More from Jacquelyn Mitchard
Published: January 27, 2006
|On finding time to write when juggling a busy family life|
It's the main thing people ask me--how do you do this? You have six kids; one is 1½-years-old, one is 20. How do you do anything but sit in a chair with your raincoat? The answer is two-fold, and I'm being very honest.
I have low standards for certain things. My children, if they wear a bottom and a top, that's "dressed." My daughter has worn her T-shirt of bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin [Texas] until you can no longer see the back, but it's always clean, and she gets good grades. So there really is very little you need to do to keep your child sane and happy. Make sure the child pays more attention to you than you pay to the child; read; groceries; hugs; antibiotics, and in that order. We cuddle, we laugh. I make sure that they know the words to most of the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs by the time they leave the house; I make sure they've read In Cold Blood and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, because I think that that's necessary to living. And that they've seen The Hustler and To Kill a Mockingbird and learned to enjoy reading.
My husband stays home. This is a big economic sacrifice to us--it makes us less able to do things we might otherwise be able to do. But he stays home, and he runs the physical plant. When I'm on book tour, the kids eat a lot of corn dogs and pizza, and I'm sure they're no worse for it than when they eat chicken without the skin when I'm home. And he is a very tolerant and divine dad; he's much more fun than I am.
Her writing routine
I get up in the morning at 5; I make sure everyone is sufficiently nagged and fed for school; make sure that everyone has his geometry in the backpack. And when they're off, my husband takes over looking after our 1½-year-old son, and I go back to my office in the house.
My office is 4 by 6; it is my bed. And I take out my laptop and the desk that I put it on, which is 2 by 2, and start to work. I don't have writer's block, ever, because that's a luxury I can't afford. I write bad things on many days, but I always write something.
I write to a place where I'm leaving myself something to come back to the next day. I write to the point where the character gets to the restaurant but not after that, even though I know what's going to happen. That's one of the only things I ever learned from Ernest Hemingway.
During the time when I'm writing nonfiction--my newspaper column or Parenting magazine or Life magazine or an occasional nonfiction essay for an anthology--I do that for that week, and the next week I devote to whatever fiction I'm working on. [The newspaper column appears in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is syndicated elsewhere.]
On average, barring crises, I write maybe five hours. The rest of the time, I communicate with readers in order to keep them coming back to my work, and I do research for the next project.
Does she know at the start where the novel is going?
Yes. Things change as you're writing, but my characters don't take over and lead me on fabulous journeys like my friends' characters. … I jot down chapters. I know in a general sense how many chapters are going to be in a book. I know in general what's going to happen in each chapter. And I never was formally trained in creative writing at all, [but] I am a pretty good stopper in that I know instinctively when one chapter ends and another begins, from reading.
How her fiction career was born
I majored in biology at school, then switched in my last year to American literature and became a high school teacher for one year, and then a newspaper reporter for many years. And it wasn't until I was pushing 40 that I wrote my first novel. I never imagined that I would write anything [as extended as a novel], or any fiction. I was interested and busy and figured that my life was sorted out and I would be doing what I was doing more or less for the rest of my life.
Until Dan [her first husband] died [in 1993, of cancer].
I dabbled in survival. I was desperate. My husband, who was a standup guy while he was alive and an even better die-er, had said to me, "In two years' time, Jack, you're going to be so far from here. You're going to be a different kind of writer and you're going to be a writer of merit. You have to believe in yourself."
That's a tall order, because no one, especially a writer, believes in himself. I felt as though I had an obligation to Dan and to the children to sort of indicate to them that someone could drive a hole right through you big enough for a semi to follow and that doesn't give you permission to live a small life.
So that's why I continued [copywriting]--writing instructions that would be attached to appliances, warning labels for paint sprayers and "Do not operate this blow dryer in the shower even if the water is turned off." You've read things you don't realize I wrote--how to refill your ballpoint pen. Think of the lives I saved of people who WANTED to dry their hair WHILE they were showering. I did everything that I possibly could to support my kids and not let them know how bad things were. My editors at TV Guide and Parenting threw me any kind of work that they could possibly throw me.
I used to talk on the phone to [fellow Wisconsin novelist] Jane Hamilton, who was a dear friend of mine before I ever tried to write creatively--I knew her through a magazine I briefly edited--and she would say, "That dream you had about the little kid that wandered away from his mom--that would really be a good novel." And I would say, "Why don't I learn ballet--I would be as likely to be successful." And she'd say, "Those are excuses. You can do this if you want to do this, if you make yourself not simply think and talk about it but actually to do it, even if you're afraid, and even if you do it badly."
So I did. I went to writers camp at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Ill., for two weeks, to the great dismay and despair of my children, who thought at that time that I would never come home, that I would die, too. But I decided to make their sacrifice mean something, if I could, and I wrote 80 pages of what would become Deep End of the Ocean.
I had an agent, because 10 years before she had sold a nonfiction book of mine on infertility, which sold briskly among people with the same last name as mine. She kept saying, "Why don't you write a novel?" and I kept saying, "Have you noticed, I have children and no money, and people who write novels on speculation have husbands who are neurosurgeons, instead of none, and don't drive old police cars that are painted with something that looks like house paint," which is what I drove.
She sold the novel within three days to the first publisher who looked at it.
On the character Gabe, the son in her latest novel, The Breakdown Lane
He uses that sort of Holden Caulfieldesque way of looking at life in order to cover up the fact that at 15, your parents should be protecting you instead of you trying to get them to do their job. Gabe is unencumbered by the illusions of adulthood. Kids see right through, and that's the reason his answers to [his mother's] letters asking for advice are so spot on, because he cuts right to the chase. He also does not suffer either his mother's or father's foolishness gladly. Except for Vincent in The Deep End of the Ocean, he's my favorite character [in my books]. If there is reincarnation, I must have been a teenage boy in a previous life, because I certainly have the soul of a teenage boy.