EDITOR'S NOTE: In this ongoing series, The Weekly talks to notable women in the Bay Area arts scene – writers, musicians, and artists. This week Elizabeth Clayton talked with Ayelet Waldman, author of the recently released Love and Other Impossible Pursuits.
Waldman, who went to Harvard Law School and worked as a federal public defender before becoming a writer, has published one other novel, Daughter's Keeper, and six books in a mystery series collectively titled The Mommy-Track Mysteries. Waldman has also written extensively on parenting, mental illness and women's rights, most recently in her column on Salon.com.
Last March, The New York Times excerpted a now-infamous essay of Waldman's, titled "Truly, Madly, Guiltily," about how she loved her husband more than her children for their "Modern Love" column. The column became instantly controversial, and Waldman was invited onto Oprah to talk about the piece, where she appeared with a gaggle of angry housewives who had devoted their lives to their children.
Waldman currently lives in Berkeley with her husband, writer Michael Chabon, and their four children.
How does living in the Bay Area affect your work?
First of all, it affects my life. It affects my mood, because February on the East Coast is all cold and slush, and February in the Bay Area is when all my trees start to bloom. There's also the literary community, which is incredibly accepting, not like in New York where people just talk about each other's advances. Well maybe they don't, maybe they're supportive there too, but because [the literary community] is smaller here people just tend to be really kind and nice and help each other out. It's a wonderful literary environment.
Who are the women who have inspired you most?
On a personal level, both of my grandmothers . . . they were working mothers, and remarkable inspirations to me. I was exposed to feminism at my mother's knee, but when I went to college and I started reading everyone from Betty Friedan to Julia Kristeva, that had a profound effect on my thinking, on what I considered important, what I viewed as the critical questions of the day. At a reading recently [the woman introducing me] quoted [poet] Muriel Rukeyser, "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?" and what I write about is invariably shaped by that too. It really made me feel like there was a context for my compulsive self exposure; it's all about speaking truth. So when I write about women in prison, it's of a piece with the infamous New York Times piece I wrote. It's all about the lot of women in contemporary society. It's all of a piece; the personal is political as the old chestnut goes. The other [woman who inspires me] is my oldest daughter. She's a magnificent kid – she's smart, she's sassy, she knows her own mind. The responsibility of being a role model to her and her little sister has changed me. Before that it felt more selfish, even though I was doing the same thing, but now knowing that she sees what I can do and knowing that she can do even more. And she will; she's a million times more capable than I am. The sky's the limit for the kid.
What, if any, kind of effect do you think being a woman has had on your career?
Since the only thing I write about is maternal ambivalence, I don't know what I would write about if I wasn't a woman. I think I am a writer because I'm a woman. If I was a man I'd just be the lawyer I'd planned on being. Right now I'd be flying around on my private jet from big lawsuit to big lawsuit, working 16 hours a day and not knowing my children's birth dates.
What advice do you have to young women who are aspiring to become writers?
The first thing I would say is it's a great thing. If you can make a go of it, it's wonderful because it allows you to express your own ideas and emotions. It's a job that can be comfortably managed with a family, if that's what you want to do. The thing you have to learn when you're a writer and a woman is how not to sell your work short. Accord the right value to that discipline. When people say you're not really working, so come be on this committee or do this thing, you have to value what you're doing and recognize it as important. Just because you can do it in your pajamas it doesn't mean it isn't a real job.
What about your work are you the most excited about right now?
I'm always fixated on the novel after the novel that I'm working on. The one you're working on is hard, it's messy, and the next one is perfect, in my mind. So I'm really excited about the book after this. For the rest of my life I'll probably always be excited about the book after the one I'm working on.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I'm working on a book called Winter's End. The idea came to me as I was sitting on the stage at Oprah, and some of those women seemed so depressed. Angry, but underneath it was a real depression, and I just thought, there but for the grace of finding writing as an avocation and a vocation, go I. I would have been a stay at home mom driving my SUV around, making the perfect cupcakes for the class, and really resenting it. I had a really clear vision of the person I might have become, so I'm writing about that person.