Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Melissa Senate

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In Melissa Senate's second book, The Solomon Sisters Wise Up, recently released by Red Dress Ink, the single, quintessentially chick-lit protagonist Sarah finds herself in a decidedly non-chick-lit situation: she is pregnant, just two months after dating her boyfriend. The complication of impending motherhood, and how it affects Sarah's relationship not only with her boyfriend but also with her sisters and the rest of her family, is explored by an author whose real life experience closely resembles her heroine's. Senate's first book, See Jane Date, launched Harlequin's Red Dress Ink imprint, and her next book, Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?, a spin-off of her first, is forthcoming from Red Dress Ink in December 2004. Before publishing her first novel, Melissa Senate was a fiction editor for 13 years. She lives in New York with her husband, their son Max, and four cats.

In a dialogue with Mother Shock author Andi Buchanan, Senate discusses the genre of chick-lit as well creativity, motherhood, and writing.

Andi Buchanan: Between the publication of your first book, See Jane Date, and your second, The Solomon Sisters Wise Up, you became pregnant and had a baby. Do you feel as though motherhood has changed your writing, in its method or subject matter?

Melissa Senate: This may sound strange, but I think it's marriage (I'm a newlywed and first-timer to the institution at age 38) that is affecting all sorts of interesting and strange changes in my writing much more than motherhood. Loving my son, from the moment I knew of his existence inside me, to this moment, has been the easiest thing I've ever done in my life. I'm not saying motherhood is the easiest thing I've ever done (whoo-boy!), just that marriage is a lot more challenging for me and stirs up the themes I want to explore in fiction. Max can pee in my eye (by accident, of course), throw a tantrum; refuse to: eat, have his diaper changed, get dressed, budge, etc.; yet my love and devotion to this precious little willful person is so unconditional. My husband can forget to take out the garbage or buy paper towels on his way home from work, and it's a mini-war.

AB: How much did real-life events inspire the plot of Solomon Sisters?

MS: A woman gets pregnant two months into a new relationship. Her boyfriend's response is: A) "Yay! Let's get married and have a baby, baby!" or B) "Gulp. Are you sure it's mine? Uh, I need to think . . . for a long time." They say that truth is stranger than fiction for a reason: when I became unexpectedly pregnant two months into a new relationship, my boyfriend (now husband) responded with choice A. Unusual stuff. Way too unbelievable and boring for fiction! So I decided to write about a character whose boyfriend responds with choice B. And so begins The Solomon Sisters Wise Up.

AB: Your first book, See Jane Date, kicked off Red Dress Ink, Harlequin's mega-successful line of "chick-lit" books. Do you see your second book paving the way for more "mommy-lit" or do you think most fans of the genre still mostly want to read stories about kicky, fun, sarcastic single gals?

MS: I think chick-lit offers something for every woman, whether she is single and childless, a single mother, married with children, married without children. I wrote a dating book when I was in the game, I wrote a book about a pregnant woman when I was nursing a newborn, and I wrote my forthcoming novel (Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?) when I returned from my honeymoon. Hmmm . . . there does seem to be a pattern there! The wonderful thing about chick-lit is that you can write whatever you want -- whatever interests you, whatever is most pressing for you. I think fans of chick-lit are responding to the voice of the author more than anything else, even more than seeing their own lives reflected.

AB: As to the issue of chick-lit, I think the trend that is happening in that genre -- that the single-gal protagonists are morphing into mothers as the authors themselves move away from the single life and into motherhood -- is important, as it means more writing about motherhood, or at least writing that features mothers as compelling narrators, however light the fare. What do you think about this? What do you see in the future for the genre?

MS: What's so wonderful about chick-lit is that there's something for every woman. From literary to frothy fun, chick-lit is about female experience, from starting out in that first job to waking up with the seven year itch after a month of marriage to distressing those pies so that they'll appear homemade for your kids' bake sale, and everything in between -- much of chick-lit has nothing to do with men, marriage, or motherhood at all. That range is what gives chick-lit its power and mass appeal. As a new mother myself, I can't get enough of books about motherhood. I'm glad they're out there, prettying up the new paperbacks table at my Barnes & Noble. For all the pink, swirly, girlie covers, I see my own truths in those books and that's why I read them, why I think the chick-lit genre is here to stay, evolving along with us.

AB: How do you balance writing and motherhood?

MS: One of the luckiest days of my life was the day I met my son's babysitter, Diane. With a wonderful sitter that I trust and that my son adores, I'm able to work for five hours a day, four days a week, uninterrupted. What's hard is the brain competition (and the exhaustion, which hasn't gone away even now that Max is a toddler!). I'm constantly writing in my head, yet I'm also constantly thinking about Max, his meals, his naps, his sneakers that might be too small again, his vitamins, his development, his happiness, my utter love and devotion to this precious creature. Usually, Max-mind wins over plot-mind, and the next day, when I sit down to write, I have to spend a lot of time getting mentally back into the story.

AB: Do you feel more creative or less post-baby?

MS: Interesting question! I don't feel more or less creative, but I do feel much more tired. Before motherhood, I wrote until 2 a.m. Now I'm asleep by ten every night. The structure of my life is so different and it took a while to adapt, creatively speaking, to that structure.

I can't always "produce" when I have my sitter, and sometimes I'm bursting to write but can't because the sitter's gone and Max needs help putting Mr. Potato Head's arm in the little hole. I promised Max and myself that when I was there with him, I'd be there 100 percent. Max's very being inspires me so much that I get creative in his company. The expression on his face when he understands that a word and object go together. His love of chocolate AND parsnips. His brown eyes. His sense of wonder. Everything is new to him. It's been said before, but when you look at life through the eyes of a 19-month-old, you start smelling the roses because he does. Ah, a calm whirlwind. How's that for an oxymoron?

AB: What's next for you?

MS: My third novel, Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?, will be published in December. It's a spin-off of See Jane Date, about Jane's best friend, Eloise, and her crazy wedding plans, which lead her to examine what family life means. I also contributed a short story for a chick-lit anthology, American Girls About Town, which will be published early next year. I've just started working on my fourth book. Now that I'm a newlywed -- I got married last Labor Day weekend -- guess what the new book will be about?

Andrea J. Buchanan is a writer living in Philadelphia. In addition to her latest book, The Double-Daring Book For Girls (HarperCollins), she is the author of the New York Times bestselling The Daring Book For Girls, The Pocket Daring Book For Girls: Things To Do, and The Pocket Daring Book For Girls: Wisdom and Wonder along with Miriam Peskowitz. She is also the author of Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It (Seal Press) and the editor of three anthologies: It’s a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons; Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined; and It’s a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters (all from Seal Press). Before becoming a writer, Andi was a classical pianist; she studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music, where she earned her bachelor of music degree, and continued her graduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory, earning a master’s degree in piano performance. Her last recital was at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. She is the mother of a daughter and a son, both of whom are equally daring.

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