Debut novelist Jessamine Chan joins Zibby to discuss her book, The School for Good Mothers, which is now a Read with Jenna pick and an instant New York Times best-seller. Jessamine shares which parts of the book changed when she became a mother herself, the shocking research she conducted into family separation that inspired elements of the story, and how her physical isolation while writing bled into her work.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jessamine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The School for Good Mothers.

Jessamine Chan: Thank you so much for having me on your show. It’s a pleasure to be here and to meet you.

Zibby: It’s a pleasure to meet you. Your book has already had so much success since we booked this interview. You’ve been everywhere, Read with Jenna pick, instant New York Times best-seller. That’s amazing. Congratulations.

Jessamine: Thank you so much. It’s been a really wild five or six weeks.

Zibby: I bet. Amazing. Why don’t you tell listeners what your book is about for those who are not familiar with it yet?

Jessamine: The School for Good Mothers, which is my debut novel, is about Frida Liu, a Chinese American single mom who loses custody of her toddler daughter after having one very bad day. In order to get her back, she has to spend a year in a newly created government institution where she is retrained with moms from all over the county whose transgressions range from benign to horrific. The moms have to pass an elaborate series of tests. If they don’t pass all the school’s tests, their parental rights will be terminated. Readers follow her journey through the school and her quest to get her daughter back.

Zibby: I was about to say, can you imagine? Then I was thinking, you did imagine. Thank you. Yes, we can now all imagine if that were real life. How did you think of this? Were you having a really bad day?

Jessamine: I actually started the book years before getting pregnant. Part of the book grew out of my intense anxiety about the decision of whether or not my partner and I should have a baby. Not everyone responds to ambivalence or anxiety by starting a dystopian novel about motherhood, but that is how I processed my anxiety. I was heading into my late thirties. It was time to choose a path. I didn’t feel ready in any way. I didn’t have a book done yet. We were living in Brooklyn. Deciding whether or not to have a baby when you’re artists living in New York, it feels like a very daunting prospect. I was, at the time, working at Publishers Weekly and trying to work on a short story collection. After probably the tenth time of getting rejected from MacDowell and Yaddo, I took my vacation days. I asked my friend Bridget who very kindly said, “Yes, you can come stay at my house Upstate.”

I cocooned myself there. I was very isolated. There was some kind of crazy, two-foot snowfall, so I was very much alone and snowed in and working through a lot of terrible story ideas until I had one very good writing day. Frida’s very bad day grew out of a very good writing day. Part of what fueled that day’s writing which resulted in the foundation for the book with Frida and Harriet’s story and the women in pink lab coats and the dolls and the voice of the book came from my ruminations on the subject of motherhood. Also, some of the idea was sparked by a New Yorker article I’d read several months prior called “Where Is Your Mother?” by Rachel Aviv, which followed the really heartbreaking story of one single mom who left her toddler son at home, went to work, and after that day, never got him back. Something about that story just lodged in my mind. I definitely didn’t sit down with a notebook thinking, oh, this could spark the idea for a bigger project. I just felt so much rage on that mother’s behalf. I think it just must have stayed in my subconscious.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I’m not surprised to hear you wrote it in a cabin totally isolated because there is that feeling that she has when she’s alone and being watched and feeling like she’s literally going out of her mind. What are you supposed to do to show you’re a good mom? What is she doing wrong? She’s second-guessing literally every single thing that she does. All she wants is to get her child back. There is a kind of madness in that when the most fundamental thing that you want is taken away. How do you process something like that?

Jessamine: I think the thing that surprised me — perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me because it’s quite commonplace. Once I started reading about the subject of the government intervention in family life, I think I was really shocked at the numbers of how many children are removed from their families each year all around the country. One tragedy that did make the headlines was the horrible, beyond-words horror of the family separation at the border. In America, it’s disproportionately black and brown women who are poor who are affected by the government taking their children away for a host of reasons. Once I started reading more about that issue, I was really surprised that it’s not headline news most of the time, but it’s happening all around us.

Zibby: Even just having to give the child to her ex, even just that and having just a tiny visitation and having everything be perfect and having somebody have to say, make her play with these dolls, or whatever it is that happens in the scene — she’s like, she doesn’t want to play with the dolls right this second. No. The level of anxiety and the pressure to force a child, which, as anyone who’s ever been in a room with a child or seen a movie about a child knows, is impossible, to force a child to do something they don’t want to do at that age — even just having to relinquish it, which I — as a divorced mom — I’m remarried. Even just knowing legally that my kids are with my ex-husband, just that I don’t actually have the legal right to my children on a given day is so terrifying that I can’t even think about it.

Jessamine: A lot of the original article was about the tragedy of losing your child to strangers. The original article was much more about the foster care system. Whatever amount of research I could do, I didn’t necessarily feel like I could access that experience and render it authentically in fiction, but I could imagine the heartbreak of a broken marriage and feeling like your child is being raised by another woman or by the other woman in what caused the dissolution of the marriage. I chose a different storyline there.

Zibby: How do you go, then, from writing this whole book and analyzing all of this before you had your own daughter to then becoming a mom having thought about the worst things ever? Although, of course, we probably all think about the worst things ever all the time, but you really went there.

Jessamine: I really, really went there. It’s a very weird thing to do, to be working on a book like this while pregnant and while raising a new baby, an infant and a toddler, and having a book like this grow alongside my daughter. I think I partly went there as a way to survive a really confusing and overwhelmingly experience. The book really gave me a home to pour all of my thornier feelings into. If I was feeling really guilty or shameful or frustrated, I had somewhere for those feelings to go instead of just festering in my brain. In some ways, the book allowed me to be a little bit kinder to myself as a parent because I was writing about systemic injustices and about the culture and about the culture really oppressing women and oppressing moms. Because I was always taking the macro look at things, I think I was a little bit gentler with myself. What really changed after I had my daughter was that I had to rewrite the whole book because I think I was able, after having her, to really access a mom’s love for a child.

It was much harder to write the love in the book than to write the conflict. To write people fighting or battling or being sad, my brain goes there much more easily than to write about how much she loves Harriet or how much she loved Gust and even her love for her own parents. Somehow, for me, maybe it’s not this way for all writers, but for me, it was harder to access the tender feelings and to render them in good prose. I feel like the Frida and Harriet relationship really deepened. I also feel like I had to really simplify the lessons after I had a baby. In the original drafts, the moms were actually running through fire escaping from actual burning buildings. I think I didn’t understand that each day’s tasks are a gauntlet of emotions. I didn’t understand getting teeth brushed, getting the shoes on, getting the jacket on each had their own battles. The lessons became much more streamlined. I added things like trying to convince the dolls not to drop food on the floor or trying to swallow anything or to take medicine. Real-life motherhood definitely informed the revision.

Zibby: It is all so hard, all of it, just getting out the door, especially as the kids get older. Before, you could just pick them up if they really didn’t want to. You had that option. My kids are all older now. I can’t even lift most of my kids anymore.

Jessamine: How old are they?

Zibby: I have fourteen-and-a-half-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. Then I have an eight-and-a-half-year-old and a seven-year-old. I can pick up the seven-year-old, but he wouldn’t like it. I can’t pick him up and carry him out the door or he’ll — yeah, all these little tasks. I had this idea a while back that I still want to pursue at some point. I want to do a game show called Top Mom where you have moms performing all these tasks. There’s a contest and a timer. You have to judge them. Hold all these things and leave a playground at the same time. Which mom can balance it best? All these little things we do, sometimes the solution is heroic, the directions for things. Just how we have to make our way through the world taking care of children can sometimes feel like, it would’ve been nice to have a school for this. Not this kind of school, granted.

Jessamine: This is reminding me of my group text with my mom friends from West Philly. One of them, my friend Dorit, suggested, “Wouldn’t it be something if there was a contest where you pass all these tests and what you win is a year of free childcare?” She was saying, “It could be like a Hunger Games-style battle, but at the end, you would get a year of free childcare.” One of my other friends chimed in and said, “I would cut you all down to get that year of free childcare.”

Zibby: So funny. That’s a good addition. Maybe I should talk to your friend. We should do it together. I had a whole trivia section, a speed round. You have to remember all these kids’ songs. Then you have a physical challenge. Anyway, I’m getting off topic. All to say, there’s a lot. It’s really a jungle. There’s not always big brother watching you, but it feels like that even with nobody watching. I mean, I hope nobody’s watching. Although, of course, they say Instagram is listening all the time. It always feels like somebody is watching and judging no matter where you are or what you’re doing. If it’s your inner critic or if it’s the mom at school drop-off or wherever, it always has this very loaded feeling like you’re not just acting in your own universe. It’s all judged. Then, of course, it makes it so hard to act in that scenario until you gain the confidence over years of motherhood, or never, I guess.

Jessamine: I don’t know if I’ve gained the confidence so much as accepted my own limitations, in a way, especially during the pandemic. We definitely have changed a lot of rules regarding things like screen time. I’ve been very lucky to have a pretty even-tempered child. I’m going to knock on wood after this interview because I don’t have any real wood around me right now. I will knock on the wood floor to praise my generally even-keeled daughter. Friends who are having babies have asked me for parenting advice. It’s just stunning how much pressure we all live with. When we were talking about the judging and the shaming, I was thinking of one anecdote that I’ve told. It just really captures the flippant judgement of strangers. My daughter, I think she was maybe five months into learning how to walk.

Zibby: How old is she now?

Jessamine: She just turned five, just got her second vaccine dose a week ago. No, two weeks ago, she got her second vaccine dose, which was a halleluiah moment. When she was about maybe eighteen months, she was new to walking, was falling down a lot. I did not, at the time, carry band-aids in my diaper bag because I wasn’t experienced yet. At some point, she fell down and scraped her knee. There was another mom at the playground who gave me this very judgy side-eye. She said, “Um, your child is bleeding.” Then she just turned away. After that day, I always carried band-aids because I just felt the shame. My daughter was fine.

Zibby: Have you seen the show Pivoting? It’s on Fox right now. It was written by a woman named Liz Astrof, who’s a good friend of mine. I met her originally through this show several years ago. Her book was called Don’t Wait Up: Confessions of a Stay-at-Work Mom. Anyway, her show is hilarious. There was just a scene that I watched last night, or two nights ago, rather, where one mom is in the park with the trainer she has a crush on. He gets stung by a bee. She reaches into her bag and pulls out the venom-sucker thing and starts pulling the venom out and then takes a superhero band-aid and puts it on him. Her daughter is really old. It was hilarious. Yes, as a mom, these habits die hard with the band-aids. Anyway, watch the show. It’s hilarious.

Jessamine: I haven’t seen it yet, but I love the idea of that.

Zibby: It’s very funny. Are you working on another book? Did you write another book after this one? What’s next?

Jessamine: I wish I could tell you yes on both counts. We finished last spring and then pretty much immediately headed into pre-pub land. That’s where I met you for the first time during some of the early Simon & Schuster events. I took the time when I could’ve started another book and moved to another city. I was living in West Philly. We moved back to the Chicago area so that we could live near my parents. It was definitely one of those decisions born out of the pandemic when you don’t see your family for eighteen months and decide that, okay, I’m going to relocate so that we can see each other. I took some of that downtime and just moved to us another place. I’m really excited to start writing again. At the moment, I’m launching the book and doing press for the UK and also just trying to see my daughter more. I’m excited to get back to writing fiction soon. I think I’m probably going to be pretty secretive about the next project because I tend not to share too much about stuff that’s still in process.

Zibby: What do you think the school for good fathers would look like?

Jessamine: I think it would be a nicer place. I bet everyone would be a little gentler with the fathers. I think I envisioned a place where the fathers are treated more humanely on every front, more calls home, more respect for their individual autonomy, less shaming. Certainly, some elements of both schools are satirical, but I did want to reflect the different ways that our culture treats moms and dads.

Zibby: Excellent. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Jessamine: Two things. One is to keep going. I’ve been trying, in any interviews I do, to say my age because I just feel like in the publishing industry, there’s definitely the standard narrative, which is, you have to get your book done by thirty or thirty-five. There’s a lot of focus on youth. I’m publishing my first book at forty-three. I started writing when I was eighteen in college. It was a very long, slow journey. I started this book in my mid-thirties, but I’ve been writing for my whole adult life. This is the dream come true after a very, very long series of ups and downs to get here. First is to not quit. Then second, I would say, try to stay off the internet if you can. There’s definitely a lot of pressure to be a person on the internet before selling a book. I’ll just add that I did not have any public social media accounts before selling my book. I was generally unfindable on the internet. It’s not that those conversations didn’t come up when I was selling the book to say, hey, you have no digital footprint. I decided to do that because I knew that I had to protect my writing time. Certainly, that’s very true for anyone who’s a parent. You have to do some things differently to just hold onto the time that you have and the concentration you have. I definitely found that not being publicly on Twitter and Instagram was helpful for my creative life during the time before selling a book. I am participating now, but I definitely ignored that for a really long time.

Zibby: Did the agent you get say anything about that? Did anybody at any stage tell you to do it differently?

Jessamine: I literally only had a public Instagram and Twitter account after we sold the book in fall 2019. I didn’t start posting much until probably 2020. No one gave me explicit instructions. If I said, I absolutely can’t do this, I think that probably would’ve been an option. I have wanted to contribute to the team effort to getting the book out there. I’m a very private person. Interfacing with the world in this way has been, definitely, a really different experience. I’m very grateful for the online community now because launching a book during a pandemic is not super easy. Certainly, Instagram and Twitter has been a great way to get the book out and also to hear from readers at a time when I’m only doing a handful of in-person events.

Zibby: Do you have any regrets as a private person and someone who protects their space to then have this be all over the — you couldn’t have had a more national introduction to publicity for books with Jenna and everything. Were you ever like, oh, my gosh, maybe this is a mistake, or anything like that? Do you know what I mean? You can’t go back now.

Jessamine: I’ve had a really charmed launch. I’ve been lucky in pretty much every single way. The amount of publicity the book has gotten has been a very, very fortunate thing. Having worked up to this experience over many years, I think I’m able to appreciate it. I think everyone’s been very respectful of my desire — I don’t put pictures of my daughter on the internet. I totally respect the decisions of parents who do. That was just a decision that my husband and I made to not share her image publicly and to let her decide that when she’s older. That has taken some effort to say, only sharing photos of her where there’s her little baby feet showing or something like that or where she’s turned away from the camera. There have been some extra efforts required to maintain privacy for my family. I don’t think I have any regrets. It’s definitely been really surreal to launch the book at a time when I’ve mostly been living in isolation. Early January was a difficult time for everyone. Especially with my daughter not being fully vaccinated yet, we just generally didn’t see anyone. I’ve been especially grateful for the community and the conversation online because that’s really the only conversations that we were having at the time of the launch, was on the internet.

Zibby: Do you have a favorite kids’ show that’s on rotation at your house that you watch, or movie or anything?

Jessamine: You know, I can tell you what I wish my daughter watched. She is watching Paw Patrol a lot now, which is driving me a little bit insane. All due respect to the creators of Paw Patrol. I don’t know what it is about that show, but she loves it with her whole heart. I really want her to watch Ada Twist, Scientist on Netflix, but she’s really obsessed with Paw Patrol. The thing that we found recently to make the screen time a little bit better is, you can turn the dubbing on in Mandarin. She’s actually attending a Mandarin-immersion Montessori, which we’re very thankful to have the opportunity to send her to. It turns out, on Netflix, you can turn on Spanish. You can turn on Mandarin. I think there’s several other languages too. All the kids’ shows, you can play them in another language. That softens the blow of some of the cartoons. I love Molly of Denali on PBS Kids. She’s, lately, decided that she’s over PBS Kids even though we’re trying really hard to get it back into the rotation.

Zibby: I’ve been pushing Ada Twist too. We loved those books, but they’re just not into it right now. She will grow out of Paw Patrol. It’s so perfect for one age. Then they get a little older, they just grow right out of it.

Jessamine: What do you transition them to?

Zibby: I don’t know. My kids found it. I don’t know how because we’re all here on Netflix. I don’t remember what. Now my daughter’s almost nine, so we’re four shows out. I think Octonauts was right around there. Maybe that came right after Paw Patrol. I don’t know.

Jessamine: We know that the minute she starts to read, she’s not going to talk to us anymore, so we’re trying to just enjoy this remaining half year before she starts learning to read when she still wants to hang out with us. She’s very ready. She’s very eager. I think once that skill is learned, there’s going to be very little hanging-out time with us.

Zibby: Awesome. I mean, not awesome, but funny. Jessamine, thank you. This has been a pleasure. Congratulations again. I hope you find the time and space you need to go back to your writing, which you love. I’m just so excited for you after all these years that you got the whole dream-come-true scenario. Bravo.

Jessamine: It has really been a dream come true. Thank you so much for having me on the show today.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care. Buh-bye.

Jessamine: Bye.



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