Bloom: You’ve had a successful career as a nonfiction writer. How was writing your first novel different from your nonfiction writing? Was it more or less challenging? In what ways?
Karen Rizzo: In nonfiction I feel like I’m digging at different spots in one excavation site, but this book, a novel, felt more like a road trip. I went to places I knew and some I’d never been, so even though it was very freeing, it was also more challenging because I’m a creature of habit and however exciting new places are they always make me a little uneasy at first.
Bloom: Your biography on Amazon says that your family and friends, who are often featured in your nonfiction, are relieved that you are writing fiction. Did you base any of your fictional characters on them, just to keep them on their toes?
Bloom: Your new novel, Famous Baby, deals with the consequences of fame and the lack of privacy that pervades our tweeted and blog-mediated lives. What was it about that kind of fame (or infamy) that intrigued you?
KR: I’m fascinated by the differences these days between what’s private and what’s “shareable.” I wrote about my kids in my nonfiction book Things To Bring, S#!t To Do, but they were very young. A few years after the book was published I started a blog, because like any blogger, mommy or otherwise, I had stories I wanted to tell, but maintaining the blog wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I agonized over content… what to share, what not to share. My daughter, then about seven, got wind of a post, a pretty innocuous one at that, and demanded to know why I “told everyone.” My son was eleven and apparently they were young enough for me to clip their toenails, but old enough to be editors. So I turned to fiction because, in part, I really wanted the freedom to explore the relationship between an uber successful blogger, who happened to be a mother, and her subject and muse, who happened to be her daughter. The mommy blog angle frames the story, but as I started writing I realized the essence of the story was, of course, about the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, no matter how old or young they are.
Bloom: The novel also deals with aging parents and the process of dying—something that many Bloomers are dealing with. Did you draw from any particular personal experiences, either your own or someone close to you? Did that make it easier or harder to write about it?
KR: I want to say, “of course it’s easier to write about what I know. Doesn’t everyone think that?” But I realize that some people find it difficult to write about events and people in their own lives, especially painful ones. I’ve a good friend who is a wonderful playwright and she has these crazy painful stories about her childhood, but there’s no way she’s going to tell them until both her parents are dead! That said, yes, I drew from personal experiences in writing about aging and dying. My mom was ill for several years before she died when I was in my mid-twenties. She had brief bouts of remission and believed during each one that she’d “beat the bastard.” She was tough and funny and irreverent, my mother, but “the bastard” won, and my dad cared for her until the end.
Years later, I was married with two kids, one and five years old, when my husband and I moved my dad into our 1200 square foot home to do hospice for him. I’d be in the checkout line at the pharmacy with Huggies, Depends, Polident, morphine, children’s Tylenol and beer. My lovely and eccentric father was disappearing and my five year old was asking questions like “When Papa dies, can I bring him to school for share day?”
Bloom: One of your characters in Famous Baby – Ruth – is also a writer. Is her writerly persona similar to yours, different, a little of both?
KR: Ruth may be the nightmare version of me, or perhaps the fiercest most unbridled version of me. Hmm, I’ll have to check in with my teenager once he’s read the book. I have thought that I might have benefited from a fraction of Ruth’s relentlessness and ambition.
Women readers have had such strong reactions to her. They dub her narcissistic, terrifying, funny, clueless, and sympathetic, but not someone they’d want to be or want as a mother. That said, they all find her recognizable in very real ways. Personally, I’d want her on my side in a fight.
Bloom: After a successful first novel, Ruth becomes “The First Mother of Mommy Blogging,” documenting her daughter’s every experience in excruciating detail and setting up one of the key conflicts in the novel. Do you have any favorite “mom bloggers?” Why do you think blogging is such a popular outlet for so many people? Do you have a blog of your own? Why or why not?
KR: I read lots of things, fiction, nonfiction, news, essays, blogs… depending on my mood or where a thread takes me or what a friend recommends. Good writing is good writing, whether it’s in the New York Times, some obscure e-zine or on a blog, mommy or otherwise. Although I don’t have a favorite mommy blog, a couple of my friends do and they forward me some very funny and insightful pieces. I completely understand why blogging is so popular. I mean, as a writer you want to write and you want to be heard, so a blog can satisfy both those needs. For me, the very nature of blogging is its immediacy and impulsiveness, and for that reason it didn’t work so well for me. I’d labor over a post, do a second and third draft, sleep on it and then want to edit some more or I’d realize that the story I was writing wasn’t the story I wanted to tell!
Bloom: Your memoir, Things to Bring, S#!T to Do… and Other Inventories of Anxiety is composed of lists (from grocery lists to resolutions) that you’ve created over your lifetime, some dating back to your childhood. Why do you characterize these lists as “inventories of anxiety?” Is there a kind of personal revelation or sense of personal identity that can only come out of moments of anxiety?
KR: I do characterize most lists as “inventories of anxiety” because until I can check off or “delete” items on a “to-do” list. They’re like pebbles in my shoes, little pebbles of anxiety. Of course I want to feel happy—whatever that is, because happiness manifests in many different ways—but there’s something valid and powerful about the revelations that come up when one is anxious.
Bloom: You’ve worked in many different literary forms: essays, memoir, plays, and fiction. Which form started your writing career? Does one form feel the most natural to you? Or most challenging?
KR: The first long piece of fiction I wrote that was seen or
read by other people was a play, so the play form was my first love. I mean, as a teenager I didn’t have crush on Sam Shepard, rather I wanted to BE him. Cowboy Mouth, Fool for Love, Curse of the Starving Class… that stuff blew me away. Weirdly enough, writing essays and nonfiction didn’t feel like a huge detour, and, fortunately, it translated into earnings, although never enough to give up certain freelance bread and butter gigs.
Bloom: You, your husband – who is an actor – and your children created a hilarious promo video for Famous Baby for Amazon. Tell us a bit about what it’s like to collaborate creatively with your family.
KR: The book trailer! With any luck it cured the kids of wanting to pursue acting careers! We did lots of takes and by the end of the day, boy, they were done! Kidding aside, the kids were game and my writer/actor husband, who is my best sounding board for anything I write, takes on any artistic endeavour with crazy, full-out commitment. I said to him, “book trailer, oy, what do you think?” A week later he had a polished script, which he directed, a friend of ours shot, and another very funny actor friend guested.
I love the solitary nature of writing, but ultimately it involves collaboration, as does any artistic endeavour. A book needs an editor, a film needs a crew, a play needs actors and a director. If you’re lucky enough to work with people you love and trust… I mean what else is there?
Bloom: You mentioned in an interview (with Megan Mullally) that you have a Great Books list – all the books you’d like to read. How do you decide what to add to this list? What are the top three books? And how many have you read?
KR: Every time I take out that sad, yellowed, ancient list I get distracted by some other book that mysteriously ends up on my dresser. The old list remains constant because it is actually a page I tore out of Esquire magazine when I was a teenager! My “fluid list” is the one that I add books to, usually recommendations from friends, books that I’ve come across in reviews or the seminal books of recently deceased authors.
It’s embarrassing, but I never read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, so that knocked Murakami’s 1Q84 off the top spot. In the last couple years I’ve been blown away by the likes of Bel Canto and Unbroken, fascinated by The Poisoner’s Handbook and Stieg Larsson’s plot twists, and I’ve satisfied my inner ham by reading aloud all the Harry Potter books to my daughter. I’m in the market for another ten-year-old who’ll allow me to re-live that particular experience.
Click here to read an excerpt from Karen Rizzo’s Famous Baby.