Jessica Winter, THE FOURTH CHILD

Jessica Winter, THE FOURTH CHILD

Novelist Jessica Winter talks with Zibby about her incredible career trajectory (she’s currently an executive editor at The New Yorker!) and imparts her quarantine parenting wisdom. She also shares how writing her latest novel, The Fourth Child, helped her reckon with her Catholic upbringing and sort through her experience as a Buffalo, NY teen during the Spring of Life anti-abortion demonstrations.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jessica. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Fourth Child: A Novel, your latest book.

Jessica Winter: Thank you for having me, Zibby. It’s nice to be here.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. For listeners who aren’t familiar yet with The Fourth Child, could you give a little synopsis and also talk about what inspired you to write it?

Jessica: I would say that the book is a love story about a mother and her two very different daughters, one of whom is her biological daughter. The other is adopted. The mother’s name is Jane. She’s devoutly Catholic. She falls pregnant in high school. She gets married. She has three kids in quick succession. As her kids are entering their tween and teen years and becoming more and more independent, she starts to feel this restlessness. This is bringing us to the early 1990s. Her restlessness drives her toward two pretty fateful decisions. One is that she adopts a child from Romania named Mirela. The other is that she becomes active in a local pro-life organization. The idea for the book came to me about six years ago. I had just had my first baby. I was thinking a lot at that time about reproductive rights. I was also thinking a lot about attachment and attachment theory. I was reading a lot of the writing of Donald Winnicott. In this strange way, these ideas that were bouncing around in my head started expressing themselves through these characters. I went from there.

Zibby: Wow. You had a lot. You had full-on excerpts from some of the attachment — I was like, am I supposed to be learning from this attachment parenting? Did I forget? What should I be taking away? Oh, my gosh, I hope I didn’t mess things up.

Jessica: You did not. Winnicott was just an extraordinary thinker. He was a visionary, really. So much of what we understand about children and what we want to foster as parents now, so much of what we get from contemporary parenting experts actually comes from this person who was born in the late nineteenth century. The idea of validating a child’s emotions so that they don’t become codependent, that’s Winnicott. The good-enough mother, the idea of a transitional object, the sacred importance of play, all of those ideas come from Winnicott. He’s such a delightful writer. It’s just really fun to read his stuff. He has a book called The Piggle that’s just this long description of a small child. No, you did not screw anything up. You can read Donald Winnicott. You can read him at any age. He’s just wonderful.

Zibby: I did read a bazillion parenting books at the time. I remember doing jury duty when my twins were not sleeping, not that they do now. Actually, one of them does. I went to jury duty with like ten parenting books on sleep. I was a parody of myself, actually, if I could look back on that moment. All I did was take notes. Of course, nothing worked. My daughter still never sleeps. She’s almost fourteen.

Jessica: We are all parodies of ourselves when we’re parenting.

Zibby: Right? It’s a joke. It’s all a joke. I found it so interesting in your book how you described even just the process of Jane’s — how she includes religion in so much of her life and the role of religion as it courses through and even how it ends up with what they think is this missionary trip — she comes back, of course, with a child — and how her other children had thought of it or how husband had sort of presented it at the time and the way that religion courses through the book. I was hoping you could just talk a little more about that.

Jessica: A lot of the book comes from my own thoughts and my own wrestling with Catholicism. I grew up in the Catholic Church. I think that I just had a lot to work through about how the church and how the idea of God was really important to me as a kid and then it kind of left me. I had never really reckoned with that in an essay or in fiction or anywhere before I wrote this book. I think that one of the reasons I turned away from the church was what I interpreted to be its focus on suffering. I really think the Catholic Church, from the crosses and the Stations of the Cross and the sermons that I heard as a kid and the idea of reconciliation through confession — I made my first confession when I was seven. What was I confessing to? I think I confessed to something like, I wasn’t nice enough about sharing my crayons. I remember really freaking out because I couldn’t come up with anything to confess to the first time I did confession. This idea of suffering and penance and guilt that so suffuses the Catholic Church I think was a big part of why I just didn’t want any part of it anymore. It was nice to finally find a way through fiction to explore these ideas through people who were perhaps more interesting than me and had a more interesting story than I did. It was a relief to find that. I’m really grateful for it.

Zibby: Where have you ended up? What’s the role of religion in your life now? Not that this is any of my business. Feel free not to answer.

Jessica: It doesn’t have one. I wish it did. I really wish it did. Maybe it’s never too late. Right now, I’m just coasting through as a free agent.

Zibby: Your focus on reproductive rights both in the book and in a recent New Yorker article and everything, tell me a little more about how you feel about that or how you decided to approach it in fiction.

Jessica: Similarly to always wanting to write about the Catholic Church, I’ve always wanted to write about the Spring of Life, which were these massive anti-abortion demonstrations that happened in my hometown of Buffalo in April of 1992. It was a really big deal. I was fifteen, so I was just a hair too young to participate in any way or really be deeply knowledgeable about it at the time. It was a big deal for my hometown. It framed a lot of my thinking about where I grew up; my own adolescence; again, the Catholic Church because the reason that these anti-abortion protestors targeted Buffalo was because of its large Catholic population; and reproductive rights itself. It was a real crystalizing event for me. For years I thought, do I want to write an oral history of the Spring of Life? Do I want to write an essay? Is it a story? I came to writing fiction very late. I started writing my first novel in my mid-thirties. Again, as with Catholicism, it was just, I don’t want to say a joy because these issues are so difficult, but it was really bracing and kind of exciting to find a forum, fiction, for thinking through the Spring of Life in a way that might be surprising or revelatory in a way that a newspaper article or something would not be.

Zibby: Wait, so tell me about your trajectory. First of all, I do not think writing a novel in your thirties is very late. I’ve talked to people who write novels in their sixties for the first time. I don’t think that’s late at all. Just store that away. Do with it what you will. How did you get into writing? How did you become an executive editor at The New Yorker? Tell me about your whole writing life. Maybe start with college or wherever it starts.

Jessica: If you’d asked me when I was a teenager what I wanted to be, I would’ve said a doctor writer. A high school teacher gave me the book Down from Troy, the memoir by Richard Selzer. He was a surgeon. He died a few years ago. That had a big influence on me, probably a bad influence because Selzer had this big, ponderous, sentimental style that I now find kind of unbearable. His career, it provided an accessible role model. It turned out, as I discovered in college, I just wasn’t a good enough student to do the doctor part. I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly creative person. I think I was attracted to criticism and reporting and journalism and editing because, to my eye, in each of those disciplines the primary material is already there for you. If you’re writing a work of criticism, you have the work of art. If you’re reporting, the story is already there. You just have to tell it as truthfully and fairly as possible. If you are an editor, the writer does all the hard work. You just help them make a good piece even better.

Fiction was scary to me because it felt more like a blank page. It felt more purely generative. Once I did find it, it was just thrilling to find a new way to write. Backing up, I think I was always a magazine person, or I guess a website person, but websites weren’t around when I was a kid. I remember when the Barnes & Noble opened up on Transit Road when I was fourteen. I would just spend hours in the magazine section pouring through all the magazines. They had zines. Zines were big in the early nineties. They had all these obscure journals. I was fascinated by this whole world out there of people making these beautiful objects. I didn’t understand the production process. I didn’t understand, how did the writer know exactly to write that many words to fit on this page? That’s amazing, which is obviously totally naïve and silly. I was always so intrigued. I think maybe I just came out of the box kind of factory assembled to make magazines and make websites. That’s always what I did. I worked on newspapers in college. My first job out of college was at The Village Voice. It just went from there pretty organically.

Zibby: What happened after that?

Jessica: Let’s see. I went to London for a few years to go to grad school. I came back and I worked at O, The Oprah Magazine. I ran the front of the book. Then I ran the back of the book at Time. Then I went to Slate. Then I went to The New Yorker. I think that young people just starting out, they want to hear from the old folk that there was some master plan and if you just map the template onto your own life, you can get to the magazine you’ve always most admired in the whole world, and oh, my god, I can’t believe I work at The New Yorker, but there is no master plan. You do one job. You do the best work that you can. You make connection and friendships. That leads to something else and something else and something else. I never had a map.

Zibby: Those don’t exist. The people I knew starting out who were like, “I’m going to do this, this, and this,” those things end up not working out. The people who were like, “I’m not sure. I think I’m going to go this way,” end up having these windy roads that take them interesting places. I think even the question, what do you want to be when you grew up? forget it. I’ve like fifty-seven jobs. What do you want to be this week? I just changed my job. Who knows? I’m sure people would be interested in knowing because I’m interested in knowing, what is it like to be an editor at The New Yorker and have all this amazing talent to work with from the writers and then also get to write for them yourself? What is it like?

Jessica: It’s incredible. The vast majority of the work that I do is on the website. Occasionally, I’ll do a print piece. It’s amazing. It’s incredible. The most amazing part of it is the young people at The New Yorker because they’re just as smart and just as wise and their ideas are just as vibrant and exciting as the old folk. That’s the best part of it for me, is working with the people who are the future of journalism who are so much smarter than I was at that age and probably smarter than I am now. Especially in the pandemic, working with that kind of talent is really helping me get through my days, certainly. It’s just incredible to be surrounded by people who hold themselves to such high standards and who are so kind and helpful and collegial about holding themselves to those kinds of standards. It’s not cutthroat. It’s not people trying to outdo each other. It’s people trying to outdo themselves together. That’s a wonderful thing.

Zibby: That is a wonderful thing. I loved your recent piece, by the way. It was called “Stealth Kids’ Movies for the Era of Quarantine.” I know this wasn’t so recent. It was a year ago.

Jessica: A very long year ago.

Zibby: A very long year ago. I just want to read this because it was so funny. “I recently told my five-year-old that she could no longer watch her favorite Adam Sandler trilogy which she discovered on an international flight when parental inhibitions were low because, as I put it, our Hotel Transylvania subscription ran out. She accepted this response with stoic grace and utter faith in my trustworthiness. Now, though, we are entering our second week of quarantine with many more likely to come, and I suspect that boredom, discomfort, and screen temptation will lower the bar in the manner of, say, an international flight that lasts sixty days.”

Jessica: Remember when we thought quarantine would only last sixty days? Were we ever that young?

Zibby: Exactly. So what ended up happening? You list so many funny movies. I have a six-year-old and a seven-year-old and also twins who are older. I’m deep into all these shows. This was music to my ears, this piece. What was the update on this after surviving a year of quarantine?

Jessica: They have continued to have forgotten Hotel Transylvania. I have not had a Hotel Transylvania request, which is a relief. Kids’ TV and kids’ movies are just so much better than they were when I was a kid. The job of, okay, just sit here for an hour while I clean the kitchen, it’s so much easier to feel kind of good about whatever they’re watching. They had a Bluey phase. Right now, they’re into Waffles + Mochi, the Michelle Obama puppet show about food. They’re really into that right now.

Zibby: I’m writing it down, Waffles + Mochi.

Jessica: What else? They have phases where they’ll just watch one show over and over and over again. Then one day, a light switch flips. Sometimes I don’t even know how they’re learning about this stuff. The Netflix algorithm is a little bit diabolical because it automatically plays trailers for the next show. They get super interested in the trailers because the trailers are really good. What I’ve decided is during the week, we have a no-screens policy. I instituted this in June. No iPad, no TV, nothing during the week. I have mixed feelings about this. It’s nice. It’s prescriptive. The kids know that they have a binge on the weekend. The problem is the kids have a binge on the weekend. They just want to watch TV all weekend. I might finetune it a little bit. Right now, that’s where we are.

Zibby: I have not done as good a job with that. We have screens during the week. I feel like my kids are now so into YouTube and playing Roblox and things like that that I would rather they watch TV like in the old days.

Jessica: I’m terrified of YouTube, just absolutely terrified of YouTube. My son does watch subways coming in and out of the station on YouTube. There’s this whole community of subway watchers. The videos are super wholesome. The commentors are like, good job with the C train today. It’s like the most wholesome Andy Warhol movie. Nothing happens. He enjoys watching those. I watch him like a hawk when he’s watching YouTube because I’m so afraid of what might pop up.

Zibby: It’s not good.

Jessica: It’s not a way for me to run off and take a shower or something. I’m hovering over him. I’m sure he loves it too.

Zibby: I heard about this latest book originally a while ago from Rumaan Alam. How are you guys connected?

Jessica: How did I meet Rumaan? We did a podcast together years ago. We did an episode of “Mom and Dad Are Fighting” together. Then I think he wrote for me. His kids are slightly older than mine. Oh, I remember. One time, I ran into him at the playground. We go to the same playground a lot. It just went from there. I really admired his first book, Rich and Pretty. I think I wrote a very brief, little squib about it when my first book came out. I’ve enjoyed watching his career. It’s a real treat to become friends as well.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about your process of writing this book. What was it like? Your last book as well.

Jessica: My process for this one was that I started researching it before I even realized I was writing it because I was doing all this reading on attachment theory and because I was doing all this reading on the Spring of Life. One day, I looked up and thought, oh, I think this is a book. That was nice to back into it. It didn’t feel quite as high stakes to just realize midstream that it was a book. My process is pretty haphazard. I loved what Vendela Vida said on one of your shows recently about how you have to do the work every single day because you never know what’s going to happen. You have to hold that space and just wait for something to happen. I loved that. I loved how it brought this idea of unpredictability and surprise and mystery to what can feel like real drudgery, getting up at four in the morning and putting in your two hours or whatever it is. What I find works for me is the five-hour block. There’s something magic about the five-hour block. A lot of Saturdays, I would hand the kids over to a sitter. I would lock myself away. I would give myself the five-hour block. It’s short enough that you can’t mess around too much. If you do steal over to YouTube or if you do start texting a friend, it’s like, I don’t know, this is kind of creeping up on me. It’s long enough that you can really lose yourself in the time. I had years and years of Saturdays, not every Saturday. There’s birthday parties and there’s life to be lived, but a lot of Saturdays over a lot of years, I did the five-hour block and just kept pushing the boulder up the hill.

Zibby: Wow, I love that.

Jessica: Then at one point, my friends Jynne Dilling and Louie Saletan, they went away. They have this beautiful cabin Upstate. I went there for ten days. I just locked myself away. Do you know what Ishiguro says about the crash, about how he wrote The Remains of the Day in thirty days? He had no obligations to the outside world. His wife took care of everything. He didn’t have to do anything. He didn’t have to talk to anybody. He didn’t have to make dinner or wipe a counter. He just had thirty days to crash a first draft of The Remains of the Day. I was trying to do that in ten days in Jynne and Louie’s cabin.

Zibby: How did it go?

Jessica: It went well. The draft that came out of those ten days was absolute garbage, but it existed. There was a draft. Just getting over that psychological hurdle was an incredible feeling.

Zibby: That’s amazing. What are you going to work on next? Do you have another novel in you?

Jessica: I have another novel in me. I don’t know when I’m going to write it. I have the idea for it. I have not been terribly productive or creative during the pandemic. Once things get back to normal, I’m hoping maybe I’ll get my Saturday five-hour block back. Right now, I’m kind of idling, I must confess. I feel sheepish about saying that out loud. I also want other people to hear somebody saying this so that they feel okay if they’re having the same kind of frustration that I am.

Zibby: I hear that over and over and over again.

Jessica: Oh, good.

Zibby: You are not alone in how you feel about it. There is no pressure. I feel bad sometimes asking the question, like I’m putting people on the spot like you have to have something in the works already. I don’t mean it. It’s just some people do have stuff. I just like to know even if it means, my next plan is to go to the park with my kids. Amazing. Great. I just like to know what’s next.

Jessica: That is the extent of my plans, yes. This weekend, we’ve got a birthday party. There’s a new playground that just opened up in our neighborhood. Those are the extent of my plans. That’s okay. It’s prescriptive, which I think is a word I used earlier in this conversation. It’s focusing to just tell yourself, this part of my life has to go on hold for a little while and now we’re going to go to the Mister Softee together. It’s nice, but I do look forward to the day when it comes back. Definitely.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Jessica: Oh, my goodness. I feel bad that I’m repeating myself, but just holding the space. Whether it’s forty-five minutes in the morning or two hours at night or five hours on Saturday, you just have to hold that space for yourself and give that gift to yourself. It’s okay if nothing comes of it. It’s okay if you write twenty pages one week and a paragraph another, but just hold the space for the possibility of what might happen. I think there’s two kinds of writer. I’ve found this kind of recently. There’s two kinds of writers. There are the writers who really want to find an audience. They’re not pandering to an audience or trying to manufacture something for a certain demographic of people, but they really want to publish something that enters into a larger conversation in the world. There’s a second type of writer who you could tell them, “This manuscript that you’re working so hard on, it’s just going to malinger in a drawer for the rest of your life. You’re not going to get an agent. You’re not going to get an editor. This is going nowhere,” and they would still do it. They would still do it to the best of their ability for themself because they have to. I think those writers, that second group of writers, has it easier than the first group because they don’t want anything other than the work. I guess my other piece of advice is try to foster that part of yourself that is saying, this is just for me and the work is its own reward. I have a really hard time with that. I do not follow my own advice, but if other people can do it, they should.

Zibby: Awesome. Jessica, thank you. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for this lovely conversation. I’m going to go back to your article over here to get some more movie tips for the kids when I’m done.

Jessica: Thank you, Zibby. This was so much fun.

Zibby: Good. Thanks. Buh-bye.

Jessica: Bye.

Jessica Winter, THE FOURTH CHILD

The Fourth Child by Jessica Winter

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