An Interview with Maya Sonenberg, Author of “Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters”

Maya Sonenberg is professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington. Her previous collections of short stories include Cartographies (winner of the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature) and Voices from the Blue Hotel. The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish her newest collection of stories Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters (August 2022) as the latest winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction. Sonenberg recently answered some of our questions about her writing process. 

When did you first get the idea to write this book? 

I began writing the stories in Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters around a dozen years ago, but they didn’t coalesce into a book until I could see that I kept returning to the fraught relationships between mothers and children, or between grown women and their aged parents.

Maya Sonenberg

Certainly these are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era? 

In the United States, the pandemic has highlighted all the ways that in many families, mothers shoulder the caretaking burden: taking on the majority of household chores, caring for elders, and supporting the emotional well-being of children. Many do this while simultaneously working full-time or trying to make art. Mothers’ added responsibility to supervise remote schooling during the pandemic has highlighted the ridiculous expectation that women must always be lovingly, unselfishly present for their families’ needs. Like the women who gathered in a Boston Park to release the relentless stress of mothering during the pandemic by screaming together, my characters love their families but also want to be free to express all the emotions associated with caring for them, not only the positive ones.

How did you research this book?

Some of the stories in this collection required factual research. In sifting through piles of library books, listening to CDs, or Google searching, I amassed many more facts and quotations than I ultimately used. All of that was necessary, however, in order for me to create these stories. For other stories, I needed to research form rather than content. Many are based on traditional verse forms such as the sonnet, the villanelle, and haiku, although that may not be readily apparent to the reader. For those stories, I researched the details and read many examples of the form before adapting it to write fiction.

What did you learn while writing it?

I first turned to verse forms to generate stories in order to both express and corral the sometimes terrifying emotions I associated with raising small children, taking care of an aging and ill parent, and facing misogyny and climate destruction. These topics and the emotions associated with them seemed boundless and inchoate, but I learned that by containing them in a verse form, I was better able to face them.

In adapting these forms to write short stories, I also learned much about the forms themselves—the ways a repeated line or sentence shifts meaning depending on its context; about fiction—it turns out it’s really hard to write a conflict before you’ve introduced characters; and about my own writing habits.

Of course in writing these stories, I also learned something about motherhood, about siblings (I don’t have any), and about becoming a member of the oldest living generation in my family. I needed to acknowledge my feelings of guilt over not living closer to my ailing father or over having sometimes been annoyed with my own small children even as I wondered at their humor and intelligence. 

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

When I was first writing, stories by Robert Coover and Jorge Luis Borges were incredibly influential. I had never before seen how fiction could do something other than depict a domestic drama. When I saw their stories enacting ideas or aware of their own construction, it felt like coming home. More than anything else, reading those writers enabled me to continue writing.

Contemporary retellings of fairy tales, such as Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, were also incredibly important to me. Many of the stories in Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters draw on traditional Western European tales or have what Kate Bernheimer has called a fairy tale feel, using one or more of flatness, abstraction, normalized magic, or intuitive logic. For me, even just starting a story with the word “once,” creates the expectation that we’re in a fairy tale world.

On the personal level, my parents, both artists, showed me what it means to keep making art even when one’s work is not receiving external accolades. Their careers had ups and downs, but whether they had gallery shows, or were in museum collections, or were cited in an art history book or not, they kept returning to their studios to paint or draw or sculpt because that was the most interesting thing in the world to do.

What is your writing schedule like?

I need big blocks of time in order to accomplish the most difficult part of writing. For me, this is the central revision, where I figure out the beating heart of a story. I need as few distractions as possible, and so I go away by myself once or twice a year so that I can really focus.

During the rest of the time, I take notes towards a future project, carry out research, polish some sentences, type a hugely messy first draft, or just free-write for ten minutes. Lately, I’ve been opening Window Swap on my computer and writing based on what I see out of a stranger’s window somewhere in the world.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

Most importantly, the writer should be fascinated by and invested in the topic, form, and language. It can be a long slog to complete a book, and there may be little external reward so it’s important that the writer find reward in the writing itself. I also think it’s important, especially for a newer writer, to figure out, acknowledge, and work with their own writing process. Do they work best for an hour or two every day, or do they, like me, need to set aside large chunks of time in order to do their best work? What time of day is best? How will they balance the writing with all their other obligations? My thesis advisor told me that when her son was tiny, she would go to bed when he did, set her alarm for 3:00 am, write for a couple of hours, then return to sleep and get up again when he did! I can’t imagine doing that, but it worked for her.

Who would you like to read Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters and why?

Women (and men) struggling to balance their work, other interests, and family obligations and feeling guilty about never seeming to get it “right.” Perhaps reading these stories will allow them to see themselves in others and forgive themselves for what are, after all, small trespasses.

Readers who love the fiction of Kelly Link, Kate Bernheimer, and Angela Carter.

Anyone interested in ways fiction might explore unusual forms, even while appealing to their hearts, souls, and bodies, as well as their minds.

What books are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading Jennifer Berney’s wonderful The Other Mothers: Two Women’s Journey to Find the Family that Was Always Theirs, which combines memoir and the history of in vitro fertilization to explore her and her spouse’s experiences as a lesbian couple trying to start a family. On every page, I learn something about the ways her passage to and through motherhood mirrors my own heterosexual experience and the ways in which it is so much more fraught. My favorite book of the past year, though, was In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (translated by Sasha Dugdale). I’m still not sure if it is a novel (as it is sometimes billed), a collection of linked essays, a memoir, or some combination of all three, but it made me think about our relationship to our personal, familial, and national pasts in utterly new ways.

What book or project are you working on next?

I’m currently working on at least two projects. One will probably be a very short, fairy tale-ish book about an old woman who may be a witch and her familiar who is a black fox, facing (of course) climate destruction, misogyny, and her own prodigal daughter. I’m also working on a collection of linked essays about the great 20th century choreographer Merce Cunningham. I had the chance to study at his dance studio as a teenager, and his difficult, beautiful, fragmented dances are an inspiration to me.