Thursday, August 28, 2014

Maddie Dawnson talks about The Opposite of Maybe, teaching writing workshops, and what doesn't scare her

 Maddie Dawson is actually Sandi Kahn Shelton (There, now her astonishing dual literary personality is out in the open!) Her last novel, The Opposite of Maybe, came out last April, but I can never resist talking to Maddie, and I'm happy to host her and her novel here again. Thank you so much, Sandi/Maddie!

 A woman who is 44 and breaking up with her lover at the time she discovers she’s pregnant for the first time, a man whose wife left him for another woman, and a dying, irascible grandmother who hated the fact that she had to raise two generations of women—what made you want to write this book, and where did the idea come from?

A few summers ago, it seemed that everywhere I looked, my forty-something friends were turning up pregnant. What the heck? Were they having mid-life crises? Had they lost their minds? Were they regretting some hole in their lives that they thought a baby could fill? I wasn’t sure. But it set me on a path of thinking about life’s surprises—both the wanted and the unwanted—and the way that we tell ourselves the story of our lives, narrating to ourselves as we go along all of our limitations and our abilities.

So I wanted to write a story about a woman, Rosie Kelley, whose story was one of loss and not ever feeling truly competent in the world. Her mother had died when she was three, and she’d been raised by a grandmother who didn’t really want to be raising another child, and then after majoring in English and writing some poems that got published, Rosie had hooked up with a guy who made and sold pottery, and she kind of liked the itinerant, carefree life they had, with no marriage, no children, and the ability to do their creative projects uninterrupted. But after fifteen years, when one little thing happens—her potter guy leaves her to go open a museum in San Diego—she is set on a completely different course. When she discovers that she is pregnant, obviously the only thing that makes sense is to have an abortion. But it’s when she realizes what her future will consist of, living without her grandmother and not having a partner any longer, that she sees she needs to change the story she’s always told about herself.

I always love stories about people breaking away and seizing a moment that nobody else sees, and that is what happens to Rosie as she travels through her pregnancy, her grandmother’s dementia, and the friendship she forms with her grandmother’s caregiver, the sad and gentle Tony, whose wife is now happy in a lesbian relationship and who restricts his right to see his son. The makeshift, damaged family they cobble together—dealing with the pregnancy and Soapie’s illnesses and love affair, and with Tony’s son—brings about a life that Rosie never pictured for herself.

 What surprised you about writing this book?

 The way the relationships formed and re-formed themselves. I loved Rosie from the beginning, of course, since she was the one whispering the story in my ear—but I came to have a deep affection for her difficult grandmother as well, a woman who had struggled for independence back when women didn’t have many choices. Widowed after raising a rebellious teenager, Soapie thought she was free to live her life as a journalist, but when her daughter died tragically, Soapie found herself needing to wade back into the difficult waters of motherhood, knowing that this time she was going to do it differently, not be so permissive, not allow rebellion to ever take hold. The result was that Rosie was timid and found solace in other families’ lives, feeling that her grandmother would never truly love or understand her. As the two women come together in a kind of uneasy truce at first, Rosie discovers the secrets that her grandmother protected her from, and comes to see herself in a different light as well.

What scares you when you write?

Wow. What doesn’t scare me? The main thing, I guess, is that I might be too flippant. For years I was a columnist for Working Mother magazine, where I was writing what I thought were the deep, dark tragedies of domestic life: children who wouldn’t sleep, school projects that took over (like the time we had to motorize some raisins to represent puppies), and my efforts to measure up to a kindergartner’s exacting standards. I wrote these things seriously, and yet the magazine ran little cartoons next to them and called them humor. I always wanted to be dark and mysterious, to write about life and its pitfalls—of which I have had many. But I’m a Southerner, and I come from a long line of outrageous storytellers—truth was absolutely optional and sometimes a real detriment to a good story—and I think I’ve come to see life as a combination of the humorous and the tragic. My books tend to be promoted and marketed as frothy little romps in love and motherhood, and maybe I should be content with that…but it scares me while I am writing that I’m not truly expressing the balance of light and dark that I see all around me in life.

What’s your writing life like? Do you have rituals?

In summer, I move outside to my screened porch which is owned by a family of cardinals, and I set up shop there with my laptop and a large glass of iced tea, and I stare into the woods, watch the cardinals roll in the dust of my porch ledge, and write. First, of course, my ritual is that I have to play a game of 2048 (my latest obsessive game-playing, now that I’ve been able to come out from under Angry Birds and Spider Solitaire), and once that is out of the way, my novel will usually step forward and let me write it. If the phone rings too much (how many times can the Democratic National Committee call in one day? I love them, but it is an infinite number!), I pack up and move to Starbucks, which has the advantage of ambient noise, armchairs, and larger cups for the iced tea. Sometimes the sound of birds’ chattering isn’t enough, you know.

I read a quote that says that writing is 3% inspiration and 97% avoiding the Internet…and so I’ve had to resort to the Freedom app, which blocks out all Internet for as long as you specify. Sometimes it’s the only way not to cruise around on Facebook or checking out the latest antics of those would dance with the stars.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

For the past seven years, I’ve been teaching writing workshops in my home. Anywhere from seven to nine people come once a week, and we create this space where it’s safe to read and write from our deepest parts. I started this as something of a lark, thinking that I’d do it until it wasn’t fun anymore or until it started pulling me away from my own writing—and now I find that working with people who are mostly non-writers but who are so willing to try has given me such a different view of writing and what it means to be vulnerable. I am blown away by the work that gets done! It’s almost a healing antidote for those long stretches of lonely days spent living in my own head. Some of these writers say they have been badly hurt by teachers who long ago scolded them for their sentence structure or their spelling or told them they had nothing to say—and it’s fascinating to watch them bravely come out into the light and put words to these feelings they’ve carried around for so many years. I give a weekly prompt, and they go away and write it, and then come and read it aloud to the others, which isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds, when the audience is waiting for their words so eagerly.

I love that we, as writers, can create communities of other writers, that we can reach out and encourage, and listen to their stories. I make suggestions about commas and sentences, of course, and which thought would logically follow—but we are all often moved to tears by the stories and honesty and willingness to be open that I see around my table. My husband comes home from work on workshop days and now asks, “How many cried?” and when I say, “Everybody!” he knows we had a good, productive day. Sounds crazy, but there is just as much laughing.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have asked?

 I’m always curious about how writers keep themselves going in a publishing world that is changing so much and asking so much more of us—in promotion and marketing, in social media and in outreach. I think you, Caroline, are so generous with all of us other writers and have truly been a role model in figuring this stuff out, while still keeping in sight the important thing, which is writing great books!

I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer—I sold my first story when I was six when my mother wouldn’t give me money for the ice cream man—and yet there have been a thousand times when I’ve wanted to quit and go to welding school instead. So how do we cope with all the uncertainties and not get swamped with feeling so alone? I think it’s people like you who are open and honest about your writing life and reach out with such love and good humor to all of us. So, thank you. I’m putting my welding school application on hold for the moment. At least until my new book—about a woman searching for her birth family while raising her fiance’s teenagers, is finished.

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