An Interview With Danielle Crittenden

In my never ending quest for interesting content for you dear reader, I decided to take a page out of John Hawkins? book and do some interviews. At the time I happened to be reading a very interesting book, Amanda Bright@home by Danielle Crittenden, and thought it would be interesting to interview the author. Thanks to the power of email and the graciousness of the author, I was able to arrange a Q & A.

In case you are unaware of who she is, let me give you some background on this impressive author. Besides writing Amanda Bright@Home, the first novel to be serialized by Opinion Journal, she is also the author of What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes The Modern Woman. A former columnist for The New York Post, she is also the founding editor of The Women’s Quarterly, published by the Washington- based Independent Women’s Forum. Miss Crittenden is married to David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush. They have two children and live in Washington.

I will post a review of this interesting book on Tuesday but to wet your appetites please find below a series of questions I posed to the author via email. The questions are in bold and her answers follow.

Q: What was it like working on what was, in essence, a weekly column and then putting it together in book form? How have reactions differed between the two?

A: I cannot think of a better way to write fiction today than the old way–as a Dickensian-style serial. I don’t think writers have yet fully realized the potential of the Internet as a means to by-pass the whole New York publishing cabal, and reach readers directly. It helped a great deal that the Wall Street Journal and its terrific website, OpinionJournal, were behind me: I had, as it were, a ready-made audience. I did not have to send missives randomly into the black hole of cyberspace. And from the Journal’s point of view, it was a cheap and easy way to drum up female readership of its website–it didn’t have to devote costly newsprint to the experiment, and after the first chapter (which was launched in the paper itself), I could write as long or as short as I pleased. Space is never an issue on the Internet. That being said, if I was going to to attract readers, and keep them coming back week after week (and a week IS a long time in cyberspace, as you know Kevin–readers expect new material practically on the hour) I had to rely on Victorian methods of novel writing: lively characters with whom readers could immediately identify, a strong plot, topical material, and usually some sort of “hook” at the end of each chapter (whenever I finished writing one, I would ask myself, do I hear those old-fashioned organ chords of suspense? Do I hear that wonderful actor’s baritone asking, “What will happen next to Amanda? Will Bob run off with that thinktank hussy? And will Susie finally meet the man of her dreams? Stay tuned….”) . You get the idea. The reader response was fantastic–both good and bad. This was the other fun aspect of writing on the Internet–immediate response. You are not trapped in some ivory tower wondering if people will ‘relate” to the novel–wondering, frankly, if anyone will read it at all. The readers left me in no doubt. If they loved a chapter, they let me know. If they thought the plot was stalling, they let me know that too. If I got something wrong, there was instantaneous corrections from five different people. Some people got so absorbed into the story they began to write directly to my lead character, Amanda–to give her pointers about how to cope with being an at-home Mom, relaying some of their experiences they thought Amanda might find helpful, reminding her of the value of what she was doing. And then there were the “haters”–people who wanted to let me know that the thought it was the stupidest thing in the world that OpinionJournal would stoop to running such low fiction, and how stupid the story was, etc. etc. I noticed these same “haters” came back week after week, and were following the stupid plot intently, just to let me know how stupid they thought it was. I took a small amount of pleasure in that. If they hated it so much, why read it?

But you asked me what it was like to turn a serial into a book form, and was there a difference in reaction. Rewriting the book was quite easy–it NEEDED rewriting. In fact, I often found myself wincing at the original, since I wrote it so quickly (literally week to week, sometimes as many as 5,000-7,000 words written right up to the midnight deadline). It was like posting a first draft. I reworked it, and during the reworking I found myself returning to many of the readers’ comments, which were helpful. Also, I’d sold the serial as a hardcover to Warner when it was only half-finished, and my editor asked me not to “end” the book, but leave it in some sort of cliffhanger. Guiltily, I complied. The new hardcover version, aside from being more polished, also has an ending. Reaction is quite different, in that to any published book, an author can only judge by sales. It’s now into its second week on the Washington Post bestseller list, and the publisher tells me it’s selling well–but I have to say, it was a lot more fun publishing it on the Internet. You didn’t have to worry about sales. You didn’t have to walk into bookstores and make sure it was on a front table. Reaction was immediate, and gratifying.

Q: Do you think political affiliation or personal philosophy will influence how one reacts to the book? (left vs. right) What about cultural, economic, or geographical differences/circumstances? (If you are a Mid-Western Middle Class housewife does it change the way you react to the book as compared to an East Coast Lawyer? What if you don’t have kids? etc.)

A: I’ve always been surprised how “politicized” motherhood has become. How one mothers, whether one is a full-, part-, or working mother is obviously a deeply personal question. Yet where one “stands” on motherhood has come to mark you politically: If you support at-home mothers, and wish to encourage women to stay home with their children–or look for alternative solutions to the 40-hour work week for mothers of small children–this brands you as a “conservative.” If, on the other hand, you want to look to state solutions for childcare a la Hillary Clinton, this sets you in the “liberal” camp. I’ve written on these issues as a journalist–indeed my first book, “What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us”–was a non-fiction critique of many of the assumptions about marriage, motherhood, love etc. my “post-feminist” generation took for granted. “Amanda Bright @ Home? continues to explore many of the themes that fascinated me then and continue to fascinate me: How does a modern woman, raised to have a full-time career, suddenly adapt to full-time motherhood? How does it affect her identity? Her marriage? Her husband? Her sex life–or, as it may be for many exhausted women, her lack of it?
And these very personal issues cross political lines. To that degree, fiction is liberating. When you write a non-fiction essay about motherhood, it’s considered polarizing–you get slammed from all sides. But exploring a modern woman’s life subtly, truthfully, and through every day incidents–this is a much better way to understanding. And when I wrote the story, initially, for Journal readers, I really had no idea what its reach would be. Its reach was staggering–women of all economic, political, and regional stripe began writing to me. My favorite reader was a generation older than me, living in Walla Walla, Washington. I have no idea what party she is registered with, nor what is the balance of her savings account. But she identified with Amanda’s trials and tribulations as a woman. I also heard a lot from men. Some loved the Washington subplot of the book and grew impatient with the chapters that dwelled upon Amanda. Others wrote me to say, “Thank you. Now I know why my wife threw that shoe at me the other night when I came home from work.” Sadly, a childless man told me that reading the novel vindicated his decision not to get married and have children (!). As between the sides of the so-called “mommy wars,” both seemed pleased: at-home mothers found a character with whom they could identify, going through everything they were going through; working mothers could vicariously see what their existence would be like if they gave up their jobs.

Q: What do you find different about writing fiction? What do you like, dislike?

A: As I said in the previous answer, writing fiction is a much more satisfying and even truthful way to explore contemporary life. I don’t actually dislike anything about it–it’s great fun coming up with characters, story, dialogue. The best part is that you don’t have to use some survey or group of statistics to make your point. You just give the point a name and physical description, and you’re in business.

Q: Just how autobiographical is AMANDA BRIGHT@HOME in terms of emotions, characters, setting, etc.?

A: For some reason most readers today assume writers are incapable of making anything up (unless, of course, they’re reporters for the New York Times…). During the serial, it got a little bit embarrassing going to parties, seeing friends, etc. because many people wondered if Amanda–and all her angst and marital difficulties–was some veiled “cry for help.” (My husband, David, too, began receiving very strange looks from his colleagues. They assumed Bob was him.) I found my own life and emotions were only useful to the degree they helped me understand and create Amanda. I also interviewed dozens of women for the book, and many of their experiences crept into the novel. Amanda is autobiographical in the sense that she shares–or rather, reflects–the insecurities, doubts, and difficulties me and so many women of my generation face when we become mothers.
Actually, the joke about Amanda is that MY life began to imitate hers after she was published in serial form: in the novel, Amanda stirs up a mini-Washington tempest when she gets her administration-employed husband into trouble by speaking incautiously to a gossip columnist. As a blogger, you may recall I caused a similar tempest when a private email I sent out to friends was published in an on-line gossip column. But the scene in the novel was written BEFORE my own little taste of tabloid fame. At the time it was happening to me, I was mortified–but also, as a writer, a little bit curious. I wondered if I’d captured Amanda’s experience with perfect accuracy. When I went to revise that section, I didn’t have to change a word. Actually, I changed one thing: I added a line about Amanda having to eject a New York Post photographer from her front stoop. That happened to us. (The photographer, I might add, was awfully gracious about it.)

Q: What is it like having another author in the house? Do you help each other or work in separate rooms?(My wife hates when I critique her writing)

A: These days we have separate offices, but in the past David and I have occasionally shared an office, and on some days, we have worked together at the same outdoor table on our porch. I know people automatically assume that two writers living in the same house must be desperately competitive. But I’ve often compared us to his grandparents, who used to run a little fresh fruit and vegetable store on College Street in Toronto (“Frum’s Modern Grocery”). His grandmother worked the till and did the book-keeping, and her husband purchased the produce and schmoozed with the customers. Basically, we’re like that. Frum’s Modern Books. Fresh. Buy Two and We’ll Throw in a Third Book for Free. I actually don’t know what I would do if he was not a writer–if he were something more sensible, for example, like a dentist. I depend utterly on his advice and editing–and vice versa. We’re each other’s toughest editor–and it works, I think, because we trust each other’s judgment. It’s a real gift to have someone “in-house” to show your initial drafts, discuss ideas with, etc. Granted, I sympathize with your wife. I need what David (somewhat mockingly) calls a “praise sandwich.” If he begins ripping to shreds something I’ve just written, I get hurt. So rather than rip it to shreds, he’s learned to say, like a kindergarten teacher, “Your first sentence Danielle is REALLY, REALLY good,” then, “But there are some BIG problems here in the middle,” followed by, “However, your last sentence is REALLY, REALLY good.” David doesn’t need the praise sandwich. I can be quite brutal and he doesn’t flinch. He takes it like a man.

Q: Did you set out to write a story with a message or did you just find the subject interesting? Was the story more important than the “moral?”

A: As I said previously, I found the whole topic of modern women at home fascinating, and wanted to explore it in all its permutations. But like a good Victorian, I wanted to write a story that was essentially affirming. I had no interest in engaging a reader for an entire novel, only to kill off someone at the end (I HATE that in books), nor in striking a pose of moral relativism–which produces as dull a story as those old improving morality tales for children. On the other hand, I didn’t want to write the modern equivalent of those Boy Meets Tractor novels that the Soviets use to churn out to promote their ideological agenda. The minute you have an agenda is the minute you cease to write a true story. People struggle with moral choices all the time, and as a novelist, you want to explore the consequences of those moral decisions as honestly as you can. If characters are to be real, and jump off the page, they have to be allowed to go where their lives and natures take them. If I’d wished to write a propagandistic novel promoting at-home motherhood–as some critics have accused me of doing–then Amanda would never have had the inner-struggles and doubts that she suffers, and she would have had some cartoon ending cheerfully shoving apple pies into an oven while patting her tow-headed, well-behaved children on the heads. If I’d wanted to make a feminist point, Amanda would have chucked the at-home life to find satisfaction back on the job. Neither would be honest. As it is, Amanda must come to her own conclusions about what she’s done–conclusions that recognize, yes, the joys and satisfactions of being a mother, but also its real sacrifices–and often, the sheer daily drudgery of it!

Q: The main character Amanda has to deal with a lot of insecurity and self-doubt. Was this a specific aspect of motherhood that you wanted to explore? Is this a largely unspoken issue among women, do mothers talk about these issues?

A: It always terrifies men to hear that women talk about EVERYTHING. It sometimes terrifies me. What I wanted to do is take these feelings of insecurity–that might come up in random conversation among women–and give them vivid expression and context. Why does a woman feel so insecure as a mother? How much of it is self-inflicted, and how much of it comes from the society around her?

Q: Amanda and Bob are not culturally or politically conservative. Was there a reason the story was set in a more “liberal” environment? Is it harder or easier to write about your own political and cultural environment?

A: It was important to make Amanda and Bob liberals and Democrats purely for dramatic–and humorous–possibilities. I wanted a character for whom being an at-home mother would be the most alien experience she could imagine (I think in the movies they call this the fish-out-of-water scenario). Not only has Amanda been raised by a feminist mother (who, by the way, expresses the most horror of anyone when Amanda quits her job), but she embodies a lot of prevailing cultural assumptions about work, home, and raising children–attitudes that parents of any political hue will agree get sorely challenged when you have children. So, at the beginning of the book, when Amanda finds herself surrounded by the mess and chaos of her house (including what appear to be the strewn plastic body parts after an attack by Suicide Bomber Ken), she thinks with exasperation that, “Four years spent earning a bachelor’s degree had not prepared her for a career as a domestic curator.” Of course, it gets worse for her. And that’s the fun–and poignancy–of it.

You ask is it harder or easier to write about different milieus–or, fish-in-different water scenarios. It’s of course harder–and I would add, even harder than writing about different fish in non-fiction. In non-fiction, you can take a detached, scholarly view of your subject. You can cite polls. You can quote real people. If you make a mistake, you can run a correction–but in any case, a reader isn’t expecting you to get it 100 percent perfect. But fictional subjects have to be 100 percent perfect, or they die, right there, on the page. If I make a tiny mistake about the sort of car a billionaire would drive (and there is a billionaire in the novel–in fact, there are two), the reader reels back and says, Wow, a guy like that would NEVER drive that car. And the whole character is exposed as a fake. I researched the novel as thoroughly as I would have researched a non-fiction book–and still, I had to rely upon a small group of friends who read every chapter before it was posted on-line, basically making sure I got those sorts of details right. These friends were invaluable–and I credit them in the acknowledgments. For the Justice department scenes, I had a friend who arranged a tour of the DOJ, explained anti-trust law to me as needed, and even made sure I got Bob’s salary and title exactly right. Readers of the serial were also very helpful, and sent in their corrections when errors crept in. I was able to incorporate their corrections in the revision.

Q: The book seems to take a dim view of what David Brooks might call Bobos. Is there a cultural critique weaved in or was that just a necessary part of Amanda’s life?

A: There are definitely parts of the novel that are satirical. I just couldn’t help sending up some aspects of modern life. So much of it is funny. Amanda’s son is nearly expelled from his tony private pre-school for bringing in a peanut butter cookie. He has violated the “Just Say No to Nuts” curriculum. What is perhaps frightening is that I didn’t make that part up–there really is something called a “Just Say No to Nuts Curriculum” and it’s why schoolchildren across America can no longer bring peanut butter sandwiches to school. (And please, before you readers out there start blasting me with emails, I know, I know–peanut allergies are Very Serious and We Shouldn’t Make Fun of Them.)

Q: Are you planning to write more fiction?
A: Absolutely. I’m at work on a new novel right now. I’d love to do it on-line again, but at the moment, the demand upon me would be too great: I’ve had a baby since the last serial, and for the time being, she’ll only let me do instant cereal, not Internet serials. This book will have to be cranked out the more traditional way. Amanda would understand.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).