and suggestions improved the book immeasurably. She is also a doting aunt to my three kids, and has been there for many of the book’s events—so she had a real insider’s point of view.
Amy, I love how you write your kids’ dialogues. The reader can really “hear” their voices coming through, both on your blog and in this book. Do you think your work in theater helped in this regard?
Absolutely. I have written a couple of screenplays and a lot of sketch comedy, and so I think I have an ear for funny conversations that are happening around me. And because I’ve been in so many plays (and auditioned for so many more) this is how I “see” those conversations in my head.
SPEAKER 1: dialogue
SPEAKER 2: response
So on my blog, I always down the things my kids say in that form. When I started on the book, I tried to change it to “’What are you doing?’ I asked suspiciously. ‘Nothing,’ Seamus said cautiously,” or whatever. But it just didn’t seem as funny to me, as clean, as writing it down the exact way it sounded. So I stuck with it.
You do an excellent job in your book of describing the pure shock of early motherhood. Our first child was difficult as well. I remember one friend, in her annual Christmas newsletter, described new motherhood as “intense.” Soon afterward, I learned just how on target she was, and how understated her words. Was it hard for you to look back on those early days, or was writing about them cathartic?
Cathartic. Absolutely. When I first did “Mother Load” it felt very risky to be talking about motherhood in that way. I wasn’t sure how it would be perceived. I wasn’t sure if anyone would identify. But of course other mothers do, and writing the book I knew that, so I wanted to go even further, to show my experience, warts and all. Some of it’s not so funny. But to me, that’s OK. I wanted the book to have moments both dark and light.
One thing that impressed me about what you reveal here is even though I’m a bit further ahead in the mothering journey, with 5-year-old and 14-year-old “bookends,” and three in between, you are adept at being able to extrapolate at least some truths about the future, even before you’ve reached it. In other words, you seem to be wise about the parenting journey that exceeds the years you’ve been a mother. Did these truths unfold as you were writing the book, or are you just that insightful naturally? 🙂
Wow, thanks! It’s nice to hear a mother of a teenager say that I have some handle on what’s ahead of me. That may be due to my family experience growing up- I’m the oldest of six, and I can readily remember the infancy and childhood years of the youngest four (including my sister Mollie). My youngest brother is still in college, and so my mother has been dealing with his teen years while I was starting a family of my own. Watching my mother raise my siblings has probably given me some insight.
Any Erma-Bombeck-types whispering in your ear as you write? If not Erma, who has inspired your writing?
Erma, yes! She started it all I think. I went back and read a lot of her old work when I was writing Mother Load. Her combination of humor and heart is really special, and in this snarky, jaded age we live in, it gave me confidence that it could still be okay to write earnestly.
Also David Sedaris. I mean, I’m not worthy to touch the hem of his garments, but I read a lot of his essays while I was writing the book (trying to stay away from anything parenting-related), and I loved how his essays start in one place and wander off in completely unexpected directions. The meandering nature of his essays is part of what makes them so enjoyable. That gave me freedom to not write so… neatly, so boxed-up.
Here’s an excerpt of your book to give readers a taste of how you approach your subject matter. In this scene from a chapter called “Liar Liar,” your husband, David, starts out asking your middle child, 4-year-old Seamus, if he has the best mommy, to which he responds:
ME: Excuse Me?
SEAMUS: No. You are not de best mommy. In anudder house, there is pwobby a mommy who is gooder.
DAVID: Seamus, that’s not nice to say.
SEAMUS: But it’s twue. You still a good mommy. You’re zust not the best mommy.
He snuggled back into my chest, quite contented.
What could I say? He was so obviously, totally right. Even if his candor was tough love, I could see it as a precious resource, a dying light. As long as Seamus still told me the honest truth, and as long as I could still tell him stories to keep him safe, he would still be a child. So I squeezed Seamus tighter, smiling even at his conjuring of some other, gooder mommy, because at least it meant he was still, for a little while longer, fully mine.
Consider this a teaser, dear readers, and go out and buy the book, or find it here.
And Amy, thanks for bringing forth such a hilarious, honest account of your life as a mother. When Did I Get Like This? was a pleasure to read. Whenever I had to put it down, I always looked forward to returning to it in between mothering and writing duties. All mothers will be able to relate – especially to the reality that we have no idea what we’re doing, yet at the same time, we’re absolutely the most equipped person in the world to mother our children.
I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Roxane. I hoped the book could be both a good laugh and a shot in the arm for mothers- and maybe an eye-opener for a few fathers!
Any closing thoughts or plans for a sequel?
I actually am planning for a sequel! People have asked me if I have enough material for a second book- heck yes. While I am a mellower mother than I used to be, I am far from perfect. Far, far, far. And we haven’t even hit the dreaded “tween” years. Well, at least there’ll be plenty to write about!
Indeed. Our children definitely give us ample fodder for our work!
Now for the giveaway. In order to qualify for the drawing, please do the following (good luck!) :
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