Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Jessica Warman

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Jessica Warman, 28-year-old mother of two girls, ages 4 and 2, published her first novel, Breathless, in August. This young adult novel centers on Katie, a teenaged Olympic-bound swimmer whose parents ship her off to an exclusive boarding school as a respite from her older brother Will, who is schizophrenic. Will doesn't want to let Katie go, and so he becomes the heavy secret Katie must keep from her new school friends.

Katie's story is, in many ways, Warman's story. As a marathon runner, she studied at prep school and Yale, and holds an MA in creative writing. She also has a very complicated relationship with her brother. Her poetry and short stories have been published in Sundress Publications' Stirring: A Literary Collection, Stickman Review, Penguin Political, and Redivider. Former Literary Mama columnist Deesha Philyaw chatted with Warman in their hometown of Pittsburgh about Breathless, writing while mothering, her brother, and her forthcoming novels.

Deesha Philyaw: Breathless is a young adult novel, but it definitely held my interest as an adult reader. Was it your intention to press the boundary of these categories?

Jessica Warman: Yes and no. I wrote the first draft when I was 18, right after graduating from high school. Believe it or not, the first few drafts were much 'edgier,' mostly because there was a lot of material that was fit for an adult novel, and then it got cut when the book sold to a YA publisher. On the other hand, I will say that my perspective changed drastically from the first draft to the finished product. On and off, I worked on it for almost ten years. So in that time, I went from being a high school student, to a married graduate student, to a mother of two young girls. In that way, even as I was working on it as a YA novel (after it had been sold), I had gained the perspective of an adult, which I think adds a lot of extra depth to the book.

DP: Did you work on Breathless much as a graduate student? Even though your degree is in creative writing, did your grad program contribute to the book's evolution to its final version?

JW: It was as a graduate student that I first took a new, hard look at Breathless and its possibilities as a novel. I think this was because I became a mother in grad school, and I had an entirely new appreciation of Katie's parents, who are essentially my own parents. Beyond that, I had the guidance of my professors as I worked to find an agent for the book. But I eventually put it aside to work on my thesis, which was a much darker novel.

DP: As a semi-autobiographical work, your book of course makes a reader wonder, "How much of this is true?" which begs the next question, "What do her family and friends think?" What has been the reaction to the book, amongst those closest to you?

JW: My parents have read the book, along with many of my close friends, and overall the reaction has been positive. My mother said to me, "Well, even though some parts are exaggerated, it's all true, and I don't think anyone should have a problem with that." As far as exaggeration and fictionalization -- specifically, I was not that great of a swimmer, but I knew enough about it to make it Katie's sport, and it seemed like the best fit for the story, metaphorically. I also held some events up to somewhat of a funhouse mirror because some things were just too painful to discuss as they really happened. But I'd say that the book is 80% fact, 20% creative license. Just because certain events are different, or certain conversations aren't taken verbatim from real life, doesn't necessarily alter the truth at the core of the experiences.

DP: Not only did I find Breathless a wonderful read in general, but as a mother-writer myself, I was also impressed that you wrote it while caring for your very young daughters. What was the process of writing while mothering like for you?

JW: It's definitely a labor of love. Late nights, stolen snippets of time while the kids are napping . . . and some very good babysitters! But I must say, I'm so glad the book went YA rather than adult, because I don't know that I'd ever feel comfortable with my daughters someday reading an adult version of the same story. As you know, becoming a mother changes your perspective on life so drastically. I look back on some of the things I did and went through in high school, and I absolutely cringe because I know that my daughters will inevitably confront the same issues during adolescence. Hopefully, my work as a YA writer won't totally alienate me from them when they reach those ages . . . fingers crossed!

DP: What advice do you have for mothers who write -- or who want to write -- but are struggling to balance the writing and the mothering?

JW: It's definitely difficult. Nobody can explain how tough it is to be a mom until a person experiences it for themselves. I will say that having some outside care -- babysitters, part-time day-care, whatever -- to pursue my creative outlets was crucial, both for my sanity and for the well-being of my kids. Carl Jung said that the most dangerous thing for a child to have is an unfulfilled mother. Maybe a bit of a broad statement, but I certainly understand his point!

DP: What was the most difficult part of writing Breathless?

JW: Definitely the storyline of Katie's family, specifically her brother, for reasons that are likely obvious. I was Katie -- I still am, in lots of ways. And I have a brother, and I love him to pieces, but things will never be the way I want them to be between us. There isn't a day that goes by when that doesn't hurt.

DP: What writers do you admire?

JW: David Foster Wallace is my absolute favorite writer of all time. If you haven't read any of his work, I'm begging you to go out and do so! Also J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Dave Eggers and Emily Brontë. Wuthering Heights is her only novel, and it just doesn't get more romantic than her story of Heathcliff and Cathy. I've read it at least twenty times.

DP: I notice that there aren't any mother-writers on that list. Are there mother-writers whose work resonates with you, or with whom you identify creatively, personally, professionally?

JW: After my first daughter was born, I suffered from severe postpartum depression, and found Faulkner Fox's book, Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life, to be TREMENDOUSLY helpful in dealing with the overwhelming and new aspects of motherhood. I also loved Jennifer Weiner's Goodnight Nobody. The title alone sucked me in (I can't count the number of times I've read Goodnight Moon to my girls!), and to watch her combine wit and humor with the very real issues of balancing adult life, marriage, etc., with motherhood was amazing. She did it masterfully, in my opinion. Beyond that, as a feminist I've always loved The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and of course The Awakening.

DP: What were your favorite YA/childhood books and authors?

JW: As a teen, my favorite book was Catcher in the Rye. I used to have passages of it memorized. I also loved A Separate Peace. Boarding school books! There's something so mysterious and magical about growing up surrounded by your peers 24/7... it has always fascinated me.

DP: What's next for you, in terms of writing?

JW: I'll be promoting Breathless this fall in schools and bookstores, and I'm currently finishing up the final draft of my second novel, Nobody's Babies, which is a kind of follow-up to Breathless with some crossover characters and content. I'm also working on a third book, called Consumption. It's a YA thriller about a girl who wakes up in the middle of the night on her family's yacht, wanders outside to investigate a thumping against the boat, and discovers . . . her own body, dead in the water.

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2020.

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