Book club webchat with Sarah Moss
Sarah Moss joined us in May 2012 to talk about her novel Night Waking. She answered questions on the writing process, attitudes towards parenting and what it is like to be an author and mother, as well as offering a few suggestions to the PM.
Chosen as our May Book of the Month for its true-to-life observations on motherhood and its sharp dialogue, Night Waking tells the story of Anna, her family and a summer spent on a remote Scottish island.
Anna is trying to write a history book but is finding it hard going thanks to her children - precocious seven-year-old Raph and two-year-old Moth, who won't sleep through the night. Then there's her husband Giles, who owns the island and is more interested in homemade bread and recycling than childcare and clean surfaces. With more than enough to cope with, Anna finds the skeleton of an infant buried in their garden and becomes obsessed with the history which links the child, the island and her husband's family.
TillyBookclub: Which childhood book most inspired you?
SarahMoss: I read all the time as a child, everything from the Chalet School to Jane Eyre, with a particular passion for the Anne of Green Gables and Laura Ingalls Wilder series. In general, I'd say that I started with literary responses to the experience of being female and I'm still working on that now.
Bella30: At what stage did you decide on the setting for the story? The isolation of life on the island seems to mirror Anna's own mental isolation - from other adults and from her academic career - was the setting a deliberate choice to reflect this?
SarahMoss: Settings come first, for me. Places have stories and the characters and plot grow from there.
Hullygully: Settings play a big role, don't they? The settings for Night Waking and Cold Earth were right up there with the characters and plot.
SarahMoss: Yes, and they were both in some ways easy because they're isolated, contained spaces, so I could imagine them into being and get to know them completely. I'm starting to work on one set in a city now and it's a very different experience.
AdeleVarens: You've been described as a novelist of ideas - do you agree with this description of your work? Does it start with an idea, or as you've suggested with a setting?
SarahMoss: It starts with a setting, and ideas gather, but I'm not usually aware of the ideas while I'm actually writing. I see themes later in my own work, just as I'd see them in someone else's.
AdeleVarens: Both your novels have combined contemporary plotlines with stories from the past. What is it about this juxtaposition that fascinates you so much?
SarahMoss: Well my academic research is all in the 18th and 19th centuries and I think that gives you a slightly different perspective on contemporary issues. Historical relativism is all.
AdeleVarens: Is it fair to say that your adult male characters tend to function as props for the psychological development of your female characters, rather than as fictional people in their own right? I can't decide whether Giles comes off the page as he does because he's being viewed through a haze of exhaustion and resentment by Anna, or because you're not that interested in him as a novelist?
SarahMoss: It has been said. It's true that I often have to make an effort to read novels by men - there are exceptions (Adam Foulds, Simon Mawer, some Sebastian Faulkes and I've recently discovered Trollope) - and that I've always been more interested in women's subjectivity. One of my colleagues once said that middle-class white men have a huge disadvantage as writers because they've never had to think through other people's eyes. Of course that's not true of everyone - there are lots of ways of being an outsider - but I like it as an iconoclastic starting point.
Juneau: Giles reminds me of my husband in his ability to just wander off and do whatever he wants to do without a backward glance, and to criticise Anna when he's left her to do everything. I could not live in such a pigsty and I don't understand her making bread when she can't manage to do far more important stuff, but I do understand the losing it momentarily and swearing.
SarahMoss: I couldn't live like that either. But it was cathartic to write about it - what would happen if I didn't sweep that floor / plan that meal / wash that child's hair? And I really wanted to write from the point of view of someone who was teetering on the edge of socially unacceptable parenting, because - as this thread proves - our society is good at judging women who fail to meet certain standards and not very good at understanding how it happens.
Ishoes: Anna infers that though sex with Giles is infrequent it is still good and reminds her why they are together. Do you personally think that good sex can make up for having a shit husband?
SarahMoss: My husband isn't useless, so I wouldn't know! But I don't think Giles is either - unobservant and emotionally obtuse, maybe - but not entirely useless. He can and does look after the kids, and cook, and change the sheets, but he doesn't think about it all the time and he is able to concentrate on his work in a way that Anna can't. And I think sex can be a way of articulating aspects of a relationship that go unspoken elsewhere.
Hullygully: A lot of the time Anna lets Giles be the way he is. Personally, I'd have clocked him one.
SarahMoss: Yes, me too, or never allowed things to reach that stage. But women do, don't they? Positions get entrenched and mothers are too tired, and maybe resentment has become too much part of who they are, to change things.
hippy99: The book implies it is the stress of Judith that is the cause of Zoe's eating issues. Is this the case? And do you think it is the breakdown of Judith's relationships with Zoe and Brian plus a lack of career/focus which has turned her to alcohol?
SarahMoss: I don't think any mental illness has such direct cause and effect. Judith seems to have messed things up more conclusively than Anna has, despite staying at home and being perfectionist about housework.
Blubberguts: Could you talk a little bit about Raph and his anxieties. What are they about do you think and what is the function of this theme in the book?
SarahMoss: Well, a reader suggested to me at an event recently that Raph is the only one who speaks the truth, and I like that idea. He could be something like a Shakespearean court jester, someone who keeps saying things that everyone knows but no-one is able to deal with.
The world is ending, the planet is polluted beyond hope of redemption, no-one is doing anything to remedy overwhelming global injustice, children are dying for lack of clean water and we all go on worrying about bedtime routines and preservatives in bread. As Anna acknowledges, he's absolutely right.
Hullygully: One of the things I liked in particular was the fact that you put the children as much centre stage as the adults. Children are usually such minor characters (if seen at all) - it was great to have real life small people roaming about the pages. Were you aware how unusual this is when you chose to do it? Did you have to persuade your editors?
SarahMoss: Yes I knew it was unusual and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to do it. There didn't seem to be much adult fiction around that recognises that children are just as individual and distinctive as adults, just as much whole people with their own views. My lovely editor has never suggested that I should do anything but write about what calls me.
LadyDisdain: At some point in the book, Anna thinks about childless couples and wonders whether she would have children if she could go back and do it again and her answer is no. As an academic/mother, I relate to so much of the book but couldn't relate to this. I'm not sure there is a question here, except maybe: really?
SarahMoss: Well, that's how Anna feels at the time, or thinks she feels. It's not what I would say now, not for a moment, but I'd guess that for most of us there have been exhausted, over-wrought moments where it seems a possible answer, no?
Southlondonlady: Raph and Moth are adorable, are they based on your own kids?
SarahMoss: No, Raph and Moth aren't based on my kids, though Moth is, I think, a fairly generic toddler and there were quite a lot of them around while I was writing the book.
FairyArmadillo: How much of your own experience of parenting went into the book?
SarahMoss: One of the pleasures of fiction is that you can get away from your own experience, or use it as a jumping-off point for something quite different. Anna's not me - I would never go to an isolated island with no support or childcare and a book to write - but she's a bit like what I might have become if I'd made different decisions. It was obvious to me from very early on that I need work and childcare to be a good mother.
NoraHelmer: Did you intend for your novel to portray different attitudes towards parenting? I thought the inclusion of quotations from Anna Freud at the start of the chapters was quite telling. Was it also a coincidence that Anna shared her name?
SarahMoss: The two Annas are coincidence, but yes, I was interested in the way ideas about parenting change - and don't change - over time, and how far knowing cultural history can save us from the more damaging extremes of our own culture.
In Anna's case, it makes her more aware of the cultural and historical specificity of motherhood but not, apparently, able to feel or do anything different. And I think that well-educated and politicised women often find that being able to construct an intelligent analysis of one's own situation is surprisingly little help in dealing with it.
What really interested me about Anna Freud was that some of her work, done during the Second World War, suggests that young children do better in good institutions than at home with their mothers. And then the state wanted women back at home and suddenly the new truth was that all children need full-time care from their mothers at home.
Southlondonlady: I felt that Anna put an awful lot of pressure on herself in some ways, she just doesn't seem to value her own health / sanity at all. Do you think our modern parenting culture encourages this?
SarahMoss: Yes absolutely, I think one of contemporary Britain's measures of 'good mothers' is a self-destructive level of sacrifice. Any attention to your own well-being or sanity has to be justified and trivializsed as 'me time' (ever noticed that men don't have 'me time', they just play football / read the paper / go for a run without having to make it part of some kind of policy).
And there's certainly a view that if you work, you've used up all your allocation of time away from the children and given up any right to meet your own needs, and you have to compensate for the sin of earning a living by spending all the rest of your time in intensive interaction with your children and high-performance domesticity.
For high-achieving women who have often got where they are by being ambitious, driven and dependent on external validation, it's a very damaging model. And a pretty crap model for children.
TillyBookClub: What I don't understand about current government and society, is how they seem to deliberately ignore the value of what mothers do, and in fact try to put them down, trivialise their skills or set ridiculous standards at every point rather than nurturing and encouraging. If you were prime minister, what would you do to change things?
SarahMoss: Well, to start with I'd split parental leave so that each partner takes the same amount. I think a lot of gender inequality in the UK starts with maternity leave - once the mother's become 'the expert', as she has to when she's left alone with a baby all day, it's really, really hard to redress that balance.
Then I'd subsidise nurseries a lot more than they are, and make childcare a well-paid and highly respected profession. And by that stage I might as well just hoist an Icelandic flag... (we spent a year in Iceland in 2009).
Blubberguts: I haven't met any real-life mothers, in the flesh so to speak, who would even hint at finding parenthood as hard as Anna portrays it. There is massive competitiveness and insecurity out there which in turn undermines confidence because everyone thinks they are the only ones.
SarahMoss: I have. I'm not sure I'd have made it through the early days without them. (Though I would, because you have to, don't you, and that's part of the point.)
ProfCoxWouldGetIt: Have you ever had moments like Anna, when you'd happily run off and leave your kids and family behind?
SarahMoss: One of the good things about my job is that sometimes I can run off and leave everyone for a few days. I've recently returned from a work trip to the US and then I had a couple of research days in London. Of course I miss my children, but I find it much easier to be pleasant company at home when I get to go other places and do other things as well.
Teaddict: What do you think got you through the dark days of a new mum's sleeplessness and boredom? Was it the idea of writing novels, the thought of returning to academia?
SarahMoss: Yes, it was thinking about the book I'd write when I could write again, knowing that I would return to the world of reading and writing and talking to adults. And second time around it was knowing that those early weeks pass and you'll get to know your child as a real person as well as a very loud way of converting milk into poo.
Valiumpoptarts: Do you have a thing you do that keeps you feeling human rather than just a parent / employee / writer? Or is writing and teaching and having kids enough to keep you going?
SarahMoss: I know I'm lucky to have a job that I love. The combination of writing and teaching and family life works very well for me and I don't need much else, but friends are essential and so is making something material - cooking, and especially baking, will do but I love to crochet and always have something on the go, even though progress can be very slow.
MegnMog: I always admire authors who write honestly about motherhood, particularly aspects that are bordering on the edge of social acceptability. When you were writing the book did you worry that people might not be able to separate you as the author from the fictional character Anna, and judge you as a mother and a person? Did you feel you needed to prepare for this?
SarahMoss: Yes, I worried about it, more for my kids - who didn't choose to have a mother who writes - than for me. But one of my friends said, "Well, writing is a contact sport, people get hurt." I knew it was fictional and I knew that my friends and family knew it was fictional and beyond that, publish and be damned.
LadyDisdain: Does writing about motherhood and children sideline you? Is this viewed as lesser or softer by publishers, reviewers etc?
SarahMoss: I worried about that, and some of the early reviews made me think it might be a problem. It just seems so mad that we can't write about this huge thing without being trivialised, that however intelligent and complicated a woman's writing might be, the moment she ventures into family life she's somehow gone pink and frilly. I couldn't allow that idiocy to shape my writing in any way. Everyone has parents, after all, and most of us, nationally and certainly globally, are parents.
Dickens and Freud and especially Tolstoy write quite compulsively about family life: what is War and Peace if not a family saga? It makes me furious that male writers can write book after book about hating their parents and wanking and get prizes for 'searing insights into contemporary life' but if a woman writes about children it must be 'chick lit' (vile misogynist phrase). I could go on...
I never doubted the support of my agent and editor, the book seems to be finding readers who get it, most of the reviewers saw what I was doing and I try quite hard not to care what sexists think about anything. My next novel isn't particularly about motherhood anyway, or at least not from the mother's end, which seems to be the part that people have real trouble taking seriously.
aristocat: Is it writing or lecturing that gives you the most satisfaction? And why?
SarahMoss: Well, I've been teaching in universities for 11 years. I love working with students - less keen on the admin and politics. I know that teaching helps with my own thinking and writing, and I generally find universities congenial and interesting places to be. But if I had to choose I'm a writer because teaching can be a great joy but if I didn't read and write and think, I wouldn't have anything to teach.
TillyBookclub: What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?
SarahMoss: If it's easy, you're not doing it properly.
Blubberguts: Simple question: what's next? What are you working on now and when is it likely to be published?
SarahMoss: I have a memoir about living in Iceland for a year with my family coming out at the beginning of July, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland, and I've just started writing a sequel to Night Waking, not more about Anna and Giles but picking up the Victorian thread to develop the story of May and her family. I can imagine I might go back to Anna and Giles sometime.