Published on June 5th, 2023 | by Ann Guy1
Juggling Apples and the Struggle for Personhood: An Interview with Kelly McMasters
Kelly McMasters is an essayist, professor of creative writing, and solo mom whose new memoir in essays, The Leaving Season (Norton, 2023), traces her path into and out of her marriage, a bookshop, and rural Pennsylvania. The book spans almost twenty years of McMaster’s life, opening in 1999 in New York City—where she is at Ground Zero a few years later when the second plane hits the South Tower, an experience she recounts in visceral detail—and closing in 2018 in Long Island. In recounting the sea changes that happen during this period, her narrative voice is controlled, insightful, and acutely observant. She notices everything from the pregnant woman standing in line for the payphone while the World Trade Center burns to the grainy texture of an orphan cow’s tongue as it pulls at her fingers, and reading this book felt like all of my senses had been sharpened—the side effect of reading exquisitely rendered stories from a skilled writer.
McMasters wrote her first book Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town while freelancing, teaching writing classes, and planning her wedding. She co-edited and contributed to the anthology This is the Place: Women Writing About Home as her marriage was ending and she was settling into a new home, job, and life as a single mother. Finally, while working towards tenure at Hofstra University, navigating the COVID pandemic, and continuing to parent as a single mother, she co-edited another anthology called Wanting: Women Writing About Desire. Simultaneously, she completed work on The Leaving Season.
As a writer and parent of two young kids myself, I wondered whether motherhood complicated or enriched her writing practice. Whether her creative life challenged or buoyed up the other areas of her life. What her secret was for balancing her work, writing, and family life through the vicissitudes of life. She and I spoke about these topics and more on a video call prior to the release of The Leaving Season. – Ann Guy
AG: This essay collection spans two decades of your life, during which you were writing and co-editing other books, essays, and a monthly column about your bookstore for The Paris Review. What did you think this book would be about when you set out to write it, and what do you think it’s about now?
KM: Originally, I thought that it was about isolation and anxiety. Mothering was not a focus in the first iteration, but I was surprised at how much I wanted to write about it. I’ve described myself as a reluctant mother, yet it has been the most transformative experience of my life. It changed the way I look at my own mother, and it changed me in terms of the secrets I’ve had to hold from my children—the way that those are doled out, how the heartbreak of the world comes through the stories that I tell them, and what I can control about that heartbreak. It has given me new perspective on what I thought I understood. In my personal essay classes, I often tell my students that to be a writer, you have to be a liar and a thief to yourself and to others—in the best possible way. Similarly, to be a good mother, you have to be a liar and a thief. Now I think the book is about identity and place and the way they intersect. It’s about the struggle for personhood. About the subversion of expectations. For a long time, I tried to do everything right, do what I thought I was supposed to do and what other people wanted me to do. It was only when I started to ask myself what I wanted, that I was able to really begin to take agency. At the end of the book, I’m just beginning to understand these things.
AG: I see this turning point in “The Bookshop: A Love Story.” The narrator turns away from what shrinks her and turns towards possibility. Towards herself. It means closing her bookshop, and opening another chapter of her life. This essay occurs almost exactly in the middle of the book.
KM: Yes, for me that is absolutely the center of everything. It was a room of transformation in a very painful, but necessary way.
AG: The importance of place comes through. In “The Ghost in the Hills,” you talk about heterotopias—places with their own norms of behavior that exist in real space but cannot be mapped—and how an outsider to a heterotopia can see more clearly, can separate what is “me” from what is “not me.” And when someone enters that space and becomes part of it, the border blurs. In the rural community where you lived for a time, you seemed to both want to be part of it and not. What was enticing about being on the inside or the outside?
KM: While I was at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts writing residency, I was talking with two artists about that term heterotopia and I started reading everything that I could about it. The insider has one experience of a place and the interloper has a completely different experience. I wanted to understand why I was drawn to this place and these people and who I became while I was there. I think I was trying to get out of the in-between space where I would never fit in, which is incredibly fruitful for a writer, but as a person it’s deeply uncomfortable. My desire to fit in was interesting to interrogate. Finding beauty in that dead cat strung up in the tree was a moment where I almost didn’t recognize myself. Everyone probably has an experience where they don’t recognize themselves. Usually it happens in the midst of trauma where you can’t even attempt to curate yourself. It can happen in motherhood. I tried not to make this essay overtly political, but the political part is that I was in this place during the Trump presidency and I had love for these people and yet they’re hanging up Confederate flags. It’s complicated. The beauty is real, the ugliness is real, and I don’t want to erase either.
AG: Did your identity as a writer influence whether you wanted to be in or out?
KM: It did. I had to climb back out of myself, out of that place, to find critical distance. I do this in almost every essay in the book. Even the reprinted ones are revised. I’ve gone back and done a lot of research and reporting. It’s a very strange experience to research and report on your former self, ask what other people thought was happening, and think about what you thought you were hiding. I don’t think I could have written it while I was still inside.
AG: Home in this collection feels like an idea more than a specific place. You found home in your communities—the bookshop, old friends, and your children. What communities create home now?
KM: I’m glad that the children come across as a safe community. I was writing and revising this during the pandemic, and we stayed remote from school for an entire calendar year. Our world became just the three of us, and in some ways it was the most beautiful time of my life. I miss that. Community is based on having a similar understanding, and that’s how I find my people. Now I live in the suburbs, which are designed to avoid commingling. Here, I find my people by looking at who’s reading books. I have two book clubs right now. I also have a strong community of solo parents, which has been a surprise.
AG: Speaking of children… there was so much happening in your life when you were writing your books and co-editing the anthologies. How did you find the time to write while rehabbing an 1860s colonial house, navigating a turbulent marriage, taking care of young kids, working towards tenure, and so on?
KM: I’m going to blame this on my dad with his weird advice like you don’t need to get married. He came from a very conservative family, so I don’t know where he got his way of thinking. But I’m very grateful. When I was growing up, he would always tell me you’re never going to be the prettiest, the smartest, or the richest. But you can work harder than everyone else. I’m very grateful for that backbone of values, because I’ve always had work to rely on. In times of tumultuous personal reckonings, it’s how I cope. Luckily I’m a writer so my work helps me process. When I was editing the first anthology about the concept of home during a time when I was completely blown apart about the idea of home, spending time on it didn’t feel like work. It felt like selfishness to be able to talk to these writers, ask people to think about these things, and think alongside them. Still, it’s like an apron filled with lots of apples that are always falling out, and I’m always trying to keep them in. If work is going well, I have no personal life. If mothering is going well, my work is suffering. The apples are never all safely in the apron. When I’m flailing, though, I trust my ability to work the most, so I do that.
AG: So you found time to write by accepting that the apples were never all going to be in the apron at the same time.
KM: Yes. Somebody told me to celebrate when you run out of toilet paper, because it means you’re concentrating on other things. For me, I’d rather have a happy house than a clean house. Every hour is about choosing.
AG: It’s challenging to be a parent and maintain a writing practice, but have you ever found benefits from doing-double duty as a writer and a parent?
KM: When my kids were in elementary school, I was always in my car waiting for pick up or drop off. I would cherish those moments because I could read and read and read. With writing, I remember those awful days when I was seething, waiting for them to go to sleep so I could get back to work. Back then, 10pm to 1am was my time. Now, my writing time has become 5am to 6am. For a long time, I thought about it as very selfish time, so when I was writing the monthly column about my bookstore, having an editor give me a deadline and a paycheck was an affirmation that the time I spent writing and the product of that time was valuable. Parenting is the most important work of my life—I still go from one bed to the next and read to them every night—but I could never translate that into something that our culture values or pays me for. Being a professor is difficult, but I’m lucky because it’s one of the only full-time jobs I can have as a single parent. I probably work more hours than a typical full-time job, but I can work late at night.
AG: In “The Stone Boat,” you consider the line between artistic expression and exploitation that parent artists grapple with when their children appear in their art. You describe a situation where your children’s father painted a portrait of them that you felt exposed too much. You write that in your own work, “I tell myself I’ve taken care to cover my children’s bodies here on these pages.” I agree—your kids don’t seem unprotected in these essays. It’s like they’re held up in a snow globe and it’s beautiful. How and where do you draw the line?
KM: In that essay, more than anything else I’ve ever written, I had to think line by line where I was drawing boundaries. Usually it comes more naturally when I’m cataloguing moments of beauty or closeness, but when I’m cataloguing pain or something they might not remember, the rules change. Ultimately this is art, and what is in service to the story is very important, but these are my living, breathing children. It’s very important to me to protect them. Craft-wise, I never want to inhabit their brains or bodies, because even though mothers’ and children’s identities are intertwined, I don’t really know what they’re thinking. It’s important that they have agency on the page. In my classroom, I talk about the situation and the story, from Vivian Gornick’s book. The situation is what’s happening, and the story is what it all means. My kids may be part of the situation, but they are never the story. In that way, I can control the spotlight and make sure they’re safe. We’ve talked about everything that’s in these pages, not as a writer and a subject, but as a mother and a child. I want them to know what happened. I want to be able to have these conversations with my children in a child-appropriate way. Going through the CPS process is grueling as a parent, and including the situation was in service to that story, which I couldn’t achieve without including my kids. I hope when they’re older and read that, they will understand that the story is greater than us. But there’s nothing in this book that they should feel ashamed about, including the fact that they were involved in a CPS case.
AG: Writers always open themselves up to criticism when their work goes out. Writers of nonfiction who write about motherhood seem particularly vulnerable. For example, when Rachel Cusk published her memoir A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother twenty years ago, some reviews called her a bad mother, a bore, a pretentious intellectual, etc. It seems less fraught to write about children from a fiction standpoint. You can write the most horrific things in fiction and no one blinks. Are you ever tempted to switch genres?
KM: I wish. But I am a terrible fiction writer. With my first book, Welcome to Shirley, I was a 20-something kid going up against the Department of Defense. I thought about fictionalizing that book out of fear. I also thought about fictionalizing some of the essays in this book out of fear. But when fiction is fear-based, it feels false. In grad school, the joke was that everybody’s first novel is just a thinly veiled autobiography. That’s why some of them work so well—and why some of them don’t. But you’re right that there is a special poison for mother writers. They are judged as mothers as opposed to by their craft. At AWP this year, I hosted a panel called Motherlode: The Tripwire of Writing Real Family. Before the panel, I told the writers I was not going to ask the question that everyone always asks—what their ex-husband, boyfriend, mother, father, etc. thought of their book. Instead, I asked why do we get asked that as mother writers? People don’t talk about father writers. That’s not even a thing.
AG: Right. That’s just…a writer.
KM: Yes. That’s a writer. Rebecca Wolff, who was on the panel, said those types of questions presume the writer has not thought about how the work would affect her children. And how dare they think that we’re such poor mothers that we haven’t considered the potential collateral damage. I’ve reviewed books before, and it’s important to review the craft, not the person. But unless they’re a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the people posting on Goodreads and Amazon are not trained in writing that kind of review. Reviews are essay in themselves, and what they choose to focus on says more about the reviewer than about what is being reviewed. People who respond to mothers with vitriol usually have their own wounds. So I try not to take it personally.
AG: The Leaving Season is launching now. Are you resting or are you working on a new project?
KM: This time is when I’m most anxious about whether I’ll ever be able to write again, so it’s helpful to have another project. I’m in the thinking and research stage of what I’m imagining as a biography of Sadie, my great-grandmother, who was in vaudeville. I have a huge cache of photos and her old journal, in which she wrote where she was and what she was performing on stage in those gorgeous, old vaudeville halls. In many ways she was more modern than we are today, but because she made what others thought were poor mothering choices, like putting her work before her children, she was erased from our family tree in a way. These are questions of ambition, art, work, and class that women in 2023 are grappling with. Who do our bodies belong to? I’m interested in collapsing time and getting into Sadie as a living, breathing human.