Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Guest Blogger: Jennifer Cody Epstein, Author of The Painter from Shanghai

I first heard about THE PAINTER FROM SHANGHAI by Jennifer Cody Epstein from an Author Buzz giveaway. I didn't win the contest, but (lucky for me) the author sent me a copy to read and review anyway. This book is just wonderful; and Ms. Epstein Cody is a beautiful writer. I know how difficult it is to just keep up on my blog being a mother of two; so I'm pretty amazed that she was able to write this book with two young daughters. I was just thrilled when she agreed to guest blog about the challenges she faces as a writer and a mother.

Thoughts from a Fella Bookingmam

When people hear that I wrote my first novel--The Painter from Shanghai—around bearing and raising my two young daughters, their responses are often flatteringly awed. “Wow!” they say. “How on earth did you manage both?”

My response—accompanied by the prerequisite self-deprecating laugh--is usually something along the lines of “I’m not sure. But I lost half my brain cells in the process.” And this, actually, is true. In past months my maternal Alzheimers is striking worse than ever; I’m perpetually double-planning or entirely forgetting playdates; losing my credit cards only to find them (surprise!) in my wallet; losing entire chunks of prose (this blog, briefly and for example) in the labyrinth files of my computer because I can’t—for the life of me—recall what I named them.

But there’s something else that’s true as well, something which also surprises people when I tell them: that brain cell issue aside, writing a novel actually works really well with motherhood for me.

I’m aware that this assertion flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that career and children just don’t mix. That whatever your career path, pregnancy will at best make it bumpy (no pun intended)—if not block it off altogether. One would think that in the arts, at least, expectations would be less dire; after all, most artists make their own schedule. But when I began my first book—a sprawling historical novel—this was not the consensus at my writing workshop at Columbia. It was Natalia—a loud blonde Pole, childless (of course) and thrice-divorced--who voiced what everyone was thinking: “Are you crazy? You’ll never be a writer now!”

I mumbled something to the effect that it would all work out in due (again, no pun intended) time. But as an argument this felt tepid--even to me. I’d been struggling with the idea of my book for a year already, daunted by my subject (a Chinese prostitute who became one of China’s pioneering post-Impressionists), unorganized and hesitant, unsure of my right to write the story, I had no idea at all how I’d bridge the chasm between the insecure writer I so clearly was at that moment, and the selfless mother everyone expected me to be.

What didn’t occur to me in those early, hungry days was that the demands of a newborn would both open up hours I’d never considered (post-feeding, 5 a.m., for example) for working; hours that I’d find—despite being so exhausted I’d sometimes doze off at the keyboard--my muse surprisingly present. Writing, I found, also provided a perfect intellectual counterlife to the mind-numbing physicality of early motherhood; I was never more ready to dive into an opening paragraph then after singing “Wheels on the Bus” for two hours straight, and I was never more ready for Barney than after banging my brain against a page of dialogue that simply didn’t work.

Even the time constraints—counterintuitively--worked in my favor, in the end. Faced with such a dearth of free time that I spent a whole week crying over it (or perhaps that was just postnatal hormones), I developed a system of almost militaristic organization, working from five a.m. to nine a.m. every morning, while my husband (who, mercifully, has a director’s late-start to the day) fed, dressed and dandled Katie. I added on additional hours--or, sometimes minutes--while Katie napped. Which was often, as she was a lousy sleeper at night. It was a self-perpetuating cycle, and something that I—prizing writing time over Ferber-perfect sleep habits--did little to try to correct.

It didn’t all exactly work like clockwork. For one thing, as Katie’s nap schedule was erratic I rarely knew my writing schedule after nine, and so had to be “on” all of the time. In the years before motherhood this would have been unthinkable; like many writers I was a bit of a diva. I needed a certain mood to write, a certain set-up, a certain light to create. As a mother, however, I couldn’t indulge in such luxuries. I carried my computer and my history texts with me in the stroller, and pulled into the nearest cafĂ© whenever my daughter dropped off. Oftentimes, I ended up deleting everything I wrote. Oftentimes, indeed, it barely seemed written in English—which is perhaps not surprising, given my perpetual state of sleep-deprived psychosis, my deep immersion in Chinese literature and history…and of course the brain cell thing (did I mention that?). But even these “failed” days didn’t bother me as much as they once might have. For as I watched my daughter grow and develop, in increments and in leaps, walking, falling, crying and walking again, I learned to take a longer view of my own work. And I had infinitely more patience for myself as a result.

A year after Katie’s birth I returned to Columbia. I had deep bags under my eyes and baby fat on my belly, but about a dozen very rough chapters of my novel. These were received encouragingly by my mentors and classmates—even Natalia—and so I ploughed on. My second daughter was born in 2004; the book’s first, full draft in 2006. It was bought by W.W. Norton and nine other publishers, and was published in March of this year in the U.S. It has, to my delight, been received very favorably; Vogue calls it “sparkling,” the New York Times “vivid” and “luminous,” the South China Morning Post “refreshing” (all things that, to be sure, I certainly didn’t feel myself during the writing process).

These days life is easier; Katie is in school until three, her sister Hannah until noon, and we have enough money for some limited sitting. I’m getting much more sleep, and my prime working hours tend to be from the far more civilized hours of eleven to five. P.M., I should note.

That’s not to say maternal/writing balance isn’t still wobbly at time. Katie (now seven) did lambaste me recently for missing every field trip in her short school life to date. “You’re always writing,” she complained. “You act as though your computer is more important than me.”

But she also brought my novel in for show and tell, and announced to anyone who would listen: “My mom writes books.” And as she shepherded the glossy volume from hand to small, sticky hand, the look of sheer pride on her face was just about the best review that any writer—or mother--could ever hope for.

I think it's kind of nice to know that authors (who are my heroes) are real people too! If you want to learn more about Jennifer Cody Epstein, there is an interesting interview from November 2007 on I'd like to give a special thank you to Ms. Cody Epstein for writing this essay for my blog.


LisaMM said...

What a fabulous guest post! I remember when my kids were babies (they are just 13 months apart in age) and being so sleep deprived. I went from trying to sound intelligent in my writing to simply coherent, and not always succeeding! Great post, thanks Julie and Jennifer!!

LisaMM said...

PS I'm putting this book on my list of books I want to read.. it sounds really interesting.