The ‘bad mother’ returns

Novelist Ayelet Waldman is bringing her ‘Love and Treasure’ to the Writers’ Festival in Jerusalem.

Ayelet Waldman. ‘Homework is one of the worst things you can do to a family.’ (photo credit: REENIE RASCHKE)
Ayelet Waldman. ‘Homework is one of the worst things you can do to a family.’
(photo credit: REENIE RASCHKE)
The world’s best bad mother, novelist Ayelet Waldman, is coming to Israel for the International Writers’ Festival, which Mishkenot Sha’ananim is hosting in Jerusalem from May 18 to 23. Her recently published novel, Love and Treasure – based on the fascinating and true story of the Hungarian Gold Train that carried jewelry and other valuable items that the Nazis had stolen from Jews – has garnered some of the best reviews of her career. She has written several previous literary novels, plus a series of mysteries called The Mommy Track Mysteries, about a young mom solving crimes.
Waldman, a mother of four and married to novelist Michael Chabon (author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Telegraph Avenue, among others), is also well known – some might say notorious – for her essay collection, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace. This intensely candid and brilliant book features pieces about subjects both mundane and momentous, from her hatred of doing homework with her kids to the abortion she had when she discovered that the child she was carrying had a serious genetic problem. Several of the pieces in it – particularly an essay that ran in The New York Times “Modern Love” section, in which she wrote “I love my husband more than I love my children” – earned her savage criticism and public vilification.
Waldman is striking in that she is a gifted, disciplined and ambitious writer, and also utterly irreverent. Clearly not one to waste time, she spoke to me last week via Skype from her home in Berkeley, California, while walking on her treadmill. The conversation, as our video screens froze at odd moments, was less like an interview and more like the kind of chat you’d have with a girlfriend after a few margaritas.
She’s also, technically, a native Israeli. Her father, a Canadian Jew, moved to Israel as a young man, founded a kibbutz and joined the Palmah. Her family left Israel when she was still a toddler and returned to Canada, but she spent time here as a teen and came back after college, planning to live here for the rest of her life. Her brother, a decorated Yom Kippur War veteran, still lives here. So part of her willingness to say whatever is on her mind may be a function of her innate Israeli chutzpah.
Since one of the panels on which she is speaking at the Writers Festival bears the title “Bad Mother,” I ask her how she decided to speak publicly about not being the perfect mom, which is such a taboo in a culture that venerates maternal self-sacrifice.
“I felt there was a backlash against the ‘perfect mother’ image. People are starting to be more willing to be open about all this. I felt if I say, ‘F*** all these perfect mothers,’ I knew I couldn’t be the only one. I have a big mouth, so I just thought, I’m going to say this,” she says. “If someone tells me, ‘You have to feel this way,’ I just say, ‘F*** you.’” Waldman, who is a lawyer and worked as a public defender before she began writing novels, adds that “you have to have a certain fortitude to do that job,” then admits, “I have this weirdly thin skin. I get hurt easily. It’s perverse.”
And a great deal of hurtful criticism came her way after the New York Times column appeared. She appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where Winfrey praised her courage, but the audience response was mostly negative, to put it mildly. The extraordinary backlash against that column earned a spot on the snarky website Gawker’s list of the “20 Best Trollings in Modern History.”
“It doesn’t make me not take the risk the next time,” she says. “But I have to work at not Googling myself.”
What truly helps her cope with the bile is the emails and comments she gets from people (mostly women, obviously) who feel liberated and comforted by what she has written.
“With ‘Rocketship’ [the essay she wrote about her abortion], I still get these middle-of-the-night weeping emails from people who say some version of ‘I thought I couldn’t live with myself, and then I found this book.’ That’s amazing. I got an email once from this couple who were on the way home from an abortion [that they had also gotten because of a genetic problem with the fetus] and they heard me being interviewed on [National Public Radio’s] Terry Gross. They were desperately sad about what had happened, and to hear me say it out loud, that I had gone through the same thing, they sat there and cried and it made them feel not alone. That one email made it worth it.”
She adds that “women who’ve had abortions are like this weird secret sorority. I wonder if that’s how it used to be with breast cancer.”
Recalling her own abortion, she speaks of a moment when someone else comforted her. While she was bringing one of her children to preschool just after the abortion, “I was still big, I looked pregnant, and this mom I was not friends with, this woman who was like a WASP in a Jew’s body” – a phrase that perhaps only Waldman would ever come up with – “gave me a hug and it made me feel that I hadn’t committed a crime – or at least that if I had, I wasn’t the only offender....
I have the good fortune that I have something like a platform, and it sort of made me feel obligated to write about this.”
And just like that, she jumps to a much funnier but still faintly controversial topic: homework.
“It’s nine o’clock one night, and my daughter says, ‘I have to do a project about this Indian tribe.’ And I thought, are you kidding? It’s nine at night! And she said, ‘I just need some hemp,’ and I thought, ‘I just need some hemp!’... Homework is one of the worst things you can do to a family. It does nothing, it just ruins people’s family life.”
Now that we’ve established her bona fides as the person who is willing to say what we all secretly feel, I ask about Love and Treasure. The book, which was just published in the US and is about to come out in a Hebrew translation, tells love stories set during several generations, tracing the fate of a valuable pendant plundered from a Hungarian Jew during the Holocaust.
The Wall Street Journal Review wrote that “the pendant’s crooked passage across the century serves as a connecting device, holding the book’s elegantly balanced parts together like the wire in a Calder mobile.”
And The New York Times praised the book as a literary page-turner, saying, “Waldman sustains her multiple plot lines with breathless confidence and descriptive panache, fashioning complex personalities caught up in an inexorable series of events.”
Although she has written other literary novels – Red Hook Road, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits and Daughter’s Keeper – plus a series of “silly, funny little murder mysteries that were made to be read in the attention you can spare while breastfeeding,” Love and Treasure is her most ambitious novel so far. The intertwined plotlines feature Jack Wiseman, a dying professor who was an officer in the US Army during World War II and had a love affair with Ilona, a Hungarian refugee, in Salzburg after the war; Wiseman’s granddaughter Natalie, who seizes on the now longlost pendant he tells her about and tries to track down with the help of an Israeli-born art dealer in Hungary as a way to heal after her marriage fails; and a pompous psychoanalyst and his rebellious patient in 1913 Budapest.
“It took three and a half years to write, and it went through six drafts. The third section [about the psychoanalyst] came in a frantic rush of bliss. Dr. Zobel just landed in my head complete,” she says. “I also did a ton of research.”
An “amazing research assistant” was invaluable in her work, and she would dutifully come up with items such as newspaper pages that showed “what kind of corsets were being advertised in 1913.”
Waldman realized she wanted to write “a triptych novel; I knew it was going to have these three separate parts, but it was like writing three whole books. It was hard work, but it was really satisfying, even though I was biting off what felt like many times more than I what I could chew.”
She says that “I had been waiting my whole life to write about the Holocaust. [As a child,] I read every novel about the Holocaust, but I wouldn’t approach it till I felt I had the skills to do it well.”
Her childhood fascination with the Holocaust was part of what she describes as “this whole Jewish identity crisis.” While her great-grandparents’ family was killed, her grandparents were out of harm’s way, and she grew up in a family of Labor Zionists “who rejected everything to do with religion... the Holocaust rushed in to fill that [identity] gap.... My whole Jewish identity was built on this sense of secondhand injury. In America, what we think of as Jewish history is Israel and the Holocaust. Between Fiddler on the Roof and Roman Vishniac, that’s what we thought Judaism was. But secular Judaism, in places like Poland and Budapest, was a vibrant, culturally diverse and rich society. What I wanted to do in Love and Treasure was to give a sense of what was lost.”
But there’s a very personal dimension to her book as well: “Natalie is in many ways a sort of stand-in for me... Jack Wiseman is my father, and Amitai is the story of my boyfriend who was of Syrian descent in a kibbutz full of yekkim [German Jews].”
Waldman actually planned to make her home with that boyfriend. She even planned to serve in the army and reported for duty, but was released from her service before it even started. She believed that “after college I was going to live in my brother’s kibbutz and live out some bizarre little-drummer-girl fantasy.”
After a trip to India and Thailand with her boyfriend, where she was “moving in a pack of Israeli youth,” she was accepted to Harvard Law School, and eventually decided to stay in the US.
She has not been to Israel in over 20 years and is looking forward to this trip, although she is a bit apprehensive about how her Hebrew, which she speaks like “a very articulate two-and-a-half-year-old,” will be received.
In the meantime, in between promoting Love and Treasure, she is at work on a number of other projects. She and Chabon have collaborated not only on their family, but also in trying their hand at writing for television.
“We wrote a TV pilot for HBO,” she says. “We love working together, although if you were in the room with us working together, you might not think we love working together.”
The show, which HBO decided not to pick up, was “about escape artists and mediums working for British Intelligence during World War II. It had a light touch, but they couldn’t wrap their minds around the Chabon tone. They kept asking, ‘What are the stakes?’ I guess they didn’t notice the bombs falling.”
But she’s already moved on to something else, an adaptation of the novel Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon, which she describes as a “rom-com” that’s “basically ‘The Piña Colada Song’” – the 1979 Rupert Holmes hit about a bored husband and wife who answer personal ads and end up going out with each other.
As we chat about how Israel has changed since her last visit, she notices she has reached her 10,000-step goal and has to get going.
“This trip is an exploratory mission,” she says. “After I get home, I’ll report on my findings and then come back again with Michael and the kids.”