What will my novels reveal about me when my kids read them as adults?
Author Marissa Stapley questions what her novels reveal about her and how her children will perceive her when they're adults
A few years ago, a friend of mine, who was unhappily married at the time, sat up in the poolside cabana we were lounging in and asked me if I thought she should have kids. We were in Miami, and the three nights I had spent there with her were the first I had slept through in four years. I thought about this question for a long time; I knew I had to get it right. I had been working hard to push my kids from my mind those past few days, because the veil between enjoying the needed downtime and the urge to hightail it to the airport so I could make it home to kiss their foreheads before bed was perilously thin.
I told her the truth. That as soon as you have kids your life matters more and less at the same time – and that if I could go back and do it again, I would, because I'd met my kids so how could I live without them? But the answer to her question wasn't simple. Readers gasp, they rant and rave and gossip when writers are honest about the question of whether parenthood is worth it. But to remember yourself before you had children is to spend a moment on a knife-edge of ambivalence that is uncomfortable, and very much what writers do, good ones at least: Push people to the edge of their own discomfort and force them to see what was always there. A question with no answer.
But what if one day those people you are forcing to the edge of discomfort are your own children?
"Your lives become entwined," I said, thinking about my children as future readers and setting out on my journey of both welcoming it and fearing it. "It's wonderful and it's beautiful, it's complicated and hard."
She ended up having kids, but with a different husband – a new, doting one – because life is difficult and great. This difficult greatness is why I like to write about families and relationships. And not the kind that are idealized for the page, but the real kind, the messy kind, the kind that can be uncomfortable to read about because of that very realness – and the kind people recognize. What if, one day, my daughter sees herself in lonely, confused Mae from Things to Do When It's Raining, I have asked myself. What if my son is sure he's Gabe, and what if that's because, somehow, when I wasn't looking, he suffered the way that character did? These are the things that keep me up at night: My worries not just about my children, now 9 and 10, interacting with the world, but about the way they might interact with the people I have created as a way to make sense of it.
More people than I can count have seen themselves in my writing by now – or asked, "What did your sisters think of Mating for Life?" and then expressed great surprise when I said I only had brothers. Family members and friends have approached, expressions sly, guarded or angry, and hinted that they knew exactly where I was getting my material. ("Where?" I have asked. "Oh, you know," they have replied.) I think it's why I started writing about my late grandmother in Things to Do When It's Raining – it was freeing at first to actually be writing about a real person and not have to feel like I was hiding something I wasn't. But I ended up throwing away draft after draft until I let go of her completely and the story became what it should have been all along: utter fiction.
Yes, I have secretly listened to dialogue on subway cars or in restaurants. I have carefully watched the expressions on the faces of the couples I've seen walking hand in hand on the beach (panic, distraction, boredom, fear, to name just a few of the things I have seen). I've lapped up the details of anecdotes from strangers like a hungry cat – and thrown it all into a well so diluted no one would ever be recognizable, even to me. When I try to explain this to friends who are not writers, they nod along with my words but I know they don't quite believe me.
"Every author uses people around them for emotional scope," Claire Cameron told me recently. She said it so easily I wondered if I was lying to myself about not using my family members. She told me that while she was writing The Bear – which was, for her, a way to reconcile being a mother with her creative life; "I could either write the novel or go crazy," she explained. She turned to one of her sons, the same age at the time as her protagonist, Anna, to create a believable child character. Anna finds herself in the horrifying situation of having her parents eaten by a bear in Algonquin Park and needing to find a way out of the wilderness with her baby brother – and Cameron was brave to send a character even loosely resembling her own child into that darkness.
She doesn't fear it. When her son was 8 she explained to him the role he played in the development of her character and "he got really proud. He'd want to come to all my signings to put his signature in it. He assigned himself some authorial credit!" But while he was interested in the novel because of his part in it, he didn't ask if he could read it. "Both my kids know about the books I write and are kind of interested, which is great – I've always wanted them to know I have a professional life and that I do things that are beyond the scope of what I do for them. But that may also be what makes them disinterested."
I shouldn't be surprised by my children's disinterest, which grows as they do. But the fact is, all these years I've been filtering my own understanding of the world into my books and hoping that what I'm leaving are clues, a legacy even. I too often say the wrong thing and do the wrong thing and find myself in bed at night, unable to sleep, wriggling with regret – but writing (not first drafts, mind you) is the one time I get it right. I say what I mean, and if I don't, I adjust and edit until it's clear. I realize more every day that I want my kids to read my books because I'm afraid they won't really know me otherwise – flaws and all, but also the interesting bits. The fact, for example, that I am someone other than their mother. It matters more than anything, perhaps, that they might one day see me as someone separate and not be compelled to look away.
"My kids approach my books the same way they do discussions of sex or death: with equal parts curiosity, excitement and fear," author Andrew Pyper says. "Because I write thrillers where monsters and demons and ghosts – that is, people – do terrible things, I haven't exactly encouraged my children, aged 11 and 7, to read them, yet nor have I forbidden them from doing so."
This means, Pyper says, "What Dad does" exists for them in a strange space between the obvious – "He writes books" – and the mysterious – "Bad stuff happens in them, but I don't know what kind of bad stuff."
"I suspect part of their reluctance to read their dad's books is that it would risk revealing another side of him, something hairier and scarier than the goofy cuddler they've known all their lives," Pyper says. "They'll pull one off the shelf when they're ready, which is to say when they not only see their father as flawed, but that his work, in some tantalizing, twisted way, is the way he talked about those flaws."
Poet and playwright Shannon Bramer recently published a collection called Precious Energy; many of the poems focus on motherhood and domestic life – and she, too, thinks her children will see her real self in her work. "It's difficult to separate my feelings of responsibility as a parent from my responsibility as a writer," Bramer tells me. "Being a writer is something I'm proud of and my children know this. They like it. They find it exciting and mysterious that I do this, that I devote myself to the act of writing. But my children reading my work now makes me nervous. I take so many emotional risks. I want to protect them from all the ways I explore pain, from all the complicated discoveries and hard questions I find myself asking myself with my writing."
What I want most is to get to a place where my kids aren't just reading their mother's books because they have to, because they think my too-fragile feelings will be hurt if they don't or because their father told them to ("Come on, guys, your mom's feelings will be hurt if you don't!"), but because they want to.
So I worry. I worry that the designation of my work as "women's fiction" means my son might never crack one of my novel's spines, at least not in public, and that if my daughter studies literature in university she may look down her nose at these stories I have laboured over. I want to fast forward past all this insecurity (I have author friends who are startlingly well-adjusted and others who make my own substantial insecurities pale in comparison) and find myself at some point in the distant future pleasantly surprised.
"Now and then we'll be talking in mixed company about something, and some story comes up, and my daughter will say, I love that story!" says Elisabeth de Mariaffi, author of the Giller Prize longlisted How to Get Along With Women and the forthcoming Hysteria. "I'm always surprised because I feel like, oh, hey, you read that?" Her work has been on her daughter's course syllabus at university. I'm going to be on a BuzzFeed list soon, and my son thinks that's "actually pretty cool," but that's about as far as I've gotten.
"Lately, I've been thinking about what my children will say about me, think about me when I'm old, when I'm gone, too," says Pyper – and it's a relief that I'm not alone in my obsession. "My books will no doubt be part of my dad-ness for them, but I hope a secondary part, something they're proud of but don't see as important as some others might. I hope they remember me telling them stories – on our walks to school, by flashlight in our tent, something only between us – more distinctly than the things he made for everyone."
The future is beyond my control. Every time I finish a novel and release it into the world, which I'm doing right now, I'm forced to come to terms with this again. Unlike my characters, whom I have distilled from every single emotion I have felt, every single word that I have ever said or heard, I can't control how my children will see me when they are fully grown. And there's solace in this. Releasing a novel is intense, and involves a baring of the soul – but those foreheads I kiss at night won't be concerned with any of that. It will be enough to them that I'm there.
Marissa Stapley's second novel, Things to Do When It's Raining, will be released by Simon & Schuster Canada on Feb. 6.