In 1984, my then-husband and I were ready to turn over a new leaf, and upgrade from an old Formica-topped table we’d been using for several years. This table was, of course, a parental castoff.
My parents had used it in their kitchen, then on their deck. When they bought some beautiful wrought iron furniture at a Meier & Frank warehouse sale, they passed it along with two wooden chairs, Nichols & Stone beauties marred by a strange, sticky finish. Mom let me know that they were “really good” chairs.
Yes, but they were sticky.
It was a temporary solution, but as my mother had explained to me, “Temporary solutions have a way of becoming permanent.” Her example was a crate used as an end table, something you do in college. Ten years later, you look up and that crate is still there, being used as an end table.
Mom had a point. Our entire apartment was furnished in temporary solutions, castoffs and loaners and curbside finds. We’d been using that patio table for at least three years. I used my dad’s staple gun to staple on a new vinyl tablecloth every now and then, but still. I decided to take a look at the “World’s Largest Rummage Sale.”
This secondhand extravaganza was held each year in the Memorial Coliseum by Catlin Gabel, a private school in Northwest Portland. The donation drive went on for months, resulting in an astonishing assemblage of upper-crust castoffs. I knew I could find something at the Catlin Gabel sale.
Boy, did I. A square pine table with a dark finish set me back all of $25.00. Such a bargain, for a “really good” table. It was solid, with a pieced top, braced corners and sturdy turned legs. At one time it had a leaf, because it had a central join with pegs on one side, holes on the other, and levered closures (like the ones you find on windows) underneath to hold the two halves tight.
I think someone built this table in a home workshop. Mom was a furniture snob—she’d worked selling furniture at one point in her life—and she approved of the quality. So did I. My husband didn’t understand why we liked it so much, but it fit in our apartment’s dining space, nicely accommodating our family of four.
It made the move from apartment to our first home, where we grew to a family of five. I thought we were fine. Each side could hold two chairs, especially when two were occupied by little girls. But my husband decided that we no longer fit.
He unscrewed the legs, carted the tabletop somewhere for measuring, then carted it back home and put it back together. “We need a new leaf.” I asked him who was making this new leaf. “I know a guy,” was the most he would tell me.
That’s all he would tell me about, well, anything. He followed his father’s advice to “Never tell a woman where you’re going, or how much money you have.” Fine, then. I retaliated by refusing to be curious (can you see how well this marriage was going? but that is not the point of this blog post. well, not really.).
He brought the new leaf home and unveiled it with pride. I was appalled. It had cost $85.00 to have it made for our $25.00 table, and it wasn’t even finished. He said he’d finish it himself, but I knew him. I covered the raw wood with a large tablecloth and got on with life.
The five of us ate dinner together at the elongated table for a few more years. The girls perched on rickety wooden kitchen chairs my husband found secondhand. Us adults continued to sit in the chairs with the sticky finishes.
But he made it home for dinner less and less. Shift work, most of the time. Other times? Who knew. I was resolutely incurious. It was my only defense.
His sticky chair wasn’t usually empty, though. We had dinner almost nightly with my friend Lauren, whose own marriage had ended. Her two kids came to my house after school, and it was easy to feed them dinner on weeknights. She reciprocated on weekends. That filled up the table very nicely.
When my husband finally moved out, the nightly dinners with Lauren and her kids continued. She was right there, every single day, helping me find (and keep) my footing. We formed our own little Kate and Allie situation.
But times change. I went back to work myself, and worked strange hours. My kids were with their father and his new girlfriend part of the time. One of my girls needed extensive surgery, so my family came down to help a lot that next year.
Eventually, Lauren remarried, and I began my single life adventures. But I believe she kind of, you know, saved my life. And I mean that.
Destruction brings opportunity.
That’s a realization you have after undergoing fundamental devastation. I was grieving the end of my marriage, terrified by the disruption of my children’s security, and just plain furious. But I had to move on. I needed to recognize the opportunity for change.
On the level of personal identity, this meant reclaiming parts of myself I’d set aside. I’d been told by my husband that for the marriage to work, I simply could not be me. I’d given away half of myself (or more, if I’m honest) to be part of that marriage. I wanted it all back and then some.
On the mundane level, that included making decisions about the house and how it was furnished. I looked at every part of my home to make sure it was exactly how I wanted it. Those creaking, rickety kitchen chairs had to go. I laid away four solid oak chairs at an antique mall in Newberg. They were early American in style, and very sturdy. I can’t remember what I paid, maybe $35.00 each? They’d been consigned by a Catholic monk who had finished them himself.
Once I got those home, I felt exalted. No more crappy chairs around my table! I took the table outside, painted the skirt and legs, and refinished the wood top. This included (finally) finishing the leaf, which I had considered taking out. We were back down to a family of four. We didn’t technically need it.
But I’d grown used to the sweep of a larger table. Plus there were kids’ birthday parties to consider. And family dinners on holidays. And all those freaking piles of laundry to fold.
The 2006 house fire allowed me to make more changes, not just in my home’s layout as it was being rebuilt, but in furnishings, because so many were lost. I have a new table now, a sweeping eight-footer. It took some years and some shopping, but it is now flanked by six sturdy modern chairs my daughter found for me on Marketplace.
All on my own, I found two bow back Nichols & Stone chairs for the head and foot of the table (thank you Goodwill, for pricing these beauties at $9.99 each). I like the blend of modern and traditional. And I love a bargain.
The remaining sticky chair is in the bedroom. That’s where I set my purse, and where I heap garments when I can’t decide what to wear.
The oak chairs made it through the fire, and I used them as a temporary solution around the new table. That temporary solution lasted fifteen years before they went to Goodwill. I was glad to see them go. They were sturdy, and gave me good service, but they were also tall and pale and dated. One of them had a little green paint on it. That’s how I identified it when I saw it at my local Goodwill, priced at $14.99.
So long, old oak chairs. It was good to know you.
I kept the old table, which also made it through the fire just fine. I’ve loaned it out twice, once to a friend who used it as a desk, then to a daughter until her boyfriend surprised her with a new dining set. Currently, it leans against a wall in the garage, legs detached, solid and square as ever, waiting to be called into service. The new leaf is there, too, minus a skirting board, but still usable.
I like that table. It would work nicely if I ever call it up as a desk, maybe for the office I plan to create in one of the spare rooms. I’m not sure.
Like I said, it’s a really good table. It was always a really good table.
That’s why I’ll never let it go.
The first book I ever published was Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park. But I actually wrote The Iris Files before I wrote the trailer park book. And those who’ve read them know that Minah Bourne is a character in both books.
If you read Iris first, then your first introduction to Minah was my first introduction to her. She came into my mind as Iris’s mother-in-law, and she was introduced via those envelopes full of clippings that arrived in Iris’s mailbox every so often.
Then, there are the Minah clippings. Minah is my mother in law, and she sends clippings at least once a week. Each thick envelope seemed to be organized along a theme. Sometimes, it’s medical. “The Seven Warning Signs of Cancer.” “Better Living Through Bran.” “Medical Miracles that could Change Your Life!” These are accompanied by a note in her slanting hand. “No one lives forever, Iris. Minah.”
She also sends articles on “Keeping Your Man by Keeping Him Happy,” and “Five Fast Relationship Quick Fixes!” Again, the note, “Iris, take a lesson, here.” She sends articles about raising kids, about watching too much TV and how to get your kids to clean their rooms. “Worth a try, don’t you think? Minah.” Clearly, Minah believes I can use all the help I can get.
Iris didn’t find these clippings helpful. She didn’t know her mother-in-law very well, and she didn’t know why she kept getting these fat envelopes full of clippings every month, and she really didn’t look forward to Minah’s arrival. She found the very idea of Minah to be, shall we say, a challenge.
We all know how that went, don’t we.
If you’ve read the Trailer Park book, you know where the clippings came from, and why they often had tack holes in the corner. There were reasons. Good ones. And Minah is a quiet hero, clippings and all.
I try to skirt the issue of what might be autobiographical in my novels, but I freely admit that I based the clippings on events from my own life. For whatever reason, my mother saved and sent a lot of clippings. I mean, a lot. I’d open a letter, and find a wad of clippings with little pencil notations in my mother’s almost indecipherable handwriting, telling me who the clipping was for. It could be me, or it was just as likely to be for one of my (now ex) husbands, and later for my sister (who didn’t write letters much with my mother so I was supposed to save and deliver these to her for Mom) or much later, for my oldest daughter.
I think most of the clippings had to do with schemes. Please understand that my mother would have disliked how I call her ideas “schemes.” To her, they were perfectly reasonable “ideas.” Mostly they were ideas for how other people (who were not Mom) should live their lives.
Say, for instance, she read an article about Christmas tree farms in Oregon. She would think, “Karen and (ex) should do that.” So she would send that with her spidery pencil notations in the margin, “Think about this!” and then she’d eventually call me and ask if I’d read it, and had I been looking into opening a Christmas tree farm, and she’d found some listings for them, and she was sending them down so I could check them out with this realtor friend of hers.
I stood firm. “Mom, I don’t want a Christmas tree farm.”
Which would only strengthen her resolve that this was indeed the business venture that we should follow. She’d get very testy and defensive. She didn’t like being dismissed out of hand like that.
But I would hold my ground by stating the obvious. “Well, if you like the idea of owning a Christmas tree farm so much, why don’t you and Dad do it?”
This was a dangerous rejoinder. My parents spent years charging off in one direction or another, chasing their schemes, until finally settling down on Bainbridge Island. My parents loved it there, and shaking up their lives was then geographically limited, so it mostly involved local real estate as opposed to career changes.
This left my mother with a lot of pent up scheming energy, so she began working on getting other people to shake up their lives. My mother was so persuasive that she convinced a couple of friends to leave their jobs, sell everything they owned, and move into an RV and travel. And this couple DID IT. They lasted about a year before they sold the RV, bought a house, and went back to work. But that was my mom, an early #vanlife prophet who loathed RVs, but liked the idea, so she just urged the lifestyle onto someone else.
To be fair, my parents did charge off on a few financially ruinous schemes of their own during their Bainbridge years, including opening a pizza restaurant after they’d entered the years when they should have been consolidating their resources and planning for retirement.
Like I said, schemes.
My point is, I knew firsthand how annoying it was to receive a bunch of clippings. And the clippings weren’t limited to my own mother! When my second ex husband began his own lengthy and painful exit, his mother sent me the very clippings Iris receives about how to comport yourself around your children when your husband begins to pull a disappearing act.
Minah express-mailed me an emergency packet of clippings about divorced women who had been beaten, cheated on, financially devastated and abandoned by their husbands, but these women had NEVER said ONE word against their husbands to their children. They suffered in saintly silence, so their kids could have a high opinion of their fathers.
Scribbled in the margin, “Iris, take a lesson.”
Iris received that advice with more grace than I did.
Another clipping received came after my first child was born with a physical condition that came as a true surprise to everyone. Several well-meaning people sent me the Dear Abby Holland/Italy column. It starts with:
Welcome to Holland
I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability-to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this . . .
‘When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, `Welcome to Holland.’
‘HOLLAND?!?’ you say. ‘What do you mean, Holland? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.’
But there`s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.
If you’d like to read the rest of this thing, it’s here: That Holland/Italy Dear Abby column people send to new parents who are grappling with the reality of having a child who is going to face a lot of heartbreaking challenges in her life and maybe this will help, I guess.
There’s another advice column from one of the Ann/Abby sisters about God choosing atheists to raise disabled kids. Apparently we are divinely chosen for this special task because we’re going to be so good at it. I don’t have the heart to track that one down. Nothing about that column brings an atheist any closer to the idea of God.
And if you’re reading this, and a friend has a child with a challenge, spare them these columns. You might have the very best of intentions, but a lot of people do brutal things with the very best of intentions. Don’t do it.
At some point, my mother got angry about the clippings. She let me know that it was taking up a large portion of each day to read things, clip them out, sort them into piles (because my brothers and some of her friends were getting them, too) and get them sent off with proper postage. I remember the hurt in her voice when she said, “I don’t even think you’re reading most of them.”
I replied, “Mom, did I ever ask you to be my clipping service? Did anyone ask you to do that?”
Mom kind of huffed up and gathered her dignity, then. Like most of us, she hated to find out she’d been doing something unnecessary, even annoying, as opposed to helpful. No one likes to feel ridiculous, especially not my mom. But I like to imagine that after her hurt feelings subsided, she started to read her papers and magazines for herself, rather than reading them for other people. I imagine it was a relief.
Here’s the rub. I do this, or a version of it. I send links to poems and essays to my friends. Just a select few friends, and I try to keep it under control. But I get daily poems from Rattle magazine and Poem-a-Day, so I send poems off now and then. I even sent this one to my husband, because we watch so many of these (and please read it slowly, and all the way to the end, because it’s magnificent in how it builds):
And I loved this trailer park poem so much, I posted it on my Facebook page (it’s heartbreaking and full of courage):
I recently sent this amazing NYer essay by Ann Padgett to four of my dearest friends.
And really, isn’t this what a Facebook feed is? A curation of links and memes and photos we think our friends will enjoy? An endless online clipping service?
So, am I just my own mother, now, as we are all our own mothers? I wonder. I also wonder if I would have loved getting envelopes from Mom if they had been full of poems and essays and stories, instead of schemes for changing my life. But Mom read mostly nonfiction, and she actively disliked poetry. She said she never “got it,” and felt stupid and angry when she tried to read it. She would never have sent me poems.
I recently read The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich. It’s fantastic, but there’s one passage that stood out to me. Here it is:
It is difficult for a woman to admit that she gets along with her own mother–sometimes it seems a form of betrayal, at least, it used to be among women in my generation. To join in the company of women, to be adults, we go through a period of proudly boasting of having survived our own mother’s indifference, anger, overpowering love, the burden of her pain, her tendency to drink or teetotal, her warmth or coldness, praise or criticism, sexual confusions or clarity. It isn’t enough that she sweat, labored, bore her daughters howling or under total anesthesia or both. No. She must be responsible for our psychic weakness for the rest of her life. It is all right to feel kinship with your father, to forgive. We all know that. But your mother is held to a standard so exacting that is has no principles. She simply must be to blame.
“She simply must be to blame.” I sighed in recognition when I read this, because I am a mother and I am a daughter, just as my own mother was. We only really forgive our mothers when we become mothers ourselves.
I loved my mother so much. She sent what she sent. She sent it with love. And of course, even though I love the life I’ve crafted, and I guard it from intrusion and meddling with everything I have, I’d give anything to open my mailbox and find one of those fat envelopes from my mom full of clippings on how to best change my life, annotated with her penciled notes in the margins.
A long conversation between author Karen G. Berry and Susan Sabol, her dear friend of many decades, which is included in The Iris Files, and reprinted here for your enjoyment. And you WILL enjoy it.
Sue: Why did you write this book?
Karen: Iris was a character in a short story I wrote trying to get into a creative writing class. I didn’t get in, I don’t write good short stories. But I always wondered about her full story. One day, I decided to tell it.
Sue: You write as if you are intimately familiar with life in suburbia. Are you?
Karen: Absolutely. I moved out to the suburbs when I was 23 years old. I hated it at first, but I stayed out here. And the truth is, I have grown to absolutely love the suburbs. Tall trees and birds and open windows, a big yard for my dogs, and the sound of the train on a quiet night. I always have a place to park.
Sue: Talk about the ways in which you think Iris speaks for all mothers.
Karen: Wow. That’s a question. I think motherhood is a very messy, visceral job. Before you become a parent you’re fed this Pinterest ideal of cotton clothing and handmade wooden toys; co-sleeping and making your own baby food and four years of breastfeeding, all carried out at an aesthetically pleasing level. That’s something that’s gotten so much worse over the years. And how motherhood looks is not how motherhood is. It’s a battlefield, and Iris is a front-line soldier.
Sue: What makes Hart Bourne tick?
Karen: I’ve always seen him as a man who is desperately unhappy with himself, who externalizes his self-loathing on the people around him. If you have the misfortune of being married to a man like that, you’ll spend your entire existence trying to figure out what you’re doing wrong. And he’ll let you do that so he doesn’t have to face the source of his pain—himself. It’s so much easier for him to blame Iris, isn’t it?
Sue: Do you think that Hart is an archetype?
Karen: He’s such a personally constructed character. I hope he’s not a common archetype. But thank you for asking about him—I actually feel for Hart, and most people despise him too much to wonder what he’s made of.
Sue: Minah Bourne showed up first in Love and Mayhem. It’s nice to see her again. Will you continue to include connections between your books in work to come?
Karen: Absolutely. My books are influenced by writers who are very much better than me, but they do things I admire. The obvious connection in the trailer park book is Faulkner. Lots of Joad in there, and Fossetta Sweet is a Faulknerian character. Now, I know that I am NO Faulkner. But I read him and I love him and this interconnectedness is something I strive for. Another writer who does this brilliantly is Haven Kimmel. She writes the books I would write in my dreams. I’ve read every book she’s ever written, and we’re in a dry spell while she rewrites a new novel, so I went on Amazon and found her mother’s self-published stuff and bought all that on Kindle. I’m desperate. I love the way she weaves her characters together even in the most glancing ways. I feel so intelligent and so jubilant when I make the connections. I’m not Haven Kimmel, but I do want to do that for my readers.
Sue: So you’ll carry on with these characters?
Karen: Some of them. Not telling which ones.
Sue: Do you hide secrets in your books?
Karen: Absolutely every time.
Sue: Do you want to talk about that?
Karen: Well then they wouldn’t be secrets, Sue.
Sue: How do you come up with the names for your characters?
Karen: I’m actually terrible at names. I usually start out with some stupid name, and then at some point the name is so overwhelmingly wrong that I have to put some thought into it. So I have baby books, and then there’s the Internet. I also save lists of names I hear when I’m out and about. I worked at a business-to-business telemarketing company and I kept a big list of names, and I still use it. The first name on the list is important in a book I’m currently writing.
Sue: What’s your favorite childhood book?
Karen: When I was thirteen, I read The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, and The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. Those books were long and grotesque and wonderful and they probably warped my perception of life, but I loved them. I reread them all through my teens and twenties.
Sue: Do you still have them?
Karen: I still have the original copies. But thirteen is not childhood. Childhood was the Raggedy Ann and Andy books, and the Oz books, and the Black Cauldron books and the Narnia series. I loved a good series and always will. I did love some standalone books, like Linnets and Valerians, and The Wind in the Willows, and Journey Outside by Mary Q. Steele. Have you read that? It’s about a boy who lives in a community made of a series of rafts that travel an underground river. He realizes that they’re traveling a loop, so he jumps off and comes out into the world. It’s a fantastic quest story that involves a nasty sunburn and shorts made of fish skin. I highly recommend it.
(please note, after this conversation, Sue sent me a copy of this book, so now I have two.)
Another series that was important to me was the Whiteoaks of Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche. It’s a long historical romance series about a Canadian family, and it’s idiosyncratic and personal and hilarious and wonderful and flawed. When I was 19, I spent a summer feverishly checking the books out of the Missoula public library. They had the same pleasures that my favorite childhood books held, like recurring characters and the power of a place and fascinating buildings and long difficult family meals and even pets, things I loved long before I ever read Faulkner. That’s what I’ve always wanted to write.
Sue: What’s the first book that made you cry?
Karen: Books make me cry all the time, and I started reading early, so I probably can’t remember what it was. It might have been one of the Mother West Wind books. I was raised in part in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and L. Frank Baum is from there, so the Wizard of Oz books were all on the shelf at the library. I started walking to the library when I was seven, and I took them all out, so it might have been something in there. The glass cat with the ruby heart struck me as glamorous and tragic.
Sue: Are your characters ever based on real people?
Karen: Absolutely not. Everything is made up. EVERY SINGLE THING.
Sue: Is this book autobiographical in any way? Can’t you share something?
Karen: I’ll tell you the part about answering this question that’s difficult. Every horrible thing that Hart says to Iris was said to me in one of my marriages. Most of it was word for word. It’s painful when people read this book and say, “How could any self-respecting woman let her husband say these things to her without leaving him?” And those people have a point. It’s horrifying what you’ll tolerate when you’re trying to hold a family together. I hope readers extend some empathy to Iris for that. There are some other similarities, but Iris is her own character, and her marriage is her own marriage, and what happens in it is her own story.
Sue: I love that answer.
Karen: Did I successfully skirt the issue?
Sue: I think so. Talk about why this book needs a Nick.
Karen: Nick reminds us all that we have the capacity to accept life and be happy for it. We can roll with it. That’s something we lose as we get older and become more cynical. So I love his innocence.
Sue: That’s why I love Nick, too, Karen.
Karen: Wike it?
Sue: Wike it.
Karen: Atsa awesome.
Sue: What was the hardest scene in this book for you to write and why?
Karen: The hardest scene to write was Iris’s epiphany at the end. Because Iris is very much like I was, in that she doesn’t choose or plan what happens to her, she just copes with whatever comes at her, and she endures. And she finally reaches a point where she is going to have to make a choice, and it almost kills her. It was hard to write because I honestly didn’t know what Iris was going to do until I was writing the scene. I knew what I wanted her to do, I was cheering her on, but she could have gone either way. I’d have had to live with it.
Sue: What, if anything, did you edit out of this book?
Karen: Originally I had a deranged character who sort of floated around the edges of these women’s lives as a specter. She still makes some appearances when Jane and Iris are at the Goodwill. She’s frightening and prophetic, but I already had the dogs in there as a canine Greek chorus, so I didn’t need another suffering witness to the pain of Iris and her family. I also took out Raymond’s father’s story, because I didn’t like it. But I wanted Iris’s first pregnancy to be unplanned and outside her marriage. That much stayed in.
Sue: Iris certainly availed herself of many forms of birth control.
Karen: People love that part!
Sue: Now, we’re talking about many women not even having access to that kind of care.
Karen: Terrifying, isn’t it? And for women, our biology is very often our destiny. That is not a very popular viewpoint right now, because birth control is supposed to help us reshape that. But even with every barrier, conceptions happen, and children are the most overwhelming and irrevocable choice that most of us ever make. I guess having birth control not work for Iris was a way to examine how fertility can affect your life and your goals. You try to plan, and instead you just cope and endure. I think it’s important to remember how profoundly women’s lives are shaped by their fertility.
Sue: Are marriages supposed to be happy?
Karen: I’m not sure. We take our cues from our parents’ marriages, and we can repeat some terrible patterns. I think you have to have seen a good relationship to appreciate what one is supposed to be. Most early marriages are based on what you already know. That’s why I believe we should marry a lot of times until we get it right! But seriously, I’m at the point in my life where I only want to have a relationship if it’s predominantly happy and pleasing. And I envy people whose marriages were like that from the get-go, but mine certainly were not. I keep learning and changing and trying. I’d like to get this right at least once.
(another note: I believe I have finally gotten this one right.)
Sue: What do you think about divorce?
Karen: Divorce is so terrible, right until it’s not. Breaking up a marriage is hideous and painful and awful, and you’re dying inside and hopeless and crying all the time and looking for bridges, then—one day—there’s a moment when you realize that you’re surviving. More time passes, and then you’re thriving. Then, you go on a nice long honeymoon with yourself, and it’s the best relationship you’ve ever had. Eventually you decide to see other people, and life gets stupid and complicated again, but in the beginning when it’s just you and yourself on that honeymoon? It’s magical.
It’s astonishing to think you can survive something that wretched, and have life get better. I always compare it to a really bad pruning job on a sick tree. You hack it back and you think it has to be dead. And the next spring it’s the prettiest and healthiest tree in the neighborhood.
Sue: Like Arno’s tree.
Karen: Exactly like Arno’s tree.
Sue: So are you pro-divorce?
Karen: Oh, no. I’m not pro-divorce. I am pro surviving divorce. At heart, I have a really traditional view of marriage and commitment and fidelity, which surprises me because I remember being so angry when I was married. I knew I was diminished in some basic ways. And you know, I don’t think it’s men who expect women to diminish themselves in marriage. I think we do it to ourselves, probably because of some big blanket of perceived societal expectations. We carve off big hunks of ourselves to be safe and available. I did, at least. And the husbands are baffled by these safe, selfless creatures, these wives. They’re left wondering where those funny, interesting women they married have gone to. Men would probably prefer to be married to independent, interesting women, don’t you think?
Sue: What do you wish you could tell Iris?
Karen: Iris has no perspective on the fact that parenthood at the level she’s doing it is a temporary state. I have the advantage now of having moved through that part of parenting. But when you’re in it, you’re in the trenches and you have no idea that it’s ever going to be over, or how you’re going to survive it. I wish I could tell her, “If you just hold on, it gets better!” I think her mother gently tries to tell her that. Her mother is quietly determined to enjoy her life. She loves being a grandmother and she loves the kids, but she isn’t going to take it on again.
Karen: It’s a necessary selfishness. One of my kids has thanked me for what she used to see as selfishness on my part. She says it showed her that women have the right to pursue creative goals, and to have pursuits in their lives that have nothing to do with their children. She thinks that’s a valuable lesson.
For me, I was selfish about writing and relationships. I barely dated anyone, I wasn’t dragging men through here or anything, but I’d go away for a weekend now and then. I had a life. So I think Iris needs to be more selfish from here on out. More determined to have some scrap of something that belongs to just her.
Sue: Why does Iris act so out of character in Hawaii?
Karen: She takes an exquisite revenge. I think if you don’t violently cheer on Iris for that evening, then you probably won’t like anything I write, ever.
Sue: Sonny’s story is a difficult one, because when the book ends, you have no idea how it will come out for him.
Karen: Well, this world of gender and identity is a difficult one. I want to love and respect and support what everyone is going through in the world, and in society, and in my family. I believe that people have genders that don’t match their sex organs, 100% I believe that is true. But frankly, it’s confusing to me, and it’s difficult for me in ways that surprise me. I need to grow, and growth is never comfortable. Writing about it is one way to deal with that.
All right, now I want to ask you a question.
Sue: Cool. All right.
Karen: When you and I were young moms together, how did we help each other survive?
Sue: Oh. We had an alternate reality where for like, four hours at a time, we pretended that we were normal twenty-somethings. Watching videos and drinking beer and cracking each other up.
Karen: And eating M&Ms. Beer and M&Ms sounds terrible, but it worked.
Sue: Sometimes we got to go out. Rarely.
Karen: I remember when we went to Gaffer’s Pub and there were all those Jimmy Buffet fans, and we kept interrupting their Parrothead songs on the jukebox with Al Green and Terence Trent D’Arby and Prince.
Sue: They kept coming over to talk to us. And buying us drinks. And showing us their watches.
Karen: Yes! They all had big fancy watches! And when they asked for our numbers, you chastely demurred that you were married, but I gave them the attendance hotline number at the grade school. That was one of the few numbers I knew by heart.
Sue: You created that feeling perfectly with Iris’s friends, their little enclave on the deck.
Karen: I’m so glad I captured it. Those times were perfect. I think our friends keep us sane. I think we’re probably supposed to live in little groups of maybe six women and one man, helping each other raise the kids and keeping each other sane. These polygamy people probably have it right. I’m not ready to be a sister wife, but one husband would probably be adequate for six women. And if he wasn’t, well, there would be roofers.
Sue: By the way, have you ever gawked at real roofers?
Karen: Sue, you’ve known me since I was 26 years old. You know how much “vague lustful speculation” I’ve engaged in over the years. Not particularly for roofers, but do you remember?
Sue: I remember everything!
Karen: Oh dear. Let’s talk about something else.
Sue: Okay. Do you think Iris has the right to write about her life?
Karen: That’s an important question. He says, “You can’t write about us,” and she says, “But you’re all I’ve got.” The question is more important now than ever. So many women are turning their families into businesses. These curated, blogged-about, Instagrammed families are monetized, but it’s not really a new thing. Joyce Maynard wrote about her family, and before that Erma Bombeck wrote about her family, and before them Shirley Jackson wrote about her family in Life Among the Savages. Jackson was a premier American horror writer and she also wrote these beautiful, hilarious books about raising her family in upstate New York.
So this is a tradition for women writers, and it’s still a big question. For many of us, the domestic realm is our subject matter, this is where we live, where we fight our battles and have our triumphs. And if we deny ourselves the right to write about those, what do we have? It’s a personal issue for me. I used to keep an anonymous blog, and one of my kids found it, and she felt so invaded when she’d pop up in it. And I see her point. That’s why this book, where it’s autobiographical, it’s really buried deeply. I don’t want to be accused of writing about my family and violating their privacy.
Sue: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Karen: Energizes me.
Sue: I knew you were going to say that. What’s your writing Kryptonite?
Karen: Is Kryptonite what kills you? Because I’m not dead yet.
Sue: Kryptonite takes away your power.
Karen: Okay. A lack of solitude and privacy and uninterrupted time. Without those I can’t write. That’s why writing is a selfish endeavor.
Sue: Has publishing your books changed anything about how you write?
Karen: It didn’t change how I write—it gave me permission continue to writing what I want to write, the way I want to write it, period. It is enormously freeing to self-publish. There is so much advice out there about finding your commercial niche, and that has nothing to do with my goals for my writing.
The writers I love are all firmly mid-list. And they’re all assistant chairs of the creative writing departments at small colleges or something like that. None of the writers I adore are making a lucrative living with their brilliant books. Realizing that I can publish my books, sell my modest amount of copies and not have to worry about changing them to be more commercial so one of the houses will take a chance on me—it’s just changed everything for me, Sue, it’s made me so happy.
Sue: What does literary success look like to you?
Karen: Literary success is when you write work that deeply affects the people who read it. And it has nothing to do with how many copies you sell. If anyone is affected by anything I write, I count myself as a success.
When did everyone start loving ranch homes? I remember when the battle cry for house hunting was “Anything but a ranch!” Ranches were plain, boxy, a capitulation to suburban living in all its mundane boredom.
I know, I know, it’s all because of Chip and Joanna Gaines. I like what they do so much that I can tell you the names of my favorite ranch home rehabs: Big Daddy’s House and the Worm Brick House. It’s not the décor so much–Joanna’s initial enthusiasm for flaking paint and patchy rust are not to my taste, nor are her more current themes of black metal and artificial flowers–but they take those houses apart and put them back together in such pleasing ways. When I watch House Hunters on HGTV (which I started to do a week after the last election, because MSNBC was making me lose my will to live) I am surprised at how many people go looking for ranches as their preferred style. Something has CHANGED, people.
As a house-hunter in the late 1980s, I was one of those people, of course. What I wanted more than anything was a Craftsman home with intact, unpainted woodwork. We (my ex-husband and I) even found one, but lacked the necessary fortitude to trust our guts and make an offer. That rundown Craftsman sat on a large lot, right next to a house we called “the Amway Dream Home.”
The Amway Dream Home was a new construction ranch that was landscaped with grass and red lava rock, like a military base. This house had been for sale forever for very good reasons. It was a yellowish tan shoe box with trim painted the color of the contents of a baby diaper. It had an oversized double-car garage with a room of some kind next to it (my ex would drawl, “that’s for the praw-duhct”). The front yard was dominated by an enormous satellite dish. This house was absolutely devoid of architectural detail or charm.
The complexities of how, why and from whom I bought the Amway Dream Home make a great story, but that’s a story for another day. Ranch homes have their charms, as EVERYONE SEEMS TO HAVE FIGURED OUT BY NOW. They generally have all the things missing in so many cuter, quainter styles, like entries, hallways, adequate bathrooms, laundry rooms, yards, storage, parking, and so on. It’s the sheer practicality of the ranch that won over a pragmatic person like me.
And have you ever been inside a really nice daylight ranch? These are also known as walk-outs and split backs, and that lower level is a goldmine of space and opportunity. As my family grew to two adults, three kids and a medium-sized dog, my one-level ranch felt increasingly cramped. I often longed for a walk-out. And eventually I got one, but not of the architectural variety–a marital walk-out is an entirely different matter, but at least the house was no longer so small, then.
Ranch home architecture features in the short passages that introduce the season changes in The Iris Files. These passages delight some readers, and baffle others. I call them them prose strophes, which is term I’ve coined to hide the fact that they are probably just indulgences. These poetic litanies have stayed in every version and draft of the book–even when a former literary agent asked me to remove them. “Are they really necessary?” she asked. Well, listen, is ANYTHING really necessary? If I were to hold up the filter of necessity to anything that is written today (by me or anyone else), it would all fade away. This leaves me with only one answer: these passages are necessary to me.
Here’s an example:
It’s a fall afternoon, in California.
California is the land of air conditioners. In the fall, California air conditioners work steadily, and the hot air of September is monitored, measured, drawn in, cooled off, pumped out, and re-circulated.
California women are all that, and waxed.
On a fall afternoon in California, the streets are full of the sons and daughters of the mighty hunters. These children are shuttled from school to practice to lesson to playgroup. Despite their busy schedules, these children occasionally find time to play.
When the shadows of the afternoon begin to lengthen, the women step out of their climate-controlled homes. They call their children in for dinner. And the women lift their expensively highlighted heads of hair, and wonder when and if their men will return home.
Ranch architecture is varied, but predictable. There are one-levels and tri-levels, walk-out basements and split entries. Everyone envies the tri-levels. Everyone despises the split entries. But people are divided on the walk-outs. No one knows if the walk-outs are a good thing, or a bad thing.
Nothing ever changes, in California.
I’m worshiping with words in these passages, and I’m worshiping the idea that each of these cookie-cutter homes is unique. If you were to step inside one of them, you’d see a thousand differences that tell the story of the lives lived within. Yes, there are bland and annoying people in every neighborhood, living in every kind of home. But I’m not convinced that any neighborhood in my city is more or less likely to hold annoying neighbors.
I have lived in my ranch home for thirty years, now. The bulk of my life has been spent at one address. For someone whose childhood was as fractured and nomadic as mine, this is a miracle. It’s also weird as hell to live in one house for thirty years these days. No one does it. Except–all around me, I have neighbors who have. We have lived here forever, side-by-side.
I used to feel the need to apologize for my determined rootedness. But then I found this sweet meme on Tumblr, and it made perfect sense to me.
I mean, if Simone Weil says so…
These days, my ranch home feels mighty spacious, as it holds only two tall people and two miniscule dogs. The dogs are old, but the man is sort of young. He’s younger than me, at least. We both feel the pull of other places, other ways of living once we retire. We talk about where we might buy next, send each other links to places we like that won’t even be for sale in ten years, but it doesn’t hurt to look, to plan, to speculate about where we might end up.
As it turns out, in addition to our many other areas of compatibility, we both have the same dream home–the aforementioned Craftsman with rooms full of intact dark brown woodwork, built-ins, you name it, we want it. I have no idea if we will ever live in a place like that. In all likelihood, we’ll get a boring condo that’s an excellent deal, because we’re both so practical.
But until pragmatism rears its head to ruin everything, it’s fun to dream together.
My novel is up at Amazon, and I’m THRILLED with my final cover.
Yes, the desperate housewife is out and ready to make you laugh. And, maybe, cry a little. I’m excited to have an author interview in here, and book group discussion questions, and I love my beautiful cover that shows Reba, the matriarch of Iris’s little clan of wiener dogs.
See it here: The Iris Files: Notes from a Desperate Housewife
It’s time for a cover reveal for that book I was going on about; here it is! Well, a draft of it, anyway. This beautiful cover (featuring Reba, the Dachshund matriarch) was designed by the fantastic Mark Ferrari. The cover has me so excited!
The book will be live soon. Here is the synopsis, so you know what’s in store:
“I have five kids. I don’t have time to be happy.”
Each day, Iris Bourne runs a gauntlet in the California suburbs: dealing out meals with the ease of a professional card shark, scaling mountains of laundry, acting as judge and jury for sibling battles, negotiating bedtime with the skill of a career diplomat.
Iris has time for exactly one hobby—entering contests—and she’s just won a trip for two to Hawaii. She’s ready for a taste of Paradise, but her husband, Hart, keeps spoiling the mood by asking her if she’s happy. Happy? Iris has no time to be happy. When Hart announces that he is not, her life becomes even more complicated.
With nonstop humor and heartbreaking honesty, Iris navigates parenthood, loss, new romance and the burdens of caregiving. Most importantly, she learns the lessons and limits of forgiveness. Readers will laugh, cry, and cheer as Iris rallies friends and family to defend her glorious, messy, beautiful suburban life.
I’ll have an ordering link soon. Watch this space for further developments.