An Interview with Meg Waite Clayton and Caroline Leavitt
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, and eight other novels. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.
Caroline Leavitt: Meg, you and I have been friends for quite a while—since 2002, I think. We met on Readerville, but we didn’t meet in person until 2011, at the Gaithersburg Book Festival. Which is fitting because so much of your new novel, The Wednesday Daughters, is about friendship. Sometimes I think that our deepest friends really become our family, often because we can’t reach our family with enough depth to also make them our friends. Would you agree with this?
Meg Waite Clayton: It’s so hard to move aside the cobwebs of our childhoods, isn’t it? I’m only fifty-five, though, so perhaps there’s still hope! I suppose my parents and perhaps even my brothers know me better than I like to think, but the people I can really talk to are my closest friends. And it’s a lovely place of safety from which to write, friendship. I’m pretty sure my friend Jenn, for example—having put up with me as a roommate for three years of law school and stayed with me through all sorts of unpleasantness over three decades now— is with me for life, as I am with her. I imagine she’s chosen to love me even with my faults, or because of them. That’s certainly how I feel about her. We don’t have much choice about our families, but the love we feel for friends, that’s a love we choose every day, and the love is all the stronger for the choice.
CL: What made you return to the daughters of The Wednesday Sisters? Did anything surprise you in the writing?
MWC: I didn’t actually mean to write a sequel. I wrapped up The Wednesday Sisters with an epilogue, and thought I was done with their stories. Then I was talking with someone about his children, who are biracial, and it dawned on me that Ally’s daughter, Hope, would likely have faced the kinds of identity issues many children of mixed race do. I thought those issues would be really interesting to explore in themselves and as a metaphor for the sense of non-belonging that so many of us experience. And readers had been asking if I would do a sequel, so one that involved the daughters of the original five friends seemed somehow meant to be.
Two things that surprised me in the writing were the role Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter ended up playing in the novel, and the fact that Kath—the character in The Wednesday Sisters with the misbehaving husband—would not bend to my will in this book, either. I appear to be no better at making her behave than she is at making her husband do so!
It turned out to be such a warm pleasure to revisit these old friends—and to see them through the eyes of their grown daughters— that I find myself wondering if there might be another Wednesday book of some sort, someday.
CL: There’s something so mesmerizing about the relationship of mothers and daughters—what we think we know versus what we need to find out. As Hope and the other Wednesday Daughters go through Hope’s recently deceased mother’s letters, they don’t just confront her life, they confront their own. What do you think makes our a new way to navigate those relationships?
MWC: It’s impossible for a parent not to have dreams for her children, and impossible or nearly so for a child to fully let go of the need to please her mother. It’s particularly complicated, I think, for women of my generation, who grew up with 1950s-era mothers and are now trying to negotiate the twenty-first century. Some of us have chosen paths our mothers abhor. Some of us feel pressure to live the lives our mothers couldn’t. The expectations for our two generations are so different despite the very few years that separate us.
It seems life would be so much easier if we could talk freely with our parents, and yet that’s so much more difficult than it seems it should be. I try to bring out this contrast in Hope’s and Anna Page’s interactions with their moms. Anna Page turns to Hope’s mom, and Hope turns to Anna Page’s, but neither is that good at talking honestly with her own mother. The burden of expectation is hard to set aside.
And yet, at some point, we have to let go of our parents’ expectations for us. And when it’s our turn, we have to let our children loose to make their own mistakes. And that bit—letting your children make mistakes—is really tough.
CL: What I loved so much about both The Wednesday Sisters and The Wednesday Daughters is that you look at the mother-daughter bond from the viewpoint of each. Did being a mother, as well as a daughter, color what you wrote? (I know being a mother certainly has changed the way I look at my own mother-daughter relationship.)
MWC: I only have sons, but I have to say that being a parent has completely changed my view of my mom. Who knew when we were growing up how hard what she did for us was? The Wednesday Sisters was certainly meant as an homage of sorts to my mom and her friends. It gave me an excuse to talk to her and explore what her life was like. Trying to put myself in her skin really changed my view of her—for the better. And I do carry her mothering and my own into everything I write. I even lift some moments from my journals, and then fictionalize them. Quite a bit of what children do in my novels has been done by my sons.
CL: So much of both these books is about writing—what it means to us, how it frees and sustains us. How much of what you think and feel about writing finds its way into your characters?
MWC: I think the best writing comes from exploring what we are passionate about, and I’m certainly passionate about writing. I’ve come to know myself so much better as a writer than I ever did before. I dip into that emotional space pretty regularly through my characters— I suppose in part to invite readers to try writing themselves. (Really, jump in, the water is fine!)
But like most writers, I came to writing first as a reader, and much of how I think and feel about writing has roots in my love of reading, and in the books that have made me who I am, or at least brought out whatever good there is in me.
When I sit down to write, one little part of me is Scout Finch.