An interview with Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters’ Maya Sonenberg

Interview by Shauna Gilligan

SG: Maya, Congratulations on Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters I found it a most wonderful collection to read and one which I know I will return to and that each time I read it I will – like all good stories – find something new. Much of your writing is sensual and invokes in the reader a type of physiological memory where experience replaces names. In the opening story, “Childhood” in which the narrator explores memories of her childhood with those she’s co-creating with her children, she looks at a photo of herself which appears dark and we’re told “Deliciously, she was smiling” and of another photograph: 

Of that trip she remembers: fog and the fact that this was the one place along the coast without fog; the rocks alone like angels; the sky wearing a milkiness, as if fog were a diaphanous dress; and her own bright tie-dyed dress. 

Likewise, in “Return of the Media Five” names are not needed, what is important is the body and memory: “I am this heart, this brain, only these, right now—no other….She touches her chest, feels her heart beating steadily—no rush of fear—and exhales.” 

Can you comment the importance of the senses, landscape, body and memory to identity? 

MS: Shauna, thanks so much for your kind words, and I’m so glad you enjoyed these stories.

One of my obsessions as a fiction writer is to create a balance or straddle a line between the sort of reading where you fall completely into the world of the story, forgetting that you are reading, and the sort of reading where you are aware that you are reading a story—between “realism” as traditionally defined and metafiction. I take it as a given that all fiction, even fiction that seems realistic, is constructed and manipulates the reader, and I think of it as a moral imperative to acknowledge that I’m pulling the wool over your eyes even while I’m pulling the wool over your eyes. Some of my stories lean more strongly in one direction or the other, but I’m always playing with that balance.

That’s a long-winded way to get to your question about the senses! Evoking the senses is one way to engage the reader, to pull them—almost physically—into the world I’m creating, and I always hope they enjoy the feeling of getting lost in another world, in someone else’s experiences. Strongly evoking the senses also reminds us that we live in our bodies, experience the world through our skin. We’re not yet the disembodied consciousnesses I remember from some Star Trek episodes of my youth, but as a writer and professor, I spend so much time reading, thinking, and talking that it can be easy to forget how even the smallest physical action (playing with a child’s beaded toy or smelling bread baking) can be so powerful in conveying a character’s emotions.

As for landscape, I sometimes think of myself as a weird version of a regional writer. Not the sort of regional writer like Eudora Welty or Wallace Stegner who focuses on particular people who live in a particular society in a particular region of our country, but a regional writer who focuses on the physical setting—like a landscape painter whose paintings include tiny figures. I tend to write about places (landscapes) that I love and that I have deep emotional connections too. Any real place written about extensively in these stories is one I have lived in, loved, felt frustrated by, and often long for when I’m not there. This may get to your question about memory and identity too, how we create a sense of self through our sense of who we used to be. I still think of myself as a New Yorker, for example, even though I haven’t lived there for 40 years.

You mention names as well, and these are not usually important to me in creating a character, although I know other fiction writers consider this very carefully. I may give a character’s name some thought, if I want it to be consistent with her Jewishness, for example, but I’ll often just name a female character Anna and leave it at that. Of course, in putting this collection together, I had to make sure I was repeating names only when doing so created intentional links between stories. “Return of the Media Five” is a special case, however, because names—or the lack of names—are very important in that story. The protagonist has used so many aliases over the years that she has nearly forgotten her original name. She’s at a point where she needs to decide whether to reclaim that name, and through that reclaiming also reclaim an entire history and self it has been dangerous to remember. In addition, she is careful never to name her co-conspirators because even after all these years, she doesn’t want to get them in trouble. And she rarely names the other people she encountered during her long years of internal exile, because those relationships were so fleeting. I chose her original name, Betsy, to signal that she started out as a sort of all-American girl-next-door who became involved in the politics of revolution in the 1960s and whose life completely changed in the process.

SG: Yes! Your character’s names always seem to fit them and their era. Likewise, the order of the stories is important, I feel. I loved how “Pink Season”, “Dark Seascape” and “Phoebe” talk to each other and how we realise that life – and stories – are reflected in this realisation that “This is no fairy tale kingdom where a simple change of clothes can construct a disguise.” Can you talk about the order of the stories and how they seem to echo each other? 

MS: I’m so glad you found echoes among the stories in this collection. I think those echoes grew naturally out of several obsessions I was writing through and in over the many years in which these stories were created. These include an exploration of female characters who need to be mothers and daughters at the same time, and sometimes need to be “mothers” to their own aging parents; a fascination with the flatness and unexplained magic of fairy tales which felt like an apt way to convey the inexplicable and contradictory emotions of mothering and “daughtering” at the same time; and a playful experimentation with a variety of fixed and nearly fixed forms such as traditional verse forms, newspaper announcements, and the five-paragraph essay. 

On a much more practical note, I began by ordering the stories in a loose progression based on the ages and experiences of the characters. As you noticed, the narrator in the first story is co-creating memories with her own children, but she spends a LOT of time remembering herself as a child. Stories toward the end of the collection include grandmother figures. I also considered the rhythmic placing of longer and shorter stories.

SG: Thanks for such an enlightening answer – it’s a mini-master-class on how to construct collections. Many of the stories examine identity through memory, history, story and artefacts – tickets, trinkets, locks – and through portals and doors. I’m thinking of records, lobsters, china cups and saucers and so on. We could take a Jungian perspective, or examine this through magic, or indeed through desire. Did these artefacts slip into the narratives are you were writing or did any of the stories start with artefacts rather than character or place?

MS: I often think of myself as a writer who begins with an idea or a form, but in fact you’re right: many of these stories began with or quickly started circling around a particular object that, like the teacup, fills with to the brim with emotion. Sometimes the characters attach special meaning to the objects (that teacup again!), and sometimes the objects’ power comes from my own personal attachment, even if the characters themselves aren’t particular attached to it—the lobster trap in “Seven Little Stories about 1977,” for example. I—we—love the things of the world and writing about them is a sort of magic, a way to make them present even when they’re not physically there. I spent several years writing a never-published novel set in the San Francisco Bay Area. I no longer lived there at the time, and the idea that I was trying to magically create or recreate potent objects became clear to me when I realized I spent much more time lovingly describing the sushi the characters were eating than exploring their conversation or emotions or actions or relationship. I couldn’t get sushi in Corvallis, Oregon!

If that sushi crept up on me, “Disintegration” did start with the teacup. I was writing along with my students, in response to a prompt that asks you to imagine one character watching another approach. One of the characters wants something the other has and can try to take it. The teacup is modelled on a real one that I inherited from my grandmother. It’s beautiful, and while I’m not too personally attached to it, I could easily imagine how it felt central to Mina and her mother in that story. Although they never articulate this, I think it comes to represent all the ways the mother-child relationships in the story are broken, or unfulfilled, or could simply be better, whatever that means. And I don’t just mean the relationship between Mina and her mother Judith, but also between Judith and her own mother, and between Mina and her son Luke.

SG: Well, this reader felt that centrality of the teacup. One of the stand-out stories for me was “Hunters and Gatherers” where we meet Anna and Martha, women who have paused their professional lives to raise their children, women who once resolved not to impose gender stereotypes such as pink for girls on their children, women who struggle to reassure themselves that they are without gender bias. I just loved how you brought us right into their lives through the every day interaction with their children and then you counterpoint the story with academic quotations about male and female behaviour and society. Yet despite this clear structure, it still retains a hum of a fairytale. Can you speak about how this story came together for you? 

MS: I believe this story started for me when I noticed my daughter and her (girl)friends collecting all sorts of tidbits—sparkly toys other kids had left in the sandbox but also dead bugs in our basement. I had exactly the same realization that Martha has in the story: Oh my god, they’re gathering. This realization of course made me wonder if little boys’ play activities could be characterized as “hunting.” And I began to remember all the various conversation I’d had with parents—and others—over the years about struggling to negotiate our expectations about gender roles. Many of those ended up in the story. I knew I wanted to write about professional women attempting to maintain their beliefs in gender equality and their sense of themselves as workers, earners, and thinkers when faced with all the practical limitations they faced. Does it just make more sense financially for Mom to stay home with the kids? How much energy do they really want to expend arguing with their kids about wearing pink or playing with army guys? And I wanted them to recognize the humour in the ways their expectations about all of this have ended up clashing with reality. I hope the reader finds some humorous moments as well.

I often do a lot of research, and although I don’t remember exactly when or why I began to research gender roles for this story, I couldn’t keep it out once I found so much juicy stuff. I am also always keen to break the form of the traditional plotted short story and find other ways to generate movement and establish structure. It was exciting to me, in this case, to introduce the quoted material and then to think about the whole story as creating movement through changing ideas rather than plot: it’s a short story but has the argument-based movement of an intellectual biography. Although there is a chronological narrative here—the story follows the two friends and their kids over an afternoon—there is really is no plot in the sense of a series of events interlocking through cause and effect and leading to a climax and resolution. Instead, I very purposefully ended the story on a question!

In terms of that intellectual movement, I wanted the characters and the reader to move from accepting the concept of woman as gatherer and man as hunter toward realizing that both men and women exhibit both of these activities, that it is never easy to characterize people according to traditional gender roles, and that we are always trying to figure this stuff out as we go.

It’s so interesting to me that you still see the “hum of a fairytale” (love that phrase) in this story, because I think of it as one of the stories in the collection least inflected by fairytale. I wonder if that hum comes from the fact that the story actually refuses to delve into the characters’ psychology and instead focuses on their roles as woman, mother, girl, boy, the way characters in a fairy tale are defined so much by their roles or by a single attribute. 

SG: I love that this story started with observation – it captures what writing is about, really, because to write at all, we have to notice and pay attention. And how fascinating to learn how you combined this aha moment of observation with research, concepts and psychology. 

I was very moved by the set of four stories, beginning with the cleverly crafted  “Annunciation” where you use official documents to bring us through generations of families where expectation and disappointment ping-pong their lives and continuing on in “Disintegration” where lies are told to protect rather than to harm as identity and truth become confused: 

In her mind, she could return to all those things, and in the future, by speaking of them, she will be able to return them to her mother too, in the manner of gifts. There will be things she won’t remind her mother of, gifts of the over-and-done-with, gifts of allowing her to forget. 

And again, the story continuing in “Visitation” and in “On Seeing the Skeleton of a Whale in the Harvard Museum of Natural History.”

You quote Erik Erikson on identity in “Annunciation” and it strikes me that these stories use a type of sociological imagination to explore meanings of ‘family’ forming and falling apart – whereby habits, such as braiding hair tightly, come to represent the identity of generations of women, and traits, such as trickster humour, connect the unconnected (Mina’s father, for example). I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

MS: In “Annunciation,” I included the Erikson quote about identity (“…a subjective sense as well as an observable quality of personal sameness and continuity, paired with some belief in the sameness and continuity of some shared world image. As a quality of unself-conscious living…”) as a guidepost for the reader as they encounter both Mina’s and Luke’s ponderings about their own identity—or maybe as a prompt for the reader to question whether the “self” as presented in that story really has any “sameness and continuity” at all. I think I wanted to see the story (and perhaps all the stories in the book) as arguing with or at least complicating that quote.

Mina’s whole life, from infant to woman facing a divorce, is contained in this story, but seen almost entirely through the documents. Those snippets ask whether it’s possible to form/formulate an entire “whole” person only from that external information. Is there any way to reconcile the young woman who stole her father’s lawn ornaments with the failed actress—or across the other stories in the series—with the mother of toddler in a stifling visit to her own mother in an old age home or the woman who steals her mother’s teacup? When Mina wonders “Not herself but like whom then?” she’s pondering that question—but even that section of the story remains largely distant from her consciousness. Luke is more appreciative of the idea that the “self” may be experienced in an internal subjective way, but he, through his childish questions, also wonders whether he really has a self. I would agree that relationships among family members, or between any characters in these stories, are often expressed through what they do for each and with each other, rather than through abstract ideas about what it means to be “family.” I’m thinking of the sisters in “Four Phoebes” for example.

SG: Yes! I loved that wondering quality of Mina “Not herself but like whom then?”. Time, our experience of parent/child relationships and the narratives we are told (in stories and by others) is another theme in this collection. In “Bad Mother: A Story in Five Paragraphs” you tenderly touch on the child and need for approval and identification that is in all of us and in “Seven Little Stories about 1977” we’re brought through Anna’s teenage memories right into a near-future, and in “Last Week, New Year”, we’re told that the daughter, Anna, regrets she “had listened to her mother with only her outer ear.” Can you speak a little about time and perspective? 

MS: For me, the story that deals most explicitly with time is, of course, “Painting Time.” In writing that story, I set myself two challenges: to cover a novel’s worth of events in the space of a short story and to include some sort of reference to time in every sentence of the rough draft. I think the former was a reaction to reading a lot of Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. Of course, “Painting Time” isn’t up to their level but I wanted to see if I could create a sweep of and across time in my own way. The second challenge was more playful. Because the content of many of these stories was quite challenging to me, I constantly needed to find playful ways, usually through some sort of fixed form like this one, to help me both express and contain the emotions.

The stories you mention in the question, and many others in the collection as well, reach across time through memory. I suspect that I am a deeply nostalgic person. While nostalgia is often thought of as remembering the past in a falsely positive way, for me that emotion contains a rueful recognition of past mistakes, or a realization that one could have done better or appreciated the good things more. Other stories in the collection skip over huge amounts of time with little explanation, and I think this hearkens back to the way we experience time in fairytales and to the way experimental fiction eschews transitions.

SG: To finish up, Maya, some fun questions 

SG: Countryside or city? 

MS: I like to think countryside, but I’m really a city person.

SG: Tea or Coffee?

MS: Both!

SG: Beach or Mountains?

MS: I prefer to look at the mountains but to experience the beach. San Juan Island is nearly perfect for me in this regard. I can walk along South Beach and see the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

SG: First draft handwritten or typed?

MS: Typed, though I sometimes find something close to a first draft handwritten in my notebooks. A pre-first draft?

SG: What’s next on your reading pile?

MS: My TBR pile has been so high for so long that my daughter once told me I wasn’t even allowed to go to the library anymore. Books closest to the top, however, include And If that Mockingbird Don’t Sing: Parenting Stories Gone Speculative, edited by Hannah Grieco, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel (probably on lots of folks’ TBR piles right now!), The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk and translated by Jennifer Croft, and Cole Swenson’s collection of poetic essays about landscape art, Art in Time.

SG: Some wonderful recommendations there, Maya, thank you. And thanks also for being so generous in your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

MS: Thank you, Shauna, for such thoughtful questions that made me see my own work in a new light.

With thanks to Kristina Darling, Penelope Coaching and Consulting and University of Notre Dame Press for the advance copy of Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters

Publisher’s book page:

Blog post about the writing process for this book:

Sonenberg’s op-ed on a related topic:

Maya Sonenberg’s Webpage:

Shauna Gilligan’s Webpage: