This is the first in a series of interviews I’m doing with memoir writers. By interviewing memoirists, I hope to showcase excellent writers, as well as helping beginning writers and others tell their own story.
Shannon Drury’s memoir, The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century, was published in 2014 by Medusa’s Muse Press (disclaimer – I am the publisher). In her book she writes about her struggle as a “stay-at-home” mom and feminists. Can you call yourself a feminist if you’re a stay at home mom and homemaker? Get a copy of her book and find out.
Thank you so much Shannon for taking the time to answer my questions.
Your book really shows the intersection of politics and personal life. How hard was it to write a book that is both political and personal?
It wasn’t hard to write at all. As a lifelong feminist I’m acutely aware of how social and political movements intersect with and influence our lived experiences. I couldn’t write about being a stay-at-home mom without reflecting on the unique set of circumstances that made that possible, even practical, for me. And I couldn’t write about feminism without reflecting on its influence on my life, including how it affects the way I raise my children.
But what was easy for me to write was very difficult to market. A hybrid anything is less marketable than “if you love Jessica Valenti’s polemics, you will love this!’ or “if you love Cheryl Strayed’s memoirs, you’ll love this!” In fact, my neighbor just told me yesterday that she finished the book but can’t decide where to shelve it. I told her I’d sell her another copy!
How long did it take to write your book? Would you change anything about your book?
Writing the book was the easy part, especially since I was building a framework on some previously published columns and blogs. I would guess that writing took a year. Editing, on the other hand, took some time. You can ask my publisher how she feels about that….!
You are very vulnerable in much of your book. How were you able to open yourself up so much, especially knowing there would be criticism?
I am of the opinion that the non-vulnerable memoir is not worth writing. I recently read a memoir that I thought I would love, as it was written by a fellow lefty mom like me, but the author barely revealed anything substantive about herself and her life. Without that glimpse of humanity, there is no opportunity for connection. Writing can be lovely for its own sake, but I write for a deeper purpose–to connect in some small way to the beating heart of humanity. That may sound corny or even quasi-religious, but it’s true.
Years of writing a column for the Minnesota Women’s Press and keeping up a personal blog have helped thicken my skin to criticism, especially from the online commentariat. One person on Goodreads said she knocked off a star because I cursed too much, and I can handle that. When I’m called evil and a rotten mother (which happened on Twitter recently), I know it’s not about me, it’s about their fear of what I represent.
That’s not to say that it still isn’t hard. Members of my extended family have the book but have yet to talk with me about it. And I don’t mean in-depth analysis–I mean I have yet to hear “Hey Shannon, I read your book.” There is intergenerational discomfort about parenting, economic class, and mental health in most American families, not just mine.
What was the hardest thing for you to overcome when writing this book?
Ironically, for a dedicated feminist convinced that women’s stories have the power to change the world, I had to fight daily against the quiet but insistent fear that I am a nobody who has nothing to say. Impostor syndrome can suck the life out of you if you’ll let it.
Why was it important for you to write your book? What do you hope the reader gains?
I truly believe that feminism provides the best, most sane and compassionate parenting philosophy out there, but we’re still letting the conservative right own the narrative of “family values.” I think it’s essential for feminist moms to tell our stories, to connect the struggles of our own families to the broader failures of American society.
My readership looks a lot like me: white, middle class, educated parents. We’re privileged, and to pretend otherwise is ridiculous. It’s time that we stopped judging and/or arguing with one another for what we feed our kids (organic or conventional? breast or bottle?) and asked larger questions about the systems that have more control over families than individual parents do. As I write in the book, “when is a choice not a choice?” I think most American parents would “choose” to take a year of paid family leave when their babies are born, like they do in Sweden. The manufactured war between working moms and at-home moms is ridiculous–the real battle should be parents demanding that government officials make “family values” a reality, not a campaign slogan.
What advice can you give to other memoirists?
I have no better advice than “write like a motherfucker,” the directive of the aforementioned Cheryl Strayed. For me this means that the process is embarrassing, painful, and exhausting. If I look at it and can say “damn, this makes me sound ridiculous,” I am probably on the right track.
Can you recommend some good memoirs to read?
One of my all-time favorite books of any genre is Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home.” It is so smart, so revealing, so funny, and so tragic at the same time. And of course it’s beautifully drawn and designed. Other classic graphic memoirs are “Maus” by Art Spiegelman and “Persepolis” by Majane Satrapi.
I am always late to trends, which means that I only recently read Jeanette Walls’ “The Glass Castle” and Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club.” In the last few months I read the new memoirs by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Viv Albertine of the Slits, but I still haven’t gotten to Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” which everyone raves about. I have yet to even read “Wild”! Reading comic books takes up a lot of my time, apparently.
Shannon Drury is a writer, at-home parent, and feminist activist. She writes a regular column for the Minnesota Women’s Press and served six years as the president of Minnesota NOW. She lives in Minneapolis with her family. Read more from Shannon at her blog The Radical Housewife
You can buy her book from Medusa’s Muse Press, Amazon.com, Powells, and wherever books are sold. Also available as an ebook.