Writing Mothers: Annabel Smith
Novelist Annabel Smith is a writer who kind of slipped by me. I’m not sure how this happened (but she has blogged extensively on it).
I read her first novel A New Map of the Universe earlier this year as if I was in a fever. The language is at times extraordinary. The opening scene where the lovers trace maps of stars on each other’s bodies is *sigh* so erotic, in the best shape of the word, that I felt like I might dissolve. It’s a book about abandonment (something that, as a writer, I identify with strongly), and about mothers who disappear (slowly, slowly). It’s a daring and transcendent debut, packed with emotion and punch.
I read her second novel pretty much immediately, intrigued by her ability to manipulate me as a reader (in a good way) and pluck at my tender bits and vulnerabilities. Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot is also assured but completely different in tone, a signal to me that Smith is quite an exceptional writer in the Australian cultural landscape. With this book, I think she deserves to be considered on the international stage (many Australian writers other than Peter Carey should be there). Beautifully structured, pared back in style, it’s a contemporary novel about technique as much as plot, about how words are shaped. As a family negotiates feelings around a brother (or son) in a coma (you can throw away all the cliches too), Smith negotiates how memories are formed and relationships battered by seemingly small misunderstandings — miscommunications and withdrawals — that grow into obstacles almost too big to crawl over.
I’ve got to know Annabel (virtually) in the past year. Her debut novel was published by UWA Publishing, like my own. And since just_a_girl was published she has been quick to review it and give feedback, helping me over initial hurdles. She invited me to contribute to her Which Writer For a Day collective blog (with other WA writers) and to think about my favourite book for her ‘Friday Faves’ series. She taught me the importance of writerly communities, and helping each other out online in innovative ways. I was also fascinated by her latest project, The Ark, a digital narrative that pushes the boundaries of fiction — I look forward to seeing it in final form.
Here I speak to Annabel about motherhood, writing, and writing mother characters in her fiction.
When you were pregnant, what were your expectations regarding having a baby and writing? Were you planning to write after the baby was born?
I prepared for pregnancy as I prepare for most things — by reading about it. What I read led me to believe that my baby would usually have 3 naps a day, adding up to 3 or 4 hours in total. Based on this information, I expected I might be able to spend perhaps an hour a day writing.
What was it like in reality? Did you get any writing done in the first year after your baby was born?
My son was colicky and difficult to settle. He had an abnormally short sleep cycle (only 25 minutes as opposed to the average 45 minutes), and never napped for more than 1 cycle. The time it took to settle him was often longer than the duration of his nap and was horribly stressful. I felt that getting him to sleep was one of my primary functions as a mother and I was failing horribly at it. Often by the time he fell asleep I was completely strung out, and there were a million things to do around the home, so writing didn’t get a look in. I didn’t write a word for the first six months after he was born and I felt incredibly frustrated and resentful about this. Eventually, we worked out a routine where my husband would look after him for half a day each weekend and I would spend a few hours at the library working on my book.
Did you find it difficult to sit down and write? Or was it the opposite? Were you more creative, as you had less time, and had to be super disciplined?
I was amazingly productive. My writing time was so precious, I didn’t waste a minute. I would sit down at the desk and barely look up for three hours.
Did you find the experience of motherhood starting to seep into your characters? Into the way you portray people?
I was writing Whisky Charlie Foxtrot then. After my son was born I wrote a scene in which my protagonist Charlie goes to see his mother, and talks to her about his feeling that his brother was her favourite child. She reveals that it was in fact the opposite, and shares her guilt about this feeling. Parental guilt is something you can’t imagine if you haven’t had children. I’d heard people speak about the feeling that they were constantly doing something wrong, or letting their children down in some way and I’d think, just let it go, stop beating yourself up about it. Then I became a parent and I experienced it for myself and I understood how it gets hold of you. So I wouldn’t have thought of writing that scene unless I had experienced that.
Did having a child mean you had to go back and rewrite or change characterisation (of mothers or other characters) in any ways?
Not that I remember, although having a baby also affected my memory really badly so it’s hard to be sure!
In your novels, mothers are often seen as difficult to reach or disappearing slowly out of grasp. Is this a common thread in your work?
It isn’t always easy to see the threads in your own work because often they seem to be driven by unconscious impulses. My first two novels both focus on the idea of communication in families — things that need to be said and aren’t, things that shouldn’t be said but are. All sorts of the relationships are fractured, not just those between mothers and children. But when I think about it more carefully, in my third novel The Ark (to be published in 2014) I have a character called Ava, who has a nervous breakdown, and worries about the impact of this on her 8-year-old daughter. And my current work-in-progress centres on a cult built around a woman known as ‘la madre’ which means ‘mother’ in Spanish. So perhaps it is an idea I feel a need to keep exploring in different forms, but it is not deliberate.
Mothering can involve managing many conflicting emotions. To what extent do these emotions transform or play a part in your writing?
What a great question. But also a difficult one to answer. I have certainly had many conflicting emotions as a mother and perhaps more extremes of emotion too. I had post-natal depression so some of the lowest times of my life have been since the birth of my son. The silver lining of this, for me, is having more compassion for others, especially people suffering with mental illnesses. I think if a writer has compassion for their characters, the reader is more likely to as well, even the difficult characters. So I hope that my experience with depression has helped me to write characters with more depth, and characters who readers might be able to feel sympathy for, even if they are behaving in ways that are hard to understand.
Both your books challenge the idea that motherhood and nurturing come naturally. Your characters struggle with grief and detachment. Do you think these are feelings many women negotiate but feel uncomfortable talking about?
Undoubtedly. I think there’s a terribly repressive culture which perpetuates the myth that all women are natural mothers and that motherhood is the most wonderful thing that can ever happen to us, and this culture makes it difficult for women to express their true feelings about motherhood which are often ambivalent and complex. I think this culture is changing, which is great to see, but it still has a long way to go.
Annabel Smith’s novel Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot has been nominated for the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award, to be announced at the Wheeler Centre tomorrow night. Good luck, Annabel, and I’ll keep you posted.
THIS POST IS PART OF THE WRITING MOTHERS SERIES: You can also read interviews with Anna Funder, Debra Adelaide, Susan Johnson, Kirsten Tranter, and many other wonderful writers…
WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU A WRITING MOTHER – OR IN THE PROCESS OF WRITING MOTHER CHARACTERS? HOW DO YOU HANDLE IT?
I really related to this post. I too had post natal depression and it really changed the way I viewed myself and people. I think the most liberating thing for me was a meeting of the women in my mother’s group when we each admitted to our parental guilt in some way – not immediately connecting with our children, resenting the demands our babies made of us. I was incapable of writing until my daughter was older – 3 or 4. My brain was a fog, I could hardly manage to make a single decision, let along wrap my head around writing an entire story. Thanks for your honest responses Anabel and I can’t wait to read your work after Kristens lyrical recommendations.
I certainly also operated in a fog for a long time. My daughter wouldn’t sleep at night (unless bundled in our arms) for the first three months. I remember getting to the point of insanity (where even when I got the chance to sleep, I couldn’t) and at the 3-month mark, it all changed straight away. I’m like Annabel, though, when I get the chance to write, I’m like a superhero in terms of being efficient …
Hi Kate, thanks for your honest reponse too. It’s so important for women to talk openly about the challenges of motherhood. I relate very much to your experience of sharing some of my negative feelings with my mothers’ group – and receiving a chorus of similar responses. What a relief to know to know we aren’t the only ones feeling this way, to know that our responses are ‘normal’. Imagine having a baby in a society where this was acknowledged – how much easier it would be.
I’m glad to hear the fog has lifted for you now Kate and I wish you well with both your writing and your parenting.
Motherhood to me was stretch marks, sleeplessness, constant fatigue, anxiety, worry, sacrifice — I could go on and on. Yet I kept going back — three more times after the first. And for some reason, my life is richer, fuller, and more satisfying. Once a mother, I felt that I brought a rounder, deeper, more compassionate person to my professional role. Now I bring that person to my writing.
It’s funny how we keep going back, isn’t it. I always find motherhood a challenge, but yes, I’m learning patience and compromise, and I wonder how my next book will be influenced by my children around me, growing up fast.
I forgot to mention that Annabel’s novel is so good and utterly deserving of the MUBA nomination. 🙂
I never went back! Once was enough for me. The thought of returning to how I felt in those first few months was too daunting for me, and the way it held me back from writing was also a factor in my decision. I think it’s lovely that you can bring the compassion earned from motherhood to your work, and your writing.
Oh, Annabel, I completely understand. I don’t know how or why I kept going back. I had PND every time and pre-natally, too. For some reason I just kept flogging myself. I think I was addicted to them. And trying to prove something …
It’s true, motherhood did make me grow, and it’s true that I then brought more to the table than just a knowledge of pregnancy, babies and kids. But I think motherhood does that for every mother, and we don’t give ourselves credit for it. Nor do our employers. Sometimes I think they just see the hassles of part-time workers and fitting around school drop-offs, pick-ups, etc.
Congrats to Annabel on the Most Underrated Book Award! I loved her piece for the Wheeler Centre recently. There’s no doubt it’s tough in the industry for emerging and mid-list authors right now. And this was a great interview, too. I just bought Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot today, so looking forward to getting stuck into it.
It’s an interesting award – Most Underrated Book. I wonder how they make the shortlist and then judge it. Would be a curious process. I think it will continue to be tough in the industry if publishers, and authors, don’t get up to speed with readers. Hope you enjoy the read…
My short fiction collection was shortlisted for the MUBA last year and I love that it fills a much-needed gap. Even in its inaugural year it really seemed to fulfill its aim of drawing attention to books from smaller publishers (sales at Readings of the four shortlisted titles went up tenfold) but I wish they’d change its name. It’s such a backhanded compliment, and I’ve had so many fellow writers comment on this.
BTW, love this writing mothers series. It’s a juggle writing and mothering and it’s great to have this insight into how it works for other writers.
Hi Irma, it’s great to have your perspective on MUBA – especially the impact on sales. That’s great news. Yes, it’s the name of the awards that kind of throw me for some reason – which is possibly unfair. I have loved doing the writing mothers series – it’s so handy to know you are not alone in this push-pull situation.
Hi Irma, thanks for your comments. It certainly is tough. But in other ways there are more opportunities so that is a silver lining of sorts. Thanks for supporting me by buying the book – I hope you enjoy it.
Yes, I agree. Though the onus is definitely on the author to maximise those opportunities. My writing time has been so eroded by publicity, events etc and sometimes I (idealistically) wish that I didn’t have to worry about any of that. Throw in mothering three kids, doing editing work that actually pays (as opposed to writing fiction) and the time just disappears. On the upside, doing all of that extra stuff has led to some wonderful friendships with other authors and if it means I get to keep doing the thing I love most then I’m up for all of it!
Hi again, Irma. It sounds like we are in EXACTLY the same boat – in terms of promotion/children/editing at any rate. But then I think of the alternatives (working a 9 to 5 job) and I just can’t do that again. But I can’t quite get to the writing of the next novel yet – and it eats away at me…
Kirsten, I feel like that could be me writing! Absolutely agree. I’ve had the characters for my next book kicking around in my head for the last year just waiting for me to get the kind of space and time I need to do some research and then immerse myself in the writing process. It’s frustrating not being able to get to it, and yet on the other hand I feel so grateful for everything that I DO have. At least it’s good to know others are in the same position and understand all the joys and challenges.
I think you’re absolutely right about the name of the award Irma – it sounds slightly jokey which does it a disservice. I think they should call it something simple like the Small Press Book Award. It will be interesting to see if it boosts sales as mine had dwindled almost to nothing.
Would be so interested to hear how it impacts the sales this year. And agree something simple like the title you’ve suggested would serve the award much better. People do often say the title and laugh, which undermines its value. But the title certainly gets it noticed and perhaps that’s the thinking behind it (much like SPUNC, which has of course now changed to the less provocative SPN). At any rate I hope they rethink it for next year.
Wow Kirsten – I LOVE this post. I am a mother of three and if I could have the time I spend as a taxi driver and chef along to write I would have finished three books by now and not just one.
Will share this when I am back online tomorrow because right now, the taxi is booked and the chef needs to get her apron out!
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Taxi driver and chef! Perhaps you could come and live at my place? It’s so tricky making it all work. I’m lucky because my income comes from editing and writing from home – but sometimes I am desperate to get out of the house! And my passion for reading and writing is the one stable thing in my life.
Hi Melissa-Jane – I’m glad the post resonated with you. It was great to answer such interesting questions. I have been lucky in the last year to have had the support of a grant so I haven’t had to earn a living as well. There’s a wonderful book called The Divided Heart, which contains interviews with creative working mothers including Rachel Griffiths, Clare Bowditch and some writers, which addresses the issue of ‘the third shift’ ie. trying to sustain a creative life in addition to being a parent and working. It’s certainly a challenge, and I’m impressed you manage to write at all.
Isn’t being a mother damn hard? I really related to Annabel’s plunge into the ravine between expectation of motherhood and the reality of motherhood. It’s like when Wile E Coyote runs off the cliff in “Road Runner” and his legs are still running and then realises he’s in mid air and plummets! Must read Whisky Charlie Foxtrot – an author who understands mother guilt (it knows no bounds!) AND a book with identical twins…although I think there is a special kind of mother’s guilt reserved especially for those of us who have multiples…
Mother guilt. Does it ever end? I think the actual ‘guilt’ part does more damage than whatever happened in the first place. In my book, my character Margot is consumed by it – to the extent she withdraws completely. I wish I could move on as quickly as my children can. Ten minutes later, it’s like, ‘what happened?’ Yeah, I’m sure twins means double the issues? I’d love to know more about that…
I love that Road Runner analogy Julianne – such an apt image! I’ll be interested to hear how you respond to WCF, being a mother of multiples.
I’m a reader not a writer, and came here at the recommendation of Irma. Loved this post and all the discussion. Mothering is exhausting but I felt I became a better reader when I became a mother – partly because my time was precious so I got back to really focussed reading then and partly because the experience of motherhood changed/opened me in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible. I knew motherhood would be tiring and demanding but, until I experienced it, I didn’t really understand the power of that emotional pull. Motherhood I reckon gives you the greatest ups of your life but also the biggest downs – for the rest of your life I’m starting to realise. I don’t think you can ever fully get rid of feelings of guilt.
As for the MUBA name, I agree it is a weird and slightly back-handed one. What a shame it couldn’t be called the SPUNKY!
What a great comment. I’ve never thought about things in terms of motherhood and reading. I’m such a devourer of books that I have to constantly fight the urge to curl up in a corner somewhere (away from my children) and read, like I used to. The kind of reading I do has changed – it’s mainly work in the sense that I am writing reviews or for the blog – but it hasn’t taken the thrill of it away (if I’d been asked what my dream was when I was a teen, I probably would have said book reviewer).
LOL Kirsten – and it sounds like you achieved your dream. Good for you.
Sue, you’ve reminded me of hours spent cuddling my eldest when she was a baby, feeding and reading. It was just heavenly.
Since number two came along I find reading during the day virtually impossible. The other day all three kids were busy playing and I decided to finish off the last ten pages of the novel I was reading. With just two pages left to go Master Two came in and took the book from my hands saying ‘Finish’, then replaced it with one of his books and said ‘Read’! Needless to say evenings are my reading time.
Yes, Irma, that’s my memory too. Special times, though – mother guilt – should I have been gazing into my baby’s eyes rather than my book while feeding! Mine were just over three years apart so I did get a little more of the same with my second but less so as you say. As they got older, I think I also became better at managing my time and squeezing reading in whenever I could. As they did piano (or whatever) lessons I would often wait, reading my book, rather than go off and come back later. What can you do in less than an hour after all – and it’s much better for the environment not to be driving backwards and forwards all the time! The toddler years – post baby, pre school years – though are the hardest for finding reading time I agree.
I like your Master Two – a man who knows his own mind!
The highest highs and the lowest lows – you’re absolutely right. I don’t know if it changed me as a reader though. I’m going to ponder that one.
The SPUNKY is a hilarious suggestion.
Go the SPUNKY!
PS Kill Your Darlings journal has a great article today on the Most Underrated Book Awards (and books in general) by SA Jones. Annabel gets quoted but I’m excited to say that just_a_girl rates a mention, as does Tracey Farr from recent FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS:
This article raises an interesting point: ‘underrated’ in what sense? When Two Steps Forward was shortlisted several writer friends said, ‘But you got great reviews all over the place.’ So they saw ‘underrated’ as meaning that the book was overlooked or rated poorly, which wasn’t the case. It’s rather misleading.
Ashamed to say I’ve only read three of the books on SA Jones’ list, so I now have more titles to track down, including yours which I have been meaning to read since it came out. Part of the problem is surely that there are too many books and not enough hours in the day to read them all!