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Woman Behind the Book: Koren Zailckas

The author discusses her first novel, musical influences, and what’s for dinner

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Author Koren Zailckas made her mark (and sussed out her personal issues) with a pair of memoirs. Smashed chronicled her teenage drinking; Fury tackled anger and depression. With her third book, Zailckas tries her hand at fiction: Mother, Mother — which hits shelves and Kindles tomorrow — is the story of siblings dealing with their narcissistic mother and the damage she inflicts. It is a smart, insightful read that explores toxic family dynamics, difficult parents, and the confusion of being a kid.

q&a!Your first book, Smashed, and the follow-up, Fury, were accounts of your own life. How much of Mother, Mother draws on your personal experience?
Mother, Mother isn’t based on my mom, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t begin as an attempt to manage some post-traumatic stress. Sometimes the best way to treat anxiety is to explore people and things that scare you the most — that way you get to be in charge of your fear. I relate a lot to 16-year-old Violet. She’s the one person who tries to bring the darker family issues to light. She’s part truth-seeker and part whistleblower, even though it limits her potential and often lands her in a whole heap of shit. I think anyone who has read my memoirs will see a bit of both in Violet.

There’s a link to Fury, because everyone in Violet’s family tells her she’s the angry, disruptive one. They’re projecting, of course, but she still takes it to heart and goes to Buddhist extremes (fasting, shaving her head) in an effort to become more Zen. There are echoes of Smashed, too, because Violet also copes through drugs. I didn’t realize it when I wrote Smashed, but binge drinking was once an effort to kill myself in a way that could pass as accidental and socially acceptable, at least for a teenager and college student. I definitely drew on those feelings in order to write Violet. Subconsciously, Violet is trying to kill herself, because she wants to appease her unappeasable mother. When the person who brought you into the world later acts like you don’t deserve to be there, you do what you can to vacate the planet.

It’s well-noted that siblings in the same family experience the family in different ways. Have you noted that in your own family?
For sure. My sister and I are five years apart, my dad was constantly away on business, and my mother sort of raised us like only children. I can guess what childhood was like for my sister, but I’ll never know for sure, given the way forces conspired to keep us separate (or worse, forced us to compete with or distrust each other). Mom suffered her own abusive childhood, and I think the experience made her prone to black-and-white thinking — the kind where you think people are all good or all bad. Growing up, Mom gave the impression that my sister, like Will [in the book], was the child who could do no wrong. And I felt a bit like Violet — like it didn’t matter what I did, because the game was rigged and I’d be punished either way.

Some memoirists find it difficult to make the leap to fiction. How was it for you?
It was kind of a relief. Back when I was writing memoir, I always felt a little put out by the need to come up for air. When I’m writing, I find it really easy to dissociate, to just dive in and let the story swallow me up. But memoir requires constant surfacing. You’re forced to examine your memories in the light of the present moment. You dive down for details, come up for context; sink down for action, swim back up for self-awareness and gratitude. It can give you the bends sometimes. Writing Mother, Mother was more fun, because I just got to grow gills and stay in the story. The Hursts didn’t need to be self-aware. In fact, the whole thing worked better when they weren’t.

What’s stranger: truth or fiction?
Truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction is more succinct.

As young readers we were obsessed with Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest. How did abusive moms across the ages inform Mother, Mother?
Well, abusive moms come in a wide array. And there are a few books that do a great job cataloging them. I think here of Christine Ann Lawson’s Understanding the Borderline Mother. Also, Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. If Mattel packaged them up like Barbie dolls, you’d have Attention-Hungry Stage Mom in one box. In another, there’d be Emotionally Needy Mom who expects her kids to take care of her instead of the other way around. There’s also Closet-Sadist Mom, who looks great in public but is secretly mean. Tiger Mother insists her kids achieve success (her version of it) in order to make up for her own lack of self-worth. Oh, and I can’t leave out Drunk Mom, Munchausen Mom, Schizophrenic Mom, and Codependent Mom (sold separately from her boyfriend, Drug-Addicted or Pedophilic Ken). Josephine Hurst is a mixture of a few.

Mommie Dearest became a movie. Cast the main characters in Mother, Mother.
Josephine: Julianne Moore. For sure. She’d bring just the right amount of creepiness and class.

Douglas: I picture Philip Seymour Hoffman. My husband keeps saying, “No! John Goodman!”

Violet: Elizabeth Olsen. She’s got that perfect mix of vulnerability and strength, plus she lived her early life in the shadow of siblings. Also, Violet shaves her head, and Elizabeth seems like one of those sickeningly lucky people who would look prettier than ever without hair. Elizabeth would be all over F Yeah Bald Girls in a second.

Rose: Well, Rose is a musical theater girl. At first appearance, she’s very beautiful and wholesome, like a porcelain doll. But, like all the Hursts, Rose also has a tortured side. So, I’ll go with Amanda Seyfried, because I’d love to see Amanda Seyfried’s dark, pent-up side. I have a feeling it would be scary as shit.

Will: A child actor. Any buttery-faced, bowl-cut child actor.

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Your Wikipedia page states that you are heavily influenced by music and song lyrics. What are you listening to right now?
I’ve been listening to the excellent Vancouver band Mother Mother, who’ve been super cool about letting my new book share their name. I’ve been also listening to a lot of Reigning Sound. I’m working on an art school thriller, and Bad Man appeals to my inner 22-year-old — a girl who found moody, difficult men quite appealing, especially the ones who claimed to suffer for their art. Also on my fantasy art school soundtrack: Fist City and Crocodiles; both give off a kind of hedonistic contact high. And Waxahatchee, which is confessional enough to feel a little reckless at the same time, a bit like those art-school girls who take nude self-portraits. I don’t understand people who write in silence. Music definitely helps set a novel’s mood.

Your summer reading list included The Silent Wife, The Shining Girls, and The Panopticon. What are you looking forward to reading next?
I am going to have to call off work and call the baby-sitter when my copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch arrives. I’m also the biggest fan of Megan Abbott (Dare Me), so she cannot finish her book The Fever fast enough. It’s loosely based on the mass hysteria that afflicted the twelve twitching, stuttering high school girls who appeared on the Today show last year. And I just finished Kelly Braffet’s Save Yourself, which has one of the most unforgettable female characters I’ve read in years, one who also happened to be raised by a mother who is cuckoo crazy.

You’re a mom. What are you reading to your kids at night?
My kids are really into witches at the moment. They can’t get enough of this English kids’ series Meg and Mog. My 4-year-old daughter also loves this vintage collection called Dorrie and the Blue Witch. The illustrations are tattoo-worthy, and Dorrie is awesome: She baby-sits naughty poltergeists.

You love to cook and are quite good at it (venison Wellington?!). Once those kids are down, we’re coming over for dinner. What’s on the menu?
Probably Brazilian fish stew (moqueca), because it’s quick, delicious, and deceptively impressive — the kind of meal you can throw together between filling wine glasses and changing records. I usually serve it with homemade challah.

Sunrise or sunset?
I probably see more sunrises these days on account of my kids. There’s a wonderful moment in winter, when the mist coming off the creek near my house reflects the morning sun. It’s better than a sunset. It’s like being inside a sunset: pink above and below. That said, being caffeinated enough to appreciate it is key.

Cats or dogs?
Groundhogs. My daughter pleads for a cat. My son begs for a dog. But the groundhog that lives in our backyard is way cuter than both. In the olden days, people kept them as pets. Actually, people on YouTube still keep them as pets.

Spinach or kale?
Kale. Kale in smoothies. Kale Caesar salad. That said, kale’s popularity has risen too fast. Kale is a bubble. I predict a comeback for spinach in 2014. Spinach just needs an image consultant. Spinach needs to distance itself from Popeye.

True Blood or Downton Abbey?
Broadchurch. British crime series are the best, because everyone’s too polite to remove themselves from the list of suspects. You can practically hear their inner dialogue, which sounds like: I didn’t do it, but I’d feel bad making you doubt your investigative skills, so continue questioning me while I stare down at my tea.

Mother, Mother is available at amazon.com, $14.50.

Photos: Courtesy of Random House; Eamon Hamilton