Goodnight Mom: The Millions Interviews Julia Fine

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Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House was published on Feb. 23. If ever there was a month to consider what it means to be inside, it was the February that came nearly a year into a pandemic that kept most people homebound. The novel’s protagonist, Megan, is a new mother who is homebound in the way all new parents are. She is tethered, physically and emotionally, to a newborn whose arrival has shrunk her world to sleepless nights and endless feedings. Except Megan isn’t alone, even when her husband returns to work. The ghost of Margaret Wise Brown, author of the children’s classics Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, is also at home alongside Megan.

Fine’s first novel, What Should Be Wild, was shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Superior First Novel Award and the Chicago Review of Books Award. In The Upstairs House, she once again returns to examining the world through a supernatural lens. We chatted about hauntings, motherhood, and how language can bring us both closer and farther from understanding.

 The Millions: The Upstairs House is a novel about a woman who is haunted by Margaret Wise Brown and Michael Strange, after giving birth. How did you approach the initial idea for the novel? Which came first, Goodnight Moon or the ghost?

Julia Fine: I knew fairly soon after my first child was born that I wanted to write a novel about the postpartum experience. Those first few weeks with a new baby are unique and unsettling and really disrupt the foundation of a new parent’s life. It felt like a great space to set a book, because it came built-in with both a sea-change and so many sources of tension and confusion—the exhaustion and the grueling feeding schedule, the new responsibilities, the foreignness of the body, the loneliness. Initially I’d envisioned a Rear Window-type story, but instead of Jimmy Stewart with a broken leg, it would be a new mom up at all hours, watching her neighbors. I started to write, but I was struggling with the idea of the new mom as an observer, rather than the impetus for action. Luckily, while I was working on that project, I was reading my son Goodnight Moon and decided to look up its author. Once I’d read a bit about Margaret Wise Brown, I was hooked, and once I started researching Michael Strange, her lover, I wanted to write about both of them. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to put the two stories together, and whether this was, in fact, one book, and landed on a haunting as a solution on both a technical and thematic level. Margaret and Michael were both, in their own ways, obsessed with the legacy of their work, image-conscious, and careful about crafting their personas. This attention to memorialization and self-presentation fit nicely into the schema of a haunting—because what new parent isn’t haunted by the idea of the person they might be had they not had kids?

TM: I read this book about four months postpartum with my second kid, and there were times I felt almost shocked to see that experience described simultaneously with care and with horror. How much of The Upstairs House was written in your own postpartum days? Or did this novel require a bit of distance from your own experiences of giving birth?

JF: I started seriously drafting the book about a year after my son was born, but I’d been thinking about it for at least six months before I actually put words on the page. I journaled a bit while postpartum (and by journaling I mean I used the notes app on my phone while nursing at night when something particular struck me), but most of what became the novel came much later. I felt very underprepared for the postpartum period, and I think some of that prompted me to pay close attention, so that I could at very least tell my close friends without kids what to expect.

TM: Did you seek feedback from postpartum parents during the writing? I definitely felt that The Upstairs House captured that postpartum vulnerability in a way I haven’t seen before and I’m curious if you’re hearing a lot of that from readers?

JF: I had a good friend who’d had postpartum depression read through a fairly early draft and give me notes, but most of what I wrote was in response to my own experiences, researching PPP, and candid conversations I’d had with friends. When my son was very small, I didn’t know many people in similar situations, but as he got older and we ventured out to parks and classes, I got to know more new parents and realized that what had felt like such an isolating experience was actually quite common. It means a lot to have readers who are parents reach out and say that they feel seen. I’ve heard from people who had kids decades ago who say the book brings them back to that specific time of their lives, and people who have newborns while they’re reading.

TM: Speaking of kids, can you tell me a little about your writing routine with young kids?

JF: Oh gosh. When I had just one, I’d write during his naps. It felt like a contest where he could wake up at any time and I just had to get as many words down as I could before the buzzer. In a way, that constraint helped create some of the urgency of the book. It definitely helped me to be less precious about a first draft. Once Covid hit and my son’s school closed, any sort of routine went out the window. I edited The Upstairs House on weekends, when my husband could take my son. And then my daughter was born immediately after I turned in my final draft to the publisher and I basically pressed pause on my next project. She’s nine months now, and napping more regularly, so I’m hoping to get childcare sorted and back into a routine soon. It’s so, so hard to write with a baby. I have so much respect and awe for anyone who gets work done in those first six months.

TM: I hesitated to ask that question, as it seems it’s only ever asked of women. But I also feel it’s important not to disappear writers’ non-writing lives in interviews. Are there other non-writing parts of your life that inform your work, or this novel in particular?

JF: Honestly, every aspect of my non-writing life informs my work. Some things are more obvious than others, like the fact I went to graduate school and have small children. But even things that seem totally non-related end up having an effect on what I’m writing—fiction writing is inextricable from living in the world, and at its best even the most surreal, speculative stuff is a response to an emotion or an idea prompted by the non-writing life. Or I guess another way to phrase it is that it’s all the writing life, just not necessarily always putting words on the page.

TM: And because it touches everything at this moment, can you tell me a little about publishing a book during the pandemic? Any unexpected surprises?

JF: Virtual events have had their ups and downs. I think a lot of people who couldn’t have come to anything in person because of location or childcare or disability had access in a way that felt exciting. But I’ve really missed the community aspect, especially immediately after the event, when I’d usually be able to go give hugs and catch up and celebrate.

TM: The narrator of The Upstairs House, Megan, is working on a thesis. Throughout the novel you include bits of her academic work, including an interest in language and definitions. I loved the tension this created, as Megan is also unable to name or define exactly what is happening to her. When writing, is this tension something that comes to you early? How do you build it through the revision process?

JF: Megan’s attention to language began is an homage to Margaret Wise Brown, who, like many children’s book writers, was intensely aware of every word she put on the page, and how it would resonate. Her books might seem simple, but everything in them is thoughtful and deliberate. Margaret raved about Gertrude Stein, and was part of an early childhood education movement that was effectively translating what modernist writers were doing for adults into books for children by focusing on immediate sensory experience and eschewing traditional narrative. And when women describe their experiences with postpartum psychosis, the break that psychiatrists call a “flight of ideas” isn’t too dissimilar from the experience of reading, say, James Joyce, or another modernist writer using stream-of-consciousness as a stylistic move. Women talk about fixating on certain words and how their layers of meanings and sounds and associations prompt seemingly unrelated trains of thought. So, the focus on language worked well both as further connective tissue between the modern and historical stories, and as a way to understand Megan.

In this particular book, that tension within Megan was important at an early stage. For all its supernatural shenanigans, this is actually a fairly quiet, interior novel that hinges on Megan’s repression and refusal to accurately self-reflect. She’s alone with the baby for most of the book, and so the major conflict (other than the ghosts and the historical relationships) is between her responsibilities and her desires, her past and her future. I found that etymology worked as a way to watch her ground herself—digging as far as she could to find some sort of stable foundation—and to get sideways at some of what she bottles up. It was slow going at times, but whenever I wrote a word that felt like it was ringing a bell—I’m not sure how else to describe that sense of aptness—I’d go look at its roots, and see if I could use them to dig deeper into Megan. I did go back a bit in revision to make sure the etymology was balanced, and added or removed a few asides here and there, but mostly it was done in early drafts. 

TM: Were there any words that surprised you, when you went to look up their roots?

JF: “Baby” was a fascinating one. I’d suspected it was related to the first sounds an infant makes when they start babbling. But it’s also tied to the Latin for baby doll, pupilla, and was used archaically to talk about both dolls and reflections—specifically the image of oneself seen through another’s eyes. It felt serendipitous to be writing about motherhood as a reflection of the self, and then to find this history.

TM: In your author’s note you share a little on your research. Both the women who appear as ghosts and the danger women can be in after giving birth are subjects that are not commonly read about or discussed. What do you think we lose by not drawing them out more? How do you hope your work combats that?

JF: It’s so important that we not romanticize new motherhood. Our ideas of what a “normal” postpartum experience looks like come from the representations we see in literature and film, and the honesty with which our friends and family talk about their own experiences. It’s hard enough to be a new parent without the added guilt that you aren’t doing it right, or the loneliness of thinking no one else has had these feelings. The postpartum period is such a vulnerable time, and the more open we are about the many “normal” ways to transition into life as a parent, the more we can provide the necessary support to new parents and their babies.

As for Margaret and Michael, I feel very lucky that no one else jumped on the chance to fictionalize their relationship before I did. Margaret, especially, was complex and fascinating, and knowing more about her life has changed the way I read her work. I’m hopeful a new generation of parents will now be able to appreciate her books as transgressive, innovative works of art, and not just something to race through to get the kids to bed.

Bonus Links:
Margaret Wise Brown and the Mystery of Mood
Goodnight World-Building

The Sixth Memo of Italo Calvino

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In the mid 1980’s, Italo Calvino began to think about the approaching millennium. It was still a decade and a half away, but the Italian writer had been invited to give a series of lectures at Harvard University and believing he needed a bigger theme to guide his lectures he chose “Six Memos for the Next Millennium,” which would be collected in a book by the same name. On the eve of his departure for the United States and with five memos written, he died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. In the front of the collection his wife later published is a list of the six memos in Calvino’s handwriting, though the sixth and final is faint, as if someone had attempted to erase it. I have read the book a handful of times since it was assigned to me in an MFA course a couple years ago and this opening page remains my favorite, the faded letters like an invitation to finish the list for him, as if the sixth memo could (and should) be almost anything.

Each memo is intended to illuminate a value that Calvino saw in literature and address how it will function within literature in the new millennium. The five memos Calvino wrote cover lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. The final lecture would have been on consistency. I was fifteen the night the Y2K world meltdown didn’t happen, so I’m not quite a child of the new millennium, but a child of the moment just before, the same moment in which Calvino began his memos. I can remember a time before the proliferation of computers, when I had to do the majority of my teenage gossiping tied to the kitchen wall by a long curling phone cord. So, if I were to complete Calvino’s memos (not that he asked) I don’t think I’d choose consistency. From my vantage point, a decade into the shiny fresh millennium, I’d make the case for sustainability.

Sustainability is a term most often associated with the environment and ecology, used in conversations about protecting ecosystems we now know are fragile. It is a word concerned with balance and the tricky problem of not destroying something we love (like the planet, or literature) with the incredible ability of humans to screw it up. In dictionaries the word “sustain” is likened to phrases such as “to endure” or “strength or support physically and mentally.” It comes from the Latin word sustinere, which means “to hold up.” I do not think there is an aspect to literature that would not be served well with a little focus on endurance.

When Calvino began his memos technology was already rushing toward him, the invisible bits and bytes of computers already influencing the ways in which information moved. Now, full swing into the 21st century, literature is being delivered and profoundly shaped by e-readers, blogs and cell phones. It’s as if we have all become modern day Rip Van Winkles, closing our eyes to sleep for just a moment and opening them each morning to a brand new world. If literature is to be sustained, readers and writers must embrace those changes.

In his lecture on quickness, Calvino uses the metaphor of a traveling horse and literature’s ability to take a person on a journey. I don’t believe it matters which horse we take, so long as literature moves us. It is inevitable that as new electronic platforms become an everyday reality that someone is going to use them as a way to tell a story. Sustainability is not about rigid adherence to a single way of doing things, but rather about striving to make literature accessible to any sort of reader.

But sustainability isn’t only about technology. It is also about publishing. In his argument for lightness, Calvino invokes the image of Perseus and his winged sandals, defeating Medusa by looking only at her reflection. To look into her in the face would turn him to stone. I think maybe writers should take the hint and start using mirrors to examine the snake haired head of publishing. No writer stuck in rock is sustainable.

Literature has never had so much competition. Our screens can bring us stories and novels, but it also brings television and music and a steady stream of photographs and videos. Literature exists in a world blanketed in images and sound and it can feel sometimes as though there are no quiet moments left in which a good story can breath. Every piece of writing needs to earn its readers. Calvino suggests that in the new millennium we will need exactitude and visibility. Precise language and a well-defined plan are what make up exactitude. Writing that is not smart and quick is going to lose readers to the sound bites that are, and are only a click away. So, too, will images for the sake of images. There is an endless stream of websites devoted to nothing more than images: images of baby animals, of humorous mishaps, of cakes or dolls or kittens. I believe this means that a reader now demands more of literature than perhaps she did fifty years ago. Literature will not sustain itself merely because it hasn’t disappeared, yet. So, too, sustainability is about intention.

I sometimes wonder what Calvino would have said about consistency. Would he have hoped for literature that holds together? Certainly, since he was an experimental writer himself, he would not have confused consistency with a resistance to newness. Perhaps he meant it more in line with reliability. As it is, the final value Calvino gives us is multiplicity. It also happens to be my favorite. He writes that this lecture is about “the contemporary novel as an encyclopedia, as a method of knowledge, and above all as a network of connections between the events, the people and things of the world.” Each time I get to that line I can’t help but think of how it is the idea of connection that dominates everything I see changing in literature. I think, too, of publishing, with Medusa’s snakes going in a hundred different directions. I don’t think anyone really knows, even now, what the new millennium means for writers and literature. Except I know that there are values to honor in literature. Sustainability is mine. I hope other writers have their own to write in next to Calvino’s faded sixth idea. Near the closing of his introduction, Calvino admits he has little time for speculating on the end of literature, writing, “My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it.” This, I think, is something we can all agree on.