(A version of this interview appeared in the January 2012 issue of The Practicing Writer.)
Catching Up with Natalie Wexler: Talking About The Mother Daughter Show
Q&A conducted by Erika Dreifus
Longtime readers of The Practicing Writer will remember Natalie Wexler, who appeared in our April 2007 issue to discuss her debut novel, A More Obedient Wife. As I wrote back then: “I met Natalie Wexler in a workshop taught by Sharon Oard Warner at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival several years back. At the time, we were both immersed in the workshop’s focus on ‘Discovering Your Novel.’ I was captivated by Natalie’s work at that early date, and I remained riveted as I read through my copy of her finished book, A More Obedient Wife: A Novel of the Early Supreme Court, this winter.”
A few weeks ago, Fuze Publishing released Natalie’s second novel, The Mother Daughter Show, which I had the pleasure of reading in manuscript. Full disclosure: I also gave the novel this blurb: “Witty and wise throughout, The Mother Daughter Show highlights Natalie Wexler’s keen perceptions – of family dynamics, social mores, and professional subcultures – and reminds us of life’s one constant: change.”
Taken together, the two novels testify to Natalie’s versatile mind and abundant writerly talents. Whereas her first book was an historical novel, The Mother Daughter Show places readers squarely in the middle of contemporary Washington. Specifically, we find ourselves at fictional Barton Friends, a D.C. private school whose students include the offspring of the President and First Lady, a school with a traditional mom-staged musical revue at the end of the year. (If the school setting sounds vaguely familiar to you, well…please just keep reading.)
In addition to her work as an award-winning fiction writer, Natalie Wexler is a journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, The American Scholar, Gettysburg Review, and other publications. She has also worked as a temporary secretary, a newspaper reporter, a Supreme Court law clerk, a legal historian, and (briefly) an actual lawyer. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband.
Please welcome, once again, Natalie Wexler.
ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): When you last spoke with our readers, Natalie, you’d recently published A More Obedient Wife, an historical novel set in the early national period. The Mother Daughter Show, on the other hand, is a very contemporary novel. Any comments for readers who may be wondering about connections – thematic or other – between the two novels?
NATALIE WEXLER (NW): They’re very different, but I suppose what links them is the focus on women. The two protagonists of A More Obedient Wife are women, as are the three protagonists of The Mother Daughter Show. I seem to be drawn to stories about women, both as a writer and, to a lesser extent, as a reader. And in both books – although to a greater extent in The Mother Daughter Show – there’s a focus on the experience of motherhood.
ED: You’ve started a new blog to complement The Mother Daughter Show. Please tell us all about “Upper Northwest,” and what readers can expect to find there. And how does blogging help (or hinder) your other writing?
NW: I’d been posting, fairly erratically, on a blog that took as its subject history, fiction, and the relationship between the two, which was a nice outlet for thoughts I had while writing historical fiction. But I felt I should have a blog that related in some way to the themes of The Mother Daughter Show. On the other hand, I didn’t want the blog to be about, for example, my relationship with my daughter. She’d kill me! So I needed to find something a little less personal. And because The Mother Daughter Show is set in Washington – and specifically in the upper middle class, private-school oriented part of Washington that is centered in its upper Northwest quadrant – I decided I could write about life in that part of the world, loosely speaking. So far it has been, like my other blog, a pretty erratic endeavor.
I don’t seem to be able to master the art of writing short, frequent posts, so instead I write long, infrequent ones. I’m delighted if other people read either of my blogs, but I have to confess that I write them mostly for myself. Writing a novel can be a long, hard stretch, and there’s a lovely sense of satisfaction that you get from writing something in an hour or so and then immediately publishing it. I’m reminded of a quote from H.L. Mencken that I came across recently: “I write in order to attain that feeling of tension relieved and function achieved which a cow enjoys on giving milk.” That’s the feeling I get when I hit “publish” on a blog post. I suppose it hinders my writing a bit, in the sense that I could be spending that time writing a novel, but I don’t post often enough for that to be a serious problem!
ED: The actual “Mother Daughter Show” at the novel’s core is a musical revue, and the book includes song lyrics that various mom-characters write (and perform). I think that the lyrics are fantastic (and often laugh-out-loud funny). Since I know nothing about songwriting, I’m wondering how challenging this part of the project was for you. Care to cite your own “favorite” lyrics from The Mother Daughter Show?
NW: Thank you! I had never tried my hand at songwriting (or rather, to be clear, lyric writing—I wasn’t composing music) until I got involved in the Mother Son Show in 2006. (Yes, there’s also a Mother Son Show [at the actual school where Natalie’s children were students], which is lower key and usually less contentious than the Mother Daughter Show.) Although I got involved in that show kind of reluctantly, I discovered that writing amusing song lyrics for existing songs was incredibly absorbing and a lot of fun. I ended up writing probably 80 percent of the songs we used in that show (and somehow I ended up directing it as well).
As with writing poetry (at least, if you’re not writing free verse), the challenge of writing song lyrics is figuring out how to get your meaning across using words that fit into a given structure in terms of length and rhyme – in that respect it’s kind of like doing a crossword puzzle, which I also find absorbing. I also enjoyed coming up with existing songs that matched the point I wanted to make. For example, in the Mother Son Show, I wrote a song about how sons never tell their mothers what’s going on in their lives, set to the tune of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
I tried to take that approach with the Mother Daughter Show, but – as happens in the novel – there were some mothers who felt very strongly that we should only use currently popular songs that the girls would know. I could see that point of view, but I wasn’t familiar with those songs, and it just wasn’t the way I worked. Meanwhile, I kept thinking up lyrics for oldies, more or less involuntarily, and writing them. I wrote seven or eight songs, only one of which was used in the show – and I wrote the novel partly to recycle the lyrics that had hit the cutting room floor.
It’s hard to choose a favorite, but one that comes to mind is “When I’m Twenty-Four,” set to the tune of the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four.” It’s a take-off on the recent phenomenon of twenty-somethings coming home to live with their parents (something I have personally experienced, at least briefly). Here it is in its entirety (only a couple of verses made it into the book):
When I get older, finished with school
Several years from now
Will you still be giving me a place to sleep
Do my laundry, let me live cheap?
Will you lock the door?
Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I’m twenty-four?
You’ll be older too
And if you say the word
I could stay with you
I could be handy feeding the cat
When you’re out of town
I could have a party and you’d never guess
Do my best to clean up the mess
Eating free food and paying no rent
Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I’m twenty-four?
ED: [That was my favorite, too!] Moving on….There’s quite a bit of social critique and satire in The Mother Daughter Show. Please tell us about some other writers/titles that may have helped inspire or guide you as you’ve honed your authorial skills in this respect.
NW: Even though I was writing satire, I very much wanted my characters to be three-dimensional and sympathetic rather than cartoonish figures of fun. In that regard, I hoped to emulate the work of three comic-yet-substantial writers I very much admire: Meg Wolitzer, Tom Perrotta, and Elinor Lipman. I heartily recommend their books to anyone who isn’t familiar with them, especially The Wife, by Wolitzer; Little Children, by Perrotta; and The Inn at Lake Divine, by Lipman.
ED: How can readers learn more about the book? And is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
NW: I’ll be having a virtual book tour stop on January 18th on a website called Nourishing Relationships (http://www.nourishingrelationships.blogspot.com/). Readers will be able to submit questions throughout the day, which I’ll answer. And I’m always happy to receive comments and questions through my website, http://www.nataliewexler.com. I’d also be delighted to participate in book group discussions, either in person in the Washington, DC, area, or by phone or Skype elsewhere.
Lastly, a word of advice and encouragement to aspiring writers: don’t let rejection stop you, if you can help it. My manuscript received quite a few rejections from major publishing houses, and yet the book has been getting uniformly positive reviews so far on book blogs, including a couple of real raves, and has been selling very well. I was fortunate to find a publisher, Fuze, that was looking to publish strong writing by new authors and was willing to take a chance on me. (Editor’s note: Please click here to find out more about Fuze Publishing and access excerpts from The Mother Daughter Show.)
ED: Thank you so much, Natalie!