Mothers and Daughters: Switching Roles, Inheriting Secrets
Writer Caroline Leavitt talks with Meg Waite Clayton about her new novel, 'The Wednesday Daughters'
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times best-selling author of Pictures of You and the recent Is This Tomorrow, a May Indie Next Pick and a San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick/Editors Choice. She reviews for People magazine, the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle and teaches writing through Stanford and UCLA online and privately.
The Wednesday Daughters is an offshoot of Meg's New York Times best-seller, The Wednesday Sisters, but it stands on its own two glorious and original feet. The novel explores the bonds that make and sometimes shatter a family, the way mothers and daughters can switch roles and hand down secrets, as well as dreams and identities.
The story begins with the death of Ally, one of the original “Wednesday sisters.” Her daughter Hope invites two other “Wednesday daughters” to come to her mother’s writing cottage to help untangle all the personal effects. But when Hope finds a stack of her mother's old notebooks, all three members of this next generation must confront their own hopes, doubts and grief.
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Caroline Leavitt: Why did you return to the daughters of the Wednesday sisters?
Meg Waite Clayton: I didn’t intend to write a sequel. I wrapped up The Wednesday Sisters with an epilogue and thought I was done with their stories. Then I was talking with someone about his children, who are biracial, and it dawned on me that Hope would likely have faced the kinds of identity issues many children of mixed race do. I thought they would be interesting to explore and because so many readers had asked if I would do a sequel, it somehow seemed meant to be.
Did anything surprise you in the writing?
One thing that surprised me was the role Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter ended up playing in the novel — which arose in part from how surprising Beatrix herself turns out to be. In The Wednesday Sisters, I sent Ally on a mission to write a Potter biography and I thought that was going to be it — her doing research on Potter in the English Lakes. But Potter is such a delightful character that I wanted to do more with her. She shows up in Ally’s journal entries in ways that completely surprised me, but were an absolute ball to write.
Another was that Kath — who would not be made to do what I wanted her to in The Wednesday Sisters — took her own path once again. I can’t seem to make her behave, which is, I suppose, the good news. It turned out to be such a warm pleasure to revisit these old friends — and to see them through the eyes of their grown daughters — that I find myself wondering if there might be another Wednesday book of some sort, someday.
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There's something mesmerizing about the relationship of mothers and daughters, what we think we know versus what we need to find out. As the Wednesday daughters go through Ally’s letters, they don’t just confront her life, they confront their own. Do you think we need to find a new way to navigate mother-daughter relationships?
The fact that I revisit parent-child relationships here, having already considered them from various angles in my three previous novels, suggests how important those relationships are to me, as both a daughter and a mother. I think it’s particularly complicated for women of my generation, who grew up with 1950s-style mothers and are now trying to negotiate life as women in the 21st century.
Some of us have chosen paths our mothers abhor. Some of us feel pressure to live the lives our mothers couldn’t and want us to. It’s impossible for a parent not to have dreams for his or her child. Yet at some point, we have to let go of their expectations for us and then, when it’s our turn, to let our children loose to make their own mistakes. But sometimes I think we are getting worse at that rather than better.
What I loved so much about both The Wednesday Sisters and The Wednesday Daughters is that you look at the mother-daughter bond from both viewpoints. Being a mother certainly has changed the way I look at my own mother-daughter relationship. Did being a mother as well as a daughter color what you wrote?
I only have sons, but I have to say that being a parent has completely changed my view of my mom. Who knew when we were growing up how hard what she did for us was? The Wednesday Sisters was certainly meant as an homage of sorts to my mom and her friends. It gave me an excuse to talk to her and explore what her life was like. Trying to put myself in her skin really changed my view of her — for the better. And I do carry her mothering and my own into everything I write. I even lift some moments from my journals and then fictionalize them. Quite a bit of what children do in my novels has been done by my sons.
So much of both these books are about writing, what it means to us, how it frees and sustains us. How much of what you think and feel about writing finds its way into your characters?
I think the best writing comes from exploring what we are passionate about and I’m certainly passionate about writing. I’ve come to know myself so much better as a writer than I ever did before. In some ways it’s easier to be your genuine self writing before you’re published, when there are no expectations for you. So I dip into that emotional space pretty regularly through my characters — I suppose in part to invite readers to try it themselves.
Like most writers, I came to writing first as a reader. So much of how I think and feel about the craft has roots in my love of reading and the books that have really made me who I am, or at least brought out whatever good there is in me. When I sit down to write, for example, one little part of me is Scout Finch.
I'm always interested in process, maybe because part of me always worries that I could be sharper and clearer or that I'm somehow doing it wrong. What's your process? Do you map things out, fly by the seat of your pen, follow your muse?
My answer to pretty much all those questions is “Yes.” I start any way I can, often in my journal. Since no one but I reads them, the pressure is off, which I need when I’m starting a project. Often I just sit down and write a word — any word — and hope other words will feel sorry for it and come sit beside it in the next empty space. Once I spill ink, the words do come eventually. So the one rule I have for myself is to sit down and write every day: 2,000 words or two hours.
Something I find very helpful for writing an ensemble novel is a character scrapbook. It is, quite literally, like your high school yearbook or a scrapbook from your childhood — a collection of all sorts of bits that help me define each character. It often starts with pictures I’ve torn from magazines.
I start with the physical, but it’s not one picture of a person, it tends to be one person’s eyes and another person’s nose and another’s physique all put together on the page. I set aside pages for settings, too. There are also things nobody needs to know — like what car they drive or who their childhood boyfriends were — but it helps me to flesh out the characters in a way that makes them feel real to me. Only then can I make them feel real for the reader.
I also use outlines and flow charts, set up by chapter and character so I can see if, perhaps, I haven’t touched on any particular character’s story in four or five chapters. It’s a very helpful visual aid.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Chocolate. Seriously. I’m thinking of using it in a big way in my next novel. My favorite thing to make has always been brownies. I once received a marriage proposal based on the fact that the suitor would get to eat my brownies till death did us part.
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