Rufi Thorpe on Anne of Green Gables and Motherhood
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story from Macmillan Podcasts. Today I’m going to start with a quote from Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery:
“We pay a price for everything we get or take in this world; and although ambitions are well worth having, they are not to be cheaply won, but exact their dues of work and self denial, anxiety and discouragement.”
I recently talked about challenges, doubt, solace, and ambition with today’s guest.
Rufi Thorpe: I’m Rufi Thorpe and I am a novelist and mother.
WS: Rufi Thorpe is also an essayist.
RT: And let me know, the dog started whining during that last bit of me reading it, and I don’t know if it will mess it up…
WS: We gave Rufi a call at her home in California. She published her first novel, The Girls from Corona Del Mar, in 2014. Her essay, Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid, explored the struggle of being both a mother and an artist. Her forthcoming novel, The Knockout Queen, is due out on April 28.
RT: I grew up as the only child of a single mother and I was born in Texas, but we moved to California when I was about six and we lived in a duplex with my grandmother in the other unit. And so our family was like three women: an old one, a middle aged one and a tiny young one. And mainly we played a lot of cards and judged each other.
WS: Were she and your grandmother readers?
RT: I got really lucky I think in terms of like the parent bargain cause I had a mother who understood the kind of weird creature I was and who was willing to provide me with limitless access to books and you know, conversation and very much included me kind of in the adult world. I mean the way that my mom raised me was you’re allowed to read anything. You want to read trash, read trash. Whatever you love you’re allowed to read. And she would recommend to me like highbrow books and utter garbage with equal abandon.
WS: Can you tell me what books you read as a kid and which were important to you?
RT: Anne of Green Gables I think was hugely formative for me. I desperately wanted to be as naturally rebellious and alive and sort of authentically myself as Anne was, but it was much more difficult for me. So I was just more self conscious and studied and sort of like painfully introverted. And so it was a kind of wish fulfillment, I think, for the
They’re very disturbing and very weird, but like The Chocolate War and We All Fall Down and there were a couple other ones and I read them at a time where I was having this big conflict with my teacher. It was like maybe fourth or fifth grade. We had to do a book report every week, but she refused to accept my book reports because the books I was reading weren’t at the right grade level or weren’t in their system. So I just started turning in like two and three book reports a week that were like not going to be, so I was failing but reading, turning in more work than anybody else. And that was the kind of antagonistic relationship that I really continued to seek out for most of my life.
WS: You said you were a weird kid. Why were you weird?
RT: I was not reading correctly to anyone. Does that make any sense? Like, no one knew what to make of me. I was just this sort of like fat, loud, brash little girl that felt things very intensely and then would have all sorts of inward dramas and it wasn’t something that made anyone want to mentor me, if that makes sense.
WS: Rufi did what she thought she had to do to better fit in.
RT: I have struggled with my weight my whole life. And so I would go from fat to thin to fat to thin. And the way people treat you is really, really different. And not just men, everybody. But I think as a woman, your beauty, you become aware of it as a commodity, as being very distinct from yourself. Something that you’re sort of tending and creating in order for the world to interact with, but that you know is not actually you.
WS: But, she was about to face a new challenge that would permanently alter how she identified with being a woman.
RT: I got married and had two children [laughs] and kind of understood the invisibility part as being a little bit harder to escape. I mean my husband is a feminist who is interested in what I have to say and think and, and it still is sometimes I feel like the main thing anybody wants for me is for me to take care of them. I think that anytime that you’re taking care of someone, you are in the position of strength and power because you’re the one giving the care and the other person, because they are in need of care and can’t do that for themself, is I’m just more aware of the care than of you I guess.
I guess you experienced the hot meal but you don’t really know about the hours of chopping, or whatever—however it got made. Some of it’s the way that the house seems to magically clean itself. Some of it’s like the sheer domestic nature of some of women’s tasks and with children, I mean they literally can’t imagine you as a separate person for a long time and they’re not supposed to. They can’t prioritize you. That would be, that would be nuts.
WS: As Rufi navigated being a new mother, she stumbled across an author and a book that spoke to her as no other book had.
RT: I am a big Jane Smiley fan, but I didn’t start reading her until maybe like six years ago. Then I just was slowly sort of making my way through her books cause there’s a lot, and so I just like got to
I think as a woman, your beauty, you become aware of it as a commodity, as being very distinct from yourself.
WS: Can you describe for listeners who don’t know Private Life roughly what it is about?
RT: Private Life is about this woman, Margaret. She’s growing up in Missouri, I think. And her life is sort of marked by the violence of male characters around her. And she responds to it by being very inward. The tipping point in the book is the death of that first baby where she, they, it’s their first child and it’s a boy. And then he has some kind of liver dysfunction. So he has jaundice and she’s in this hotel room with this baby nonstop, just nursing the baby and trying to make it live. But she kind of goes nuts.
WS: One passage would be especially meaningful for Rufi, whose own baby had just recovered from a life-threatening illness.
RT: “She sat down and readied herself to nurse, but in that short moment, the moment between her sitting down and her putting him to the breast, he lost even that ability—Margaret felt it. It was a feeling of something dissolving. She looked at his face. She saw that he had but one thing left, which was that he could look back at her. She stroked the top of his head, moving the thin hairs this way and that, feeling the smoothness of his golden skin. She held him closer, as gently as she could. And then, in the way that you can feel with your baby but not see or sense with anyone else larger or more distantly related, she felt the life force go out of him entirely.”
WS: Jane Smiley’s words voiced Rufi’s innermost thoughts and fears. Rufi finds solace in Private Life as she reflects on the experience of fearing that her baby might not survive.
Soon after giving birth to her first child, Rufi got some alarming news about her baby.
RT: I had just had the sort of scare with…my baby had had RSV and we were in the hospital and RSV, which is sort of like a cold with very thick mucus. And so what happens is that littler babies can’t cough hard enough. And it’s also a weird one because you can’t really immunize against it. And the few times that they tried to develop immunizations, a bunch of the kids died in the trials because the weird thing about RSV is that once you get it, you get it worse the next time. So instead of giving you immunity through exposure, it actually makes it worse. And so like one of the big rules was that we had to somehow keep the baby from getting it again or else he was going to be in real danger.
WS: She spent five long and exhausting days in the hospital by her baby’s side.
RT: You’re not sleeping and ever since I was in my thirties, if I don’t sleep, I get kind of nuts and I was very sick. I had it, too. And they can’t feed you or anything. And there’s these metal cribs that have the drop side. And so the moment that you get the sleeping baby to lay in them, you have to pull up this huge metal panel and then it clangs and the baby wakes up, so you kind of can never go pee and you can never eat and you can’t leave. There’s no one to take care of your baby when you’re not in there and your baby is really sick. And then they come and wake you up every two hours to do these breathing treatments.
WS: Most of her time spent in the hospital is a haze, but she remembers one interaction vividly.
RT: I had a roommate and so then there was also her and her sick baby. And I remember they came in and were being told that they were being discharged and then there was this big curtain, but I could hear her crying and I said, are you okay? You know, isn’t everything, I think it’s good you’re getting to go home. Right? And she said, I’m crying for you. And I said, what? And she said, because your baby’s not getting better. And all of a sudden I was like, my baby’s not getting better. We’ve been here for a couple of days and my baby’s just as sick and it doesn’t seem like any of this medicine is working.
And what if my baby’s dying? Would anyone tell me? Would anyone say your baby’s dying, if my baby was dying? No. They would keep not telling me. And so I kept trying to get nurses or doctors to talk to me, but it just felt like no one would level with me and tell me what was going on. We got transferred to intensive care that night, which again confirmed all my worst fears—that my baby was dying. And it wound up being fine and my baby did not die.
WS: On the surface, everything thereafter seemed fine. But, invisible to everyone was the loneliness and confusion Rufi still felt.
RT: I guess I just wanted somebody to sympathize with me.
WS: It was at this moment that Rufi came across the passage about Margaret’s baby in Jane Smiley’s Private Life.
RT: And so when I read the description that was so apt in Private Life, it felt like I wasn’t crazy the way that I had experienced it. The depth of the experience was reflected in those passages in a way that made me think like, no, that was the experience and it’s a core human experience and it was okay for you to feel it that deeply. It wasn’t a sign of being melodramatic or over-sensitive like that’s what it’s like to love a baby and to be that close to it as it’s struggling to live.
WS: The way Rufi connected with Private Life informed her own writing.
RT: I had been writing all the year that I was pregnant. And so when the baby was like three or four months, I had what I thought was a finished draft. And I thought, well, I ought to just try and shoot for the top, like figure out who my dream agent would be. And then they can say no and I can work my way down the list.
WS: Deep in the trenches of taking care of a newborn, Rufi reached out to her top pick, a highly respected and successful literary agent.
RT: And so I wrote an absolutely unhinged, inappropriately intimate email wherein I basically said like, I have no idea how I could get you to want to read this book. I can’t even imagine what your day is like. I just found out that I had baby poop on my head, like a smear of it, like all morning. And I only just realized and wiped it off. Like, what could I possibly have to say to you? Like I feel like I’m a million worlds away. It’s not something I would recommend that a writer do. I don’t think it’s like a professional way of going about getting an agent. But she wrote me back almost immediately and said, Alright, I’m in a good mood because it’s a Friday and I have sympathy with you because of the baby stuff. Send it to me. I’ll read it once. Don’t waste my time.
Know everything that you’re feeling is real and it is valid and it’s not forever and it’s normal and it’s part of the whole pain and that it gives you a tremendous amount of power.
WS: Rufi sent over the rough version of what would become her first novel, The Girls from Corona Del Mar.
RT: So I sent it to her and then she came back with a bunch of edits and she was sort of like, I don’t know, these are substantial edits. I don’t know if you can do it. But I had that great feeling of, you know, sometimes someone gives you edits and it’s like you already knew it. It’s like all of a sudden you can see exactly what they’re saying and how true it is and exactly how you would fix it. And so I knew that I was going to be able to do it and I took the next four months and rewrote it and then I sent it to her and she said she wanted to talk on the phone.
And so she called and she was saying all these nice things about the book, but I still thought that she was just letting me down easy. And I said, well, thank you, thank you so much for your time. And she was like, I am offering to represent you. And I was like, Oh, I just didn’t get it. And then she sold the book and I got incredibly lucky.
WS: Do readers write to you?
RT: The most letters that I’ve ever received from something that I’ve written was an essay, a long essay that I wrote about motherhood called Mother, Monster, Writer, Maid, I think, and it was about feeling suffocated by my husband and children and feeling invisible and trying to kind of understand to what extent being a mother is incompatible with being an artist. There had been sort of like a number of articles coming out making various arguments about how possible or impossible it was. I think that that piece made a lot of women wrote to me just crying and saying like,
WS: And was Jane Smiley in your head at all when you were writing this piece that was so influential?
RT: Oh yeah. And I quote her extensively in it because, you know, I guess that I started to understand that some experiences of motherhood were difficult to communicate and that people who had not had them were not gonna really get it. I don’t mean to be like leaving anybody out, or anything like that. I think that there is a kind of, in the same way that if you’d like never had sex, it would be hard to understand what was really in it for everybody, there’s something about having young children that is really rewarding and really profound and emotional in a way that I just didn’t understand before I had children. And I think that it’s different.
The whole experience of pregnancy and nursing are very specifically bodily. I think that my husband had his own profound different experience of being a father to babies and I had a different one as being their mother. And some parts of my experience he just didn’t get, and that was fine. I think that reading
WS: She takes from Private Life lessons on loving deeply and trusting that the truest parts of our identities may be tested, but are never really lost.
RT: I was in such a psychological knot because I didn’t understand and couldn’t comprehend that it was all going to get easier and that that almost suffocating intimacy of when babies are really little—where you kind of can’t have your own self—that that would end and that they would go to school and huge chunks of who I was before I had children would just come right back. And that I would feel like I had that headspace again. I was just not able to imagine that that would be the case. I felt like I was lost in this sort of desert of mommyhood. And so I think that if I could tell myself anything before I read that book, it would be like,
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Rufi Thorpe and Mollie Friedrich. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.