Cut the Sentimentality: The Millions Interviews Polly Rosenwaike

April 25, 2019 | 8 books mentioned 8 min read

The characters in Polly Rosenwaike’s debut story collection, Look How Happy I’m Making You, have children or choose not to, experience infertility, miscarriage, or abortion, and deal with postpartum depression and the aftermath of secrets and longing. They work inside and outside the home and renegotiate parental roles. They come together to form a portrait of modern life, centering on the struggles, choices, and realities of reproduction.

With stark images and metaphors (menstrual blood on white underwear “like a botched Japanese flag”) and an undercurrent of humor, Rosenwaike’s stories explore topics from women’s lives that are often underrepresented in contemporary literary fiction.

Rosenwaike has published stories, essays, and reviews in The New York Times Book Review, Glimmer Train, New England Review, The Millions, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is fiction editor for Michigan Quarterly Review, and lives in Ann Arbor with the poet Cody Walker and their two daughters.

The Millions chatted with Rosenwaike via email about secrets, plotting, and writing about women’s lives with honesty and humor.

The Millions: The experiences of the women in Look How Happy I’m Making You provide a window into traditionally underrepresented or ignored subjects. Did you find yourself freer in writing these stories, or wishing for more models to draw from? Were there any books or authors that served as inspiration?

covercovercovercovercoverPolly Rosenwaike: I’ve had a great number of wonderful models for writing about new motherhood, as well as about the experiences of young(ish) women and their relationships with their families and romantic partners. Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, Helen Simpson’s Getting a Life, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, Elisa Albert’s After Birth, and numerous stories by Alice Munro have inspired me with their candor, artfulness, and humor about emotionally complex subjects in women’s lives.

I’d say I felt free in writing on these topics in the sense that writing has been for me, as I think it is for many shy or private people, a space in which I can be open about things I might not fully express to many others. I didn’t see myself as venturing into new territory—to the contrary, I worried that I might be treading on too-familiar ground (and indeed was told as much by several agents who rejected my collection).

TM: You tackle subjects that often carry social taboos: infertility, miscarriage, abortion, choosing not to have children. What was writing about these topics like? Did you get any pushback?

PR: I haven’t gotten any pushback, which I think speaks to the fact that everyone I’ve worked with on the book has understood that these are aspects of women’s reproductive lives and choices that are worth discussing and representing. My relationship to writing about each topic was different. I had two miscarriages, and I fictionalized this firsthand experience in various ways when I created the characters who have miscarriages in “Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop” and “Tanglewood.” Like many people, I think, the prevalence of miscarriage wasn’t on my radar until a number of women I knew started getting pregnant, and a significant percentage of them had miscarriages. I think it’s scary to become aware of how common it is—10 percent to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage—but I also think it’s comforting to view it as a common part of the reproductive process, and to know that most women who have one will eventually have a successful pregnancy.

coverI’ve been lucky enough to have gotten pregnant only when I wanted to, and despite the miscarriages, I didn’t have to wait very long, and so I haven’t had an abortion or had to struggle with not conceiving. I entered into writing about those topics delicately, with the fiction writer’s hope that I would portray the lives of invented characters in a way that felt true. As for the matter of choosing not to have children, I find it frustrating that women are often judged harshly for what feels to me like a perfectly understandable choice. I really love how Sheila Heti takes on this subject in depth in her book Motherhood. In my story “Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.,” I wanted to explore what happens when a couple disagrees about whether or not to have a child.

TM: This book explores grief, longing, and depression, and there’s also so much subtle humor from line to line. The title comes from Audrey in “Grow Your Eyelashes.” She doesn’t want children, and her mother tearfully tries to convince her that children bring joy. Audrey replies, “Look how happy I’m making you.” In “Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.,” when Serena goes back to her job as a research librarian after maternity leave, she thinks, “No one would scream or fall ill because she hadn’t satisfied them.” How do you see humor informing your stories?

coverPR: My partner Cody Walker’s first book of poetry, Shuffle and Breakdown, has an epigraph from Richard Pryor’s stand-up show Live & Smokin’: “This ain’t as funny as we thought it was gonna be.” I wish my book were funnier. Cody’s books, let me just say, are really funny; I like to think I’ve learned a bit from him. He studied comic theory for his dissertation, and I stole some of his stuff for “A Lady Who Takes Jokes,” about a cognitive psychologist who does research on babies’ laughter. I think humor helps to cut the sentimentality that often accompanies the portrayal of new mothers and babies. And I love how it can work to intensify (rather than lighten) a dark and difficult situation. Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is a wrenching story about a mother whose young child has cancer. It’s also terribly funny. That’s the kind of humor I aspire to—the kind that makes sadness and longing and fear even more acute.

TM: “Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression” uses a listing device and structure to tell the story. How does experimentation play into your writing? Do you often write across different genres and forms?

PR: In my 20s, when I was trying to escape how hard it was to write a story, I puttered around with poetry, screenwriting, creative nonfiction; but it turned out those genres were just as hard. So I accepted my fate as a fairly traditional fiction writer. In the second-person story “Ten Warning Signs,” I really enjoyed how the structural framework—the 10 warning signs listed in a pamphlet about postpartum depression—helped me to generate material I might not otherwise have come up with. I’m hoping to experiment more with form and content in my next longer fiction project. And I have some hope of returning to genres I’ve abandoned. Though probably not poetry. I love to teach it, and I love to encounter it in my house (Cody writes a poem every single day), but it’s probably best that I stick to being a fan of poetry rather than a failure at it.

TM: Secrets are deeply woven into these stories, some shared and others kept hidden. How, for you, do secrets operate within fiction? Are they tied more closely to character or to plot?

PR: What an interesting question—I hadn’t quite thought about it, but yes, I guess there are a lot of secrets in these stories, and indeed, secrets play an important role in fiction generally. Everyone knows fiction writers are liars, right? Considering the characters that keep secrets in my collection, I think there’s something about their personalities—a deep insecurity mixed with pride, a calculated self-armoring—that makes this an enticing behavior for them. But for me as the writer, a character’s keeping a secret from other characters is definitely a means toward trying to increase the level of drama and conflict in the story. So in that way, it’s more closely tied to plot.

In “Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop,” it was quite late in the drafting process when I decided to have Cora hide her suspicion of having a miscarriage from her husband. I needed a way to externalize the conflict in their relationship and create more tension between them, and so I added in this secret. In “White Carnations,” it was always inherent to the story’s structure that when Karyn gets together with other childless, motherless women on Mother’s Day, she hides her pregnancy—until the final paragraphs, when revealing it to Anne allows the two women to get closer and the story to end with that moment of connection. My inclination has been to use secrets to explore the consequences for the characters rather than to conceal things from the reader. A reader of “The Dissembler’s Guide to Pregnancy” figures out pretty quickly, I think, that the narrator has stopped taking the pill without telling her sort-of boyfriend. The narrative question, then, becomes, what will this deception mean for their relationship? For the deceiver herself?

TM: What were your early experiences and influences as a writer? What’s next, writing-wise?

PR: I’m going to interpret this “early” as really early, because I’ve wanted to grow up to be a writer for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was a great fan of Maud Hart Lovelace, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Rumer Godden, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jennie Lindquist, Astrid Lindgren, Louisa May Alcott, Judy Blume. When my friend and I got the idea to make a celebrity cookbook like they do in a Sweet Valley Twins book (Yes, I read a lot of not-very-literary stuff too.), Judy Blume sent us a letter with a recipe for noodle kugel, which was hugely exciting. I never made the recipe, though, because it sounded gross, and I never made the cookbook because Judy Blume was the only celebrity who wrote us back.

As a girl, my favorite books were almost all by women writers, now that I think about it, and they were almost all realistic fiction. Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, who lives on her own with a monkey and a horse (which she can lift up in the air), does stretch the bounds of realism a bit.

My grandmother’s first cousin Roz, an English professor who I think of as my first real-life literary influence, gave me a diary when I was about eight or so. It was royal blue with a shiny gold fan on it, and I viewed it as a sacred object, the beginning of my writing life. For many years, keeping a journal was the main genre of creative writing I practiced, and I see it as a precursor to the kind of fiction I began pursuing in my early 20s. Though my journals were certainly filled with lots of angst and emotional excess, I think articulating and obsessing over some of the elements of my daily life helped me develop an attention to detail and to “the mystery of personality,” as Flannery O’Connor calls it in her brilliant essay, “Writing Short Stories.”

Now I’ve conveniently run out of space and can’t discuss your second question. Writing about a work-in-progress feels to me like trying to describe a book I haven’t read.

TM: This collection seems to capture a significant cultural moment in that most (perhaps all?) of the mothers work, and parental roles are in negotiation. These stories collectively paint a portrait of working motherhood as the norm, rather than an either/or proposition. Was the idea of choosing to work in your mind while writing the book?

PR: Recently, Joshua Johnson interviewed Terry Gross on his NPR show 1A, and he asked about her plans for retirement. The gist of Gross’s answer: she plans to keep working as long as she can. Alluding to that oft-heard trope, “No one ever says on their deathbed, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office,’” she said something like (I’m definitely paraphrasing), “Well, you don’t say that if you don’t like your job, but I love my work.” The work in my own life—writing, teaching, nonprofit work, editing—has always been really important to me: intellectually, emotionally, practically. In the collection, I wanted to represent women who enjoy their work and find meaning in it. For most people, this doesn’t go out the window when you have a baby. It’s hard to manage everything, of course, but I think we need to assert that mothers have just as much reason and right to continue devoting themselves to their work lives as fathers, if that’s what they want to do.

TM: Is there a question about you or your work that you wish someone would ask? How would you answer it?

PR: I’m flattered that I’m being asked about myself and my work at all. A question I guess I’ve felt poised to answer, and did answer for my editor when she asked about it, is why I don’t have a birth story in the book. A few births are briefly alluded to—a sudden C-section in “June;” a “natural birth” that goes fine but “hurt so much you thought something must be terribly wrong” in “Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression”—but for a collection of stories about having a baby, it might seem odd that this crucial experience is essentially skipped over. One reason why I avoided it is because I think childbirth often functions like the marriage plot trope, where a singular joyous event is meant to serve as the crowning culmination of a woman’s story. All the difficulty and pain of childbirth, as well as the hard work of mothering to come, is subsumed by the image of the shining newborn. For me, labor and childbirth, though certainly interesting—in the way that an extreme physical experience is interesting—was also a time when I felt least myself, most disconnected from the observing, reflective brain that I think of as me. It totally wiped me out. And so I didn’t write about it both in reaction to the way it’s often represented and because I couldn’t come up with a better way.

is the author of a novel, Trip Through Your Wires, a flash fiction chapbook, The Story I Tell Myself About Myself, and a novel-in-progress, The Sweetest Life, about infertility and the intersecting lives of three different women. She teaches creative writing at IUPUI, and can be found at www.sarahlayden.com.

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