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February 03, 2006

A Conversation with Ayelet Waldman

Introduction by Sarah

Ayelet Waldman is a columnist at Salon.com, the author of The Mommy Track mysteries, a Harvard-educated lawyer, the mother of four relatively small children and the wife of Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Michael Chabon. You'd think that would be enough for one life, right? Nope.

She has also written a spectacular novel LOVE AND OTHER IMPOSSIBLE PURSUITS, which is poised to take off on all the major bestseller lists. Briefly, it centers on the personal struggles of Emilia Greenleaf, a Manhattan lawyer who has wooed a fellow lawyer, Jack, away from his first wife. They now live in a cushy Manhattan apartment. Emilia has gotten what she's wanted. Except...

Except, there's a tragedy. Still, daily life goes on and Emilia must take care of William, the son from her husband's first marriage, at least once a week. As Emilia deals with the difficult William and her husband's ex, she must also cope with the devastating loss, the secret around it and how it is affecting her marriage. Great stuff superbly written.

What I love about Ayelet is how she so accurately portrays the mundane of a mother's life - cutting the peanut butter sandwiches just so - to the mysterious - her character's insatiable, passionate love for her husband.

We asked Ayelet to blog about writing with all these kids around, moving from a more humorous venue (the mystery series) to a less humorous one (her stand alones) and what differentiates her stuff from chick lit. Don't get her started on that one....

TLC: Do you worry about losing readers who might expect the same light touch as in your mystery series?

Ayelet: Well, my other novel -- Daughter's Keeper -- is pretty grim, so I doubt anybody will be too surprised...it wasn't a problem last time, so I don't think it will be this time. In fact, I'm really hoping more people end up reading this book than the mommy tracks!

TLC: Your heroine is intriguing because she is not immediately loveable, as in most chick lit novels.

Ayelet:  She's not lovable because - at least I hope -- she's a
complicated person who responds to a tragedy the way a lot of people
do, with rage and confusion.  I really really wasn't trying to write a
"lovable chick lit"  heroine. In fact, the whole idea that this novel
I worked so hard on, with characters that I sweated over, trying to
make them real and complicated, would be dismissed as part of a
category used to marginalize women writers -- "chick lit" -- makes me

The whole idea of this category bothers me. Are we talking about a
genre of  novel in which the sassy, brassy girl drinks too many
cosmopolitans on the way to getting her guy? Are we talking about a
kind of latter day Harlequin romance-type novel? Because this book is
neither. And so much of what people dismiss as chick lit is neither.
I'm troubled by the way we look down on this category of fiction. It
seems like a way to denegrate women writers who write about women.
This book will certainly get dismissed as "women's fiction" because
it's about a woman, it's about relationships, it's about being a
mother. And the contemporary literary scene has determined that all
those are "women's issues." But you know what? The Corrections is a
novel about families, about love, about being a parent.  I promise you
if that book had been written by a woman it would be dismissed  just
like most novels by women are dismissed, no matter the quality of the
prose.  Not that I compare myself to Franzen. I wish I was even
remotely that good.

TLC: How do you find time to write a mystery series and these stand alones? What's your schedule?

Ayelet: How do I do it. Four kids, books, etc. The truth is that writing is the perfect career for a mother, even a mother of a lot of children. Unlike when I was lawyering, I don't have to be gone 12 hours a day. A good four hours is perfectly adequate for me to accomplish my daily goal of 1500 words a day. Add to that a couple of hours of necessary 'business' that's not actual writing, and you have the magical carpool to carpool schedule.

I can also do wonderful things like drop everything and run to my son's school when the principal calls to tell me he's been in a fight or not freak out too badly if the school facilities committee meeting runs late.

The one difficulty is that I need to go away -- on book tour and also to work. I try to schedule at least one two-week intensive work period at a writer's colony every year. That makes things hard for my husband who holds down the fort while I'm gone, but without it I'd never get anything done.

TLC: How about the transition from mysteries to stand alones?


I'm always going to be grateful that I began writing as a mystery writer. It's how I learned how to construct a tight and propulsive plot. It's why I will never write a lazy, meandering tome that lingers over descriptions of light on the rooftops but never spares a moment for story. A good novel necessarily involves suspense. It builds dramatic tension. Writing mysteries teaches you how to do that.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to be on the blog...

TLC - It was our pleasure, Ayelet. Thanks for stopping by.


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Can a book even remotely be considered "chick lit" if the woman has a child to care for? I've always assumed CL involved single women, a la Bridget Jones. I'm such a caveman...

I think Ayelet's remarks are all about *not* defining fiction that features female protagonists.

I think Ayelet's remarks were really aimed toward the TERM "Chick Lit" which has taken a derogatory, dismissive tone in the mainstream press and literary establishment, regardless of the content of a book that has the TONE of chick lit (which encompasses a wide spectrum of subjects and stories, from light to heavy).

Excellent post, Nancy. As a published mom of five, I can so relate. I could have said everything she did (though I probably would have used twice the space, LOL) ... what I love most about writing IS the flexibility to be there for my kids when they really need me.

I am so looking forward to the time when all of mine are in school . . .

When we talk women, writing and Franzen, I can't help but think about Oprah. Did Franzen turn her down because he didn't want to be commercialized - or castrated? There's something about a guy sitting there next to Oprah - wealthy, supreme - knighting him with her seal of approval. Chris Bohjalian kind of looked weak. And don't even start with Frey.
So, maybe, Franzen didn't want to become a chick book...You never know.

Love the Mommy Track mysteries - our book club has chosen them (so I'm hoping she'll come back to the series too) and here's a bonus - I've heard her speak, and Ayelet Waldman is also a very cool person.

Great guest blog choice, Sarah!

Oprah, like any person with that kind of power, has got to be a mixed blessing for authors. I don't watch the show- no time - and no room on the DVR between Lost, The Daily Show and Colbert Report. And that's assuming I don't have to record Numb3rs or Grey's Anatomy...


Oprah might a mixed blessing, but the good so far outweighs the bad that I just pray to God the woman keeps choosing books. I think the moral to be taken from the Frey fray and the previous Franzen fracas is that she should choose women. I mean, seriously, when has a woman writer ever screwed her? Toni Morrison? Ursula Hegi? They were gracious and generous to her audience.

No more white boys. That's what the rule should be.

No More White Boys! That can apply in oh so many places (but who's talking politics.)

Anybody here thinking what I'm thinking? Bumper sticker.

Ayelet, what a pleasure to have you here. I have enjoyed your previous books and just went out & bought Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. (Which was front & center at my B&N.) Can you describe how the title came about? It's very Mitford-ish, but the story appears far from that. Looking forward to diving in.

On another tangent: I'm eager for this kind of novel to gain some popularity over the current pack of thrillers aimed at the women's audience. The depth of the female experience brings so many more layers to a suspenseful story. I hate the new phrase "kick ass heroine" which wants to strip a female protagonist of all hint of a domestic side. And make her completely unbelievable to me. Complexity rings truer--for this reader, anyway.

So good to hear your "voice". Pittsburgh and Mystery Lovers Bookshop await your return.......you can even bring the kids......your daughter was terrific last time.

You forgot to mention that working at home with a husband who does same might have someting to do with the four kids in ten???years.

Love and Joy, mary alice

The title was long in coming. I had initially called the book "Crossing the Park" but the folks at Doubleday thought that was blah. They wanted something that felt less concrete. I can't actually tell you how it happened. It just sort of did. And then, weirdly, a book came out by the marvelous Moorish Girl called "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits."

Working at home...HAHAHAHA! Well, yes, I suppose that might have something to do with it.

Ayelet, your new book sounds fantastic. I can't wait to read it. My current thriller WIP revolves around the lives of two strong women, so I'm striving to write it in a way that shows the complexities of their lives, which in turn I hope reflects our lives--the good, the bad, and the ugly.


This has absolutely nothing to do with anything, but I thought Nancy and Kathy needed to see it:


(You knew this thread was going to come around to football eventually, right?)


Most excellent to read such a fine interview with the wondrous Ayelet--and of COURSE it would be posted on the day my DSL was down!

Great great stuff, and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of LOVE AND OTHER IMPOSSIBLE PURSUITS to devour.


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