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Author Talk: July 23, 2010

Two recent novels --- HUSBAND AND WIFE by Leah Stewart and LOVE IN MID AIR by Kim Wright --- each center on relationships in crisis, and explore the complexities and the hardships that arise through years of marriage. In this interview, Stewart and Wright compare their female protagonists and their struggles to keep hold of their identities after starting their families, as well as the personal and professional sacrifices made for the sake of their children. They also elaborate on the importance of secondary characters as reflections of the main characters or catalysts for their actions, discuss the critical responses they’ve received from readers, and share their thoughts on their books’ bittersweet endings.

Kim Wright: It seems in both of our books, there are plenty of secrets between the husband and wife. Big secrets, like infidelity, but also little “daily” ones. Do you think small secrets are ultimately as dangerous to marriages as large ones? Is the infidelity the major betrayal between Nathan and Sarah, or was their marriage already in trouble because of the everyday ways in which they had drifted apart?

Leah Stewart: The fact that Sarah and Nathan are not as close as they once were --- or perhaps I should say that that closeness is now based on shared parenthood rather than shared artistic ambition and aesthetics --- was one motivator in Nathan's betrayal. But I think if he hadn't cheated, the marriage would not have been thrown into crisis, the way Elyse and Phil's has been by Elyse's long-term unhappiness. In fact, one reason Sarah is so shocked by Nathan's infidelity is because she's always had with him the very thing Elyse is missing with Phil, namely the feeling that they know and understand each other thoroughly.

One of the things that interested me, reading your book and comparing it to mine, was that I chose to write about a marriage between two artists, and you chose to write about marriage between an artist and someone who doesn't understand the need to make art, and to me that seems like a large part of the reason Elyse doesn't feel sufficiently known and understood. Do you think, to be happy, Elyse would at least have to be with someone who understood and supported that desire in her?

KW: I was struck with the fact that both Elyse and Sarah are kind of casually disparaging about their art, even while it defines and sustains them. Elyse says at one point, “So what, I sell pots, I make like two cents a year”, and Sarah admits that Nathan likes having a poet wife but that she herself has trouble taking it seriously once the kids come. Which sets me to wondering if it really matters if the husband is a writer like Nathan --- and thus a fellow artist --- or if he’s a dentist like Phil. If an artist is married to a non-artist, the odds are the non-artist will be making more money and that often becomes the deciding factor about whose job matters more.

Do you think women self-sabotage when they marry and have kids? Is our disengagement from our former lives a necessary side effect of adulthood, or is it something we do to ourselves?

LS: To me it seems to be both. You simply can't live the same way after kids as you can before. I think this is true for men as well as women, although watching a show like “Mad Men” you realize that it certainly isn't always true for men. When you’re pregnant and when you breastfeed, you're the only one who can sustain the baby, and this means the baby wants you more, and associates you more strongly with fulfilling its needs, as does the husband. If you don't insist on time for the person you used to be, it's hard to say if it's self-sabotage or simply exhaustion. Some women, I think, self-sabotage by committing themselves to attempting to fulfill an ideal of motherhood and wifehood that doesn't actually suit them. That, to me, seems to be what's happened to Elyse.

You portray a far more traditional marriage than I do --- Phil makes the money, Elyse runs the house. Elyse chose to embrace that traditionalism, leaving behind the bohemian, artist life she'd been living, the way people once expected women to give up their jobs as soon as they married. I just read Mary McCarthy's THE GROUP, which is about college-educated women who, by and large, give up their careers and pursuits to get married, and often find themselves unhappy as a result. But that's set in the 1930s. I'm curious about your take on why, eighty supposedly liberating years later, Elyse finds herself in the same position.

KW: My book is set in Charlotte, which is a huge banking town, and I myself used to work for Merrill Lynch as a stockbroker. This is an industry that can demand 60-hour weeks, travel, hideous degrees of self sacrifice. I didn’t see a lot of women successfully handling both the job and motherhood, and I’ll confess that when I got pregnant it never occurred to me to stay with the firm after the baby came. And I think that’s the case with some industries. While academia or writing might be gentler careers that allow women to quote, unquote “have it all”, there are some jobs that prompt a more brutal either-or choice.

So you find women in the suburbs who are used to having power and making money, and now their days revolve around playgroups and working out at the Y and book clubs, and yeah, it’s a bit like they’ve gone back to the ’30s. I’m not sure I see Elyse’s quandary as much of a Southern thing as I see it as “life requires more compromise than I would have guessed” thing. The trouble is, feminism is theoretical, and when you’re talking to your boyfriend about what it will be like when you’re married, that’s all pretty abstract as well. Then the kids come and there’s nothing theoretical about them at all, so sometimes even couples that pictured a more egalitarian split of duties find themselves making tough decisions. What fascinates me is how often the woman is willing to trivialize her work and her dreams and be the one who adapts.

Back to the fun stuff, i.e., sex. Like so many women reeling from an emotional shock, Sarah begins to think about her earlier, seemingly easier, life and especially the ever-tempting Rajiv. What is it about the "man from the past" that holds such power over us? (Because, God knows, everybody has a Rajiv.) Is our desire to "go backward" in times of stress automatically a mistake, or can we learn something about ourselves through these emotional U-turns?

LS: The man from the past is, of course, the other choice we could have made, the one that would never have led us to screaming at our husband in the kitchen over whose turn it is to do the dishes. Or so we imagine. I think we can certainly learn something about ourselves from going backward. It seems to me one of the things both Elyse and Sarah are experimenting with is whether it's OK to be selfish, and if so to what degree it's OK. One of the criticisms I've seen from people who don't like my book is that Sarah is selfish. Have you seen similar criticisms? Do you think any protagonist who did what ours do would be seen as selfish, or is that perception heightened by their gender? Did you worry about how people would respond to Elyse’s choices?

KW: A few people --- ironically, all of them female --- have told me that they see Elyse as selfish, which totally pisses me off. It shows how much we drank the KoolAid. I don’t condone affairs for either gender, but there’s no question that a woman who strays is punished much more than a man. And yeah, I thought about it a lot before the book was published. The funny thing, I’m not much of a rebel. I want people to like me. And I knew this book would upset people, so I’m proud of myself for throwing it out there anyway. My daughter is 25 and recently married, and when she read the galleys she kept saying, “Mom, they’re going to crucify you.” But the strange thing is, the backlash hasn’t been as bad as I feared, and a lot of readers have praised the book for realism. What can I say? Sh** happens. As writers, it’s our job to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

Speaking of daughters, I love the fact you chose to make Sarah's daughter Mattie a full-fledged character, and in fact she often seems to be a small echo of Sarah's deepest doubts and fears. How did Mattie evolve, and was it a difficult choice to make a preschooler one of the most important --- and in some ways, most articulate --- characters in the story?

LS: People keep asking me if this book is autobiographical, and while it's not, Mattie is based on my daughter at three. Mattie's role in the book just emerged instinctively. There are some things I remember making choices about, but not that one.

Elyse has a daughter, and Sarah has friends, but emphasize the friend relationships while emphasize the mother-child one. Why did you decide to make Elyse's friends, especially her best friend Kelly, so significant in the book? And why did you choose to leave certain key questions about Kelly --- why she doesn't work anymore, why she never had children, whether her marriage is satisfying --- unanswered, both for the reader and for Elyse?

KW: Kelly started out as a point-of-view character, and I rotated between the two women. When I decided to go exclusively with Elyse’s voice, I always felt a bit guilty about it. She’s the narrator for the sequel, which I’m working on now, so she does eventually have her say.

I went with Kelly as Elyse’s primary relationship because I was intrigued by how much the choices of one woman can affect the choices of her friends --- or at least the way they feel about them. We’ve been talking about the old boyfriend as representative of the unlived life, but I think the best friend also is a way to show us what we might have been. Elyse is talking about Kelly’s big love affair at one point and she says, “She was my best friend. It happened to her so in a way it happened to both of us”, and it’s like that with very close female friends. Our identities can get blurred.

When I got divorced, it made my friends very nervous. When one woman voluntarily leaves her marriage, it seems that it causes her friends to re-question their own deals, ala “Gee, she didn’t seem any more unhappy than me. She had this and this and this and still she left? Am I settling?” There was recently a big study released that proclaimed divorce is contagious in the sense if one couple in a social network separates their friends are twice as likely as normal to separate too. I wanted to show that dynamic in LOVE IN MID AIR.

Okay, last question. Would you say HUSBAND AND WIFE has a happy ending?

LS: Bittersweet is probably a better word than happy. Do you see your ending as a happy one? As I was reading, I thought for a while that you might reveal Gerry to be a cad, but that wasn't the case, and in fact he was much more complicated (wonderfully so) than Elyse herself expected. Did you deliberately resist saying that her affair was a mistake? And, if so, were you in conversation with the tradition of cheating women in literature? (I assume so, since you have Elyse getting her book club to read MADAME BOVARY.)

KW: My little private joke is that Elyse Bearden has the same initials as Emma Bovary. I very much wanted to avoid turning Gerry into the bad guy and thus showing that her affair was a mistake --- or, at the other extreme, having him show up on the proverbial white horse and make everything pay off for her. I think the ending of LOVE IN MID AIR happy because, even though we’re not sure what happens next for my modern-day Madame Bovary, at least she hasn’t taken arsenic. She’s alive and well and shopping for sheets at Target.

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