by Sonya Chung
Kristen Iskandrian‘s debut novel Motherest—long listed for the Center for Fiction’s 2017 First Novel Award and recipient of starred reviews at both Kirkus and Publishers’ Weekly—surprised and delighted me. Its narrator is a college student named Agnes whose every stable relationship has become unhinged—her brother has succumbed tragically to depression; her mother, unable to cope, has left the family; her well-intentioned father is left holding the bag of parenting and shows his limits as Agnes stumbles toward adulthood. Motherest is that wonderful sort of very-sad novel on which every page is a phrase or insight that made me chuckle or pause: Agnes’s stripped-down honesty, her carte blanche sense of self and others as she comes of age (too quickly for her own comfort), is both winning and illuminating. In other words, Motherest showed me how much I really can learn from a bewildered 19 year-old—something this college professor was pleased to be reminded of!
Formally, Motherest forges an epistolary experience that is as profound as it is simple: threaded throughout Agnes’s navigation of college life, friendships, romance, her relationship with her father, and eventually her own motherhood, are the letters she writes to her absent mother—in which her honesty seeps even deeper, and her resilient humor shines.
Sonya Chung: Tell us about the process of writing Motherest. Was it always a novel? When did it take on its partial epistolary form? How long did you work on it, how many drafts, etc.?
Kristen Iskandrian: I always intended Motherest to be a novel, yes. I sat down wanting to write a book about Big Feelings—being a mother, being a daughter, being a girl, losing and finding. I wanted it to feel raw and immediate, so first person seemed like the best fit from the start. I approached the letters slowly and warily. I love letters, reading them and writing them, and I was honing in on a pre-widespread-email time frame that would justify their presence from a logistical/temporal perspective—but I wasn’t sure, in the very beginning, if they were serving me, the author, as a way of getting to know my characters, or if they were serving the narrative itself. It didn’t take long, though, before I felt pretty certain that they were crucial to the plot. Character definitely came before anything else: Agnes, her voice, her quirks, her struggles. I wanted to explore motherhood via daughterhood and also from the ground zero of Agnes’s reluctance, confusion, and pain—what kind of mother is an unprepared, unwilling mother? Can she still be “good”?
Over the course of about four years, I wrote one hefty, sprawling, edited-as-I-went draft (no chapters! Just these weird asterisked breaks!), and following my agent’s stellar suggestions, I made some revisions before she took it to market. With my wonderful editor, I worked it over two or three more times, whittling and streamlining. It hurt, at first, to lose some of the bulk, but I’m so grateful for her patience and acuity because I know it helped create a better book.
SC: This is a loaded question, but since you brought it up… These days what do you think defines a “good mother”?
KI: A question I tussle with every day! And probably an essay unto itself. I do think that a mother’s personal, authentic sense of fulfillment is essential—whatever that may look like to her. We’re conditioned to put our children first, and of course, we do—but often at the expense of our own (very diverse) needs, wants, and ambitions. I think children deserve to see their parents thriving, striving, trying to find joy and make joy. I think a good parent is socially conscious and engaged with raising, as best they can, socially responsible, empathetic children. And I think every good mother is going to think she’s failing at some aspect of parenting at least once a week, if not every day. I don’t know if my kids understand what it is, exactly, that I do—but when they came to my book launch, I saw them seeing me, and felt them experiencing that moment with me, however they were interpreting it. I think, in other words, they saw me being me. Not just the person washing dishes or ordering them to clean their room or tucking them into bed. It was more powerful than I expected, and largely unspoken, and I loved sharing it with them. In trying to carve out a life that is meaningful to me, I hope they find permission and encouragement to chase down what is meaningful to them.
SC: I read in your bio that you are a singer. Also that you were raised in a multilingual household. (How many languages do you speak?) Are you an “ear” writer, i.e. do you hear language more than think it?
KI: I love to sing. I sang in the church choir all through my childhood, and then in Glee Club and Chorale during high school, and then in an a cappella group in college. I’ve sung back-up with bands and on my husband’s albums, and sacred music in a cathedral choir here in Birmingham. I would definitely say that when writing I “hear” language, and it’s often in imagining how someone sounds, what words they would choose, that I am led to other aspects of their character. When I listen to someone’s voice I hear every detail—the dialect, the lilts and turns, the volume, the pitch, the tone. Growing up I entertained my family by doing impersonations, and I’m still a decent mimic—I’m pretty sure it’s how I learned to sing, and it’s probably a big part of how I learned to write.
My mother grew up speaking five (!) languages: Arabic, Assyrian, English, German, and French. My father spoke Arabic, Armenian, and English. At home, my parents speak Arabic and English; with her siblings, my mother speaks English and Assyrian. When she was alive and would come stay with us, my mother’s mother would speak Assyrian, English, and occasionally German with my mom, and Arabic and English with my dad. My heritage is mixed and sometimes confusing, even to me! I’ve had the polyphonic experience that’s typical for people who grew up in immigrant households, which I think has given me a heightened sensitivity to how people sound, and for whom. When my parents wanted to speak about private matters but we were afoot, they’d switch from English to Arabic–seamlessly. So there’s a deeply ingrained sense in me of language as a space, denoting public or private, family or “outsiders,” formal or informal.
I can understand tiny bits of Arabic and Assyrian, and the inflections are very familiar to me, almost a language in and of themselves. It’s a goal of mine to learn more. I wish I’d become fluent as a kid, but at a certain point, I think my parents sort of just let go and allowed the assimilation to happen. I have basic, if very rusty, conversational knowledge of French.
SC: I’m interested in the fact that the novel’s setting is sort of nowhere in particular—especially given that you are a child of Iraqi immigrants, bicultural, etc. Can you speak to that? Was it more particular in your mind but strategically generalized on the page? Or is setting not particularly compelling for you as a writer?
KI: That’s a great question. Setting is very interesting to me, inasmuch as it has a particular and vital influence on the work as a whole—what comes to mind right now are obvious examples by, say, Sherwood Anderson or James Joyce or Jesmyn Ward. I wouldn’t call Motherest a setting-derived novel. It’s more of a feelings-derived novel, so the feelings become the place. The letters become a place. The interiority, the emotional landscape—that’s the real nexus of the book. Agnes’s college could have been most any liberal arts college; same goes, more or less, for her neighborhood. I know there’s the common workshop wisdom that a work lives and dies by its specifics, but like any workshop wisdom, I think it needs to be finessed and filtered by a person’s own instincts.
I love your insight about how my own multiculturalism might have come into play. I do struggle endlessly, as Agnes does, with the notion of home, although perhaps not for quite the same reasons. I live in Birmingham, Alabama, which is not where I’m from, and I was raised outside of Philadelphia, which is not where my family is from. I don’t have that locked-in, automatic sense of “home,” and I’ve often wondered what it must feel like. Most days, I think I could be anywhere, as long as I had my loved ones and wifi. I guess it’s nice on one level to be able to say that, but it also makes me feel like I live in a permanently unmoored state—an everywhere, a nowhere.
SC: You inhabit so intimately a college-aged young woman’s mind. You are just turning 40 (“Bloomering” as we speak)—and I’m wondering if the distance/gap between your current life stage and that of young adulthood felt somehow right. Did you try to write this story when you were younger?
KI: Ha, no, I didn’t try to write this when I was too much younger—I was around 34 when I started it. I do think the distance was helpful. There’s that thing people say, about how you can’t write about a place until you leave it? I think that’s probably true here, if we understand age as a kind of place, too. Age is such a wily metric—what does it mean, exactly, to “feel” one’s age? Our culture is so at odds with what it expects people to do at different ages; getting older stereotypically means an accrual of wisdom but also a “slowing down.” I don’t feel like I’m slowing down. I feel like I’m just warming up. It didn’t feel like a stretch to access Agnes’s spirit, maybe because the psychic texture of my impressions and memories from college are still pretty vivid to me, and I leaned on them to create someone decidedly not-me.
SC: Tell us about the publication process for Motherest.
KI: I sent my agent Emma Patterson the manuscript in early 2015. Only a couple other people had seen it in full, and I really had no idea what to expect. She connected with it, and had some great, mostly minor, ideas for how to revise it. I remain grateful for her input, how she supported and shepherded it with so much care. We sold it to Twelve that July. The whole process was nerve-wracking and also pretty thrilling—I look back on that time with a lot of fondness. When she was ready to pitch it, Emma asked me if I wanted to be apprised of things “as they happened” or in lump sums, and I opted for the latter, so she’d let me know at the end of a week who was interested, who was going to be making an offer, who had passed on it. I was refreshing my inbox like a madwoman, incredulous that this was actually happening. My first conversation with my editor Libby Burton (who has since moved to Holt) felt magical—I just knew she got me, and got the book. It was a pleasure, and a great education, to work with her.
I feel it’s important to say: I really thought I’d have my first published book a lot sooner. I started writing “seriously” and submitting to literary journals around 2006, while in grad school. At first, it was rejection after rejection. SO many rejections. Then a few acceptances. The fledgling online literary community was a port in the storm, or maybe, more aptly, a storm in the port, since it engendered a liveliness and spirit of experimentation and innovation that didn’t seem to exist elsewhere. HTMLGiant, the brain child of Blake Butler and Gene Morgan, introduced me to the work of many writers I may not have otherwise come across, some of whom have become real friends. Anyway, I wrote a lot, and published quite a bit, and by the end of my PhD program, had a manuscript, a novel-in-stories, that I thought was my crowning achievement. I’m still proud of it, even though it didn’t sell, and I’d still like to do something with it one day—my agent at that time was enthusiastic, and a portion of it won an O. Henry, which was a nice boost. But it was a watershed moment for me to put it aside and begin something totally new. I think it’s crucial to know when to move on, and the only person who can decide that is you. Motherest is my first published book, but it’s far from the first thing I’ve ever worked hard on.
SC: I found in particular the subject of failed/flawed motherhood very brave. Mothering is a kind of third rail for critique these days in certain high-achieving motherhood circles. I personally had very acute emotions in relation to Agnes’s mother. Can you talk about how you feel about her?
KI: I have a love for every character in the book. I guess I don’t believe in creating characters just to hate or destroy them? I mean, I enjoy a good villain as much as the next person, but it’s my nature, I think, to forgive, and if pressed, I’d probably say that love is a far less straightforward and potentially more interesting response than hate. I think Agnes’s mother is beset by grief. I think she was an ambivalent mother from the start, and then she lost her son in one of the worst ways imaginable—it’s hard for me to not believe that she felt immense guilt over Simon’s [Agnes’s brother’s] suicide. When Agnes left, she gave herself permission to leave, too, feeling that by sticking around, she might do more harm than good—and when she returns, she sort of does just that. We’re all victims of some things, and survivors of other things—she seems like a shitty mom, but who am I to judge? In my system of values we’re all shitty, and yet we all deserve love. I like to believe that Agnes’s parents find happiness together, some sense of repair—I love that children’s book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, how when Sylvester goes missing, the parents grieve and grieve, and then one day decide to have a picnic. I hope Agnes’s mom gets her picnic one day.
SC: What is your job-family-art formula these days; how is it all working together for you? Any advice to younger writers trying to pursue multiple tracks and still pay the bills?
KI: There are a lot of moving parts! My life—or at least, my sanity—requires a lot of discipline and routine. Long gone are the days of staying up past midnight to write; my brain powers down by 8pm. In the summertime, I wake up when it’s still dark and write for a couple of hours before the rest of the house starts stirring, and before my “official” workday begins. I work from home, but I keep relatively normal business hours. During the school year, I try to snag an hour each day to do something—even if it’s just re-read what I’d written on another day, or move a couple of paragraphs around while I eat lunch. Once in a while, I’ll take a good chunk of a weekend day to write. I finished Motherest via a homespun writing residency: occasional stints at a shitty hotel not far from my house. An actual writing residency seems like a dream come true, but it’s not in the cards right now. I try to be present to what I’m doing when I’m doing it—when I’m working my job, that’s what I’m focusing on; when I’m with my kids, I try to mentally cordon off my inbox and my manuscript, etc. It’s a constant toggle, and of course, like everyone, I wish for more time to do xyz, but I won’t complain. There are few things less attractive than a complaining writer.
As far as advice goes: it’s probably cliché, but I think life is all about what you prioritize. I really thought I’d become a college professor, but after teaching throughout graduate school and adjuncting for a year afterward, I realized that I never felt I had the time or energy to write. I was always grading, prepping, or meeting with students, and it exhausted me creatively and emotionally. For some people, on the other hand, that set-up is restorative and inspiring. I needed to earn money, but I wanted to be able to draw a clean line between how I did that, and how I made art. I think it’s natural to look for job opportunities in the field that you love, but I also think it’s possible—and can be necessary, as it has been for me—to cast a wide net, to consider not only making a living but also making a life, as they say. It looks different for everybody.
SC: What are you working on now?
KI: I’m writing a new novel, based on an idea I had shortly after completing Motherest. It’s slow these days, since I’ve been traveling and doing readings quite a bit, but it’s coming along. It feels exciting, like a little secret between me and myself, and I’m grateful to have a new refuge. Intermittently I’m collating short stories in the hope of putting together a collection soon. Short stories are my first love, and it’s always a pleasure to work on them, particularly when I feel stuck on/in a novel draft. I’m also constantly working on how to be more efficient, how to turn thirty minutes into an hour.