Author Interview: Memoirist Kate Hopper on Motherhood and Writing
Today I have the pleasure of e-interviewing my mentor and writing friend Kate Hopper whose memoir Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood was recently published by University of Minnesota Press. Ready for Air is an urgent memoir that plumbs the depths of the narrator’s interior as she grapples with the premature birth of her daughter and with her own identity as mother. It is a book of truths that pulls back the curtain on a rarely talked about experience—preeclampsia and premature birth—and strikes a universal truth about what it means to be female in today’s world. I won’t say too much about the book here, since I’ve written a full book review for Literary Mama that you can read here. Instead, I will pick Kate’s brain about her writing and publishing process, especially her experience writing about such a traditionally female topic. Welcome, Kate!
MB: Let’s start with your subject matter. It was such a relief to read the “inside scoop” about a woman’s messy experience—both physically and emotionally—with motherhood. By exposing your internal conflicts with motherhood, you went against the grain of the acceptable narrative that motherhood is all roses. What inner obstacles did you have to contend with to put your honest experience on the page? How did you navigate these obstacles to keep the writing going?
KH: Thank you, Marilyn. And that’s a great question. I think part of the reason I felt so alone during those early months as a mother is precisely because my experience didn’t seem to fit into an acceptable narrative of motherhood. So from the very start, I wanted to write against that, really go deep and expose the truth of those early days and months. I’m always telling my students to write the hard stuff, to be vulnerable, so my teacher self would come in and give me a shake if I was sugarcoating anything, if I was skittering around the heart of a scene/moment.
MB: When I teach the craft of memoir, I tell my students: “No transformation for the writer, no transformation for the reader.” Would you speak to the inner changes you experienced as a direct result of the writing of Ready for Air?
KH: This book made me believe in myself—really believe in myself. Not that I hadn’t had any of that belief prior to writing the book, but writing and rewriting Ready for Air made me really begin to trust myself as a writer, to trust my decisions, to stick by them.
Also, the main themes of the book—learning to live with uncertainty, the power of stories to connect us to one another, patience—those things took root in me when, through writing my story, I finally understood that that was what the book was really about.
MB: In a world where women’s stories are still considered small stories, we women learn to devalue our experiences. As a result, many women do not recognize their traditionally female subjects as worthy of story. Half the battle, then, for a woman writer is to write her story despite the internalized conditioning (i.e., her inner critic) that says no one will want to read her story so why bother. How did you navigate this internalized conditioning, and what advice can you offer women writers who bump up against this particular inner critic, which is so reinforced by the broader culture?
KH: When I started writing the book, I thought, Yay! I finally have a subject with a built-in market! Even if only preemie parents bought the book, there are half a million babies born prematurely every year in the U.S. It didn’t feel small to me at all, which helped a ton in the early writing process.
But then I began to talk to people about the book and search for agents and then editors, and that’s when I heard over and over again that it was small story, that none one would want to read it, that it was too dark, too challenging. I thought about this a lot, and I felt knocked down each time I heard a variation of that same thing. But I didn’t buy it. I don’t buy it. Women are savvy readers, they can handle dark, they can handle challenging. I would go so far to say we crave that kind of writing, the writing that doesn’t sugarcoat our lives. So I just put my head down and kept going. I made sure I had written the best book I could write, and I finally found someone who believed in my vision for the book.
MB: Recently I mentioned Ready for Air in a workshop I was leading on Women, Silencing, & Voice as an example of a book in which a woman writer “owns” her subject and shifts the consciousness of the culture in the telling of her story. As soon as I said the book was about a woman developing preeclampsia and giving birth to her daughter prematurely, women spontaneously shared their own stories about birth before we got to the writing exercises. Two women shared their experiences of being born premature and two women shared their birth stories as mothers. I could not have orchestrated a better testimony for the power of women writing their stories and sending them out into the world to empower other women to tell their stories. Can you speak to the power of stories change lives? Any examples you can share of Ready for Air touching a specific reader’s life? I think the more we share these examples the more we can begin to realize the life-changing power of our stories as women and the importance of our telling them.
KH: I love this so much, Marilyn. That is exactly what I hope Ready for Air will do—send readers to their notebooks and laptops to write their own truths, whatever those may be.
I’ve loved hearing from readers. In one case, a woman wrote to me that she was a little surprised by how much I had exposed myself in the book (and I took it to mean she might not approve, though I’m not completely sure), but then she went on to say that she appreciated the section later in the book when I wrote about my worries that I might hurt Stella. She wrote that she had experienced the same thing, but had never told anyone, not even her spouse. I was so happy to hear that through reading Ready for Air she maybe felt less alone. At the same time, I felt so sad that she had had to go through that all by herself. If we would just talk and write openly about these things no one would have to feel that way.
I’ve had a number of people say how healing the book was to read. One woman realized through reading it how she had tried to close the door on her experiences with her preemie babies, and that by closing that door, she hadn’t been able to honor her hard work, the way she survived those years. She wrote, “I no longer shut that door on those memories… because I am a survivor. I’d love to see [this book] used in therapy… from the ashes, we arise… and we acknowledge the amazing in us.” That makes me cry.
MB: In making sense of your relationship to motherhood, you include in your narrative your history with depression, an experience so many women go through but feel stigmatized for. This backstory gives Ready for Air incredible integrity and depth because it characterizes the narrator as a woman who brings her history to motherhood, and it underscores motherhood as part of a continuum in a woman’s life. What was it like to go to these hard places as a writer? Did you know when you began writing that your story about premature motherhood would lead you to “dark” periods of your past?
KH: Again, Marilyn, I just love this question. This interview makes me desperate to sit down with you over a bottle of wine and talk and talk.
I knew that my history of depression and anxiety would have to be part of the book because I think that plays into why the postpartum months at home were so incredibly hard for me. I actually had a lot more about my history and also my mother-in-law’s schizophrenia in an earlier draft of the book, but it bogged down the narrative, and I realized that those sections didn’t serve the book’s real story, so I pared them down quite a bit. I had been writing about mental illness before Stella’s birth, so I wasn’t scared to go there on the page. But again, I think this is what made it difficult to sell the book. One editor said that my detailed attention to my emotional state throughout the book together with the back-story about depression ran the risk of having the book perceived as “a memoir of a disturbed mother.” I felt like someone slapped me when I read that. And it taps into exactly what you’re talking about—that women writers sometimes feel they can’t grapple with challenging issues on the page or they will be discounted as being crazy. And that’s bullshit.
MB: What would you say to women writers who are writing about situations in their lives that “touch” past experiences that feel shameful? Let me clarify that I’m not saying experiences such as depression are shameful, rather that our society deems them as shameful and so they become hard to voice. What are the benefits both on the page and off the page of including such histories when they help to illuminate the narrator’s character? By “off the page” I mean the ways in which a memoirist benefits from making sense of the material of her life.
KH: I think we—all of us—have to write those experiences, for ourselves and for others. Just getting them down on the page can help them lose their power over us. And that can’t be underestimated. But when we craft those experiences into something beautiful—and dark and sometimes scary—and send them out into the world, we are making things easier for the next person. One of my students wrote this: “Every time someone has the courage and honesty to write about [situations and emotions] that are difficult, it normalizes the experience for another [person] down the line. And our shame and fear and isolation get broken down a little more.”
And just today as I was scrolling through Facebook, I read this wonderful quote by author Gayle Brandeis (the two of you have to meet if you haven’t) about how she felt the first time she read Sharon Olds’ poetry. She wrote: “There were poems about making love for three days, poems about the scent of the poet’s father’s chest, poems about her daughter’s impending adolescence, poems about miscarriage and death and other mysteries of the body. I felt my own body change as I read these poems, felt my breath catch, my heart pound in my ears. I felt flushed, excited. I had never read anything like it before, even though I had been writing poetry since I was four years old, even though I had been reading poetry all my life. I mostly wrote pretty poems, idealistic poems, poems about Truth and Society and Spring. I had never written about what was happening inside my own skin. I hadn’t known that I could, that I was ‘allowed’ to tell the truth, the nitty gritty truth, about living inside a female body.”
Powerful stuff. If we believe in and harness that power, well, we’ll change lives, uncountable lives.
MB: Can you tell us about the process of getting your memoir published? Especially any external obstacles you faced as a direct result of your subject?
KH: Well, I’ve alluded to some of the challenges I faced. The whole process took so long. I began writing the book when Stella was five months old, during my year off from the MFA program after Stella’s birth. When I returned to school the fall of 2004, it became my thesis, and I was about half finished with the first draft when I graduated from the program in 2005. I took the next two years to finish writing, and then I revised and found an agent. In 2007 and 2008 the book was shopped around for a while and rejected for being too dark, not having a market, etc. etc.
That is when I decided to rewrite it from scratch. I had a better sense of what the real story was at that point, and I wanted to write it again with that in mind. So I printed out the whole manuscript, opened a new Word document, and started to write the book again, from the beginning. That process took another two and half years. I finished it (again) in September of 2011, and did more revising. It was rejected a bunch more for market, darkness, etc. and then it finally sold to University of Minnesota Press in October of 2012.
MB: During the early days of your experience with premature motherhood, you attended your book group and the women in this group encouraged you to take notes on your experience. This scene, which you include in Ready for Air, was deeply moving to me. It speaks to the importance of women seeing the value in each other’s stories and encouraging each other to write these stories. What role did this acknowledgment of your story play in your ultimately writing Ready for Air?
KH: It didn’t play a conscious role—the story just emerged when I sat down with pen and paper because it had overwhelmed me, consumed me, and I knew I needed to process it through writing. But unconsciously their support and the support of other writers—both men and women, but primarily women—helped me believe in the importance of getting the story down on paper, crafting it, and sending it out into the world. I feel really lucky to know so many amazing writers whose words and encouragement buoy me when I need it.
MB: Can you speak to the value of women finding a supportive community of women writers where they can develop their craft and tell their stories?
KH: I think community is important for any writer, but especially for women writers whose stories might not be considered “big” enough or literary enough to find an audience. The reason I developed my Motherhood & Words class was because I wanted to create a place where mothers could go and have their writing critiqued and nurtured and taken seriously as art. We all need that.
MB: One of the things that struck me most about Ready for Air was the deep connection I felt with your narrator even though I have never experienced preeclampsia or premature birth. The book cut through my own sense of isolation. To me this is always a sign that the writer has shown up on the page as herself and “birthed” her voice. What can you tell us about your process of freeing your voice to tell your story with such resonance and truth?
KH: Thank you, Marilyn. That is so gratifying to hear.
In early drafts of the book, I think I was trying so hard not to come off as sentimental that my voice was a little distant. I was holding myself and the reader at arms’ length. I had to write my way into a voice that felt authentic and served the needs of the book. I began to let in that sassier, sometimes foul-mouthed side of myself, and it was such a relief to own that part of me. And I’ve realized that I love to drop an occasional f-bomb at a literary reading. It keeps people paying attention.
MB: Finally, you are one of the fiercest champions for women writers I know. Thank you! What would you say to the many women who have the impulse to write but do not consider themselves “real” writers because they have not led traditional “writing” lives?
KH: Thank you, Marilyn! That means so much to me!
It takes so many of us so long to believe that we’re “real” writers. But if you write, you’re a writer. That’s what writers do. The desire to write might start with an impulse, but then you need to nurture that, set aside time to write, value your writing as work. I always tell my students that writing needs to be a priority in their lives if they really want to write. It doesn’t need to be #1 on your list, of course, but it does need to be on the list. I think that is the first step in thinking of yourself as a writer.
MB: Thank you, Kate, for your incredibly thoughtful answers and insights.
In addition to Ready for Air, Kate is the author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers. She teaches at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and at her very own Motherhood & Words. Taking a class with Kate is like having a writing sister holding your hand and cheering you on while teaching you everything you need to know about writing the story you need to tell.
To writing the story you need to tell,