Reckoning with Sentiment (and Writing the Unsaid) in a Novel About Motherhood
Lynn Steger Strong in Conversation with Jessica Winter
The Fourth Child is the story of Jane, a devout Catholic who becomes pregnant in high school, has the baby and, in quick succession, gives birth to two more. She has a miscarriage and eventually becomes deeply enmeshed in the pro-life movement, which leads to her adopting a child. It’s also the story of Lauren, Jane’s oldest daughter, and her own adolescence and early adulthood, how it is both informed by her mother’s beliefs while also enmeshed in a vastly different time and circumstance.
I read this book the way I do so many these days, in my favorite chair, eating something chocolate, after our kids had gone to bed, but also, I kept reading it in my non-reading hours too: those I was meant to be helping my kids with remote learning, meant to be prepping for a class or reading student work. It did that magic thing I always want books to do but have been especially grateful for this year: it took me outside of myself, into the particularly rich and complicated world of its own.
It’s a book about motherhood, family, reproductive rights, violence, consent, attachment, what gets passed down and how those things shift and have different ramifications over generations, but that’s not why I kept ignoring my kid’s remote first- and third-grade obligations to read. I had no choice but to continue to read, because the characters, their problems, wants, fears, and foibles felt alive to me. I was worried for them because they made choices, the consequences of which I was desperate to see play out. I’ve spent so much time this past year thinking about what books can give and what this one gave me was pleasure—at the level of the story, but also at the level of the sentence—immersion, and a feeling of fullness, that I hope always to aspire to in my own work.
I had the great pleasure of talking to Jessica Winter about how she was able to pull this off.
Lynn Steger Strong: There is something almost subversive to me about the “book-ness” of this book. It is deeply intelligent and the sentences are regularly stunning, but there is also a deliberateness to it, a deep immersion in the world, and a careful unraveling of a plot that felt so exciting to me at a time when so many books seem disinterested in shape or plot. I also love plotless books, but yours felt like a necessary and exciting reminder of the particular pleasures of a constructed story. I wonder how you thought about this book in the context of the larger conversation about literature right now—a conversation you’re deeply immersed in as an editor. What were you hoping to achieve in the construction of this book? Were there particular novelistic pleasures that you were hoping to engage with? Did it feel scary, to write something so very novel-like?
Jessica Winter: I was lucky in that the ideas and the characters appeared to me simultaneously, as one. I really do mean “appeared”—they all but walked up to my door and knocked. It was 2015, and I had just had my first baby, and I was thinking a lot about attachment theory and I was thinking a lot about reproductive rights, and all that brain activation generated these characters. I felt mostly like a bystander, taking notes.“I recognized the desire for things to feel simple and the devastation in the face of life’s dogged unwillingness to let us love and care for one another in the ways we wish we could.”
The first real work for me was to figure out the structure, the vessel. I wanted the novel to feel in some respects like a piece of music, a song, with refrains and motifs—it even has an outro, right? And I wanted it to feel at once very cerebral and, in certain moments, to nudge against the edge of sentimentality—not go over the edge, but peer unafraid at the edge, get the measurements of the edge and the drop. That was the scariest part, actually. You know, this is a book where people hug and people cry, and there’s a lot of emotional manipulation going on between the characters. If you as the writer want to make room for some degree of emotional lability, you have to make sure you’re exerting a lot of control otherwise. For me, the control manifested most overtly in terms of structure, architecture.
When I started writing the novel, we were in the midst of a major wave of motherhood books. Parul Sehgal wrote a wonderful piece capturing that moment in Bookforum. I remember feeling nervous that I was behind the curve, but I got over that quickly—everybody has a mother in some way. The dominant literary conversation then was probably about autofiction. I remember reading Outline on maternity leave, although I didn’t get to Knausgaard or Lerner until later—The Topeka School came out when I was working on the final draft of The Fourth Child, and reading it was certainly a humbling experience. All those books helped give me the freedom to really bear down on quotidian detail when I needed to, to identify and consecrate the holy cornflakes.
Right now, the dominant literary conversation has probably looped back to “the Internet novel.” The Patricia Lockwood book is marvelous. She is a once-in-a-generation talent. And so I’m relieved to release into this moment a fairly traditional, pre-Internet novel.
LSS: I so love this idea of “nudging against the edge of sentimentality.” This book made me cry multiple times! And it’s interesting you bring up Knausgaard and Lerner, both of whom, I think, also write books that are deeply felt (notably, of course, both of them are male). You’ve written a “domestic family novel”; it’s about a family over two generations, but it’s mostly a mother and her oldest daughter. It’s also concerned with religion, reproductive rights, violence against women, attachment theory, international adoption, and consent. One of the reasons I think sentiment is scary is that writers don’t want to flatten or simplify ideas that feel high-stakes and nuanced. How did you trust the narrative tools at your disposal to illustrate these ideas without feeling the need to step in and explain or unpack? How did you think about the balance between the ideas you were interested in exploring and staying true to the characters and story that you’d built?
JW: I used to reflexively distrust any work of art that made me cry. And I cry very easily, so the bar is low to begin with. There’s a small, urgent part of me that wants to ask you for the page numbers of where you cried reading my book, so I can revise those sections to make them cooler and more restrained. But part of my anxiety about sentimentality is probably wrapped up in outdated or vestigial assumptions about how emotions supposedly short-circuit higher thinking, and those assumptions are very gendered and very boring.
The nightmare scenario with subject matter such as this is you end up writing the screenplay for a movie of the week about abortion and adoption, where you have these paper-doll characters standing in for Big Issues and you’re placing them inside these maudlin dioramas. A very special episode of Saved by the Bell. Part of how you mitigate against that is just basic matters of craft: Is this a good sentence? Is this section ending on a note that’s too loud or too portentous? Is this character flat, and is the flatness serving a larger narrative purpose or not? Writing in the close third can put up guardrails, too—it gives you a lot of liberty to elide or be suggestive or back away when you need to. The close third is also prescriptive in that it prevents you, to a great extent, from stepping in to explain or unpack. This was especially important in writing a character like Jane, the mother in the book, who had her first child as a teenager and becomes involved in the pro-life movement. In the close third, you can gesture at a character’s blind spots, but you can’t really escape their subjectivity.
LSS: Yes! I think I thought so much about the power of the close third with this book, not least because of how continually stunning the sentences were and how they lived in a space that was both of the world and not. They gave you space to acknowledge how thought exists but is not separate from action or the body, which is something I’m continually trying to account for in books. Wanting to be kind to you and also to unpack this thought further, I’ll tell you one of the moments I cried, which was The Car Scene, which feels a little like inside baseball for those who haven’t read, but, for those who do, feel free to reach out when you get to The Car Scene.
But, and this is from a person who used to, as an adolescent, watch The Notebook and lie on the floor and cry for fun, I do think there are gradations of sentiment and different types of emotional engagement. One of the reasons I cried in the car scene was because I felt sad for the characters, but also, there was a recognizable exhaustion, there was so clearly no right answer. I recognized the desire for things to feel simple and the devastation in the face of life’s dogged unwillingness to let us love and care for one another in the ways we wish we could. It was a more nuanced complicated crying, is what I’m saying, and I wonder about how that relates to the patience I felt you took with this book. I don’t want to call it slow because it’s not: I turned pages quickly, but there was so much care in the construction not just of the architecture but of the shape and texture of the world.
Kathryn VanArendonk wrote this really fascinating piece about the new Britney Spears documentary and the particular ethics of laying out a clear timeline and it made me think of your book, but also, again, how this is opposite to the contemporary desire to go quick, to keep the reader’s unkeepable attention, to manipulate structurally. How did you think about time in this book and how did it relate to what we’ve talked about so far; when and how did you feel the need to be patient and deliberate and to what end?
JW: A funny bit of symmetry between my first and second novels is that, with both of them, first I wrote the final scene, then I wrote the opening scene, and then I wrote a long two-handed conversation that falls somewhere in between. Somehow when I write fiction I am compelled to mark the South Pole, the North Pole, and the equator, and then I climb into my leaky little boat and row back and forth.
The Car Scene, which is an argument between Jane and her 15-year-old daughter, Lauren, had to do a bunch of things simultaneously. It had to be artful and constructed beneath its surface, but on the surface, it had to unfold like a real, raw, messy confrontation. So many of the questions I wanted the book to ask implicitly—What is consent? Who gets to give consent? Who does your body belong to?—become pretty explicit in that conversation, so it’s carrying this giant thematic and conceptual burden, but it also absolutely has to read like a sullen teenage girl fighting with her clueless mom the way all adolescents fight with their dumb parents. It was also really important to me that both Jane and Lauren are, according to a certain internal logic, correct. They’re both right, on their own terms, which is another way of saying there’s no right answer, and that intensifies the sorrow and the desperation of the situation they’re in. So given everything that had to happen within a single conversation, I saw the virtue in letting it grow and grow, which probably intensified its emotional effects. Part of it, too, was just personal preference, because I love writing dialogue. This is maybe another lesson I’ve taken from autofiction, particularly from Rachel Cusk—just let people talk.
LSS: I love that last line if only to think about the ways I think books at their best are a conversation. And there’s something sort of infuriating to me about those ways because the outlets for coverage have become so limited, there’s this constant feeling of scarcity: if we’re not one of The Books people are talking about right now, how will we ever get our work considered? But, of course, none of what is made exists in a vacuum; there’s so much to learn from all the books that are both similar and different from our own. I wonder how you think of your work as a part of a conversation: in what ways are you trying to push these ideas forward, on whose shoulders do you think this book is sitting?
JW: For me, it’s up to the reader to decide which books are in conversation with mine, but I can tell you a few of the books I looked to for guidance. The most obvious one is The Fifth Child, by Doris Lessing, which is about a mother who is faced with impossible choices and who can’t do right by one of her children without forsaking the others. Lessing’s novel is slim and swift and economical in ways that continue to astonish me. I wonder, now that we’ve spoken a bit about the virtues of patience, if my book dilated slightly in reaction to Lessing’s economy—if my anxiety of influence spurred me to lope in the other direction. I was inspired, too, by Are You My Mother?, by Alison Bechdel, which is similarly taken up with the work of Donald Winnicott and with all the ways that daughters can rebel against their mothers’ paths while in some ways retracing them.
Immediately after I finished a skeletal first draft of The Fourth Child, I read Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, which is also about adolescence and abortion and motherhood, and it set a benchmark for what a book that takes on these themes could achieve, and what a vast distance my own book still had to go. I read Normal People at the same time everyone else was reading Normal People, and I know there’s not much more to be said about Sally Rooney, but the precision and patience and care she brings to her teenagers is deeply moving to me because I love all the teenagers in my own book rather desperately and I wanted to do right by them.
LSS: Speaking of teenagers: there are so many rich and complicated topics in this book, but the thread that runs through most of them is the fact of inhabiting a female body and all the implications and responsibilities and dangers that go along with that. One thing I was struck by was the particular way your use of both Jane and Lauren’s perspectives (the mother and the daughter) added weight and texture to the book overall. When and how did you decide to offer both perspectives? What did Lauren give you access to that Jane couldn’t on her own? What did you learn or discover about one or both as you wrote?
JW: I landed on the aforementioned and notorious Car Scene very early, and it set in stone the notion that the entire book would in some sense be a shadow conversation between this mother and daughter, made up of all the many things they can’t say to each other. One thing I didn’t want to do in alternating their perspectives was to create a Rashomon dynamic in which the testimony of one character casts the reliability of another in doubt.
Instead, I wanted the perspectives to be more or less complementary, and, in the song-like way we were discussing earlier, to echo each other at times. Between them there is at once an unbreakable bond and an unbridgeable distance, as there is between a lot of mothers and daughters, I suppose. It’s a great source of heartbreak and a paradox and a mystery, and to capture it I wanted to achieve a real intimacy with the characters—to the point of discomfort, even—but at the same time preserve that mystery and grant them a certain privacy. I know it’s strange and a bit psychotic to speak of made-up characters this way, but perhaps one has to be strange and a bit psychotic to write a novel.