Cut the Sentimentality: The Millions Interviews Polly Rosenwaike

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?

Polly 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.

I’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?

PR: 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.

Then Again, Maybe I Will: The Reads I Kept Hidden in My Youth

I found the paperback on a metal card table at my neighbor’s garage sale: Judy Blume’s Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. I was 8 years old and already loved the author for books like Blubber, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Superfudge. The well-worn paperback cost a quarter, which I handed over to my neighbor and babysitter, Cheryl. The cover held an image of a boy with binoculars. Color me intrigued. I was already engrossed in the story (about spying on a female neighbor as she undresses in her room across the street) when the doorbell rang. Cheryl conferred with my mother: that book I’d bought? It wasn’t exactly appropriate for a kid my age. I was summoned to the door. This babysitter/traitor held out the quarter in one hand, and we undid the deal. Sold out by the very one whose ranks I had hoped to join.

She tossed her feathered hair and all but wagged her finger at me. Maybe she thought her babysitting job was on the line. Maybe my mother wouldn’t have cared what I was reading. But my mom trusted Cheryl, and the two of them were conspiratorial, chuckling at my choice of reading material. Isn’t she precocious! I seethed inside, mortified. Did they think I was interested in spying on people as they undressed? (Was I?)

I vowed to read the book anyway. At the library I gulped down the whole thing in one sitting. Later I read every Judy Blume book I could find. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was my introduction to the realities of menstruation, a puberty bible for girls growing up in the 1980s. When I found out that the book was frequently challenged or banned, all I could think was, “Why? Why would people want to prevent me from knowing about myself?”

As readers, we get to decide whether to accept or reject the knowledge that books contain. My youth was spent reading novels like they were life manuals for some future me, divining what was to come, even if I couldn’t see or imagine it yet. Even if my babysitter didn’t think I was ready. I didn’t want anyone’s laughter or condescension at my choices, so I read covertly, sneakily, my stack of library books bookended by less controversial titles. I love you on your own merits, Ramona Quimby, Age 8, but with the most gratitude for acting as my cover story.

Preteen years, late 1980s mall era, bangs shellacked with hairspray. Saturday nights, I’d go with my family to Waldenbooks or B. Dalton Booksellers. I could pick out three or four books at a time, depending on the price, and chip in my allowance if I wanted more. Browsing bookshelves with my family is one of my happiest childhood memories, no doubt one reason I wanted to become a writer. “Ready to check out?” my dad asked one Saturday, holding his stack of scholarly writing on King Arthur. I handed him two of the latest in the Sweet Valley High series, while slipping a third book behind my back. “I’m going to browse some more,” I lied. If he saw my copy of Girltalk about Guys by Carol Weston, he mercifully pretended not to. I’d been scoping out this book for weeks, visiting it, my footsteps muffled on the tan carpet. Standing with my back to the aisle, I’d read and reread the section on how to talk to guys. How to be confident. Not unrelated, the sections on looking and feeling your best.

All of it was urgent and mysterious and not-something-I-could-talk-about. If puberty was a transitional time from caterpillar to butterfly, I was still trapped in the cocoon, gawky limbs pushing to get out. I’d had enough skulking around the bookstore: This was a book I needed to own and read privately. Avoiding eye contact with the cashier, I made my purchase. After, we went to Sizzler, but my mind was elsewhere. I wanted to spend the rest of the night reading in my room, which I did as soon as we’d finished our steaks and baked potatoes and salads. The book promised real questions and real answers, and the Q&As revealed the best truth of every good advice column: that many, many other people out there shared similar problems. People like me, more comfortable asking a stranger to explain what was going on with zits, extreme emotions, body hair, and social life. Not to mention tampons: What the hell? I was filled with questions I didn’t know how to ask, and questions I didn’t know I had. Weston already knew, understood, and answered. Life thus far had taught that these were taboo topics, so I kept the book hidden in my closet, swaddled in the blankets of my old doll’s bassinet. I took that book baby out as often as possible, always with my bedroom door shut, the book’s open pages like some kind of new door.

A few years later, my older sister Katie bought a copy of I’m With the Band by Pamela Des Barres, which she stashed under her bed to keep me from hogging it. This memoir of a 1960s-70s rock groupie was clearly not my property. I noted when Katie would be at band practice (marching, not rock, at a Catholic high school), and raced through the racy pages. There was sex and rock and roll and pining and more sex and drugs and tons of gossip about musicians I loved. One of the rock stars who blurbed the book was Robert Plant, offering “again a thousand apologies for the premature ejaculation.” Not just entertainment, but education. Sex ed aside, this was a time period I wanted to learn more about. I was born six years after Woodstock but taped a concert poster to my wall as if I’d been there. I read everything I could about the era, especially related to music. Des Barres, obsessed somewhat differently, set out in Los Angeles to unapologetically conquer as many rock stars as she could. I was miles away from this lifestyle in every possible sense: geographically, emotionally, physically. But vicarious experience was, to use the parlance of Des Barres, delectable. By turning pages, you could run the gamut of experiences (and yes, the STDs) without having to face any emotional consequences or itching.

I read the tell-all at least a dozen times. “Give it back,” Katie said when I admitted I’d pilfered her paperback again, because she wanted to reread it. Not surprisingly, there was fallout for the author: On the talk show circuit, Des Barres defended herself from would-be slut-shamers. What of the male musicians she became involved with, I wondered? The power balance might’ve been skewed, but this was the memoir of a woman who controlled her own choices and went after what she desired. She was candid about her heartbreaks, too, airing her life for all the world to see. That took guts. That bravery inspires me now, some 25 years later, writing about books that once seemed worth hiding. Books that could’ve been banned from libraries or by family and kept out of my hands. Books that helped me understand the world and myself, both in constant states of change. Women writers who inspired me to write my own books, about topics others may want to challenge. Look. I want to show you.