Rae Meadows is the author of Mothers and Daughters, published this May by Henry Holt. She has written two previous novels, No One Tells Everything (2008) and Calling Out (2006). I had the privilege of getting to know Rae when we were both students at the University of Utah, studying creative writing and getting together occasionally to whack around a tennis ball. After I read Mothers and Daughters this spring, I had some questions for Rae. She took time out of her busy schedule touring to promote her book, and as the mother of two daughters herself, to answer some of my questions.
The King’s English (Lynn Kilpatrick): One of the first things I noticed as I was reading Mothers and Daughters was the relationship between your book, Virginia Woolf, and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. I really liked the way you used the three-part/three-character structure, and, like The Hours, there were direct references to Woolf. How would you characterize your book’s relationship to these other works?
Rae Meadows: I was definitely inspired and influenced by The Hours, particularly Cunningham’s use of a three-part structure with characters who don’t overlap in real time. I liked how this functioned to collapse time and memory. I was also appreciative of the book’s spareness and quiet drama. I was a little worried about directly referencing Virginia Woolf (Is it allowed? Is it like sampling in a song? Is it frowned upon?) but it seemed right for the character of Iris. I really did set out to write a novel about women and I kept coming back to To the Lighthouse.
TKE: Can you talk about your decision to write the book from three different points of view? This seemed like a departure from your other books, which each focus on one main character.
RM: Admittedly part of this decision came from becoming a mother and having to figure out some way to approach a novel in short bursts of time. For me it seemed more manageable to break it down into multiple points of view. I actually wrote each of the character’s sections separately because I couldn’t yet conceive of the whole. As you know, the entirety of a novel is such a scary behemoth to consider.
TKE: How did your book become a best seller in the Netherlands?
RM: Your guess is as good as mine! It’s such a funny thing. I liked the cover—they used a vintage photograph of a woman holding a little girl’s hand, seen from behind. There is something subtly ominous about it, which appealed to me, at least. (Or maybe the Dutch just have good taste?)
TKE: How do you finish a draft? Many writers begin projects, but have a hard time getting to the end of a finished draft and then there’s revision! How do you do it?
RM: I have no idea how to write a novel! I’m looking into the abyss these days, unable to get started on something new. For Mothers and Daughters, I slogged out two pages a day until a messy first draft was completed, and I tried not to think too far down the road. I have to commit to those kind of modest but unwavering goals for myself or I’d never write at all.
TKE: What kind of historical research did you do for Mothers and Daughters?
RM: I loved researching for this book. It kind of felt like cheating. I read books about the orphan trains, both first-hand accounts of riders and histories of social welfare, which gave me more context. For turn-of-the-century New York City flavor, I found my best tools to be period accounts of church women who would go into poor neighborhoods and report what they had seen. And there are some incredible things you can find online, of course, particularly photographs, which kick-started scenes for me. For my next novel, I’m doing historical research again—this time on the Dust Bowl—and it’s a great way to procrastinate. Sure I’ll get writing, I just have to read one more book first…
You can keep up with Rae, and see pictures of the Dutch posters for Mothers and Daughters on her blog.