Caitlin Shetterly is the author of Modified: GMOs and the Threat to Our Food, Our Land, Our Future and Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home, and the editor of the bestselling anthology Faultlines: Stories of Divorce. Shetterly's work has been featured in The New York Times, Medium, and Elle, and on National Public Radio and the Public Radio International program This American Life. She lives in Maine with her husband and two sons and will be speaking at The Real Truth About Health conference in New York in late January. Senior Editor and Literary Reflections Editor Andrea Lani joined Shetterly at a coffee shop last fall to talk about writing and motherhood.
Andrea Lani: Since this is Literary Mama, I want to start by talking about your mother. I'm a big fan of Susan Hand Shetterly (whose latest book, Seaweed Chronicles, I'm really looking forward to reading), and as soon as I saw Modified, I knew you were the little Cait who appears in many of her early essays. What was it like to grow up as a character in your mom's writing, and how has that influenced how you write about your own kids?
Caitlin Shetterly: It was complicated being written about as a child. When your parent writes about you, there's a bizarre thing that happens that feels like ownership, like somehow your parent owns that story. Because they have more facility with language and more knowledge when they write, they get to tell their version of a story that may have been partially or completely your story. And that's hard.
I've tried to be really sensitive to that because I have two parents who are artists and I was sometimes the subject. I do the best I can to ask permission of my kids, and say to them, "Is this how you remember it?" If they don't remember it that way, I try to write something like, "I remember it this way, but if you ask him, he'll tell you he remembers it this way." And I do try to give anybody I write about the chance to refute what I write before it's published. For instance, with Made for You and Me, I sent my mother all the sections in which she'd been mentioned and I spent a lot of time looking over her thoughts about how I wrote about her. I wanted to give her the chance to point out subtle things that might chafe, as well as to correct facts I'd gotten wrong. In the end, I said "I'll address most of these," and I thanked her for telling me how she felt. It was important to give her the chance to have her say and it worked pretty well for both of us.
AL: In Made for You and Me you write, "Something lucky had happened to me when I became a mother. For the first time in my life I knew, unwaveringly, that I could do this job well." I love this statement because it's diametrically opposed to the message society sends us, that we need books, experts, and products in order to mother well. Now that a few years have gone by and you've had a second child, do you still feel this way?
CS: Sometimes I get a little rattled and I have to call a friend. But I do still feel I know intuitively what my kids need. I'm not a person who's read a ton of parenting books; I have a pretty strong gut feeling about both my kids. I don't want to say I'm a better mother than anybody else, because I don't think I am. But I do trust a lot of my choices as right. I make mistakes like everyone, but I'm really good at also talking about those mistakes with my kids. It's easy for me to say, "You know what? I probably shouldn't have handled that that way. What do you guys think?" I imagine for some people when they become parents it's not as intuitive, especially talking about mistakes. I have friends who've told me that the ease I feel seems lucky to them. I just feel lucky I have such great kids I can talk to.
AL: The theme of home comes up often in your essays and, obviously, in Made for You and Me. What does "home" mean to you and why is it so important to write about it?
CS: At this point, what I think of as home is the natural environment that I'm familiar with, and I'm extremely concerned that that natural environment is being threatened on a lot of levels, whether it's toxins or other threats to the water, the air, the land. For me, home is the dirt that I recognize the smell of—the dirt at the base of a white pine tree—the trees, the plants, and animals that are familiar to me. It's Maine and the northeast. I also think it's important to provide a stable home for kids, so nesting, making a safe place, is something I work hard at, with varying degrees of success. Home is an important concept and I've had to broaden my view from the smaller idea of a structure to the natural environment. And now it's all about protecting that world.
AL: Modified required a great deal of courage to write; you'd already been attacked for the article you'd published in Elle about the subject, and you had to interview people who have a strong interest in keeping the conversation around GMOs positive. In Made for You and Me, you laid bare your family's financial troubles, which took a different kind of bravery in a culture where people are so often valued based on their net worth. Can you tell us about where you find the courage to write honestly about difficult things?
CS: I don't know how to write any way other than really honest and open. I'm working on a novel now, though, if that gives you an answer as to whether I want to keep laying bare in quite the same way. Not that I don't want to again; it's just that it was really hard to write two books that exposed me so directly, and where I told so much of my world and my life, and put so much of myself into it. As you know, Modified is a journey story, and a travelogue, and a story about being a mother, and about being a woman, and about science, and about food. To make it do all those things and still be a book that people want to read and isn't boring took a lot of me being really open. That was hard. I felt super naked out there. If I publish this novel, I'll be interested to see if I have the same reaction.
But yeah, where do I get the courage? I think I'm just naturally a pretty courageous person—and I say that with full humility—in the sense that I'm willing to talk to anybody about anything, challenge difficult things, ask more of people, and bring things up that people are scared to bring up. I'll do that, whether it's in my marriage, or it's out in the world. I'm interested in difficult questions and I'm interested in human beings and I'm interested in the natural world. Right now I'm interested in the voiceless natural world and why people don't want to do things that seem complicated—like changing our agriculture or giving up our cell phones—but there actually does end up being an easy answer. We could reduce our carbon emissions to below where the climate models say they need to be with just a couple of easy things. It's like you choose your kids or you choose your 5G.
AL: In Modified you wrestle with many difficult truths about our food systems, our health, and our planet's future. At the end of the book, you write, "I was thinking about who's benefiting [from the use of genetically modified organisms and pesticides] and who will undoubtedly lose. And, newly pregnant with a second child, it was becoming clear to me that the losers will be our children." As a mom, I find a certain level of optimism about my children's future essential for daily functioning. How are you able to maintain hope for the future while researching and reporting sometimes terrifying information?
CS: This is why I'm not writing another nonfiction book. I couldn't do it emotionally. It was too hard for me. I had a proposal for a book about water and I realized I was hyperventilating thinking about it. I feel so deeply and keenly what's happening to the natural world and it upsets me so much. I feel as invested in saving plants and animals as I do my children. Maybe I'll write about that at some point. But the idea for this novel came to me in 1998 and I spent 20 years taking writing projects that gave me money rather than write this novel. I needed to be a person who didn't have this novel that for years I said I was going to do. I needed to tell my kids I had done it. It was a decision about finishing something that was hanging out there and also the fact that I'm not sure I can go back to environmental nonfiction right now because it hurts so much. It hurts so much.
That's why I'm writing fiction and why I want to go back in time. I sometimes lie in bed and I don't know what is going to happen to my kids. In 12 years, my youngest son is going to be 15 and my older son is going to be 21. We've got 12 years to get our climate emissions under control. So what do you tell your 15-year-old or your 21-year-old? "Don't go to college. Don't get married. Don't have children. Just forget it." Is that what I'm going to say? If I'm here, and I haven't gotten cancer like everybody else and died, is that what I'm going to say? Because it looks like nobody gives a shit.
AL: Are the themes of the natural world, climate change, and agriculture coming into your fiction?
CS: I'm writing about 2003, when we went into the second Gulf War, and I'm writing about a small town. It's a love story and a story about a tragic thing that happens to a girl. It's much more related to my feelings about being a woman and concerns I have about how the culture treats women and girls than anything else. But it's also about the political stuff that's happening at that time and the racism that comes up post-9/11.
AL: Despite these really difficult issues, you maintain a sense of humor in both Made for You and Me and Modified. In one you're going through a lot of personal crises and in the other you're addressing this planetary crisis, but still you make the reader laugh. How do you hang onto your sense of humor in troubled times?
CS: I love making people laugh. I grew up in a family where theatre and humor and quoting funny moments in Shakespeare or Monty Python was part of our daily vernacular; both my parents loved to be silly. I’ve inherited that, I think. I guess I feel that there is always humor, even if just in using oneself as the foil in a situation that is clearly dire. Human beings are innately funny and odd and silly and stupid and I love to laugh at myself and the world even as I try to dissect hard topics. Long before I moved home to Maine from New York City, and for a period when I first lived here again, I was more involved in theatre than writing. And in theatre there are always, even in heartbreaking drama, moments of absurdity. I think I’ve taken that into my own writing—I can be writing about heartbreaking subjects but allow for moments that are very funny or full of irony. I think it's ok—even preferable—to have funny and heart piercing next to each other. It makes the writing more textured, I believe, and more human.
AL: You write about food and cooking in both Made for You and Me and Modified. Financial constraints in one case and health issues in the other caused you to make most of your family's food from scratch. How do food and writing interplay in your life? Does the creativity of cooking feed your writing and vice versa? Or does feeding your family steal time from your other creative pursuits?
CS: Both. Let's say I'm home alone, shockingly, and I'm writing and I go to start some bread. I will think about that writing as I make that bread. So they do meld together. One of my favorite things to do is take a break from writing to cook and not feel like everything's on screech all day. I hate that feeling. I much prefer being able to write and then cook and think about things. So I think they're connected—they're both working with your hands. I also like to be able to feed my family healthy food. I like providing that and I don't want to buy anything in plastic anymore. We have to start making choices that aren't exactly easy for our lives to change things.
AL: I feel like I just discovered frozen pizza now that my kids are teenagers. I did all that making yogurt, baking bread—once I made corn flakes from scratch—when my kids were little, and now I'm like, "I don't ever want to cook again."
CS: I know the feeling. It happens to me on Saturdays in particular. I just can't make anything anymore. Some days it's really simple, like a bowl of rice, cold broccoli salad, and some tahini dressing.
AL: Sounds delicious. Cooking is just one aspect of family life that can be hard to balance with writing. How do you manage both motherhood and a writing career?
CS: I had a baby in the midst of writing Modified and I had to hire a nanny. We'd just gotten into the clear; my oldest son was five, then I got pregnant and had to write this book pregnant and puking the whole time. I never wanted the nanny to come before nine and I wanted her gone by three because I wanted my kids to myself. So that gave me six hours, and in the middle of that, I had to make lunch and put my younger son down for two naps. You can imagine how much writing time I got. I didn't want to do that anymore. I felt that this is too important. This is the only shot I get. So now I get up at five in the morning. That's how I wrote my novel, getting up at five, so that I could be mom when my kids got up. And that's how I continue, putting them first and trying to fold my writing in around the edges. I like it better than having childcare—I feel more in touch with my kids.