The Artist in the Nursery Interview: Jennifer McMahon
Although your first published novel, Promise Not to Tell, appeared in 2007, you’d been writing seriously for a long time before that. Can you talk a bit about your history as a writer and what lead up to publishing your first book?
I studied poetry in college and for a year in an MFA program. Then one day, a prose poem took on a life of its own and became the start of my first novel. Once that novel was finished, I sent out a batch of queries and was overjoyed when one of my top agent choices expressed an interest and soon offered to represent me. I was so overjoyed, enthusiastic (not to mention just blissfully clueless!) that I quit my day job to devote myself to writing full time. I was sure that the book would sell and my career would be on its way. The book did not sell. Months went by, then a year. I finished my second novel and sent if off to my agent, who pronounced it “a bit dark” but diligently went to work pitching it to editors. In the meantime, I wrote book #3, a long, rambling mess that I stuck in a drawer, too ashamed to show anyone. By this time, nearly another year had gone by and my agent hadn’t had any success selling either book.
I sat down to write book #4, determined that this would be “The One.” It had to be. So I asked myself, “What sort of book would I most want to read?” And the answer that came back, loud and clear, was a ghost story. So I wrote my ghost story and when I was done, I was sure that this was going to be the one that did it. I knew it was good and had the potential to be a success. So I sent if off to my agent. I didn’t hear from her for weeks. When I did, it was a letter saying the book just didn’t do it for her and much as she respected my work, blah, blah, blah, it was time we parted company. I was devastated. I drank a lot of tequila. I thought about quitting. But I knew I couldn’t quit. Writing is too much a part of who I am.
So I dusted myself off, revised my ghost story and sent out another batch of queries. Within a few months, I lucked into finding my wonderful agent, Dan Lazar, who helped me shape the book into Promise Not to Tell. It then took him another year to sell it – to HarperCollins – and then it was published a year or so after that. So 6 years, 4 books, and 2 agents later – I was a published author! No problem!
During the time that lead up to writing Promise Not To Tell, your daughter Zella was born. Did you have any preconceived ideas about what mothering would be like that maybe didn’t stand up to the reality? What were they and how did that go?
Zella was actually born after I wrote Promise, but before it sold. And yeah, while I was pregnant, I had this total fantasy about what being a stay-at-home mom/writer was going to be like. I pictured myself typing away at the computer for hours while the little one played contentedly at my feet. Not! I was lucky to get fifteen minutes of writing in here or there. I remember having a conference call with my agent and an editor who was interested in the book while I bounced up and down on a yoga ball, holding a colicky baby, just praying she wouldn’t start screaming.
I know Zella is in school now, but you were writing and trying to get work published when she was still a baby and into toddlerhood. How did you manage to get work done or did you? What helped? What were your challenges?
I would say the first three months or so I got almost no writing done – it was all baby, all the time. I was lucky to get a shower or have a coherent adult conversation, much less plot or revise. Gradually, I did begin get work done, but it was difficult. Like I said, I learned to write in whatever little blocks of time I could carve out. I think that was good training, really – I stopped needing the ritual of “getting ready to write,” I just sat down and started cranking it out whenever the chance arose. I also learned to write with a lot of noise and chaos. I’d bring my laptop to whatever room Zella was playing in and go for as long as I could while she banged away on toy instruments or built huge block towers and knocked them down. I brought notebooks and index cards to playgrounds and scribbled notes while I pushed Zella on the swing or watched her in the sandbox. I loved naptime! And of course I took full advantage whenever Drea or my mom were able to watch Zella. And even though Drea and I swore we’d never be the sort of parents to plunk our kid down in front of the TV, I have to admit that Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow were godsends!
Now that she is in school do you find it easier to get work done or are there new challenges, especially as your career has taken off?
School helps a lot! I drop her off at 8:15 and pick her up at 3. Some days I spend all that time writing. Sometimes, not much at all. Honestly, my biggest struggle is finding balance. Not only do I need to make time to write, but I need to keep up with email, my website, and doing things to promote my books. It’s really hard to fit everything in. Then there’s grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, keeping the lawn mowed, taking the cat to the vet…
I know as your career has expanded you have gone to do things like book tours and events away from home. As exciting as that sounds professionally, it’s got to be hard personally. How do you work that out with Zella or do you?
Going away is always hard. My partner, Drea, is a nurse now, and before that was in nursing school and working part-time, so her schedule is and has been nuts. It’s not always easy for her to get time off, so honestly I don’t do as many conferences and events as I probably should. But when my publisher asks me to be at an event, I find a way to make it happen.
The first couple of times I was away overnight was rough for both Zella and I, but we both got used to it. She was able to understand pretty early on that it’s part of my job, and that it’s this job that lets me stay at home with her most of the time. The best is when Zella and Drea are able to join me. They came with me on book tour for Dismantled. We drove all over New England and Zella had a blast! She sat in the front row at all my readings and even asked questions. Very cute! I think her favorite part was the hotels, though – it’s all about ice machines and swimming pools!
Young girls are featured prominently in your books as heroines, victims, narrators, and suspects. As Zella grows, do you find your own perspective on girlhood changing or is the imaginary world of your girls separate?
Yeah, there are important girl characters in all my books – ranging in age from nine to thirteen, kind of quirky, misfit, imaginative girls. For whatever reason, it’s a voice that comes naturally to me. And sure, my whole perspective on childhood (and the way I write about children) is being affected by being a mom. In Island of Lost Girls a six-year year old girl is abducted – that’s the age Zella is now. When I wrote the initial draft of Island, I wasn’t even pregnant, and when I was reworking it, she was a baby who was never out of my sight. I don’t know that I would write about something so close to my reality now – but I do tend to write about the things that scare me, the things that keep me up at night.
Watching Zella grow is mind-blowing. She has a very active imaginary life full of dolls and werewolves and princesses. And her social life blows me away – it’s already so complicated and dramatic with little cliques and kids who are best friends one day and worst enemies the next. I think watching her grow up and seeing the world through her eyes will continue to influence the way I write about girls and girlhood.
You’ve had an amazing clip of productivity and success since Promise Not to Tell, three additional novels, with more to come. I know your partner Drea also has a busy career. Any working family struggles to get it all done—the work, the playtime, and the cooking and cleaning. How does your household get it all done? What is the hardest challenge right now for you and what do you do about it?
How does anyone get it all done? If there’s some trick to it, I certainly haven’t learned it yet!
I love working at home, but in some ways, it’s really hard. It isn’t always easy for me to focus on the writing I need to get done when I think about the dishes in the sink, the overgrown lawn, or what on earth I’m going to make for dinner. When I’m having an especially hard time, I’ll pack up my laptop and go sit in a café, where someone else can make the coffee and I don’t have the temptation to stop what I’m doing to attack the mountain of laundry.
Drea and I do a lot of standing in front of the calendar figuring things out – who’s going to take Zella to ballet this week? What about the birthday party on Saturday? Could Drea drive her to school Tuesday morning and do the shopping on the way home, and still get enough sleep to work a 12 hour overnight shift, and then I’ll have an extra hour and a half to work on the new book? And so on.
Ultimately, it’s all about priorities. My family comes first. Then writing. The housework can always wait. And if I’m really crazy busy and dinner doesn’t get made, there’s always take-out.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a new book due out next summer. It’s about a twelve year old girl named Lisa who believes there are fairies living in the woods behind her house. She’s heard bells and has seen tiny lights dancing through the trees. Lisa leaves plates of sweets for the fairies, and one day, they begin leaving gifts for her: a bag of horse teeth, a polished penny, a Catholic medal, and an old book that says it’s been written by the King of the Fairies himself. On midsummer’s eve, following directions in the book, Lisa goes off into the woods planning to cross over to the Land of the Fairies and never returns.
Fifteen years later, Lisa’s brother Sam is contacted by a woman claiming to be Lisa. She’s in terrible shape and makes little sense, but she knows things only Lisa would know. It’s up to Sam and his girlfriend Phoebe to figure out if this woman is really Lisa and where she’s been all these years. The deeper they delve, the more they realize that nothing is as it seems and that there’s no one they can trust, maybe not even each other. They soon begin to wonder if the King of the Fairies, whoever he is, has something sinister in mind for the two of them as well. And I’ve started a brand new book with a scary serial killer in it. That’s about all I can tell you for now…
Do you have any advice for the working parent trying to balance their creative work and the demands of parenting?
I think my best advice would be to cut yourself some slack – don’t set impossible goals and realize it’s okay to say no. Sit yourself down and do the work you need to – the dirty dishes and laundry can wait. Remember that your creative work is “real work” even if you get to do it in your sweatpants. Don’t compare your yard (or kitchen, etc.) to your neighbor’s (or friend’s, etc.) – they’ve got their priorities, you’ve got yours. Remember that the demands of parenting change, and whatever craziness you’re going through now shall pass, and be replaced by something new and hopefully less stressful (did you know eventually they learn to dress themselves and bathe themselves?).
And, above all, try to remember how truly fortunate you are. If you have a family you love, and work you love, you’re doing pretty well.