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An Interview with “Momoirist” Jane Roper

I’ve admired Jane Roper’s writing for a long time (and I’m not just saying that because we’ve both had books of fiction published by Last Light Studio). I was thrilled for Jane when she announced that St. Martin’s Press had bought her second book, a memoir of her first three years mothering twins. That book, DOUBLE TIME, will be released on May 8, and I’m delighted that Jane was willing and able to take some time to answer a few of my questions about it.

Since I don’t have twins (or kids of my own, for that matter), this observation that Jane shared with me resonated especially: “One of the greatest things in hearing reactions to the book so far is that even people who don’t have twins, as well as people who don’t have kids at all, have enjoyed reading it. It’s always gratifying to know that the book strikes some universal chords. Or at least has a few good jokes in it.” I have read the book, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s a terrific read for all.

Please welcome Jane Roper.

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): Jane, congratulations on the publication of DOUBLE TIME, a memoir of your first three years parenting twin daughters (I’d be remiss if I didn’t state outright that you co-parent with the wonderful Alastair Moock, who readers quickly discover is a terrific husband and dad). I began following your journey as mom to Elsa and Clio on Babble.com, where you write a popular blog titled “Baby Squared.” Can you please tell us, first, how the blog got started, and then, how the blog’s premise led to the memoir?

JANE ROPER (JR): I began blogging a few weeks into my pregnancy, primarily as a means of journaling the experience for myself, and as a way to update friends, if they cared to read. I found I really enjoyed the format, and the voice I developed. When the girls were a few months old, my friend Steve Almond, who blogged for Babble.com at the time, suggested that I send my stuff to them, to see if they’d like to add me to their group of personal bloggers on the site. So I packed up and moved blogging operations to Babble in June 2007, and have been there ever since.

For a long time, people had told me I should turn my blog – or at least its general themes and writing style – into a book, but I sort of pooh-poohed the idea. I didn’t feel like I had anything beyond a series of anecdotes and ruminations. In other words, not enough to constitute an actual book, with an actual narrative arc. Moreover, I felt like the “momoir” genre was glutted. Who would want to read another book by yet another mommy blogger? Hell, I wouldn’t.

But then a few things happened in my life that seemed to provide that all-important dramatic conflict: after struggling with several, successively worse depressive episodes, starting when my girls were just over a year old, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II (Ed. note: for more about this disorder, please see http://www.webmd.com/bipolar-disorder/guide/bipolar-2-disorder ). I also was at the cusp of wanting to make a major life change in terms of my work schedule and focus. My daughters, about to turn three, were also nearing the end of their babyhood. Suddenly, I felt like I had an actual book to write.

ED: If the book’s main focus is the circumstance of parenting twins, a secondary thread is the challenge of parenting while coping with one’s own depression and bipolar depression. You mention early in the book that when you were expecting your babies, you found little guidance available on either subject. You also allude to the experience of having been raised in a family where one parent (your dad) suffered from depression, although you are fairly circumspect about the details of his experiences. Can you please tell us a bit about what your dad may have said about the book, if he has read it, or your hopes/expectations for his reaction once he does?

JR: When I’m depressed I have little desire or attention span for reading, but for some reason I take solace in reading about other people’s experiences with depression. It makes me feel less alone, I suppose. I almost always read Jane Kenyon’s poem about depression, “Having it Out With Melancholy,” when I’m having a depressive episode, because she nails it so completely. So, yes, I really would have loved to read about someone else’s experiences coping with depression while parenting young kids.

As for my father, he hasn’t read the whole book as of this writing, but I did talk with him ahead of time about whether he’d be comfortable with my mentioning his depression, and during the legal review of the manuscript, the publisher’s attorney had me run the actual passages by him. (Same for my aunt, whose bipolar disorder I write about. And my husband, whose depression I also discuss, although he was reading drafts of the book all along.)

My father was a mental health professional, a clinical psychologist, for a long time, so depression isn’t a taboo subject to him. He’s somewhat open about his own struggles, although not necessarily people he doesn’t know well. Which makes it interesting, I guess, that he would be willing to have his issues aired in a book. But he wanted me to be able to tell my depression story honestly, and it would have been disingenuous to leave the family history out.

ED: DOUBLE TIME follows a fairly chronological structure, from the moment the ultrasound exam revealed that you were carrying two babies through the first three years of your daughters’ lives. Did the writing flow pretty straightforwardly, or were there certain segments that proved more difficult to write than others? Please explain.

JR: It did flow fairly straightforwardly, and it was a conscious choice to keep it quite chronological, because I wanted the book to feel, on some level, like a journal of my experiences. And because I think the first months and years of parenthood are so much about the sequential development and growth of your child(ren) and your new, parent self. I was definitely inspired by Anne Lamott’s OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS: A JOURNAL OF MY SON’S FIRST YEAR, which I adored reading when my daughters were newborns.

But there were, indeed, aspects of the writing that proved tricky. In order to make the book feel immediate and absorbing, I had to provide a lot of actual scenes and anecdotes—not just broad-strokes “this sort of thing was going on, and things generally felt like X or Y.” I had my blog to refer back to for material, but I also had to dig deep into my memory. There was one chapter where I wrote about how exhausting playdates were when my girls were toddlers, and how fried I felt afterward, and my editor (who is wonderful) said I really needed, if possible, to show this through a scene. I had to scour my memory to come up with one. And even so, I’m not 100 percent sure I didn’t conflate two separate incidents.

That’s one of the dangers of writing about mothering babies and small children: a lot of what feels immediate and overwhelming at the time recedes quickly into the fog. Only to be replaced by some new, overwhelming challenge.

ED: You are a very funny writer, whether you’re capturing your toddlers’ speech (I’m not sure that I will ever see shoes, or “shizz,” quite the same way again); depicting a decidedly unglamorous scene on an examination table; or recalling what you’d heard about your mother’s experiences delivering you and your younger brother and thinking, during your own labor with your two babies, “Maybe my mother has a higher pain tolerance. Or amnesia.” Memoirs sometimes have a reputation for providing decidedly sad and gloomy pictures. Are there memoirists who serve as models for you in successfully injecting humor and vibrancy into their writing? Any specific titles to recommend?

JR: First of all, thanks for the compliments! I love the challenge and the fun of writing funny. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I don’t actually read tons of memoirs; novels constitute probably 80 percent of my reading. But when I do read memoir, I am definitely drawn to the funny sort. I love (along with hordes of other people) reading David Sedaris. Augusten Burroughs’s RUNNING WITH SCISSORS is very funny, as is Steve Almond’s CANDYFREAK, which is a combination of memoir and reportage. I recently devoured Tina Fey’s comic memoir, BOSSYPANTS. But I wish she’d dug a bit deeper into the “pain places” of her life. That’s the thing: humorous reflections are a lot of fun to read. But when a writer can do humor and pathos, that’s really something. That’s what I aspire to.

ED: What do your twin daughters–now five years old–understand about DOUBLE TIME?

JR: Not a whole lot, except that Mommy wrote a book about what it was like when they were babies and little kids (to them, being five confers “big kid” status). I’ve actually read them a couple of passages where there descriptions of their sillier antics, or things they said. They liked that, although I did have to edit out some of my wry commentary on the fly because I thought it might confuse or even bother them a little. They’re pretty perceptive kids. Basically, though, the whole thing is no great shakes to them. For all they know, anybody’s mommy could write a book if they wanted.

ED: Anything else you’d like us to know?

JR: For any readers in the Boston area, I’ll be launching DOUBLE TIME with a reading at Brookline Booksmith on May 8 at 7:00 pm. (There will be snacks! And wine!) There’s information about other appearances at my website, http://www.janeroper.com.

ED: Thank you so much, Jane!

(A version of this interview was first published in the May 2012 issue of The Practicing Writer.)

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