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Interview: January 8, 2010

January 8, 2010

Barbara Delinsky, author of FAMILY TREE, THE SECRET BETWEEN US and WHILE MY SISTER SLEEPS, recently published NOT MY DAUGHTER, which explores teen pregnancy, as well as the bonds of friendship and family relationships. In this interview with's Jennifer McCord, Delinsky discusses why she chose to tackle such a timely subject and explains why she consistently revisits the theme of mothers and daughters in her work. She also shares her thoughts on such topics as the definition of a "good mother" and the evolving perceptions of teen parents, describes her career change from psychologist to author, and reflects on her transition to writing women's fiction after penning several romances. The theme of mothering and teenage pregnancy is a hot topic in today’s culture. Did you choose this story, or did it choose you?

Barbara Delinsky:
It chose me! How could I ignore the firestorm that erupted when it was alleged that a group of girls in Gloucester, MA formed a pregnancy pact? Little more than a month later, Sarah Palin became a candidate for Vice President and announced that her teenage daughter was pregnant, and the press erupted again. And People magazine with “baby bump” photos every week, some picturing teen moms- and dads-to-be? Oh yeah, the subject chose me. It was begging for attention wherever I turned.

BRC: NOT MY DAUGHTER touches on generational mother/daughter relationships and sexual mores. As a writer, was this something you wanted to explore?

BD: Absolutely. I’ve addressed mother/daughter issues in more books than I can count, and each story is completely different. That says something about the scope of the subject. Given that my audience is mostly women, all of whom have been daughters (biologically, at least), exploring this subject yet again makes sense.

BRC: There are four mothers of four daughters in this book. What qualities do you admire about these mothers?

BD: For starters, heart. Each one loves her daughter. Each loves her friends. They come from different backgrounds, initially brought together when the kids were little, but their friendship has remained strong. All four treasure it, albeit in very different ways. I also admire the enterprising nature that turned their shared love of yarn into a profitable business. They started from nothing, and just built and built and built. Susan and Sunny even have other full-time jobs, yet they make PC Wool happen on the side.

BRC: Each of the four women and their daughters are friends with one another. Do you feel that the loyalty of the women and the girls to each other is significant in their lives as portrayed in this story?

BD: The loyalty the girls feel to one another is behind much of their behavior, which focuses on the whole issue of peer pressure, particularly when it comes to pact behavior. As for their moms, the upset each feels when she learns her daughter is pregnant is made more complex by the involvement of her friends. Friendships are tested here, both at the mom and the daughter level. Its survival is key. Bottom line? Two generations of loyalty drive the action in this book.

BRC: Susan Tate, a high school principal, and her daughter, Lily, are marvelous role models --- as working mother, single parent and teenager. Susan’s role as a “good mother” and single parent are brought into question when Lily becomes pregnant. Does society define what a “good mother” is in today’s world?

BD: Thanks for raising the “good mother” issue. To me, this is the overriding issue of NOT MY DAUGHTER --- because no, today’s world doesn’t define the “good mother” well. How can it? With more mothers in the work force, more single parents, and fewer extended families around to help, mothers are sorely taxed. Add to that the changing nature of the world, the diverse nature of mothers, and ever-changing family dynamics, and good mothering is hard to define. My personal conclusion is that a mother can only do her best. Some readers may disagree, which would make for an interesting discussion, which, truly, is what I want. What does it take to be a good mother? I’d like readers to think about this long after the book is done.

BRC: Does teenage pregnancy carry the same stigma that it carried even 10 or 15 years ago? How has society’s ability to accept it changed?

BD: The stigma has definitely lessened. For one thing, single mothers have become commonplace. For another, daycare is readily available, making it easier for a teen to continue in school. For a third, teen moms connect on the Internet, meaning that they become a force to be addressed by parenting websites. And then --- for a fourth --- comes pop culture. Not only is pregnancy itself in vogue --- the “bump” is something to show off under a slim-fitting tee shirt rather than hide under a smock --- but pregnant teens are often revered at the highest, loudest levels, for making the decision to carry their child rather than abort. Reality TV now includes shows with teen parents and, yes, they portray the difficulties involved, but heightening the hardship can have the reverse effect of turning teen parents into heroes. No, teenage parents are no longer in hiding. The more we see them, the more inured we become.

BRC: The dialogue between parent and teenager makes this story and characters seem so real to the reader. Did you enjoy creating the exchanges between the characters?

BD: Thanks for saying that; making my characters real is always my goal. And I loved creating these exchanges. Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. My prose may not be the most lyrical, but I do have an ear for the verbal exchange.

BRC: Pacts among teenagers are a compelling sub-theme of this book. How did you research teenagers and pacts?

BD: I wish I could say that my degree in psychology helped, but I went into that field because I have an instinct for people, not the other way around. So. To answer your question, some of my information came from the Web, some from good old common sense.

BRC: What do you hope readers will experience during and after reading your book?

BD: I hope they’ll identify with one or another of my characters --- whether with Lily, who is 17 and pregnant, with her mom, who is 35 and a single parent, or with Ellen, Susan’s mother, who is 59 and still trying to do the mother thing right. Because this book truly is about the mother thing, regardless of age. I want readers to be haunted by that.

BRC: Many of your books are about family relationships. Has your educational background provided you with an understanding that carries over into your stories about families?

BD: Nope. I can’t remember the courses I took on my way to that Master’s degree. Seriously. As I said earlier, I have an instinct for people. Moreover, I have a family, as do my friends and their friends. I’ve seen how different families work (or don’t work.) That’s what carries over into my books.

BRC: As a writer, how has living in the state of Massachusetts with its rich cultural, educational and literary heritage impacted your writing?

BD: What an interesting question! Surely, I valued my education, but so do people in other states. Am I part of a literary circle here? No. I’ve often suspected that those ranks are reserved for writers whose work is hard to understand. Mine is not. It’s eminently accessible. Do I value writing more, coming a state with the cultural history this one has? Perhaps. Truth be told, though, I don’t believe that Massachusetts has a cultural leg up on any other state. So much of writing comes from the heart, and what’s in the heart is universal.

BRC: How do you approach each book to ensure that it has its own creative energy?

BD: I pick hot new topics, such as teen pregnancy in NOT MY DAUGHTER, I push earlier books out of mind, and focus single-mindedly on the story at hand. Each topic brings its own energy to the table; this energy is what gives life to my characters and makes each cast different from the ones that came before.

BRC: As you made the transition in your writing from romance fiction to women’s fiction, how did the elements of story change? Or did they?

BD: When I wrote romance fiction, the romance was 80% of the story. That is no longer true. My recent books have had no romance at all, in that male-female, sex-scene-driven sense. That said, my books are filled with love, occasionally between man and woman, but more often between parent and child, sister, friends. I did put a little sex in NOT MY DAUGHTER, between Susan (mom of Lily, who’s pregnant) and Rick (biological dad of Lily, never married to Susan), and there is a kind of love story between the two. All told, perhaps, it takes up 10% of the book.

BRC: I’m always interested to find out how authors came to their work. Did writing choose you, or did you choose it?

BD: I chose it. I had no plans to write. I was a psychologist, then a mom of three loud, active young boys who were challenging my sanity (to put it gently) when I read a newspaper piece about women who wrote genre fiction. On a whim I tried it, and that first book sold. The rest is history.

BRC: What advice would you give to new writers who are drawn to writing about women?

BD: Get a manicure in a big shop, and listen to what women in the other chairs are saying. Watch "Oprah" for story ideas. Read women’s magazines and identify topics that are of concern to women and of interest to you. Timeliness is crucial. Be proactive; imagine what women will be worrying about next year. Then create a new folder on your computer and start writing.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

BD: Having spent the past few months doing pre-promotion for NOT MY DAUGHTER, I haven’t starting writing the next book. I’m plotting it now, but haven’t shared the concept yet --- not with my agent, my publisher, my Facebook fans. I’ll do that once NOT MY DAUGHTER is in stores. Pub date for the next one? I’m guessing spring of 2011. Once that’s determined, it’ll be prominently posted on my website at

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