Ideas & Advice

How novelist Jessamine Chan created the dystopian ‘School for Good Mothers’ – Orange County Register

How novelist Jessamine Chan created the dystopian ‘School for Good Mothers’ – Orange County Register
Written by Publishing Team

Frida Liu was tired and stressed. Her toddler, Harriet, was not feeling well, preventing Frida from sleeping at night. She was falling behind with her job and she was breaking down, especially when she thought of her ex-husband Gust and his beautiful, young girlfriend Susanna and his cocky, hippy ideas about parenting.

And then Frida’s life is turned upside down.

For the first 70 pages, ‘School of Good Mothers,’ Jessamine Chan’s recently published Orwellian debut novel, is emotionally heartbreaking – then it takes a dark, twisted turn. To regain shared custody of her daughter, Frida must spend a year locked up in the title dystopian rehab school where each mother is assigned a sensitive doll to take care of – and where every look, statement and hug is judged, usually. harshly. and unfairly. The program appears to be designed not to help mothers improve but to push them further towards failure and disgrace. (There’s a school for dads who screw up too, but, unsurprisingly, it’s much more lenient.)

This captivating and provocative read has already been optioned to be suitable for television. Chan, 43, spoke on video the day after her daughter’s birthday. “She told my husband and I that we weren’t allowed to work on her birthday,” Chan said, an order she obeyed.

This interview with the author, which will appear on Skylight Books on January 20, has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Where did this idea come from?

In 2014, I was hoping to work on a collection of short stories. I applied to writers’ residencies and was rejected for the 12e time, so I took all my vacation days from work at Publisher’s Weekly and borrowed a friend’s cottage for two weeks to be alone and write. For many, many days, I had one terrible idea after another. But towards the end, I had a really good day writing – it was almost like I had written in a trance for six hours.

At the time, I was trying to decide if I had a baby and was very worried about motherhood. A few months earlier, I had read an article in The New Yorker about a single mother who had left her son at home for a few hours and lost his parental rights after a long legal battle. I felt so angry for her. And something about the way they talked about parenting made me think of science fiction. It wasn’t because I had read the article and thought, “Oh, I’m fascinated by this topic,” but it was on my mind and corresponded to my personal decision to become a mother.

The big messy rough draft that came out of that day of writing had Frida and Harriet, the story of Gust and Susanna, the idea of ​​school, all the moms and the dolls, and the voice of the book.

Q. Was it important to stress Frida’s sense of isolation and alienation as an Asian American woman?

The book gave me a place to grapple with the experiences I had as a first generation Chinese American. I’ve always been an underdog in just about every situation. I grew up in a fairly diverse suburb but in a predominantly white part and the only Asians I saw were family members. Frida approaches the subject of American families from an outside perspective.

Q. Although she feels like an outsider, do you think all readers will adopt Frida’s story?

It’s exciting to be an Asian American author right now. When I was young, there was only Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. I took a fiction workshop in college just for the purpose of hoping to be a book editor one day – it never occurred to me that I could write fiction. This path seemed impossible. Until I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2015, I had never had an Asian American workshop leader, undergraduate or in a Masters of Fine Arts program and other workshops. It was so powerful to have someone who looked like me in charge. And now it’s exciting that this is considered a universal story because the stories centered on the Asian American perspective weren’t considered universal.

Q. You were also aware of avoiding stereotypes of “model minority”.

I wanted Frida to be thorny and complicated and not have to be noble. But she became more sympathetic and vulnerable after I became a mother. I hope the book creates space for people to access these feelings and for a character of color to be more imperfect. In previous versions, she was angrier and more resentful because I couldn’t imagine how much I would love my daughter.

Q. How else did becoming a mother influence the book?

What struck me after becoming a mother was the degree of self-monitoring – I feel bad every moment that I’m not 100% happy and present with my daughter. The dads I meet seem a lot colder about it all while the moms are quite tormented.

The book takes the things I noticed and makes them literal – in real life you are supposed to keep an eye on your child, so in school you always have to fix your eyes on your doll or you get punished. It is to take a kernel of truth and make it insane.

Q. And how has writing this book changed you as a mother?

The book made me a bit more relaxed parent – no one would describe me as a relaxed person – because so much of my anxiety went into the book. It gave me a home for the truly endless amount of things you need to worry about as a parent and a place to deal with the pressure I was feeling from my peers and from society. When people were doing little digs into how fast my daughter was speaking, I would just fit her into the character of Susanna. So I was less obsessed with developmental stages and perfection because I was studying that kind of judgment, shame, and guilt.

I had been living in Frida’s head for a very long time, but this dark space – thinking of loss, regret, and the passing of time – made me more present for the good things. It also helped me see my guilt and anxiety in a larger system and understand that it’s not just me, the fight isn’t just mine.

Q. It’s an Orwellian world, yet it feels awfully real on some level.

These ideas about government control of women and monitoring and making things difficult for mothers have been around for a long time, they are being talked about more and more now. Writing the book definitely made me think about how families of color face judgment and oversight and how race and class based that is and how unfair it is.

There were much darker things lost along the way – many more mothers died in the early drafts. But some very wise people told me that was a bit too much and that we needed more light and connection. It was an interesting challenge to add warmth.

I was told it was stressful read, especially for parents of young children. But the book isn’t meant to shame people. I hope moms reading this feel seen and supported, rather than judged more.

Jessamine Chan with Alissa Nutting

When: 7:20 p.m. January (in person, see website for details)

Or: 1818 N Vermont Ave, Los Angeles


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