Look How Happy I'm Making You | Artist Spotlight: Polly Rosenwaike
by Ellie Knaus
The anticipation of curling up in bed and reading this collection of stories gets me through our bedtime routine. Did I say “routine”? I meant SLOG. These days my five-year-old is harder to get to sleep than our almost two-year-old, who luckily still believes her Elmo and Elsa dolls can protect her. After rolling off my preschooler’s trundle bed without rousing her, I slip into my comfy and decidedly UN-sexy maternity nightgown (NO I am not pregnant) and read this book. I had forgotten how epically satisfying it is to get wrapped up in a short stories collection. It’s like literary speed dating where I fall in love with a new story each night. Look How Happy I’m Making You is a collection linked by the theme of motherhood and explores it from all angles. I’m very excited to share this Q&A with you. I love what Polly Rosenweike has to say about her craft and raising children as much as I am a fan of her writing. xx Ellie
Polly, how did you carve out the time necessary to write this exquisite collection of stories on motherhood? It's not like motherhood allows much time and space for the muse. Can you let us in on what the writing process was like?
Polly: It was a matter of snatching bits of time here and there, over more than a decade. My daughters are now eight and five. I wrote drafts of a few of the stories before they were born, but most of them weren’t started or completed until I became a mother—and indeed I couldn’t have written them otherwise, so motherhood was the muse. I juggled part-time jobs that allowed me some flexibility to write during the week, so I wrote at the desk in my very cluttered basement while the kids were in childcare. I wrote at the library on weekends while their dad or a babysitter took care of them. I wrote in bed while ignoring the laundry baskets full of unfolded clothes all around me. I’ve never been the kind of writer who can pour a lot onto the page at once, so the dribs and drabs and constant chipping away over years suited me.
In addition to writing and teaching writing, you are a book reviewer. How do you turn off that critical part of your brain when you are in creation mode yourself?
Polly: Actually, I don’t quite turn it off, but because I work on a very small scale, I’m able to focus on the current sentence I’m writing rather than the question of whether the larger work measures up. I’m not a big-idea person (hence the intimate stories rather than a sweeping novel), and tinkering with sentences is what I love most about writing. So I go over sentences and scenes again and again, letting the small moments accumulate. In a sense, I guess I do try to turn off the critical question of where something is going or whether it all holds together until later, but I’m always trying to revise as I go, and make individual words, sentences, details just a little bit better. The blank page (really, the blinking cursor on a blank screen) terrifies me, but I love revising, and as an editor myself, I have a lot of faith in the process.
I'm curious if you have experienced what podcaster Hillary Frank has referred to as "The Special Misogyny Reserved for Mothers". And if so, can you share an example and how you dealt with it?
Polly: That’s a great piece, and it’s fantastic what Hillary Frank has done with her podcast The Longest Shortest Time. My work world of editing, teaching, and nonprofits has been dominated by women (and a few terrific men) who’ve been very supportive of how motherhood figures into my life. So I’ve been lucky. And with this book, though I did encounter several folks in publishing who felt the stories were too “familiar,” I found others who thought the material was worthy of taking on. I think, though, that for a lot of us, even if we haven’t experienced explicit misogyny related to our motherhood, we’ve internalized the idea that it’s inherently about self-sacrifice. Let’s consider that people don’t usually cast fatherhood that way. We need to keep asserting that our concerns as mothers/women/people be taken seriously, rather than treated, as Frank says, as “small, niche and unimportant.”
How has writing this collection changed your relationship to the concept of "motherhood"?
Polly: That’s an interesting question I haven’t quite thought about. For a long time after my first daughter was born, I found it so odd to identify as a mother. I still find it odd, actually, partly because I think many of us feel that we’re still younger than we are and that we can’t possibly have reached full adulthood. Our mothers are the mothers—not us! In writing the collection, it was great to think about being in conversation with writers of other recent books about new motherhood, both fiction and nonfiction, that I love: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Elisa Albert’s After Birth, Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun, Rivkah Galchen’s Little Labors, just to mention a few. In the throes of early motherhood, I was pretty lonely, but writing, reading, and talking to other women about the complexities of our roles has given me a real sense of companionship and community.
What would you say to the mother of young kids who says she doesn't have time to read?
Polly: Well, I say I don’t have time to exercise, cook, clean my basement, learn piano, or volunteer at my kids’ schools, so I totally get it. Reading has always been essential to my feeling of well-being in the world. There have definitely been periods where I’ve grumbled that I don’t have time to read anymore and then I’ve indignantly started reading a novel and realized I can find a little time. It’s great to go through my day knowing I can get inside a book at the end of it.
We're both raising two young daughters. What are some of the ways your daughters are reminding you of the magic in our everyday lives? And can we also just take a moment to acknowledge how rad it is that we hit the "hand me down" jackpot with clothes?!
Polly: Ah, I like this question. Since you happened to catch me this week, what comes to mind is that yesterday, after school, my eight-year-old wanted to make a geode out of pipe cleaners and borax and food coloring. At first I tried to put her off, protesting that it was going to make a mess, that we had to go pick up her sister soon. And then I realized I was being a stick-in-the-mud. Why not make one’s own geode in the next twenty minutes? Then today, the five-year-old and I were driving east in the brilliant light of early morning, talking about east and west. Just explaining the simplest thing—that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west—made me wonder at the glorious constancy of this fact I take for granted. If you’d asked me this question last week, I would have had other ready answers, I’m sure, because seeing how continually curious and exciting the world is for children is one of the loveliest things about having them in your life.
And yes, the “hand-me-down” jackpot! Being able to use all of my older daughter’s cute outgrown clothes that I was saving, just in case, was honestly one of the first things I thought about when I learned that I was having another girl. And those clothes had almost all been inherited from friends, so I’ve been doubly fortunate.
Since you live in Ann Arbor, I've got to ask: what's your favorite thing to order at Zingerman's? And where's your summer favorite getaway in Michigan?
Polly: Zingerman’s! As a vegetarian, I like the Stewart’s Farmer’s hash plate: sweet potatoes, redskin potatoes, and spinach on yummy bread. For dessert, chocolate and raspberry rugelach, please. Wearing my freelance editor hat, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Ari Weinzweig, one of Zingerman’s founders, on several of his “Lapsed Anarchist” business books. As for Michigan summer getaways, my partner is the co-director of the wonderful Bear River Writers’ Conference near Petoskey, so we get to go up there and stay in a cabin by a lake. No kids allowed, except for my kids, who skip stones in the water, chase Ping-Pong balls, eat a lot of ice cream in the dining hall, and hopefully don’t bother the hard-at-work writers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Polly Rosenwaike has published stories, essays, and reviews in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013, The New York Times Book Review, Glimmer Train, New England Review, The Millions, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is the fiction editor of the Michigan Quarterly Review and lives in Ann Arbor with her family. Here’s more info on Look How Happy I’m Making You.
ABOUT ATOMIC MOMS:
Since 2014, Apple Podcasts has featured Atomic Moms under its most popular Kids & Family recommendations. We share conversations with best-selling authors, world class experts, and parents around the world. Don’t forget to Subscribe + Listen on the Go: Apple Podcasts | Stitcher | Spotify
Here’s our recent podcast conversation with Hillary Frank where we discuss her New York Times piece on “The Special Misogyny Reserved for Mothers”: