Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Conversation with Gail Konop Baker

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Gail Konop Baker was trying to sell a novel about a woman who finds a lump in her breast when she was diagnosed with breast cancer herself. Putting fiction aside, she started to pour her thoughts out into a piece that quickly became the seed of her popular Literary Mama column, Bare-breasted Mama. Gail's recently published book Cancer is a Bitch: (Or, I'd Rather be Having a Midlife Crisis) (Da Capo Press) is based on that column.

As Breast Cancer Awareness month ends, Literary Mama Senior Editor and Columnist Caroline Grant spoke with Baker about the "c-word," marriage, and writing about family without exposing too much.

CG: Let's start right with the title of your memoir, which is, depending on your perspective, refreshingly frank or way too in-your-face. Tell us how you came to it. How important was it to you to have a title this bold? Did you have to talk your publisher into it?

GKB: Right after lumpectomy, I began a journal and found I literally couldn't write about anything else but this experience. After months of writing, I sensed this was a powerful thing I'd written, perhaps the most powerful thing, so I wrote an essay based on the journal and called it "Cancer is a Bitch." I sent it to two writer friends and they both said, "This is intense and powerful and you have to so something with it, but change the title. It's your face."

A few weeks later, I found out that Literary Mama was looking for columnists, so I broke the essay up into shorter pieces and pitched it as a column with the place-holder title, "Pink Ribbon." When the editor, Marjorie Osterhout, offered me the column, we came up with the name Bare-breasted Mama. "Cancer is a bitch" is a phrase in the first column and I loved Marjorie for not censoring me. All of the columns were raw and almost uncomfortably honest, even for me, but readers responded so I kept writing them that way.

A few months after I started writing for Literary Mama, I approached my current agent, Larry Weissman, and told him that I was thinking about spinning my columns into a book. The idea of writing about this topic for the length of a whole book absolutely petrified me, but I remembered Grace Paley once said something like, "Write what you're afraid to write." So I did.

When we were putting the final touches on the proposal, the question of the title came up. I offered dozens. Beyond Clean Margins (a surgical term) is one I remember. Nobody liked that. When it seemed we'd exhausted all possibilities, my agent said, "How about Cancer is a Bitch?" I had to laugh and when I told him the story of the original essay title he said, "It's perfect." He also said not to worry because the publisher will likely change it anyway.

I agreed even though it made me a little uncomfortable. I didn't worry, though, because I was certain it would be changed. It turned out that the editor who bought the book loved the title.

CG: What's it like for you to have authored a book with such a bold title? How have people reacted to it?

GKB: After it sold and people would ask me the title, I'd find myself half mumbling it or even whispering it in their ears or spelling out the word b-i-t-c-h. I cleared a table of adults at a Bar Mitzvah once. I shocked neighbors and friends and little old men. I had to tell my son (who is very proud I am an author) not to tell his friends the name of the book.

Recently, though, I've had another response. At two different writer's conferences, people were coming up to me and thanking me for the title. One woman, who'd had her own brush with cancer, said it made her feel empowered. It is what it is, she said, and thank you for putting it out there. I finally saw the beauty in the title: that it's a statement beyond my own personal experience. It speaks to what I was trying to do in the book: make a broader statement about cancer. So lately I've been trying to own the title, embrace it even and not mumble it when people ask. I find, people don't cringe or walk away. They nod and smile and almost immediately share some personal story about one of their friends or relatives or their own fears.

I often wonder if it's the Cancer or the Bitch that makes people most uncomfortable. In any case, I will keep talking about it to de-stigmatize, to normalize, to humanize, to restore some dignity to those living with the label.

CG: Your column on Literary Mama was enormously popular with readers. What was the impact of their comments on you and on your writing? Were you thinking of writing a memoir when you began the column, or was reader response a factor?

GKB: No, I did not think about writing a memoir until I was many months into the column. I'd barely thought about writing the column since it all happened so fast. Yes, it was the soulful responses from the readers that not only kept me writing month after month even though it was very painful, but made me wonder if I could write a book. Even after I'd sold the book, I questioned whether I could keep writing about this subject. It was hard because while most people would probably have been putting the trauma behind them, I was recreating it in excruciating detail on the page.

CG: Your first Literary Mama column ran in October 2006, within a year of your cancer diagnosis. Your book is coming out less than two years later. In that time, you've sent your eldest daughter to college, got the second through high school, guided a son through middle school, run a couple half-marathons. How did you manage to write the book at all, let alone so quickly? How do you juggle writing and parenting?

GKB: Honestly, I'm not sure how I did any of it except to say that the diagnosis infused me with such a sense of urgency that I don't waste as much time thinking about whether I should do something. I don't hesitate or second-guess myself or talk myself out of doing what I want to do.

The book poured out of me in such a flood I could hardly type fast enough, partly because I felt that if I didn't get the words out on the page, they would either choke or consume me and partly because, subconsciously, I think I wanted to get to the revising and polishing part to feel more in control of what happened.

Although I am working more than I ever have -- my husband would say I work 24/7 but that's a slight exaggeration! -- I do still have time for my family and friends. Plus my kids are also growing up. My "baby" is in middle school, and my husband finally, finally understands that this "writing thing" I've been doing is actually a job.

CG: You make a powerful point in your book, not just about the impact parenting has on your life, but also on your marriage. Writing is often not the job we had before we became parents. It's a new role for many mother-writers, and until we get paid for it -- and sometimes not even then -- it may not be recognized by our partners as an important role. It's a real negotiation.

GKB: My marriage has changed dramatically since my diagnosis and my writing about it. The power that shifted after I gave birth to our oldest, because I stopped working, stopped contributing an income to our household, has starting re-shifting now that my family can see the impact of the work that I do.

So it's a little easier for me to carve out time and space in my life without feeling as guilty. This is something I didn't do very well before my diagnosis, and regret. I urge all women to do it now! This is a message I hope women get from my memoir: Don't wait for a diagnosis to live the life you want to live, to be your most amazing self every day of your life.

When I'm really busy and can't make a great dinner or I tell my children, "In a minute!" which is often now, I remind myself that it is equally important for them to see me as a role model, to show them that women can mother and accomplish their goals. Although not necessarily at the same time. Keep in mind, it took me more than twenty years of writing to launch my career. So I guess I feel less guilty because I feel like I devoted decades to my family and it's been a long time coming.

Did I mention that my house is messier now and I don't volunteer much and I'm much better at saying no to things I don't want to do?

CG: Literary Mama columnists and nonfiction contributors think a lot about whether or not to use pseudonyms - for themselves or their families. You chose to use pseudonyms for your husband and kids in your memoir - and yet you dedicate the book to them with their real names. Can you speak a bit about how you made this decision, and how your family members feel about your writing?

GKB: I know that seems contradictory. I guess as I wrote the columns and the memoir, I felt very protective of their privacy. It's a very fine balancing act, to tell the truth, to include the most interesting details and not hurt or alienate the people in your life. That's one thing that makes writing memoirs a challenge in ways that writing fiction wasn't. I always showed my columns and the book manuscript drafts to my husband and daughters first just to make sure they were okay with what I was sharing. They never objected.

I used their names in the dedication because when I sat down to write it, I felt that I needed to acknowledge them as the real flesh and blood people who supported and inspired me. It just came out that way and when I showed my husband (who is the more paranoid one about privacy than I am) he teared up and said, "It's okay. Use our names." As for how my family feels about me writing about them, I think they've gotten used to it and they trust that I'm not out to humiliate them. Mostly I think they're just really proud.

CG: Which writers inspire you?

GKB: My list goes back to my fiction and poetry roots. The first books that made me want to be a writer were Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Breakfast of Champions and Anna Karenina. Later, I fell in love with Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Grace Paley. There are so many others, like Ralph Waldo Emerson -- his words took the top off of my head!.

After I started writing the columns and was trying to transition from fiction to nonfiction, I revisited Operating Instructions and reread The Year of Magical Thinking which I'd read just before my diagnosis. That was the kind of writing I was aspiring to.

CG: Where do you find the most support of your writing life?

GKB: The Literary Mama columnists. Being a Literary Mama columnist was perhaps one of my most inspiring times as a writer. The synergy of that amazing group of female writers not only encouraged me but pushed me to be a better writer than I ever thought I could be. Since then, I have my amazingly brilliant agent and his wife, two of the best readers and editors I have ever encountered. There are also the novelists Kristy Kiernan and Lolly Winston. My family supports me by taking my writing career seriously and giving me the space and time to write.

CG: Who or what inspires you as a mother?

GKB: My kids are my greatest inspiration for mothering and living. I'm encouraged by what wonderful and amazing human beings they have become and feel beyond grateful to have been witness to their emotional and spiritual growth and to have shared laughter and tears with them. Now that they're older, it's so fun to have conversations with them about movies and books and philosophy and politics. They are all intense and spirited and opinionated, and I wouldn't want them any other way.

CG: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What really happens when you sit down at the desk and begin to write?

I have a whole yoga/prayer ritual that I describe in the book, and that always ends with me asking for the mojo. Then I sit down to my document and usually start rereading a page or two from the day before to get me back in the same voice and rhythm and frame of mind. Once I'm in it, I'm not really thinking so much anymore. I'm just moving my fingers across the keyboard and relieving myself of that heavy feeling in my sternum, those thoughts and feelings that feel as if they will choke me if I don't get them out this very moment. For me the thinking part of writing happens all day and all night so when I sit down to write I'm not really thinking.

Now, that's when it's going well, when I can find the zone without much effort. I probably don't have to tell you it isn't always that way. In fact some days it isn't working at all. Some days I think I have nothing left to say, and I force myself to write something I end up throwing away. I don't like those days, but they happen.

When I'm revising it's slightly different. I could easily spend hours turning a phrase, flipping it back and forth or rearranging a sentence or looking for the right word. I actually really enjoy that part of writing.

CG: You started blogging recently. Where does blogging fit in - or not! - to your writing process?

GKB: I'm going to be honest: I am a very lame blogger. In fact my latest post is about that because I like to be up front about my flaws. That said, I think blogging is a skill I haven't acquired yet. I started off excited and enthusiastic but lately with more demands on my time I've found it feeling like a pressure. I imagine I'm standing in front of this enormous group of people who are waiting for me to be spontaneously witty and wise. I know. I know. That's all in my head. Now my group blog, The Debutante Ball, was a little different since it was only once a week and we had topics.

One more thing, and this at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, the more I hook into the blog and internet world, the less focus I have for reading and writing. That's why the writing hut that I describe in my book, which my husband built for me as a gift, is so great -- no Internet access.

CG: What are you looking forward to most as your memoir starts making its way to readers? Is there anything you're dreading?

GKB: Connecting with readers and aspiring writers is what it's all about. I had a taste of that with the Literary Mama column and another taste of it at two conferences recently where people told me how I'd touched and inspired them.

Anything I'm dreading? A few months ago I was sort of... not so much dreading... but worrying that I would find it emotionally difficult to keep talking about this topic, or even tell people the name of my book, as I said earlier. I'm learning to own and embrace the book, the label, the title, the path I have chosen. When people tell me that I have articulated the feelings and thoughts they couldn't articulate, it's more than worthwhile.

CG: What would you like to write next? Are you returning to fiction, or will you offer us more memoir?

GKB: I am currently working on another memoir now called Anatomy of a Marriage with the tagline: Sex Love Sex Sex Work Sex Nest Sex Kids Money Work Exhaustion Sex Money Work Boredom Temptation Baggage Trauma Regret Obligatory Sex Frustration Was That Sex? Temptation Re-negotiation... or Bust.

At this moment, I'm in the process of writing another proposal. As for fiction, I have not written fiction since my diagnosis. None. Initially I think it was because I needed to ground myself in this life to keep reminding myself why it mattered to be here. Writing about my life opened my eyes to my life. It also taught me to be more compassionate about others since writing about them required that. Now I find that I have so many stories to tell and that the world I live in is full of so much rich detail that I want to explore and share. Lately, I've been writing about old loves, like the jazz loving, park ranger, wanna-be-writer boyfriend of mine who lived with his used car-selling dad and his two-timing girlfriend in an unheated farmhouse. Or the biology professor who conducted bio-feedback research using floating tanks and me as a subject and only ate saut�ed onions in the nude. See what I'm talking about? Why make stuff up?

Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.

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