On this episode of The Desk Set, we're talking about books about families, including how we make families and what it means to be part of one. Journalist Angela Garbes joins us to discuss her book Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey Through The Science And Culture Of Pregnancy. Then we chat with Laurie Frankel, author of This Is How It Always Is. Like Frankel, the mother in her novel is the supportive parent of a transgender child. Finally, we talk about some of our favorite fictional families and share some suggested reads (Britta's Picks | Emily's Picks).
A transcript of this episode is available at the end of our show notes.
Browse a list of books mentioned in this episode.
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The Desk Set is brought to you by the King County Library System. Most of the audio heard on the podcast was recorded at the Makerspace at the Bellevue Library. The show is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, and produced by Britta Barrett. Our theme song is "I Know What I Want" by Math and Physics Club.
Emily Calkins: You're listening to the Desk Set.
Britta Barrett: A bookish podcast for reading broadly.
Emily Calkins: We're your hosts, Emily Calkins-
Britta Barrett: And Britta Barrett.
Emily Calkins: And, on this episode, we're talking about books about family. We'll interview two authors in this episode. First, we'll talk to Angela Garbes, author of 'Like a Mother: A Feminist's Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy'. Then, we'll talk to Laurie Frankel, author of 'This is How It Always Is' a novel about a family with a transgender child.
Britta Barrett: Then, we'll finish up by talking about some of our favorite families in literature.
Angela Garbes: My name is Angela Garbes and I guess I'm an author now. I worked for years as a journalist and writer. I worked for the Seattle news weekly, The Stranger, as the staff food writer.
Britta Barrett: Some of our listeners might be familiar with one of your pieces about breastmilk. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Angela Garbes: Yeah. That's really the piece that launched this, that changed my entire career to be totally honest. I started at The Stranger and my oldest daughter was eight-weeks-old when I started there. I was working full time, so I had two full-time jobs basically. I was a mom. I was a writer and then I was breastfeeding, which is also ... That's like eight hours of your day whether it's feeding or pumping.
Angela Garbes: I felt... I had gone into breastfeeding naively thinking that it was free and easy and I was really unprepared for how difficult it would be and how often I would be like, "Is this even worth it?" I felt that people faced tremendous pressure to breastfeed and the conversation is usually framed as breast is best as though formula is inherently bad. I just had these questions where this doesn't really make sense to me.
Angela Garbes: I also thought if we're being told that this is immunologically best for your baby, which is what is really the emphasis, when I would ask how does that work, no one had an answer. I thought this was pretty basic stuff and I was owed a better explanation. The cool thing about working as a journalist is you can just call an expert up and ask them and they'll tell you. They feel mildly obligated to answer your questions.
Angela Garbes: I found an evolutionary biologist who studied human milk and I asked her all of these questions. I wrote this piece that I was hoping would be relevant to people, not just new moms, but people who were interested in reproductive health, public health. I don't know. I really wrote it with this urgency, and looking back, desperation. This is what I wanted to know and within a day the article went viral. It's been shared over 250,000 times. It's had millions of page views.
Angela Garbes: It was very validating. Okay, these are questions that I have, and I'm not the only one. People want to be talking about this, and these are questions that we deserve answers to. Based solely on the success of that article, I got a literary agent who wondered if I wanted to write a book. I said, "Yeah, I have a million other questions about pregnancy." So, that article really sent me down this path.
Angela Garbes: I also was interested in what the F happened to my body? It felt totally different after giving birth, and I felt like a totally different person. But I also felt I was definitely still the same. I don't know. There were these things-
Britta Barrett: Because being a new parent seems so scary. There's simultaneously this overwhelming amount of research and books on the subject and yet these huge gaps in the research. How did you figure out what to trust?
Angela Garbes: That's a great question. A lot of this was that during the time I was pregnant before ... At this point, I'm not working as a writer, I'm not working as a journalist, I'm just someone who wants information. I read so many pregnancy books. The thing that struck me as weird ... I would pick them up and be like, "Oh, my God," and then put them back down. Because I found that they were ... I mean, they're advice books. They're how-to books. The assumption is as though there's a right or a wrong way to be pregnant, not that there's infinite ways to be pregnant, just as there's infinite ways to be a person.
Angela Garbes: That had never sat well with me, so I was always gleaning evidence-based stuff. I was gleaning facts. That's what I found that I wanted. I didn't want this moral framework. I didn't want someone to tell me that this was right or this was wrong, that this was good, that this was bad. I just wanted to know what is, what was. That became the guiding principle when I set out to write the book.
Angela Garbes: In American culture, we've really encouraged the sublimation of the mother from the very beginning from pregnancy. You were who you were for decades before you became pregnant, but suddenly you become pregnant and then, "Oh, you like tea? Well, that may not be great for the baby. You like coffee? Uh-oh."
Britta Barrett: Raw cheese.
Angela Garbes: You like sushi? Or, soft cheeses? All of these things, you're just expected to throw that out. I think it contributes this idea that mothers are in many ways expected to sacrifice themselves, their lives, and their time. And, that continues. Who is the default caregiver? It's typically the mother.
Emily Calkins: When you were talking about the coffee and tea thing, it reminded me that in the book you say, "There's this cultural standard that's so well-established that we joke about it, proudly proclaiming ourselves bad moms when we stray from this expectation ... " You say, "We're trying to reclaim a term we'd be much better off abandoning." Can you talk about that idea a little bit of a bad mom and why you think we should toss that out the window?
Angela Garbes: Well, I think a few months before I started writing the book I went and saw - I was assigned to review the movie Bad Moms. It was not good. I didn't think it was good. Again, it goes back to this idea if we were to take out morality from the conversation ... This is the thing I'll probably return to again and again. I just don't think it serves anyone. It sets people up to feel terrible. If you're not one, you're the other.
Angela Garbes: Yeah. Look, I don't want to laugh about how I'm a bad mom 'cause I drank a glass of wine.
Emily Calkins: Yes. That idea just really stuck with me. I have an almost two-year-old and I thought, "Oh, yeah. I do that. I hear my friends who are parents do it." Like, "Oh, yeah. We let her watch half an hour of Blues Clues or whatever. Oh, we're such bad parents." It's like, we're not bad parents. We love her. All the parents I know want the best for their kids. You do have to make these decisions like a world that has a lot of complicating factors. The science, like thinking about the science and the implications based on that rather than saying, "Oh, I'm a good mom or I'm a bad mom." It seems more useful and also kinder to yourself.
Angela Garbes: Yes, I think that there's that. We're not generous enough with ourselves. Yeah, for sure. I think that even if we were to take away this idea of good or bad, then we could just ... it's much easier to say about yourself and others, "We're just doing the best with what we have." That's what everyone's doing.
Emily Calkins: Yeah.
Britta Barrett: In the research, it seems like it becomes clear really quickly that these are cultural ideas and they're specific to the place where you are pregnant or parenting and that there's different ways to go about it around the world. Did you find any interesting policies or techniques that you've seen in places outside the U.S. that you think we would do well to adopt here?
Angela Garbes: Oh, yes. Well, so it's a very distinctly American thing - I should say that I gave birth in hospital, both times. I ended up having two C-sections for which I'm very grateful for both of them. I'm not against Western medicine at all. I think medicine can be great. I'm talking at the institutional level. It's a very distinctly American thing that at the turn of the 20th century, obstetrics and gynecology emerged and childbirth became this thing that doctors presided over.
Angela Garbes: For centuries, around the world in every culture, pregnancy and childbirth was really guided by midwives who were people who were not medically, officially trained, but they had lived expertise. Pregnancy and childbirth were seen as really normal and significant, but normal events in a person's life. They didn't need to be managed or treated like a condition or an illness. It's very new that we do this. And, it's mostly - it's in America that we do it. In Europe and in countries around the world, the care happens still in midwifery practices.
Angela Garbes: I think that's patient-centered care. For low-risk pregnancies, I think it makes a lot of sense. I think something like that is a great policy. Not assuming that the medical establishment, the institutions of medicine, you're always best served by that. That's an assumption that we make. That's a big cultural thing that we operate from as though it was a truth.
Angela Garbes: And there's there..family leave is a policy ... In Germany, I think you get 12 months of paid leave with a certain amount per month, then you get more money if your partner also takes leave at the same time. You could have up to two years ... I know.
Emily Calkins: Oh, my God!
Angela Garbes: It's so sad. Then, you can take up to two years more unpaid leave and when you return to work, you are guaranteed an equivalent position in the company that you worked for.
Emily Calkins: Wow!
Angela Garbes: We are so far behind. Parenting is work. Pregnancy is work. What your body does ... At the end of pregnancy, a person's body is operating at over two times the normal metabolic rate. It's moving 50% more blood. That's work.
Britta Barrett: Literally labor.
Angela Garbes: Literally labor, yeah. These are labor issues. If you want to say that we're a society that values children and families, you really actually have to value that work. We should be paying wages for domestic labor and we should be prioritizing people's ability to care for not only children, but for themselves.
Angela Garbes: I'm a big believer in paid family leave policies. That's not just for new parents. That's for aging parents and their adult children who, at some point, whether you are a parent or not, you're part of a family and someone you love is going to need to be cared for and you should have the right to that time to do that and provide for them.
Angela Garbes: There was one thing that I also wanted to say which is that these ideas, these cultural assumptions, one of the things that struck me the most in my research was really that, again, at an institutional level when we talk about science, when we talk about health, when we talk about medicine, what I learned is that our definitions of health and science are based on white, male bodies. It wasn't until 1993, which is only 26 years ago, that Congress passed a law saying that if you receive funding for your clinical trials from the National Institutes of Health, which is most people who do clinical trials, you are legally obligated to include women and minorities.
Angela Garbes: Females are seen as a deviation from the norm. The very idea of what is a healthy body or what is a body doesn't necessarily include us. I think that that's something we have not reckoned with or acknowledged. That's what I mean when I say we don't care about women. This is what we're up against. It's built into our systems and institutions and it's very hard to undo that. You can't even begin to do that unless you acknowledge it.
Britta Barrett: You got into some of the history of obstetrics in this country that I found really horrifying and didn't totally know about. Could you speak to some of the history of the origin of the practice?
Angela Garbes: Sure. Essentially doctors took pregnancy and childbirth care of pregnant people away from midwives. There was an active movement to discredit them. That's the establishment of medical schools that did not necessarily allow women and people of color. Okay, at the turn of the 20th century, 50% of babies were born with midwives. Midwives were mostly immigrants and black women. This was very much a working-class women's job and then it was taken away.
Angela Garbes: We have a diverse care field now, but really in medicine and health, administrators and people with a lot of the power are overwhelmingly white men. That's just true and that's not an accident. Yeah, there's a really shameful racial history to obstetrics and gynecology. J. Marion Sims, who is considered "the father of modern gynecology", he invented the speculum, which anyone who's had a pelvic exam or a pap smear knows it's this instrument that ... Whatever, we don't need to go into the details. He invented the speculum and he was really well-known for ... He developed a way to surgically repair fistula, which is great.
Angela Garbes: Except that what we've learned is that he did this by experimenting and operating on enslaved black women. They were seen as property. He got them from their owners and they were never compensated for this. He operated on patients 12 or 13 times and he never used anesthesia. This is buying into this racist belief that somehow black people and slaves were ... They didn't feel pain as much or they just didn't care that they were experiencing pain. Only after he had perfected his techniques on enslaved women did he start doing this on white women, always with anesthesia.
Angela Garbes: Yeah, it's hard because I don't want to focus on just the negative and I don't want to be a downer 'cause I'm hopeful in many ways. Once you in earnest start researching female reproductive health, there's a dark history there. Again, I just feel like we have to acknowledge it to move forward from it in any way. That was all there to learn and it was really ... I didn't know it. I think I understood. I've always identified as ... Not always. I've identified as a feminist for most of my life, since I was about 12. To really spend the time researching this and learning this was eye-opening and enraging and really made me committed to talking about reproductive justice and reproductive health.
Britta Barrett: Speaking of motherhood and feminism, I feel like there have been more books than ever before coming out on the subject. We both read 'The Argonauts' by Maggie Nelson. 'Motherhood' by Shelia Heti is great, but there's like one type of person who's getting these book deals and that becomes very clear. Are there more perspectives that you would like to see reflected in the body of literature? Are there some that really resonated for you when you were reading all these books on parenthood?
Angela Garbes: Yeah, I actually wrote an essay that was published in November on The Cut, which is the New York Magazine's women's platform. It was about how there's all these pieces about the mom book trend of 2018 and overwhelmingly they're all books by and about white women, mostly middle class, white women. The fact that I got to write a book about something that is seen as universal, motherhood, as a woman of color, it still feels like I got away with something.
Angela Garbes: We need more books from people of color. We need more book from people who are poor and low-income and that experience because that makes the experience of parenting and motherhood completely different and more stressful. Also, I like to think when I was writing my book, I went out of my way to make it inclusive. I interviewed people who were trans and non-binary, but that's not my story to tell and I'm not an expert on that. I like to think that maybe my book creates some space for that, but we need more books on parenting from those people.
Angela Garbes: Yes, we need more books overall. I feel like I just got here, but I'm happy to step out of the way and make more room for more people. It's not about who gets a piece of the pie. I feel like we just need to make more pie.
Britta Barrett: More pie, more books.
Angela Garbes: Yeah. Louise Erdrich, who's a celebrated novelist, she wrote a memoir about motherhood that no one talks about. It's called 'The Bluejays Dance' and it came out in 1995 or 1997 and people don't know about that.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, I didn't know about that.
Angela Garbes: Yeah. It's a beautiful book.
Emily Calkins: She's a wonderful writer.
Angela Garbes: Yeah. There's a great book of essays that came out last year ... last year or the year before that ... called 'Guidebook to Relative Strangers' by a poet named Camille Dungy. It's essays and journeys into race, motherhood, and history and it's an incredible book that also somehow got left out of all of these. There's also a book called 'Revolutionary Mothering', which really gets to the idea that mothering is a verb. It's not gender specific and how do we build communities that allow people to mother in ways that are appropriate for them?
Angela Garbes: The one thing about being a published author is that people start asking you to blurb books and read books in advance. There are two books that are coming out in April of 2019 that I was so excited to get a chance to read. One is called 'We Live For the We: On the Political Power of Black Motherhood'. It's by a person named Dani McClain who has reported on reproductive justice for years and writes for The Nation. Our books are very different, but it's so research-driven but it's also very much driven - I identified with this - by her own experience raising a black girl and being a black mother in America. She had all these personal questions and then just set out to research things and find answers to the questions that she had.
Angela Garbes: There's also a book called 'Women's Work' that's coming out, again, in April by a woman named Megan Stack. She's a white woman who had her children while working as a foreign correspondent. She worked for years as a foreign correspondent in Asia. In order for her to work, she hired very cheap domestic labor, which we have that here in America, but it's different in ... She was in China and in Singapore. No, in India, rather. It just explodes the idea of domestic labor and race and class and I just think it's great there are more books talking about this stuff.
Britta Barrett: What else are you reading these days?
Angela Garbes: Well, right now I am reading ... I'm on this Valeria Luiselli kick.
Emily Calkins: Are you reading the 'Lost Children Archive'?
Angela Garbes: I am. Because I've been thinking a lot about family separation, a friend had suggested her book, 'Tell Me How It Ends'. So Valeria Luiselli had volunteered to do the intake questionnaire and translate it for migrant children. This is not from this round from the last year of family separations. She goes into how this is partly Obama policies and so no one gets out unscathed in these books.
Angela Garbes: I read this book, which is a short book, and I had the hardest time with it because it's just brutal and heartbreaking but also I didn't want it to be over 'cause I wanted to keep learning and I wanted to know more about it. Then, I saw that she has a novel and I read an interview with her. She said, "I was so angry and I had so many feelings that I couldn't really go straight into writing a novel about this." So, she wrote 'Tell Me How It Ends' to work out some of that feelings and research and more of the political rage and anger and feelings that she had.
Angela Garbes: Then she was like, "Then I realized I could go back to the novel and see it as a way of asking lots of questions in the way we go into that story." Yeah, so that's what I'm reading now and I'm only 50 pages into 'Lost Children Archive', but I don't carry it in my bag 'cause I'm like, "It's at night." It's a treat for me to sit down and read it.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, it is really good and it's ... getting into that children separation stuff is just, it is heartbreaking, but she's a wonderful writer and so thought-provoking and creative in the way that she brings the pieces of it altogether. I'm listening to it on audiobooks.
Angela Garbes: Then, I'm reading always sort of books about bodies and things about bodies, which is research for my next book.
Britta Barrett: Do you read 'Gross Anatomy'?
Angela Garbes: I do. I have a copy of 'Gross Anatomy'. I consult it regularly and I have my anatomy and physiology textbook from when I was taking classes at Seattle Central that I refer to very regularly. I also have the anatomy coloring book, which I totally ... Sometimes when I just need to relax my brain, I color it.
Britta Barrett: That's great. Thanks so much for being here today.
Angela Garbes: Thank you so much for having me.
Laurie Frankel: I am Laurie Frankel. The book is 'This Is How It Always Is'. It is a book about a family with five boys, the youngest of whom becomes a girl. It is a book about a transgender child and how her transition impacts her entire family. But it also is, I hope, a book about parenting in general and the ways in which this is how it always is. It never goes according to plan. It always is unknown and unpredictable. It always presents you with things that you don't know what to do about and yet have to figure out how to do about them anyway with not nearly enough information and it's terrifying.
Laurie Frankel: I hope that it is a book about not just as parenting in general, but being part of a family in general and the ways in which it is both unpredictable and yet necessary. There are all of these givens like you are, of course, going to keep loving each other and keep showing up for each other so then the question becomes how.
Emily Calkins: I love the way that you write about parenting.
Laurie Frankel: Thank you.
Emily Calkins: I pulled a little quote. "It is a truism that everyone offers but no one believes until after they have children that time will actually speed, fleet enough to leave you jet lagged and whiplashed and racing all at once."
Laurie Frankel: Oh, that's nice.
Emily Calkins: Can you talk your own experiences as a parent shaped how you write about being a parent?
Laurie Frankel: Yeah, gosh. I would love to. Parenting is both very inspiring and very time-consuming and very brain-consuming. Unlike other things I think one becomes obsessed with, parenting takes up all of the room there is. So other things that I have written about because I was interested in them and I really wanted to talk about them, I was really inspired by them, are different than parenting, which just doesn't go away.
Laurie Frankel: It doesn't matter how frustrated you get or how tired you are, there keeps being more of it, but it changes all the time. I think that's true for better or for worse. One of the things that happens is that parenting doesn't allow you to get cocky, I think. If you do, woe be to you because you don't get to keep it. As soon as you think, "Oh, I've understood this challenge and I have accepted it and I have surmounted it and I've done something about it," oh, it changes and becomes like something else and something new.
Laurie Frankel: That makes it a really great thing to write about and it also just makes it an all-consuming thing. People talk a lot about how wonderful and magical and loving parenting is and it is those things. But it's also all of these other things and it doesn't ever go away. I like that narratively, never mind in my life. As a storytelling thing because it can't be plot-solved. A magician can't come and wave a wand. There's no magic thing that can happen. There's no decree that can be passed. There's nothing that can be done to make those challenges lesser. That makes it, I think, an interesting thing to write about.
Emily Calkins: I want to talk to you about the family at the heart of the story.
Laurie Frankel: Oh, good.
Emily Calkins: There's so many of them.
Laurie Frankel: There's so many of them.
Emily Calkins: It's a huge family. Can you talk about both where the idea of having this big family with all these boys came from and also the characters in particular?
Laurie Frankel: Yeah, totally. I was wed to those five kids from the beginning. They were part of the seed of this thing. I cut 250,000 words from this book.
Emily Calkins: Wow!
Laurie Frankel: Yeah, so two whole books got cut from this book. Almost all of it changed wholesale over the course of writing it except those kids. I was wed to those kids from the beginning and early readers, including both my agent and my editor, felt like that was too many characters to keep track of. My agent kept saying to me, "Three, three is a big family."
Laurie Frankel: But I really wanted to look at a few things. One is how something like this affects everyone in a family, but mostly I wanted to think about kids. Kids are weird. Kids are so weird. All kids are weird. Much of the weirdness of kids we think is not only acceptable, but in fact, admirable. We think, "Oh, that child is so creative," or, "That child is so delightfully quirky." And we think, "This kind of weird, okay. This kind of weird, also okay. This kind of weird, totally love it. This kind of weird, ew, no. That needs to be accommodated or taken to a doctor or taken to a psychiatrist because that kind of weird is not okay with us."
Laurie Frankel: I really wanted to look at which is which, which times weird is quirky and which times weird is unacceptable and has to be changed and why. The best way I could think of doing that was to look at as many kids as possible and as wide a variety of kids as I could. If I could have done a dozen children, I'd have done it, but that was too many characters to develop. It was a question of figuring out the balance between so many people that you can't keep track of them and they just become caricatures. Getting few enough that I could actually develop them, but enough that I could look at this huge range of being a kid, of the different ways there are to be a kid.
Emily Calkins: I love what you just said about your agent and your editor because that reminds me of that scene early in the book where Rosie's having a conversation with the neighbor or something and she's like, "Oh, really? All five of them, huh?" I'm like, oh, I can see...
Laurie Frankel: Yeah. Yes, indeed. It's a lot of kids these days.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, but they're great, and I feel it's interesting to hear you say that you were trying to straddle that line between character and caricature 'cause they all feel ... they feel like real kids to me.
Laurie Frankel: Yeah, I'm so glad. They do now. They took a lot of editing to do it. Originally, the twins were not twins. That was the compromise that I landed on. You can keep track of those two 'cause they go together. They're like a character and a half basically. That's what made it manageable I think.
Emily Calkins: Poppy's gender is at the heart of the story, but there are all kinds of other more subtle challenges to gender roles. Rosie, who's the mom, is the primary breadwinner and Penn is the dad, but he's a novelist and he stays home and spends a lot of time with the kids while he's writing. The oldest son both plays the flute and is the quarterback. Why do you think family is such a ripe setting for exploring gender?
Laurie Frankel: Yeah, it's exactly right. That is the question. I don't know the answer to it, but it was indeed the plan. That was the other thing that was in the seed of this for me. I thought, "Oh, I'm going to switch the gender roles of the parents as much as possible." So indeed, she's the breadwinner and she's the scientist and she's this pretty hardcore doctor. He's an artist and not the kind who makes money. He's the one who stays home and does a good bit of the parenting.
Laurie Frankel: Yet, try as I would to flip their gender roles, and I did, I think she's still the mom and he's still the dad. He's very much like, "Oh, well it will be fine and we'll just show up and see what happens and everyone's going to turn out great." She's like, "No! We need to plan and I'm very worried about all of these things." For my money, I just think that's very much the mom role. Maybe that's not gendered, maybe that's a different thing. That's a whole other level. That's momming rather than femaling. I don't know. But, it was interesting to me watching myself try to subvert this and really just be unable to do so.
Laurie Frankel: It's an interesting thing. Families are interesting in general because it is a nice, tight, very small community. Everyone in it has a role. Those roles change certainly, but, in general, most families, most people in them, have a role of some kind. Where those fall along gender lines and where they subvert gender lines is an interesting question and there's a lot to play with there. Again, I was wanting to look at when is it okay for this little boy to play the flute and when is it not okay for this little boy to go to school in a dress. And where do we draw those lines and why and how?
Emily Calkins: Going back a little bit to what you just said about Rosie being a hardcore doctor, some of the scenes that I really loved are when they're in Thailand and she's trying to figure out how to be a doctor with all this stuff that she knows how to use. Can you talk a little bit about your research process for that?
Laurie Frankel: Oh, yes. Well, so first of all, I am not a doctor. I am so not a doctor. All of that research, that was the hardest research that I had to do or, in fact, have ever had to do because I didn't even know the questions. I couldn't look it up. I went into it thinking, "Okay, what I'll do is I'll just write it wrong and then give it to someone to fix it." But, I couldn't even write it wrong. I couldn't imagine it. I literally could not imagine it. I didn't know what to do or say.
Laurie Frankel: So I had to look at all of this research. My friend, Carol Cassella, who's a wonderful novelist and a Seattlite. She's, in fact, on Bainbridge Island. She's a Pacific Northwester, I guess. She's a wonderful novelist. She's also a wonderful physician and she helped me with a lot of it. She kept saying things to me on the phone like, "I don't want to talk down to you." And I was like, "Listen. You can rest easy on that front 'cause I don't know anything." She talked me through a lot of things and then she read the drafts and said helpful things like, "Well, we don't usually say the word 'holes'. You're looking for something more like puncture wounds."
Laurie Frankel: I'm like, "Oh, right. Wounds, wounds! It's wounds instead of holes. That's great." She said to me, "Oh, you know you can watch surgeries on YouTube now." I was like, "Oh, fabulous." I dialed that up on my computer and watched maybe the first three seconds before I put my head between my knees and like, "No, no. I can't do this." I had to have my husband put a developer app on the browser so that I could read these articles without looking at the pictures 'cause the picture were making me sick. I'm really not a doctor. Indeed, it took a lot of research.
Emily Calkins: In the author's note at the end of the book, you say, "I know this book will be controversial, but honestly, I keep forgetting why." Has that been the case? Has the book been controversial?
Laurie Frankel: The topic has been controversial. The response to the fact of the book has been controversial. In fact, the response to the book has not been controversial at all and I've been so, so grateful for it. I have definitely received a not insignificant amount of hate mail and trolling and nastiness online, social media, and right into my inbox. It starts like, "Dear Laurie," and then goes on to make all sorts of really terrible comments and threats against me and my kid and my family.
Laurie Frankel: That has been appalling, but it is not in response to the book itself. It has been in response to interviews that I've done or articles that I've written in support of it. Things that I have shared about my experience and my family's experience, publicity surrounding the book, the idea of the book, the topic of the book. But no one, so far - I'm knocking on wood - has come up to me at a reading or has said, "I have read this book and here is what has made me so angry about the book."
Laurie Frankel: Unsettling as that has been, it is really a comfort that the response to the book has been incredibly loving and positive and lots of people have written to me with great enthusiasm and gratitude. I'm so happy about that. I think that in some ways it feels a little bit like preaching to the choir, but I also think that it speaks really well of people who read books. That people who read books, that people who go to book stores for events, that people who go to libraries for events are people who are interested in hearing about ideas they didn't have before and experiences that aren't their own. Their response, indeed, has been really, really loving and grateful and wonderful.
Laurie Frankel: It's almost like controversy was the wrong word. It's certainly inspired some, or at least inspired people to send me, some hatred and anger. My suspicion is that that hatred and anger wasn't inspired by me or the book best I can tell.
Emily Calkins: Rosie and Penn and the rest of the family move across the country and they decide to keep Poppy's past as Claude a secret. Your family has taken a different approach to your child's gender transition. In a Modern Love column you wrote, "We as a family decided to be open and honest about it, to celebrating her story instead of hiding it." How did you come to that decision?
Laurie Frankel: We were and are continue to be very, very, lucky to be able to take that approach and, in fact, not have to make that decision. The truth is, the family in the book makes a different decision mostly because of plot, the need for people to keep turning pages of a book. That there's nothing like a secret festering to drive a novel. That is really why they make that decision.
Laurie Frankel: I have also probably thought about this more than any single human being on Earth between having this child and writing this book, and I have to say that if we moved, I don't know what I would do. I think it is a very difficult question without any easy answer which is what makes it a really good thing to write a book about. That is what I want all of my books to be about. Not the ones I write, the ones I read. I love books where the question is a difficult one. I am frustrated when the answers obvious and it was just a question of roadblocks getting there.
Laurie Frankel: I am interested in this topic because there are really good arguments on both sides and that's what makes it heartbreaking and difficult. We are really lucky to live someplace extraordinarily progressive and my kid goes to the public school a mile from our house to which we are districted and has been met there with nothing but love and support and understanding. Therefore, we haven't had to struggle with these 'tell or don't tell' decisions.
Laurie Frankel: The other thing is that the transition is an ongoing one, as all childhood is. It is a slow and ongoing thing. So it wasn't like she woke up one morning and became this other person. It happened very, very slowly in front of an entire community of people. It wouldn't have been possible to hide that without moving. But indeed, it was very important to me to be able to say to her, "This is not something to be ashamed of. This is not something to be afraid of. This is growing up and this is what being a kid is, it's undergoing immense change with, hopefully, the love and support of your family."
Laurie Frankel: We'll see what happens tomorrow and then tomorrow we'll see what happens tomorrow and then tomorrow we'll see what happens tomorrow. Yeah, we'll go from there. However, I am very aware of how blessed we are to have that option.
Emily Calkins: You wrote this book a long time ago, so you're working on something else?
Laurie Frankel: I am working on something else, yes. I am in what I hope are late-stage edits of the next novel which is called, 'One, Two, Three'. It is about triplets. It is about three sisters this time. It is about family and it is about that sibling dynamic, but the issues at hand are different than this one.
Emily Calkins: Do you come from a big family? What makes you interested in families?
Laurie Frankel: I don't. I don't. I have one sister and I have one kid. Poor her, she's an only child. I don't, but I am always interested in families. I'm always writing about really, I think, non-traditional families. Ways in which people, who we don't necessarily usually think of as family, can be family or people who we might traditionally think of family, their genetically related, are, in fact, kind of a quirky, different sort of families. The ways in which there are lots of different ways to make a family as opposed to the idea of here's what a family is by definition: it is a man human and a woman human who get together and biologically create a child, I think, is really not just limited, but, in fact, an unfortunate way to look at families. It is an option, certainly. It is one of the ways. There's so many ways. I think that the wider definition of family we make, as with all things, the better the world gets for everyone. The wider definitions make the world a better place.
Laurie Frankel: I also am interested in families because most people are in one, one way or another. Again, it's not necessarily a biological, blood-related kind of a family. Most people are, though, members of a family. Then it gets really complicated. One of the things that I think we say all the time about good friends is, "Oh, she's like family." Then, what we say about the people who are related to us is often much more complicated than that. So, I'm interested in family, both the good and the bad, the way in which those relationships are foundational and very close and ideally very loving and supportive, but also, often, really fraught and really complicated, which is what makes for good novels.
Emily Calkins: Are there other novels about family that you'd recommend? Some of your favorites?
Laurie Frankel: Oh, my gosh. Yes, so many of them. I love Karen Joy Fowler's novel 'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves', which is a very beautiful, interesting take on family that should be read by all humans. 'The Great Believers' has beautiful, super interesting families in it. I love David Mitchell's take on families. Oh, and 'American Marriage'. Beautiful, interesting, super wonderful stuff about family in there. Again, very non-traditional family.
Britta Barrett: Are there any literary families you just wish you could be a part of, like you read them and you're like-
Laurie Frankel: Oh, that's really cool.
Britta Barrett: ... "I wish you were my mom or my sibling?"
Laurie Frankel: God, there must be, right? Yeah, see because I like big, quirky families in literature and now I can't think of any.
Britta Barrett: My mom grew up reading 'Swiss Family Robinson' and Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I feel like those filled the shelves in our home as examples of families that were bigger and quirkier than ours were.
Laurie Frankel: Right, yes. It's true children's books are really great on this topic. I read a lot of children's books because I have a child. This is a good point that I don't usually think of them when I'm thinking of oh, book that I have loved, which isn't true because I have loved them. It is also often true that the children's books are big on orphans but without families. I was very partial to Pippi Longstocking as a child, but she is part of a really interesting family. It's just a different kind of family. It's this non-traditional family.
Laurie Frankel: Ramona Quimby, that is a family that I really imagined myself-
Britta Barrett: That is a wonderful family. Yes.
Laurie Frankel: ... to be a part of. I read all of those books many, many times growing up on the East Coast and for my life could not understand why it was always raining. Then, I moved to the Pacific Northwest and was like, "Oh, I get it now."
Laurie Frankel: That's a really good example of ... They're a small family. It's not that everything goes well and it's not that they're always kind and nice to each other, but this idea of, "Well, but we might just call it quits. We might just walk away from this. We might just scream and yell at each other and never work it out," it's not floated. It's not even an option. I found that very, I guess, comforting as a child, but in reading it to my own child, I find it pretty inspirational the kind of storms that they weather without ever ...
Laurie Frankel: I'm frustrated by books and also in movies and TV where people who love each other are just screaming at each other and lying to each other and walking out. I think, "Have a conversation. Have a conversation and then let's see what happens." That one of the things that I am drawn to, I think, as a reader.
Emily Calkins: It's interesting to hear you say that because that really struck me about 'This Is How It Always Is'. It is such a warm-hearted book. It's so generous. The characters are so generous to each other and the book is generous to the characters and even when people disagree or make mistakes, it really is this sense of, "Okay, but we're here and we're together and what do we do with it?"
Laurie Frankel: Yes.
Emily Calkins: I really see that. I see that in the book.
Laurie Frankel: Thank you. Yeah. It is what I want to read and therefore it is what I write. I also think it's just more interesting. Yes or no just doesn't seem like merely as interesting a question to me as, "Okay, how?" What's interesting is both of these parents show up and say, "Well, of course, we're going to figure this out and of course, we love you. If this is who you are, then let's do this thing." But, how is a much more difficult and therefore, I think, interesting question and indeed, one that is quite nuanced and therefore required conversation.
Britta Barrett: When we spoke with Laurie we touched a little bit on literary families that we love. Do you have any?
Emily Calkins: Yeah, it's interesting that she brought up children's books because when I was thinking about this, all of the families that I thought, "Oh, I want to be a part of that family," are from books that I read and loved as a kid. I think there's something about family in children's books, it's the site of so much drama when you're a kid. So, I thought of the Weasleys, of course, from 'Harry Potter'.
Britta Barrett: Absolutely.
Emily Calkins: Just the best family. There's enough siblings that everybody will have somebody to identify with and maybe at your worst, you're a Percy, but on better days you're a Bill.
Britta Barrett: I think 'cause I want one of those jumpers.
Emily Calkins: Absolutely. I definitely want a jumper with my initial on it. I feel like, sort of like the Quimbys in the Ramona books, it's such an example of a family who maybe doesn't have the easiest circumstances and yet their love for each other carries them through and they figure out how to make it work around all of the assorted quirks of Author Weasley's, all of his Muggle things that he's enchanted and all of these rowdy kids everywhere in this house that keeps building up and adding on and finding space for all of them. I love that family.
Britta Barrett: That's how I felt about 'A Wrinkle in Time' too, which I re-read as an adult and didn't find quite as charming, but what remained, I think, was this loving family making weird sandwiches in the kitchen at midnight, just having these conversations with each other that are so lovely and warm and intimate and just being like, I want to live in that attic.
Emily Calkins: Yeah.
Britta Barrett: Sounds great.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, and I think as I also have re-read 'A Wrinkle in Time' relatively recently and, as an adult, it's still a family that I really value. I think that Mrs. Murray is a really fascinating parent. She's sort of single-parenting a lot of the time and she really encourages these kids who are unusual and kind of quirky kids and she wants them to be who they are and celebrate their own strengths. As a mom, I'm like, "Oh, she's like a role-model mom."
Britta Barrett: For sure. Mom goals.
Emily Calkins: Yeah. #momGoals.
Emily Calkins: What's interesting about family is that in a lot of ways you're kind of stuck with them. Of course, you can and people choose to leave the families that they're born into and create found families, but there's these interesting, thorny relationships when there's someone that you love and have to be around, but also resent or envy or resent and envy and love and admire. It's just so complex. Especially as stories move out of the children's age that we're talking about and into more adolescent or adult fiction, you get all of these really knotty relationships that make for great fiction.
Britta Barrett: Are there any family sagas that you would recommend to people, spanning multiple generations?
Emily Calkins: I just read 'Pachinko' by Min Jin Lee, but it's a multi-sweeping family saga, multiple generations set in Japan and Korea that I really like. How about you?
Britta Barrett: Well, as you and probably many of our listeners know, I'm the non-fiction evangelist in this family.
Emily Calkins: How about family memoirs, then?
Britta Barrett: Yeah, absolutely. I've been reading so many. I read 'The Rules Do Not Apply'. Have you read that one? Which is about a journalist who ... It starts with her whole life falling apart. She was pregnant when she started a trip and had the love of her and by the time she comes home, neither of those things are true.
Emily Calkins: I have read the New Yorker article she wrote about that miscarriage, which is an incredible article. It's a beautiful piece of writing.
Britta Barrett: Her book is just more of the same and it's so hard and so complicated and interesting. That's, as I mentioned earlier in the episode, something that has been a part of my life yet, making a whole new family, but I'm definitely interested in the subject. So, a book I've read recently was Nicole Chung's 'All You Can Ever Know', which is about the experience of being adopted but also very specifically about transracial adoption. She is someone who - her birth parents were Korean and she was adopted by white parents.
Britta Barrett: I identify so strongly with so many aspects of being adopted that she describes. Then, there's this whole other layer that hasn't been a part of my life and is interesting to read. She's so generous with describing a very complex issue.
Emily Calkins: Speaking of memoirs, we've talked about 'The Argonauts' a couple of time. We'll probably just keep talking about it on our Argonauts fan podcast.
Britta Barrett: We don't want to assume that you've heard all of our podcast episodes, but many of them feature us talking about this book because it's so incredible. If someone doesn't know, what it 'The Argonauts' about?
Emily Calkins: What is it about? It's a memoir and she ... Maggie Nelson is the author. She draws in a lot of critical theory too. So, it's about her romantic partnership with her partner who's undergoing a gender transition at the same time that she is pregnant and giving birth to their child. So, it's about forming a family. It's about our own roles within families and how those change. It's about trying to get pregnant and being pregnant and having a child.
Emily Calkins: It's so messy, which I like because that is so much the experience of living in the world. I feel like I've read so few books that fully capture just the messy experience of being a person and having a body. I think she does that so well.
Britta Barrett: I also picked up 'The Department of Speculation', which is just a tiny sliver of a novel. It's fiction.
Emily Calkins: What?
Britta Barrett: Quite literary fiction and it's about that experience of transitioning from who you are before you start a family and who you are after, the dynamic with your partner. I think it was just a couple hours of audiobook listening, but it was riveting.
Emily Calkins: Speaking of a couple of hours of audiobook listening, I am going to pitch a book to you because it was really short, it's less than four hours, it is a novel. But I just read this book called 'Ghost Wall' by Sarah Moss. It is - so, I read it in January and as soon as I finished it, I was like, "Well, that's my favorite book of the year." I don't actually know, but definitely top 10.
Britta Barrett: Calling it now.
Emily Calkins: Top 10. It's about a family. It's about a young woman who's like 17 and her father and mother. It's set in the UK in the 70s. This blue-collar family joins a professor and three archeology students to spend two weeks reenacting the Iron Age.
Britta Barrett: Interesting.
Emily Calkins: Yeah. The daughter is just this fascinating character, and the family is really fascinating. The father is not a good person. He is abusive in several ways. Sarah Moss manages to capture this very complex relationship that, Sylvie, who's the young woman, has her dad and with her mom. Where she - he's taking her out on the Moors for her whole childhood and he's really interested in the Iron Age and so it's a point where they relate to each other. She's also afraid of him because he's abusive, but she also still sort of loves him because he's her dad.
Emily Calkins: Then, she has this really complex relationship with her mother as well where she resents her mother for not extracting herself from the situation, not handling it better, but then she pities her mother as well and still loves her. And, on top of all of that, you have this wonderfully atmospheric writing about summer. They're in Yorkshire and it's hot. There's a scene where they have to walk way across a beach at low tide. They're trying to gather mussels 'cause that's what Iron Age people did apparently.
Emily Calkins: It's incredibly atmospheric. As the time in this reenactment goes on, people start to lose the plot a little. They get a little kooky and ... Kooky's not the right word. They get a little aggressive and they start reenacting these more ritualized parts of life in the Iron Age. One of the things that these Iron Age communities did is sacrifice people to the bog. So, the book opens with the description of one of these sacrifices and it's unclear-
Britta Barrett: Oh, my gosh.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, whether it's a historical sacrifice or the ending of the book. It's great. It's really gripping. It's a fascinating portrait of a family and it also is very creepy. And, it's under four hours.
Emily Calkins: On our next episode, we'll talk about books about difficult topics. We'll interview author Bonnie Rough about her book about parenting and sexuality.
Britta Barrett: And, Kristi Coulter's book about sobriety.
Emily Calkins: Then, we have a special KCLS guest, a librarian who's going to talk to us about some of her favorite books about topics like death and dying.
Britta Barrett: Get ready to get real.
Emily Calkins: Until next time.
Britta Barrett: Happy reading.