Vanessa Berben speaks with Natalie Wexler about her second novel, The Mother Daughter Show.
Natalie Wexler’s second novel, The Mother Daughter Show, marks a departure from her real-life experience as a Supreme Court historian and brings us into the world of the fictional Barton Friends, a super-elite D.C. prep school that touts the president and first lady as members of the parent body. Each year the mothers of the senior girls throw a musical revue for their daughters, and three of them in particular take their positions incredibly seriously. At times funny and heart-wrenching (and sometimes both), The Mother Daughter Show will give you a new appreciation for being a mother, and a daughter.
Q&A with Natalie Wexler
The Mother Daughter Show is about as far away as you can get from your debut novel, A More Obedient Wife. What made you decide to turn your focus away from the court and look at the private lives of some of D.C.’s elite?
I was working on a second historical novel when I found myself getting involved in the real Mother Daughter Show at Sidwell Friends. The historical novel wasn’t going so well at that point—which may be one reason I got so involved in the show, since it provided something of an escape from the novel. At a certain point it struck me that what was going on behind the scenes at the show could serve as the inspiration for a comic novel, and I thought writing one might make an amusing break from writing (or trying to write) the historical novel. It also seemed like it might provide an interesting way into writing about mother-daughter relationships, especially during the teenage years. I didn’t want to take too much time away from my “real” novel, so I gave myself four weeks to write a first draft. I managed to write the first draft in six weeks—but then, of course, the novel went through about 12 more drafts before it was published.
Do you plan to go back to writing about the Supreme Court, either in a novel or a nonfiction venture?
I don’t have any plans to write more about the Supreme Court. But I have gone back to that historical novel I was working on when I got the idea for The Mother Daughter Show, and I’m pleased to report that it’s going much better now. It’s set in 1807, about 10 years after the time period of A More Obedient Wife. And as in that book, some of my characters are based on real, albeit minor, historical figures. In A More Obedient Wife, I incorporated excerpts from real letters into the narrative. For the novel I’m working on now I don’t have letters, but I do have an entire year’s worth of issues of a magazine that was founded by one of my main characters—she was the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States. So parts of the novel will consist of excerpts from that magazine.
Be honest, how close is Barton Friends based on Sidwell Friends School, which your own children attended?
Obviously, there’s some overlap. For one thing, Sidwell is the only school I know of that has a Mother Daughter Show. And Sidwell is the school I know best, so that’s the material I had to work with. But Barton Friends isn’t meant to be a complete portrait of Sidwell. Perhaps you could say it’s a version of Sidwell that suited my satirical purposes, which means that I emphasized and exaggerated certain things and left out others. But readers who have kids at other private schools have told me that Barton could just as easily be their school. And one reader jokingly wondered how I’d managed to bug the auditorium at her daughter’s school in Delaware, where it turns out they have a similar tradition. So, aside from the fact that a fictional president’s daughter is a student at Barton, I don’t think there’s much in the book that’s really peculiar to Sidwell.
I loved that your protagonists are both mothers and daughters and that you used this to explore the muddy waters of playing both roles. In researching your characters, did you have to have any awkward conversations with your own mother and daughter?
No, I was able to write about mother-daughter relationships without doing any research! I drew on my own experience as both a mother and a daughter to some extent, but I also used things I’d observed in other people’s mother-daughter relationships, and stories I’d heard from friends. Mostly, though, I relied on my imagination.
Your website is so easy to use, and your blog posts are just as hilarious as your novel! What do you consider are the pros and cons to book publishing vs. posting more informally online?
Thanks! Writing a book is a long, hard slog, and getting one published is even more of one. I love writing blog posts because I can get from a more or less inchoate idea to a “published” piece so quickly—sometimes in just an hour or two. I don’t have to find and please an agent or worry about snagging a publisher, which has become increasingly difficult. I just hit “publish,” and voila! It’s also a nice change to write in my own voice rather than adopting the voice of a fictional character. Before I started writing novels I mostly wrote essays, which is a genre I’m very comfortable with, and blog posts are essentially essays.
You recently blogged about the Romney/Rosen flap, and I loved your insights. I saw how your views on the “To work, or not to work” debate played out in your novel. Can you describe for our readers what the “Mommy Wars” are?
Once again, thanks. The phrase “Mommy Wars” is actually the title of a collection of essays published in 2006 that was intended to bridge the supposed gap between mothers who work outside the home and those who don’t. The editor, Leslie Morgan Steiner, perceived that there were tensions and even “bitchiness” between those two groups. But I’ve always felt that the tensions are more internal than external: Women who choose to stay home may wonder if they’re wasting their education, as my character Amanda does, and women who have careers may wonder if they shouldn’t be spending more time with their kids. As someone who worked part time when my kids were young, I got to experience both sets of doubts! And I think when women have strong reactions to remarks like the one by Hilary Rosen (who said Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life”), it may be because of their own doubts about the choices they’ve made. I suspect that most women, in both camps, have moments of satisfaction and moments of doubt—and yes, we sometimes experience flashes of disapproval or envy for those who’ve made the opposite choice. But it’s an exaggeration to call it a war. We pretty much all recognize that there’s no right or wrong here—people have different personalities and needs.
In another recent post, “Fact and Fiction,” you talk about the dilemma of fiction writers who may base some of their work on the truth. It seems logical to many of us literary types that much like an actor drawing on their own life to portray a character, a novelist would draw on their own experiences to craft a work of fiction. But have you had to defend yourself against critics who feel otherwise?
What I’ve had to defend myself against, to some extent, is the charge that my characters are thinly disguised versions of real people. It’s quite clear to me that my characters are fictional, since I slaved over their creation and wrote elaborate backstories for them that came straight from my imagination. It should also be clear to anyone who knows what happened on the real Mother Daughter Show that huge parts of the novel are invented. But because there are surface similarities between some of my characters and some real people (such as the roles they play vis-à-vis the planning of the show), a few readers have assumed that what I’ve written in the novel is a reflection of how I feel about those real people—which is definitely not the case. I guess it’s understandable that people might react that way, given that there’s a contemporary real-life inspiration for the book. But it’s frustrating. It can be much harder to prove that you’ve made something up than to prove that you haven’t!
Merging these two together — there’s a lot of realism in The Mother Daughter Show — how much research did you have to do to become so well versed in the different lives (careers, level of wealth, etc.) your characters have?
Not much. This is my milieu, so it’s not like I was writing about life in the Amazonian jungle, or life in the 1790s, which I definitely had to research for my first novel. I enjoy historical research, but it was actually kind of a treat to just write about the world around me for a change. I did research a few things, though. My main character, Amanda, is a longtime stay-at-home mother who is under pressure to return to work as a lawyer. She goes to a career counselor, so I interviewed a career counselor who works with exactly that demographic to find out what kinds of things Amanda might hear. Amanda ends up working at a very unpleasant job as a contract lawyer—essentially, a temp worker at a law firm—and I talked to a friend of mine who knew something about that kind of work. Another of my characters, Susan, is a meeting facilitator, so I did a little Internet research on the rudiments of that profession. And when Susan suspects her daughter has bulimia and tries to find information about it on the Internet, her research basically mirrors mine.
Mother’s Day is fast approaching. As both a mom and a daughter, how do you plan to celebrate?
Actually, I confess I haven’t given it much thought yet. But my daughter is coming home from college for the summer on May 13, which is Mother’s Day, and having her here is about the best Mother’s Day present I can think of. My mother lives close by, so we may well have a three-generation Mother’s Day dinner. (Actually, I’m so glad you asked that question—it reminded me that I need to make a dinner reservation!)
Now would be a perfect time to slip in a gift request to any family members reading…
Quite honestly, I don’t need any gifts from my kids, other than their presence, if possible (see above!). But may I suggest to others that they might want to consider giving The Mother Daughter Show as a Mother’s Day gift? It’s a satire, but at bottom it’s about how strong the bond is between mothers and daughters, despite the inevitable conflicts that arise.
Vanessa Berben is a blogger at The Huffington Post and managing editor at The Donnybrook Writing Academy, a humorous entertainment and culture blog.