The Ayelet Waldman Interview

Today is the day to identify yourself.

Today's interviewee has experience in the courtroom as a former criminal defense attorney, which has helped inspire her mystery series, the Mommy-Track Mysteries. Meanwhile, it was her drug policy reform work and the many defendants in drug cases whom she represented while working as a federal public defender that inspired the novel Daughter's Keeper. She also frequently writes about her life with her four kids and husband Michael Chabon for

The Ayelet Waldman Interview: Slightly Less Than Twenty Questions

Since so many of your books revolve around bad parenting and death, are you a fan of darker children's stories, like the Lemony Snicket books or Roald Dahl's stories?
Absolutely. I loved the Dahl books when I was a kid. But my dead baby oeuvre has more to do with an experience I had. I've written about it on Salon, so I won't go into as much detail here, but when I was pregnant with what would have been my third child, I had a bad amnio and my husband and I chose to end the pregnancy. The experience was devastating, and for a long time I was sort of writing it out of my system. Love and Other Impossible Pursuits is the end of that, I think.

What have been your kids' favorite books?
My children loved all sorts of books - from Is Your Mama a Llama, to all the William Joyce books, especially A Day With Wilbur Robinson. The Frances books are also a huge hit around here. Once my son was listening to me read Bread and Jam for Frances to my younger daughter. He frowned and said, "You know, Frances is a lot like Olivia, the pig, and Eloise. And they're all a lot like Rosie." I replied that this was so. "Have you ever considered," he said, very seriously, "That if you didn't read those books to Rosie she might not be such an awful brat?"

In retrospect, did you find blogging about suicidal thoughts helpful? Would you recommend blogging as therapy to other people with bipolar disorders?
Uh, NO. It was fun, but it's all consuming, and as people with bipolar disorder tend to incline toward the overly confessional, it's too easy a forum to get seduced by. Plus, I don't think blogging can be therapy. The only therapy I've found useful so far is exercise and medication.

What do you see as the role of therapy in modern family life? It seems that more and more kids have therapists at younger ages these days.
My kids don't, and I don't really. I have a psychopharmacologist, and I occasionally see a cognitive behavioral therapist to get specific help with dealing with things. I'm sure therapy can be very helpful to lots of people, but I do wonder sometimes if we're sending kids into therapy too readily. If you're a hammer, everything you see is a nail, and if you're a shrink, everything you see is a mental illness. I worry about the over-pathologizing of normal childhood behaviors.

Obviously, a lot of your articles on Salon garner strong reactions from readers. Do you and your editor ever discuss potential reader reaction before your pieces or published?
Well, every once in a while she says, "Oy, that's going to get 'em worked up." But the Salon readership is notoriously fractious. They like a fight. I don't necessarily try to provide one, but neither to I censor myself because of fear of what readers might say. It amazes me, though, how I can write a column about incarceration of children or the horrors of Medicare and nobody cares, but then I write about homework or Dodgeball and dozens of letters inundate the Salon inboxes.

Do you think in general Salon is publishing more family-related articles? Do you think that it reflects their audience, or readers like having the voyeuristic look into other people's families?
Salon's most successful page from the beginning was "Mothers Who Think." Kate Moses and Camille Peri ran a beautiful page there, soliciting a whole variety of work relating in some way to motherhood. That has always been Salon's strength.

Do you run any of the things you write about your family by your husband or kids before you publish them?
All of them. My husband reads everything, and if I'm writing about the kids I ask their permission. Well, the older ones. The babies are too little to reply, but soon enough they'll have their own opinions.

As a former federal defender, do you tend to find yourself instinctively siding with the defense in crime movies and TV shows? Do you hate Jack McCoy on "Law and Order"?
Always. And it always sickens me when they have judges ruling in defendants' favor on Law and Order. Judges ALWAYS rule for the prosecution. It's so absurd to present prosecutors as beleaguered by an overly powerful defense bar.

I recently had the experience of sharing a manuscript I'm working on with my significant other. When you and your husband help each other out with each other's writing, can you separate smoothly the professional from the personal? Or do you need to spend a few hours apart after one of you has given notes?
Oh, we sometimes fight. "You idiot, you have no idea what I'm trying to do." But then the person resisting the notes always admits that the other is correct. Mostly we're wonderfully supportive. Our working relationship is a source of great joy to us.

You say that a lot of your books handle your fears about being a bad mother. Has your husband or any other men you know expressed their point of view about their fears of being a bad father? Would you ever explore that more in your fiction?
All the men I know are ridiculously sanguine about their parenting. They never seem to be plagued with guilt and terror. It's so maddening. It's because of all the external validation. Michael puts a baby in a Baby Bjorn and goes to get a latte and six people tell him he's a great dad. I put a baby in a Baby Bjorn and go for a latte and sixteen people tell me I shouldn't be imbibing caffeine.

Why do you think that stay-at-home moms and working moms always seem to be at odds with each other about the choices they make? There seems to be a whole lot of judgment for what adds up to be a personal/family choice of others.
Because when you make a decision like this, you are deciding that your choice is not just right for you, but better than the other. A woman who prepared herself academically for a demanding career and then chooses to stay home must believe that her sacrifice is worth it, she must believe that it's noble, and best.

Similarly, working mothers are sometimes so guilt-ridden that they, too, must figure out a way to feel better about their choice. (If you can even call it a choice. How many women 'choose' to work? Most people don't choose. They have to support their families. They have to protect their futures. They don't have the luxury of choice.)

I have to say that much of the vitriol I've seen has been against working mothers. For every pro-work piece you read there are sixteen decrying the vile working mother who abandons her children.

When you're writing a mystery, do you keep outlines or charts of your plot so all your plot strings get tied up?
I try to keep a plot outline - I think of it as a beat-sheet-that outlines all the major elements of the story. Every once in a while I realize that something needs to be there and I have to go back and layer it in.

Do you get lots of letters from other mothers on how they can become writers? Do you usually try to give them advice or give them pat answers?
I try to give sensible advice. I hope it's not pat…I mean, my advice usually is that if you write a page a day in a year you have a book, so if someone can find a single half-hour in their day, they will end up completing a novel. But getting published, that's another story. I don't give advice about that because, well, it's just too hard. And anyway, what would my advice be? First go on a blind date with a well-known novelist. Marry him and have his children. Then burn out as a criminal defense lawyer, stay home for a while, then write a novel and get him to send it to his agent.
Now, that's useful.

I saw from your site that you have an appreciation for E.M. Forster (I love him too). Do you find that you try to imitate anything about your favorite authors, or do you keep your reading and writing separate?
I imitate all the time. I try always to learn from the novels I read. Invariably when you imitate it comes through the lens of your own style, so it ends up being yours. And hey, if I'm writing too much like E.M. Forster, that can't be bad, right?
I can never understand those writers who say they don't read when writing. After all, I became a writer because I love to read. And I'm always reading. Always. And I'm always working. It's my job. So what would I do? When would I just be doing one or the other?

I was on a panel with Khaled Hosseini. (easily the nicest man in the universe) and he said that he once saw a movie in which someone says that the mark of a rank amateur writer is if he is producing more words than he takes in. I.e., real writers read.

Now you give my readers some advice. Completing the first draft of a book is a huge accomplishment. But then an author is faced with revisions, which can feel like taking a house apart and then putting it back together again, brick by brick. What's your advice for writers on the revision process?
God, I hate revising. But you know what? The only thing worse is not revising. Because then it's CRAP. I keep Annie Lamott's phrase, "Shitty first drafts" in my mind at all times. It's the only thing that gets me through a draft. So then I have to rewrite rewrite and rewrite some more. I think having a good reader help you is important because it's nigh on impossible to force yourself to hack away at something that you spent a lot of time on.

Read aloud, that's a great technique. Awful prose cannot tolerate being read aloud.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits has been optioned by Disney: can you tell us anything about the film version as of now?
Don Roos, the writer and director of the Opposite of Sex and Happy Endings has written an awesome screenplay. It's so good - he took lots of my jokes and made them funnier. I loved it. I hope he decides to direct it because I think he's brilliant.

I hung out for a few days last summer in Manasquan, on the Jersey Shore. It was…interesting. Next time I go back to the Shore, which towns should I hit up?
My shore geography is woefully out of date. When I was in high school my friends and I would go to Ocean Beach. We never had enough money for tolls on the way home so we'd run them all the way up to Ridgewood.

By the way, you don't go "to the shore." You go "down the shore."

Tell us something about Oprah Winfrey that those of us who have not been up close to her would know. Anything.
How about the fact that she is amazing? That woman has some supernatural gift for making people feel at ease. I honestly felt like I knew her my whole life. That we were best friends. Crazy, huh?

She also has gorgeous shoes, Pradas, so uncomfortable that she had to walk onto the stage barefoot and put them on once she sat down.

How does it feel to be the 137th person interviewed for
Hey, my lucky number!

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