In the summer of 2014, I met Jessamine Chan at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, which I was attending for the first time on a waiter scholarship. As a former waiter, Jessamine showed me around, and I immediately felt a kinship with her. We were fellow Asian American women, fellow writers attempting to understand the world through the lens of fiction. Years later, as she became a mother and then I did as well, we spoke about holding onto our writerly identities while also fulfilling these new roles. How thrilled I was then, to receive a copy of her debut novel.
The School for Good Mothers is a haunting story about Frida Liu, a mother who is enrolled into a government surveillance program for “bad” mothers. Reading this book now, as our government considers taking away our rights to abortion access and choice, was thrilling and harrowing. The ending left me breathless and aching for a better world. Over Zoom, Jessamine and I spoke about the “kernel of rage” that inspired this novel, writing mother-daughter love on the page, depression in pregnancy, and more.
Crystal Hana Kim: It’s been a few weeks since your book has published, and it’s already made such an incredible impression. Instant New York Times bestseller, a Today Show book club pick, beautiful praise in many reviews. But this is of course all happening in the midst of the Omicron surge. How has this time been for you?
Jessamine Chan: It’s been thrilling and surreal. I found out about The New York Times review by Molly Young—which was so good that I haven’t yet recovered—while I was doing laundry. It was definitely a very pandemic parenting mom moment. So my regular daily life is still very much the same, but it’s been surreal to have really exciting book and career stuff happening while living in a bubble. As for the bestseller news, making it onto the list is mind-bogglingly awesome and thrilling. To do so with a literary novel featuring an Asian-American protagonist, with a book that’s pretty weird, will hopefully open the door for more such stories to be told.
CHK: Speaking of the surreal, The School for Good Mothers has a dystopian bent to it. Frida Liu is a harried mother who ends up making a very bad choice and being enrolled in a government surveillance program, a program for “bad” mothers. What was so eerie to me was how you balanced that thin line between our reality and a more satirical version of our world. When you were writing this book, did you imagine it would feel so close to our truth?
JC: I think for anyone starting a project in 2014, it would have been impossible to imagine just how grim things are in 2022. I don’t think I spent a lot of time thinking about a world where Roe v. Wade might be overturned. It seems unfathomable in a way. I mean, a lot of the issues about how the government treats mothers and women are not new. These problems have gone on for decades or generations. But the political world that the book is being born into now, the conversations it’s part of now, I don’t think I could have anticipated that.
CHK: I initially read your book last year in galley form, and I felt so much angrier reading it even one year later, because it feels closer and closer to our reality. What made you want to write this book?
The emotional core came from thinking about motherhood and being part of this really intense American parenting culture that I always found scary and strange.
JC: This idea began as a really complicated short story. I’m not the kind of person who can sit down and say, “I’m starting a novel now.” It’s more like a line comes to me or there’s an idea, and then I get obsessed, and I have to follow that to its conclusion. In 2014, I was entering my late 30s, and my partner and I were trying to decide whether or not to have a baby. My general freak out about that drove the creation of this book because I was truly so nervous. I was so fearful and felt so much pressure. It was a heavy decision for both of us, because we’re both artists. The emotional core came from thinking about motherhood and being part of this really intense American parenting culture that I always found scary and strange.
A few months before I started the project, I read a New Yorker piece by Rachel Aviv called “Where is Your Mother?” about a single mom who left her son home alone for a number of hours, and after that date, never got him back. It was the most tragic story and it also filled me with rage. I was really angry reading about the arbitrariness of the family court system, something that was claiming to be objective but was so affected by people’s own biases. But I didn’t sit down with that article thinking, “Oh, this will spark the idea for this project that’s going to take up my thirties and early forties.” I read it and something just stuck in my brain, just a kernel of rage.
And then I had a really good writing day. I think I had gotten rejected from MacDowell and Yaddo for the 12th time, so I took my two weeks vacation from Publishers Weekly and I asked my friend Bridget, a generous and wonderful pal, “Can I come stay at your house upstate for two weeks and just be by myself and write?” She very kindly let me do that. After about a week and a half of terrible ideas, I had a really good writing day, which was the beginning of the book, even though I didn’t really know it at the time. It was Frida and Harriet’s story. The dolls, the pink lab coats, the language of the school. The sort of detached, sinister, deadpan tone was there from the very first draft.
CHK: That’s a really good writing day.
JC: It was a really good writing day. It took two decades of writing to have a writing day like that. It was one of those days where the ideas are coming together, you lose track of time, you forget to eat. Hours have passed, and you’ve filled all these pages of your notebook. But I don’t think I finished that day thinking, “I have started a book now.” I really got the push for this to be developed into a novel from Percival Everett’s workshop at Bread Loaf. I think that’s where we met.
CHK: Yes, we met in 2014. I was a waiter there, and you were on social staff.
JC: Yes. I was in Percival Everett’s workshop that summer, and I brought him the 20 pages from my very good writing day, which was almost like an outline of a story, and he was the one who said, “I don’t want to make your life bad. But I think you have a novel here.”
CHK: How did you feel?
JC: What was really exciting was he said that if I could realize this project, I would “have my finger on the pulse of culture.” Then the next question was, “How can I finish this in time in order to still have my finger on the pulse of culture?” But I think the story might always be timely, because women’s rights are always under attack. I think the “finger on the pulse of culture” was truer of the satire element when he saw it in 2014. These days, the timeliness of the story is more about the government oppression of women. The way women are now being oppressed is different than it was in 2014. Now I’m thinking, “I’m raising a daughter in this very grim world. Are we going to have to choose what state we live in based on Roe v. Wade?”
But I think the story might always be timely, because women’s rights are always under attack.
CHK: It’s horrific and enraging. I’m curious about Frida. I loved her as a main character because she’s so complicated. In the beginning, she makes this terrible mistake, leaving her kid alone for a few hours. Inside the institution, she also isn’t always making the best choices. She was a really complicated character. Did she come to you fully formed on that really good writing day?
JC: I think she probably was a lot angrier in the early versions because my idea of the school and the themes that emerged were based on my feeling very conflicted and troubled by our culture. But after I actually had a baby myself, Frida became much more loving. I could write the Frida and Harriet scenes much more vividly. I think their love bond is essential, but it got much stronger in revisions once I was a mother myself. I somehow couldn’t really tap into how to write love on the page until I was actually in it.
CHK: That makes sense to me.
JC: Everyone gives you a lot of advice when you’re pregnant and when you’re a new mom. Everyone’s telling you like, “Oh my god, this is going to be the happiest time of your life.” But I was in the throes of major depression. It was hard to reconcile, “Okay, I’m going to have this overwhelming joy now, but in the meantime, I’m suffering greatly.” I went through some intense depression as part of this experience of getting pregnant because my internist took me off my antidepressants that I’d been on for ten years. I managed to function for a couple months, but then had an intense mental health crisis while working on this book. I was working at the VCCA residency, trying to get to the end of this draft, which is the most harrowing part of the story. I was completely off my antidepressants and I just stopped sleeping. So if the end feels especially vivid in the emotional suffering, a lot of lived pain went into that.
CHK: That ending, Jessamine!
JC: I talk about that time now because every time I tell someone that I went through this, they’re like, “Oh, my sister went through that, my sister-in-law, my aunt, my cousin went through that.” It feels like this secret ordeal but a lot of women have gone through it. That informed the development of Frida as a character in a way that I’m only really realizing now that I’m doing press for the book.
CHK: It shows the way that mothers are put to these impossible standards, even before they actually become mothers. Somehow, as soon as you are pregnant, the being growing inside you is more important. I can really see that anger and depression in Frida’s journey.
JC: I bring it up because I had access to good doctors, to a psychiatrist that I paid for out of pocket. A lot of moms are going through this with no resources at all. I think one thing that you’re talking about with how this book reads differently now than when you read the galley, is because it’s been two years of this constant risk assessment, of dealing with concerns that are way beyond daily parenting concerns. The book is coming out at a time when everyone is thinking about the kind of pressures that parents are under and how necessary childcare is to the functioning of society, but yet, there’s no support or access.
CHK: I’ve really learned about that lack of support now that I’m a mother. The same goes for American parenting culture, which is the backbone of the school’s tests for these “unfit” mothers. Frida has to prove she’s a good mother by narrating constantly to her doll in the right tone, by administering hugs that meet appropriate measurements. It’s all so calculated and intense.
The book is coming out at a time when everyone is thinking about the kind of pressures that parents are under and how necessary childcare is to the functioning of society, but yet, there’s no support or access.
JC: A lot of the lessons were taking a tiny bit of truth from life and then making it insane for the purpose of satire. One thing that’s always bothered me about American parenting culture is the amount of instructions for any given thing. And so much of the instruction is contradictory! Everyone has an opinion about everything. I took that nitpicking and made it an actual curriculum. I wrote the drafts longhand, which is so inefficient but it’s very freeing. I think what gives the ideas life, hopefully, is that the questions are coming from a personal investigation. The thing I would add is that the idea of court-mandated parenting classes is taken from real life. In some cases, if a parent gets in trouble with Child Protective Services, you might be required to complete a certain number of classes in order to have full custody. But in my book I’m raising the stakes.
CHK: Everything is ratcheted up here and tilted a level beyond our current society. You mentioned Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker article, and it sounds like you researched Child Protective Services. Were there other forms of research that you had to do?
JC: Before I had my daughter I did a lot of reading about American parenting culture, which is the subject of a lot of think pieces and books looking at trends of the upper middle class, hyper-vigilant—like several steps beyond helicopter parenting—style, where there’s so much pressure the parents place on themselves. I read books like Small Animals by Kim Brooks. I always recommend that as the perfect nonfiction companion book because she actually did go through an ordeal with Child Protective Services when she left her son in her car for a few minutes. Another big inspiration is my friend Diane Cook. There’s a story in her collection, Man v. Nature, which is called “Moving On,” which is about a government institution for people who are widowed. Part of my book is directly inspired by “Moving On,” but Diane says that’s okay.
CHK: It’s kind of nice to be inspired by your friend’s writing.
JC: I mean, I think she’s a genius. I am happy to be inspired by her. I did read about trends in family law, because apparently, how much CPS errs on the side of caution really depends on each state. I should not have been so shocked, but I was shocked by how many kids are removed from their parents’ custody each year, all around us, for decades. Sometimes it makes it to the front page of The New York Times, but oftentimes it doesn’t.
CHK: That is one of the greatest heartaches that I could imagine now that I’m a mother. And race and socioeconomic class play a large part, even though the system says they are impartial. I saw that in your book, because in the School, most of the mothers are Black and brown. There are a few white women, but they tend to stick together. It was interesting to have Frida be Chinese American because she feels kind of adrift. Did you intentionally make that choice?
JC: Frida was always Chinese American. That was the lens through which I wanted to view the world. It has taken me a surprisingly long time to get comfortable writing Chinese American women as the center of a story. One thing that kept me going when I was working on it for years and years with no end in sight was the idea that if I could finish it, it would be pushing the conversation forward a little in its own small way because Frida is really the Asian American heroine that I wanted to read. A friend wrote a really nice review for me online, where she said that Frida is as real as any of the women in her life. That was exciting to me. I think what makes her feel real is that she is a mess.
CHK: She’s real. She makes mistakes.
JC: I wanted a Chinese American protagonist who wasn’t going to be noble, and not necessarily even immediately sympathetic. I wanted her to be to be thorny and raw. That felt like an exciting intellectual project to me. I definitely think Frida grappling with race and class was worked out in the revisions, because I didn’t want her to get away with having blind spots. I was trying to be conscious of the different moms in the school, the different race and class and various systems that they would be up against. I wanted to gesture toward some of what these problems look like in real life, the fact that it does disproportionately affect Black and brown parents who are poor.
I wanted a Chinese American protagonist who wasn’t going to be noble, and not necessarily even immediately sympathetic. I wanted her to be to be thorny and raw.
CHK: It’s interesting how writing is a very intuitive process because this book is so tightly paced. I’m curious what revision was like for you.
JC: The voice was there from the beginning. Pacing came through revision and trying to make every sentence count. The initial draft was an unfathomable number of pages. My original editor, Dawn Davis, cut about 40 pages from the version that was sold to Simon & Schuster. A lot of it was from the middle section, because there are a lot of lessons in the book, but there was even more. And I know no one will believe this, but the book was even darker. The relationships between the moms became more tender in the final draft.
CHK: I don’t want to give it away, but the ending is one of the best endings I’ve read in years. I was breathless throughout it. I’ll just leave it at that. When during this long writing and revision process did you figure out the ending?
JC: I chose to write all the way until the very last beat before I started revising anything, because given my cutting obsessions, I knew that if I started tinkering, I would never reach the end. So I just kept making a mess until the very last scene and in that time, I became a mom myself. So I had to rewrite the whole book, basically, because so many of the details were wrong. I had Harriet and Emmanuelle speaking in paragraphs, I had the moms running through actual fire. It was very easy to push it a little too far. I had to bring it back onto the rails. It was actually Diane Cook who suggested, “You can write an ending that’s like a gift to the reader.” So, I was trying to write a moment of beauty for the reader, and once I figured out the final paragraph, I knew at heart that that was the natural place to end.
Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers is available now from Simon & Schuster.