Claire Lynch, SMALL

Claire Lynch, SMALL


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Claire. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Small: On motherhoods.

Claire Lynch: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure.

Zibby: Claire, this is one of the most beautiful books about motherhood, infertility, miscarriage, having kids, new birth, fear, love, all of it wrapped into one. It’s poetic and beautiful. I loved it.

Claire: Thank you so much. That’s really kind of you to say. It’s very strange, in a way, to be talking about it because it was written in lockdown. This idea that it’s out in the world still seems a bit strange to me. It’s really exciting to realize, look, real people are holding it in their hands. That’s great.

Zibby: I am a real person. Here it is. It’s your whole story, oh, my gosh. I know you said in the acknowledgments that you had written a lot of it in found time, in the NICU, in little bits and spurts. Tell me a little bit about your writing process of this and also how you chose this form to tell it because it is almost like poetry.

Claire: Really, I thought I was a genius when I came up with the idea of it being called Small because it let me get away with all sorts of tiny fragments. I think there couldn’t be a more appropriate place to talk about it than your podcast, this idea that when the babies were in the NICU, jotting things down in those small hours of the night. I’m sure all parents know those sitting on the landing waiting for people to go sleep kind of moments where maybe a good sentence comes into your head. You can’t run off to sit down at the computer, but maybe you can tap out that one sentence on your phone and then come back to it later. I think some of that stuff is kind of poetry by necessity. It comes out in those fragments. Also, what I wanted to do with that is, that’s kind of my sense of it, that parenthood is poetry and prose, isn’t it? It’s these beautiful moments and then a lot of putting chicken nuggets in the oven. Trying to capture both of those things through the language was what I was trying to get to. Sometimes it’s these profound moments. Letting that be on the page as well is what I wanted to try and do.

Zibby: The way you lead us into the childbirth and even the struggle to have children and how the ease at which other couples, by being a man and a woman, can have a child, even, is something that can’t be taken for granted and that you have sort of work through — you have to defend yourself to random genetics counselors. It’s very — humiliating’s the wrong word. It’s disrespectful that you have to go through all this to have a child, right? Maybe that’s the wrong word. I don’t know. You fill in the word.

Claire: I’ve probably mellowed in my sense of it over the time. There are different expectations, I suppose. I guess the medical intervention is necessarily going to be different, but that’s different for a lot of couples or people having kids on their own. Certainly, one of the things I hope that the book does is remind us of, for a lot of people, there’s a lot of work to be done before the parenthood even begins. Maybe in my case, at least, that did affect my perspective on it. Some of those small moments that are easy to take for granted, maybe I do that a little bit less so because of that feeling. I don’t know. It’s hard to know, but all of that is part of it, right? You’re not, perhaps, just a parent from the moment of birth, but maybe from that moment you make the decision that that’s what you’re trying to be or where you’re trying to go. It begins then. If that’s a long journey, then that’s a long time where you’re thinking about motherhood or parenthood before any of the action starts. The book deal with that life-on-hold experience as well.

Zibby: Maybe we should call them parents-in-waiting because that’s really what you are. It should be a whole category, like ladies-in-waiting.

Claire: I love that. Exactly.

Zibby: The moment when — let me see if I can find it because I don’t know if I dogeared it. The moment where you’re sitting in your car and your wife is pregnant and then she calls you and is like, “You have to come home right away,” and you feel like it’s over and you’re sitting in your car and screaming at the steering wheel, that raw emotion, it brought tears to my eyes because I’ve been there. Other people have been there, when you want it so badly and then it’s just taken away. You were so hopeful. Then you’re not. Oh, my gosh. Of course, I can’t find it, but that moment was just so totally beautiful. I just wanted to flag that, but I can’t find it.

Claire: I’m sorry about the tears. That’s the thing, isn’t it? That kind of proximity between the hope and the grief is a really difficult thing to deal with. You can move from thinking everything’s going perfectly to it not in such a short space of time. Luckily, in that case, it can flip just as quickly.

Zibby: I didn’t find that passage, but I did dogear this passage, which is also beautiful. I’ll just read this. If that’s okay, I’ll read this paragraph.

Claire: Sure.

Zibby: “Whether or not the treatment has worked, it has already changed us. This possible baby already staking its claim on our lives, displacing, at last, the imaginary one who has grown quietly in the shadows over all these years of waiting. I would know him anywhere, the small boy with dark curly hair, a dream child, a work of my imagination, a comfort, and a cancer. The shadow baby has sat behind on us on each drive to the clinic. He’s waited at the airport every time we’ve tried to go away to forget about him. He’s always at family parties or crawling at the feet of friends when they announce the news of another pregnancy. I know other people have them too. I’ve seen a shadow baby on a woman’s lap when her friends smirk knowingly as she orders an orange juice instead of a glass of wine. When conversations are swiftly changed about spare bedrooms going to waste or biological clocks ticking, you can see them snuggled in the crook of an elbow, resting on a hip.”

Claire: Thank you. That was a part of it that I wrote very early on, actually. Spoiler alert, we did end up having children. We have three children. There’s a kind of afterlife in the story too. I think that weight that people experience, the weight of waiting, to use that, I think is extremely hard. I hope that part of the book is a call to sensitivity around that or understanding that lots of the times — it seems strange to say, but lots of the things I’ve written about here are things I didn’t say to people at the time. I wouldn’t have spoken to even very close friends about the things that, apparently and completely bizarrely, I’m very happy to write them in a book but not speak to people in real life. I don’t know what troubling thing that says about my personality.

Zibby: Whatever it is, I share that.

Claire: That was totally fine, right, that not telling people face to face or whatever?

Zibby: I was standing next to the line of moms at pick-up the other day for my littlest guy. I have four kids. I was typing a very heartfelt thing onto Instagram or Medium or somewhere. I was pouring out my feelings and then posting. Then I looked at the woman next to me. I’m like, why is it okay that I would upload this and she could consume it through this intermediary space, but I wouldn’t turn to her and just be like, here’s how I’m feeling today? It’s bizarre.

Claire: If it’s in writing, somehow, that’s okay. I don’t know what the thing is, but that’s a rule, that that’s fine to spill your guts on the page or Instagram but not — yeah, exactly that. I think that moment is a testament to that, isn’t it, really? All of these people are kind of holding their own stories in because it’s such a difficult thing to talk about. Maybe reading about them — then we can talk about the books where those things happen — is a little safety valve.

Zibby: I also loved the image of you being relegated to the Lamaze class, or whatever it’s called, with all the dads. Your wife is over there doing her breathing and all the stuff. Then there you are. You’re like, what are you doing sitting over there? It’s so funny.

Claire: The poor dads. Me and the poor dads. We had a very traditional antenatal class teacher, we would just say here. It was one of those things. It was funny in retrospect, kind of hard at the time, but funny for everyone because nobody really arranges them and family life nowadays around those kinds of lines anyhow. She definitely had “moms to one end of the room and dads to another” kind of mentality. I was messing with the system. Let’s put it that way.

Zibby: Then of course, you write about having the girls and then the NICU and post-NICU and just having to deal with twins and how that — I have twins. It is quite a club to be a part of. It’s a lot. The way you even wrote that, tell me more about getting through the challenging time and then how you felt arriving home and all of that.

Claire: I guess you know all of this. Did you have your twins first?

Zibby: Yes.

Claire: I feel that we’re the lucky ones, in a sense, because if you don’t know any better, then it’s kind of in at the deep end, and that’s fine. I think one of the major things we did there is make friends with people who have triplets because then you feel like your life is easy. That’s a top tip for anyone expecting twins. The book captures that long process of getting there. Then when you’re there, suddenly, it’s all action, isn’t it? I think mostly, that sense of suddenly being this foursome getting through the world together and watching them grow and discover language together and discover each other and being that sort of unit, forcing you to see the world differently, I don’t think anything prepares you, really, quite for what that’s like, that kind of shift in perspective that comes from small people navigating the world and you, therefore, having to navigate the world through them. I think we could talk about it more. I think those kind of ways of being forced to look at yourself differently because of constantly having to explain everything, that’s a great test of how little you know, isn’t it, to be constantly asked questions that you can never answer? It’s all of that from the very beginning up until now. All of that is great food for thought.

Zibby: Last night, we were watching TV. Somebody on the TV said something about eliminating single-use plastic. My daughter’s like, “What do they mean?” I’m like, “They don’t want you to just use plastic one time.” My daughter’s like, “What should we do?” I was like, “Use it twice.”

Claire: That solves all the problems.

Zibby: I’m like, I don’t know. I want to go back to TV now.

Claire: I feel like you got off quite easy with that. I had, on the way to school this morning, “How many bikes rides have you been on in your entire life?” I’m like, “I don’t have a number for that.” They’re just outraged by my ignorance, to be honest. They’re like, “How have you not been keeping count?” I’m like, “I’m so sorry. I just haven’t got the data to back up any of my opinions.” Single-use plastics, failure to account for everything you’ve ever done in your life, it’s just a constant failure.

Zibby: I feel like I’m very grateful to Siri because every time the kids ask me, I’m just like, “Uh, Siri…”

Claire: Thank god, yeah. Mommy’s just stepping outside of the room for a second to consult with the oracle. Exactly.

Zibby: How old are your kids now?

Claire: The twins are six. The little one’s three.

Zibby: I get pitched a lot of books about motherhood. I read a lot of books about motherhood because obviously, I’m in it. I’m interested. I love it and all of that. I feel like this book really stood out in the way it was written and the beauty of the prose and the introspection mixed with just beautiful language. Tell me a little about your approach to language, your training, your writing, all of that side of you.

Claire: Thank you for that. That’s really kind to say. My day job is, I’m an academic. I’m a professor of literature. Really, I think because of that, I was only used to writing in a very rigid, very — I’m doing a very frowny face into the camera — a sensible, serious, academic style of writing. In a sense, a good thing about that is I probably felt that the only way I could write differently was to write completely differently and to try and forget all of the rules that I am normally supposed to adhere to and write something that was free from that a bit. I do think that the constrained time in which I was able to write also kind of helped that stylistically. I had to use the time I had, which meant that I had to make every word count. The other thing about the process is that I had no idea until I wrote this that the editorial process is such an incredible thing. Another person is going to really help you and work and ask you those questions that you didn’t know you needed asking. This book is part of a new imprint called Brazen. Romilly Morgan is my publisher there. She just let me do what I felt was right, but also made me raise my game. I think that is just such a gift, to be able to have someone give you that little nudge of confidence that you can do something with writing that you haven’t done before. I hope everyone gets that from somewhere, that kind of person who will just say to you, why not give it a little bit of a go?

Zibby: What books do you like to read?

Claire: Oh, I was hoping you weren’t going to ask me that question .

Zibby: Or just genre.

Claire: Only because, as I said, I’m about to now launch into a long lecture of all the books that I like to read. No, I won’t do that. Obviously, I do like reading memoir and nonfiction. I’m trying to train myself out of doing that for a little while at the moment and just enjoy some novels. Nonfiction-wise, I love Sinéad Gleason’s Constellations. I don’t know if you’ve come across that. It’s brilliant. I love collections of connected essays where you don’t quite notice where you’re going; Maggie O’Farrell’s essays in that respect too, just those ones that you think — that sense of, it’s unbelievable that something has pulled together so well. It feels kind of effortless and yet you know that real effort has gone it that all the same. That’s something so amazing to me, to not let the pencil marks show somehow. I just love that kind of writing.

Zibby: Beautiful. I haven’t heard of Constellations, but now I’m going to go look.

Claire: Let me add that to your — I’m sure you’ve got such a small list of books that you need to read today.

Zibby: I don’t even want to discuss. I can’t even look over there.

Claire: I’m assuming that whole shelf behind you is just this week’s reading.

Zibby: That, I haven’t touched since a year ago. I made that shelf.

Claire: It looks beautiful.

Zibby: This one’s almost untouchable. Then I have the ones ahead of me that are my working shelves, essentially.

Claire: I’m assuming there’s one of those balloon nets on the ceiling above you, and you just release them when it’s time to read something else.

Zibby: That would be really cool. I would love to have balloons in here, all the same colors of the books behind me, and all drop. That would be so fun.

Claire: Friday night release.

Zibby: Maybe I could do some sort of filter where I see what that looks like without having to actually do it. That would be fun. Thanks. Fun times. I’m sure the kids could help me with that. Anyway, so what are you working on now? Are you going to write another memoir? What are you working on?

Claire: I say this with a real hesitation. I’m going to try and write some fiction, I think. I feel like, what is there to lose to try and see how it turns out? I’ve got a little idea for a novel. I’m going to give that a go. I really enjoyed the process of this book, going back into the not-too-distant past but having enough time away to see it differently. Maybe I’m hoping that there might be another something like that in the future, but I haven’t really lived any other life yet. I need a little bit of time to pass because this one goes up to pretty much now. I’d need a little bit of —

Zibby: — It would have to go even further back.

Claire: Exactly, my memoirs from eighteen months old onwards or something like that. I don’t really think that’s of interest. I have, in the back of my mind, one day, there could be a version where the girls are kind of writing it with me. That would be a great book, if you could collaborate for a chapter or two. That would be brilliant.

Zibby: I wonder if you could do a memoir from the point of view of a baby.

Claire: That would be a good challenge. That sounds like a creative writing workshop beginning. You go ahead and try that.

Zibby: All right, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Claire: I’m happy to read.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Claire: Don’t be afraid of those little snippets of time. Sorry to be so on brand for your podcast. I think that idea that you have to have the writer’s retreat or the long stretches of time and the exact right headspace, maybe that happens for some people, but I think for the most part, everyone’s just squeezing it in here and there. I don’t think you have to assume that means poor quality. I think we can get those tiny germs that then expand into the good stuff when you have got a bit more time. I’d say the notes app on your phone is your friend.

Zibby: I remember taking my laptop to different doctor’s appointments and waiting rooms. There’d be screaming kids. There I’d be trying to be like, let me just try to —

Claire: — You never know what’s going to come out, right? There’s no harm.

Zibby: You never know. Imagine, maybe it would be a billion times better if you could actually sit down at a desk. But maybe not.

Claire: That would be lovely. I’m not against that. If anyone is here offering me a cabin in the woods with a butler, I’m fine with it. If you haven’t got that available, make the most of the app.

Zibby: I’ll tell Yaddo to come knocking on your door.

Claire: Yeah, I’m there. I won’t say, oh, no, sorry, I’d rather actually be in a supermarket car park frantically jotting down something on my phone.

Zibby: Claire, thank you so much. Again, this book is beautiful. I’m just really glad I read it and glad to have met you.

Claire: Me too. Thank you so much for having me. I just want to quickly say, I love the beginning part of your podcast. Every time I listen to it and you say, “Hello from some of my kids,” I like to think that there’s twenty-five of them and you have a router, like, I’m just letting one or two of them say hello today. Then next time, it’s numbers three to thirteen. I have this vision.

Zibby: Some of my kids is misleading. I should’ve said most of my kids.

Claire: No, don’t take that image anyway from me. I really enjoy thinking, I wonder who’s saying hello today.

Zibby: It’s really that my older son refuses to participate, but that’s okay. He’s like, uh, no thanks.

Claire: Fair enough.

Zibby: Teenager. He’s like, no, I’m done. Thanks so much. Have a great day.

Claire: It was lovely to talk to you. Bye, Zibby. Take care.

Claire Lynch, SMALL

SMALL by Claire Lynch

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