Joanna Smith Rakoff is the author of the novel A Fortunate Age, which won the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers, was a New York Times Editors' Pick, a winner of the Elle Readers' Prize, a selection of Barnes and Noble's First Look Book Club, an IndieNext pick, and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. As a journalist and critic, she's written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post Book World, the Boston Globe, Vogue, Time Out New York, O:The Oprah Magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines. Her poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, Kenyon Review, and other journals. She has degrees from Columbia University, University College, London, and Oberlin College.
Tell us about your relationship to your art.
Writing—and reading—define and shape my life. This has been the case since childhood. I’m one of those people without hobbies. All I do is read and write. And I’m at my happiest when I’m fully immersed in a book—or a story, or an essay, or a review—and working night and day. When my entire existence shrinks down to that book: I wake up already plotting my next scene, make coffee, sit down and work, stopping only for bathroom breaks or Twizzlers or tea, then fall asleep with my head pressed to the manuscript. My husband has photos of me in exactly this pose. Both he and my friends often describe me as a “hard worker” but this isn’t how I see it: I write to live. Not to sound melodramatic. Or twee.
What's a project that has been exciting you lately?
I just turned in my new book, a memoir ostensibly about answering J.D. Salinger’s fan mail and, in general, working for Salinger. Eighteen-odd months ago, when I signed on to write this book, I was nervous about it. I’m not an avid reader of memoirs. In fact, I’d hardly read any at that point and I’d rather disliked the ones I had read. There was so much “I” in them. As a novelist, I favor the Victorians and Edwardians, the strong, distanced omniscient narrator. Forster, Eliot, Dickens, Austen. Wharton and James. So, for months—a year, really—I struggled to find a tone and style, a way of telling the story, that made sense to me, that didn’t belie my interests and aesthetic. I read dozens and dozens of memoirs, and found many that I loved, that read like novels: Claire Dederer’s Poser; Cheryl Strayed’s Wild; Joan Didion’s Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking. I re-read favorite novels, too.
Finally, I hit on a style, a tone, and, in doing so, realized how much larger was the story than I’d originally thought: That it was a coming of age tale; that it was a tale of a New York that no longer exists—the New York of the mid-1990s, just poised to succumb to the digital revolution; a tale about friendship between women, its ins and outs, and about family, and—like Austen and Dickens and all the Victorians, I suppose—a tale about money and class.
So, yes, I guess I’m excited about it.
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
I’ll just confess here that I’m not the most reflective person. As is perhaps obvious from the above, I don’t tend to spend a lot of time examining my feelings and desires, for better or for worse. So I’m not one of those women—or men—who always felt the pull of motherhood, who thought, “I must have children. I love children.” Also, I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, in the vicinity of New York City, and my parents were of the liberal-minded sort who focused their energies on letting me know that I could be president, or a brain surgeon, or an Olympic speed skater, if I wanted to be.
Thus, my desire to have kids blindsided me and arose, I think, purely out of love for my husband, Evan. But also out of a desire to enlarge my life, to make my life more.
My mother always said she wasn’t a “get down on the floor and play type of mother.” She loved sitting at the table and drinking tea with me, or making clothes for my dolls, but it was my dad who could spend hours inventing crazy dramas for those dolls or playing monopoly with me. Because my mom and I are very alike in many ways, I assumed that I, too, would not be getting down on the floor and playing with my kids. But perhaps the biggest discovery of motherhood is that I seem to have inherited my dad’s play gene. Not only do I love playing with my kids—and sitting at the table talking to them—but I’m that person at the party to whom all the kids flock, who ends up sitting in the nursery, cutting out paper dolls and eating gingerbread, while the rest of the grown-ups get bombed downstairs. In retrospect, this isn’t surprising at all.
But: The other, less felicitous, discovery of motherhood is the way it turns us into animals. And—part and parcel—the way we still, in America at least, tend to fall into conventional gender roles. Our kids—who are eight and four—are way more attached to me, and seem to want me more than my husband, and want me all the time. When we had just one child, we found ways to make things relatively equitable, but with two, some sort of dam burst, and I sometimes feel like my life is a page ripped from The Feminine Mystique. Truly.
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
My process is basically: write. Sit in your chair and write. But beyond that: I am a very internal person and I need to spend a lot of time just thinking; letting my mind go over and over the facets of a character, the bones of a scene, the themes of a story. These will all change, of course, but in advance of writing—and while writing—I need a lot of space in my head. With children—and with an overburden of domestic responsbilities—I don’t tend to have enough space in my head, which can make the sit-in-your-chair-and-write part of the process more difficult. Much more difficult.
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
What are the ways they don’t? Certainly, my family informs my fiction. Right now, I’m working on a series of stories that are very much about the peculiar dilemma of tending to young children (Dan Chaon’s brilliant collections Among the Missing and Stay Awake are very much on my mind). That’s the obvious, the easy. The more complicated would be the ways in which my children (and my husband, of course) affect my thinking and my interests, the way they send my thoughts in different directions, lead me to places—as a thinker, a writer—I would never go without them. And then there is the ways in which they point me toward specific pieces of art that affect my own: my son’s obsession with Greek and Nordic mythology, my daughter’s love of Richard Scarry books, my husband’s interest of Southern culture. All these things (and many, many more) feed into whatever I’m working on.
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
Yes. I’ve realized how central my work is to my life. Before having children I was lazier, I worked with less urgency. Now, every moment is precious and I realize how lucky I am to be able to do what I do, to make a living as a writer.
Are your children ever subjects in your art?
Not so much. I’ve written a couple of personal essays about my kids, but that’s about it. I’m not necessarily opposed to parents writing about their children, but I do wonder what will happen when the kids are older and can read the stories or books themselves. It’s one thing if you’re James Thurber and writing sweet, humorous pieces about your kids. It’s quite another if you’re revealing something darker or embarrassing or suchlike.
But I also feel like we’re living at a moment in history when parents are made to feel as if they must focus all their energies on their children, and I don’t know that this is necessarily a good idea. As artists, our job is to dissect and interrogate contemporary mores—to question received information—and maybe part of that involves searching for subjects larger than our own families.
How does travel figure into your art? Do/did your children come along? How has that worked out?
I toured almost continually for the eighteen months following the release of my first novel, A Fortunate Age, and often in the six months preceding the publication. My second child, Pearl, was born four months before that book came out and because she was nursing, I couldn’t leave her for more than a few hours, so we turned my tour into an enormous family trip. We went to who knows how many cities, often staying with friends or family, and had a really wonderful time, but there was difficulty, too. There were many times when I had to be in a bookstore, say, on the west side of Los Angeles at seven, and at six fifteen I was attempting to get in the shower of a house on the east side of Los Angeles, realizing that everything in my suitcase had spit up on it.
What about promoting the arts with your own children--any fun projects to share?
When my son was little—before he could read or write on his own—he liked to dictate stories, which my husband and I wrote down. Now, he’s eight and loves to tell—and also write and illustrate—stories on his own. (If only his little sister liked to listen to them as much as he liked to tell them.)
With my daughter, we spend hours playing dolls, just as I did when I was her age. Honestly, there’s no better way to figure out the intricacies of plot and dialogue. And character development.
I’m not, as might be obvious, a big proponent of classes for kids. I think kids need to be at home with their parents and their friends, with space to think and play.
How do you escape?
Oh, God. I need to escape more. We live in a small apartment in Manhattan and things can get, let’s say, very intense. My husband is always saying “just go on a walk” or “go have a drink by yourself,” but I have trouble getting out the door unless I have a goal. So I generally plan my escapes around yoga. I do an embarrassing amount of yoga. It’s the one period, each day, when someone else is in charge and in which I can successfully accomplish everything I’m assigned. On the weekends, I’ll often go rogue after class, wandering around the Lower East Side in grubby leggings, poking in shops and drinking coffee. Eventually, my head clears and I can face going home.
I also hide in the bathroom and read. Glamorous!
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
1. Move to the place in which you will have the most support: financial, psychological, logistical. If you have family that would love to babysit, let them. If you have a close group of friends, who are all near each other, go to them. It will keep you sane. (I would not recommend a cabin in the woods.)
2. Learn to shut everything off. Motherhood, by definition, involves ridiculous amounts of multitasking. When you’re writing, turn off the Internet, the phone, the baby monitor. Just write. Otherwise, you’ll never get anything done. (I myself work in a space in which I can’t go online.)
3. Everything will be okay. If you leave your kid—or kids—on the weekends, or at night, or whenever, to write your novel, they’ll be fine. They need you to do your work. They need a mother who is happy and fulfilled. Not a mother who spends her time making homemade baby food. Trust me.