Natalie Serber’s first short story collection, Shout Her Lovely Name, was named one of the “100 Notable Books of 2012” by The New York Times. Her stories have appeared in literary journals including Bellingham Review, Gulf Coast and Hunger Mountain; her nonfiction has been published on The Rumpus and Culinate, among others. She has an MFA from Warren Wilson College and has received awards including the Tobias Wolff Award. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon, where she teaches fiction writing.
In a conversation with Lisa Lynne Lewis, Serber talks about her obsessions, the mothers and daughters who populate her stories, and why she defines herself as “motherwifewriter.”
Lisa Lynne Lewis: Writing the stories in Shout Her Lovely Name took place over a period of many years, while you were raising your two children. What’s it like to be at this point, with your youngest child now off at college and your first book out in the world?
Natalie Serber: It’s really exciting! When I was raising my kids I did very little working outside the house. I didn’t have the experience of having an identity crisis when they left home; I had the experience of stepping into something big and fun.
My identity crisis was when my kids were little and I was trying to carve out time to write. I thought, “How can I be this creative person and be present for my children and my family?” At that point, I didn’t have any “proof,” just rejection letters. Sometimes, I’d get up at 4 or 5 a.m. to write. I also started writing in the parking lot of my kids’ preschool and in cafes.
When my kids were super little and I was really frazzled, I went to hear Grace Paley give a talk at the library. I remember standing in the back because I was late. I asked her how she navigated being a mother and a writer, and she said that she bought a playpen and climbed in it to write while her kids played in the living room. The way I interpreted it is that you can’t need a sacred space or a sacred block of time — you have to just grab it where you can.
LLL: Now the mix includes teaching and also promoting your book. It sounds like there’s still a fair amount of balancing involved!
NS: I try to set aside three to four hours a day to write. I go to the local college library, where I have no Internet access. I try to go six days a week.
However, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to take a break and come back. Sometimes life intervenes. For instance, I got a call from my daughter the other night: She’d lost her photo ID, been bitten by a cat, and bounced a check. I couldn’t say, “Oh honey, I’m writing right now.”
When my editor asked me to create an online profile, including a Facebook bio, I struggled with how I was going to define myself. Finally, I put “motherwifewriter.” I really grappled with that, but for me, “mother” comes first. I feel so lucky to be ensconced in this messy family of mine.
LLL: Most of the stories in your book center on the relationship between Ruby, a single mother, and Nora, her daughter. As you wrote these stories over a period of several years, how did your understanding of them evolve?
NS: That’s a really interesting question, because it did change over time. The first story I wrote about them isn’t even in the collection.
The earliest stories I wrote were from Nora’s point of view, and then I came back around and wrote the Ruby stories. I wanted Ruby’s experience to be known so it would add depth to her and understanding from the readers’ point of view.
Over time, my vision of the characters deepened, which was reflected in the revisions. You can’t judge your characters; you have to show them in the most well-rounded way.
LLL: Did you always envision that writing about Ruby and Nora would be in the form of linked stories?
NS: I wrote a lot of the stories in grad school and thought I would just write about the two of them. And then I was working on the stories, and some were going really well and some weren’t going well at all. I was also getting frustrated because I kept hearing how hard it is to sell a collection.
I set them aside and started working on a novel. I think that experience helped my stories get a little longer and changed how messy I was willing to let a story get.
When I got attention from an agent for a story that had been published, I sent her everything. She contacted me in June of 2011; we met that summer and worked on the collection until November. My editor later asked for one more story, so I wrote “Rate My Life” [the last story about Ruby and Nora in the book]. I hadn’t written about them for so long, but I slipped into their lives so easily and it felt exhilarating.
LLL: Do you think there will be any additional stories about Ruby and Nora?
NS: I’m back to the novel now. I left Nora at a place where I could easily return, though. I’m most interested in women in places of transition, both physical and emotional.
LLL: Which stories in the collection have generated the most response?
NS: The biggest response has been to the character of Ruby. A lot of people have written to me about her, and I’ve had reviewers talk about her. She’s big-hearted and selfish at the same time; she gets in her own way. Sometimes the choices she makes are cringe-worthy, but the reader roots for her and adores her. She buys a gold bikini to wear to rehab! People have really responded to her.
It could be because we follow her life for a long time in the collection. There’s a lot at stake; her actions reverberate.
LLL: One of the stories in your collection, “Take Your Daughter to Work,” centers on Ruby’s role as a teacher and the dramatic way she ends up helping one of her students who is having a miscarriage. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that story came about?
NS: I wrote that story a million times. It had so many different endings and crises! I knew I wanted to give Ruby a place to be successful. What unlocked that story for me were the girls’ journals that they write for class. The story deals with the vulnerabilities of young women, set against the burgeoning feminism and women’s liberation that Ruby was starting to embrace. For me, that opened up the story in a big way.
Ruby manages to get the girl to the hospital and makes sure she’s going to be OK. She’s a role model even though she still left her daughter at home alone and at risk a little bit. I feel like it’s really true to her character.
LLL: The title story and the last story both paint very detailed, poignant pictures of the struggles between a mother and her teenage daughter. In both stories, there is a sense of reconciliation at the end, of the mother finding a way to reconnect with her daughter. Is this something that’s mirrored your own experience?
NS: The stories are really about parental fear: how even in our best efforts, as parents we can’t control what happens. We’re not in charge. That fear is palpable for me. The stories are also about learning to trust and learning to let go. Being a parent is putting your heart on the outside of your body, or even on the outside of your child’s body, and then they’ve taken it to a keg party.
When I wrote “Developmental Blah Blah,” I knew I wanted it to be the end of the book. The final moment in the story is when Cassie is looking at her daughter and isn’t sure whether she said: “I love you” or “Fuck you.” It’s about that balance, where one moment you’re full of pride and the next minute you’re fully exasperated. It’s very volatile with love and rejection. I believe the reconciliation and the love is there, and we have to focus on that.
LLL: Your stories have such a strong recurring theme of mother-daughter relationships. Do you envision writing about mother-son relationships at some point?
NS: I’m a little bit more familiar with teenage girls, having been one and having had one. I’m very interested in the moment of power and vulnerability. Teenage girls are more aware of their vulnerability, so the risk is big. We don’t get to pick our obsessions, and that is more my obsession. It certainly doesn’t reflect any lack of love or interest in my son’s experience.
My mom was a single mom — I’m an only child — and that [dynamic] really is fascinating to me. Being with my children and having them grow certainly made me re-examine my mother and my experience with her. I have a more empathic experience of my own mother as I get older. When my mother left home, she went off to college but she ended up a young single mother. Now, I look back at my mother and feel so compassionate. She had to make some tough choices.
LLL: What do you hope readers take away from reading your stories?
NS: When I was writing the stories I was really interested in the inter-generational play of how our choices as parents affect our children, and how children affect parents.
I had in mind a young woman as the reader for the Ruby and Nora stories, and I hoped these would help her be less hard on herself. Being a young woman was hard for me. I remember reading a lot of Deborah Eisenberg, Ellen Gilchrist, Carol Shields, and Antonya Nelson. They write without judgment about young women and women at different phases in their lives. I hope that I touch on that humanity.
I got a note from a woman in Canada that Cassie [the mother in the final story] made her feel less alone, Cassie loves her daughter to pieces, with every molecule, but also feels anger and anguish and frustration. The fact that my writing could make someone feel less alone is the most wonderful and gratifying thing.
Another woman told me she read the title story in the book and she called her mom and said, “I had no idea I put you through that; I am so sorry.” That really touched me in a deeper way.
LLL: What are you working on now?
NS: My novel is set in Boring, Oregon. The mother and father have made a choice to live in a small town, thinking it will be in the best interest of their twin girls, who are 14. The mother is coming out of a health crisis and is trying to create a sense of security in the family. She’s a bit of a worrier while the father is more lackadaisical.
It’s actually a funny story: The girls are in middle school and make some surprising and crazy choices as part of individuating from the family and from one another. I have a full draft and am revising it right now.
The theme — my obsession, really — is how in a family we behave in our best and worst ways, how we have the potential to do damage and to heal.