This frank conversation made Zibby rethink her relationship to “Good Night, Moon” forever as she chatted with novelist Julia Fine about the ways motherhood can make us all crazy.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Julia. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Julia Fine: Thanks so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Can you hold up a copy of your book please, The Upstairs House? Beautiful. Can you tell listeners what The Upstairs House is about and what inspired you to write it?

Julia: The Upstairs House is about a brand-new mom three days out of the hospital who is either being haunted by the ghost of Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny, or experiencing postpartum psychosis. Throughout the book, Megan, the protagonist, who is home by herself while her husband travels for work caring for her brand-new baby and dealing with all of the varying things that come along with caring for a brand-new baby including what probably should’ve been diagnosed as postpartum depression right away but people miss it in her life, as I think happens in actual life, she thinks she hears or actually hears — it’s sort of up to the reader to decide — a woman in her stairwell who turns out to be the author of these classic children’s books and then gets involved in this lovers’ quarrel that is based on the actual relationship between Margaret Wise Brown and her lover, Michael Strange, who was a very forceful actress and poet in her day. Since, people don’t really know her anymore. Maybe after this book they’ll be more interested in her. She was a really huge figure in Margaret Wise Brown’s life. They had a really tumultuous relationship. Megan, the protagonist, gets drawn into that. It ends up impacting her relationship with her new baby.

I was inspired to write it because I had my first baby in 2017. I was the first of my close friends and family to have a baby. I felt just so totally blindsided by what caring for a newborn was actually like in terms of the physical demands on your body and how mentally you end up having to shift from being who you were before the baby to becoming a parent. I thought I knew what that meant. I really didn’t know. I knew once I had gotten through thick of it that I wanted to write about it and write the kind of book that I felt would’ve been a little bit more honest about what that experience would be like and might have prepared me a little bit. At the same time, I was thinking, ooh, as a novelist, that postpartum period where you’re the only one awake looking out your window at weird hours and you’re not sure, why is my hair falling out? Is this normal? Is it normal that my baby’s doing this? It just is so ripe for psychological horror. I wanted that. Then after Goodnight Moon for the millionth time to my kid, I was like, I wonder what the author’s like. I read about her. I just was like, I have to combine these somehow into a book.

Zibby: Wow. It was so interesting the way you did it. I love how Megan basically takes all of her PhD research — in the book, you have it so that she’s getting a PhD about Margaret Wise Brown and literature and all this other stuff. You intersperse the parts about — it could be taken from the dissertation, essentially. You see it going back and forth, so there’s a reason. It’s not just from Goodnight Moon.

Julia: She’s not just a tired mom reading. She actually has the information.

Zibby: Yes. Some of the scenes were so chilling. I couldn’t believe — I don’t want to give anything away, but the one when she first goes out for the first night and leaves the child with the babysitter. How does she feel about it? Then what happens when she gets home and this gradual unraveling of her sense of what she believes and normalcy. Then you see in the book, the people around her starting to catch on to her psychosis or the reality of her situation. It’s very engrossing. Then your mind is also trying to catch up, too, the whole time. What’s going on? It’s very cool.

Julia: Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. I am particularly impressed by the fact that you were the tired mom reading Goodnight Moon, especially one of the first of your friends to have kids. I was also one of the first of my friends to have kids. I remember going out to dinner with my girls’ group. We went to dinner every couple months. I was like, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to change. Nothing’s going to change. We’re still going to do these dinners all the time.” Yeah, no. You must have found the time in your own state of craziness to produce this book. Tell me about that.

Julia: It’s funny. I now have had my daughter. My first daughter, second child, was born six months ago. I knew the postpartum experience would be kind of different, but I didn’t realize how different it was. I’m not sure if you’ve experienced this. When you add another kid, you’re just like, okay, it’s a little bit more hectic. I’m sleeping significantly less, but I know sort of what’s happening. With my son, I couldn’t even really read books. I’ve always been able to read books. It was like my brain just wasn’t working. Once I could read again, I was like, oh, my gosh, I just want to read. I want to write. I want to get back into it. He was maybe six months old or so when he really started having a more regular sleep schedule and I could carve out some time and my brain was back, so as soon as that happened. First, I could read. Then I could write. I started reading. I read these biographies of Margaret Wise Brown. She’s just fascinating. I was so fascinated by her.

Maybe when he was one, I started using naptime and saying to myself, I’m just going to, the second he goes down, go in, sit at the computer, force myself to do it. I know he’s going to wake up any minute. It was a push to write faster. Of course, I’m very, very lucky to have a supportive spouse who was like, “Take the weekend. Take this. I’ll use my day off to let you do your work.” I can’t even imagine how a new mother who doesn’t have childcare in any way at all or doesn’t have a supportive partner or is working — I also am lucky because I was teaching. I had been teaching writing at DePaul University. I basically stopped when my son was born. I was just parenting and writing. That also allowed me to do it. If I’d had a full-time job, I think we’d be having this conversation like five years from now.

Zibby: Then again, the fact that you were in it as you were writing I think lent a bit of legitimacy or immediacy, really, into the emotion behind it.

Julia: When he was born, like I said, I hadn’t had a lot of friends who had been super candid about what it feels like either physically or emotionally. I would have these moments — I now realize everybody has these moments — of, just stop crying. I’m just going to throw you out the window. What if I just leave you here and go for a run? Maybe you’ll be fine when I come back. You know those moments. They’re just fleeting moments that I think are so common because newborns are really, really hard. I was thinking, what if I had that feeling and instead of three minutes later thinking, I’m so sorry I had that feeling, you sweet little baby, what if it just stayed? What would it be like to explore that more fully? I think fiction is a really great place to say, here’s this fleeting thing that crossed my mind, if I want to dive in. It’s almost therapeutic. I hate to say writing is therapy because only therapy is actually therapy, but it’s therapeutic in a way to not push it aside and say I’m a terrible mother because I wanted to leave my baby here so that I could go to the bathroom or take a shower, but to say, okay, this is a natural feeling. Maybe instead of indulging this feeling by actually leaving my baby here to go take a shower while they’re wailing, I can save what this feels like, move past it, and then write about it later so that it’s not just bottling it down, if that makes sense.

Zibby: Yes, it totally makes sense. How did you end up as a writing teacher? How did you get started with your own writing and teaching and all of that?

Julia: Actually, after college, I worked in sales and PR. I just hated it. I hated it so much. I was either going to go to law school or I was going to be a writer. Obviously, everyone said maybe go to law school because that seems a lot more viable. I one day just quit my job. I said, I think I’m going to apply to get an MFA and nanny for a while. I nannied for about a year and a half, full time, while writing. Then I nannied all through grad school. Again, my kid experience, it’s just insane that I wasn’t more ready for this. I got my MFA at Columbia College Chicago. I taught there while I was getting my degree and while I was writing. My first novel actually was my thesis at Columbia. After that, around the time that was publishing, I was adjuncting at DePaul. I’ve taught classes through — Catapult has a really great online system. I’m actually on the faculty at StoryStudio Chicago which is sort of the equivalent of GrubStreet or Catapult or something in Chicago. It’s great because these are things that I can do while also full time parenting during a pandemic. Do is a relative term. It definitely has allowed me to have the balance that if I had gone to law school I knew I was never going to get if I also wanted a family.

Zibby: It’s amazing how many full-time jobs we can all have.

Julia: It really is. We just don’t sleep. People say, are you watching The Bachelor? Are you kidding me? Am I watching The Bachelor this year? No. When would I have time for seven hours of TV a week? In a few years, I’ll catch up.

Zibby: It would have to be just on while life was going on, the background noise instead of the craziness of the world. Wow, that’s amazing. Tell me about your thesis project and your first novel.

Julia: My first book is called What Should be Wild. It’s also speculative, feminist, horror fiction. It’s about a girl who is born with the power to kill and revive with the touch of her skin. Her dad, the first time he touches her, dies, but then she touches him again and he gets brought back to life. It’s about how she experiences the world. Her dad goes missing. She goes out into the world for the first time. It’s also about the women in her family going back hundreds and thousands of years who have led up to this moment of her being born like this. I was interested in looking at the way female sexuality, especially budding female sexuality, is both this sexy, exotic thing and also, we’re told, cover up, shame on you. The life-death dichotomy was a way that I got into that conversation and explored it. It’s funny, it’s also about female desire and shame and the way we have to navigate socially and also reckon with what we actually want.

Zibby: Talking to you, you seem like this young, beautiful, peppy —

Julia: Oh, thank you.

Zibby: — just super positive, cheerful, young woman. Yet your books have this dark side to them.

Julia: They’re definitely dark.

Zibby: I didn’t read the first one, but the second one for sure has this alarming, even, alternate reality darkness. Where is this coming from? Do you know where it comes from in your psyche?

Julia: I think that it’s like what I was saying about those feelings of resentment or frustration during motherhood. What do you do with them? Perhaps if I wasn’t a writer, I would sit in them more and let them absorb me. That would be what I was thinking about them. The really lovely thing about being a writer and specifically being a writer in the way that I have decided to be a writer, which is writing more about ideas — I think some people are inspired and are like, what if this great plot? I wish I could write that kind of book because I think that’s what most people want to read, but I’m more inspired by the idea of, what if you were haunted by who you could’ve been if you hadn’t had a kid? What if you weren’t just somebody who you were asking for it because you were wearing that, but you were also asking for it because you have this weird power? Things like that. I think that those let me, instead of sitting in a feeling and letting it become part of me, it becomes part of the writing. Again, I want to urge — I’ve heard so many people say, writing this book was therapy. I was like, I really don’t think so. I think they’re two separate things. It is sort of cathartic to write out these feelings. I wouldn’t say, if you have postpartum depression or psychosis, just write it down. That’s ridiculous. I do think that if you’re somebody who, like I was postpartum, who is just confused about it and feels like the world is telling you that this is what early motherhood look like but your actual lived experience of it is so different, writing about it helps. Talking to friends about it helps. I think I’m able to be slightly more optimistic today, January whatever it is, 2021, because I have that other outlet.

Zibby: It’s good to have a venue. The truth is, no matter what you think about motherhood, until it happens, you really have no idea. Nobody’s life looks like Instagram or TV. Whatever the depiction you think it is, it is not. That’s the only thing you can totally know. Are you still writing? Are you working on another book now? Tell me about that.

Julia: I’m trying very, very slowly to piece together what the next project is going to be. Again, two kids, pandemic —

Zibby: — No pressure.

Julia: I’m trying to give myself this book releasing, trying to also teach, trying to also do other work. I’m trying to just give myself more space, more time. I felt a lot of pressure with this particular book, with The Upstairs House. I’ll hold it up again. I felt a lot of pressure there to establish a career and get my foot in the door. Just because I had a kid didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to keep producing. Now that I, A, have two kids, and B, have two books, I’m trying to be more gentle on myself and less stressed about the fact that I’m not already in a third project.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to add to the stress.

Julia: No, not at all. If I had something, I would want to really be talking about it. Had this past calendar year looked different, maybe I’d have more. I’m trying to say I have two kids and I’m healthy, and the writing will come back.

Zibby: Margaret Wise Brown in the book is a major character, in historical fiction if you will, and her relationship with Michael Strange who’s actually a woman. I had to keep rereading to make sure I got that. If there’s something that listeners didn’t know about Margaret Wise Brown that they would take away just from this conversation and then go back to reading Goodnight Moon tonight, what would you want to tell them? What would those nuggets be?

Julia: Oh, gosh. You read Goodnight Moon and you think, oh, she’s the old lady in the rocking chair. That is just so far from the truth. She actually died at forty-two of a botched appendicitis surgery. It’s really quite sad. She was always young. She was a rabbit hunter. She famously gave an interview where she said, “I don’t much care for children.” She was bisexual. She lived this really, I don’t know if avant-garde is the right wrong, but very bohemian-but-with-money life. She also came from money. She was never one to be like, I’m starving on the streets, but she was one to be like, oh, I forgot to pay my electric bill. She was just fascinating. In knowing these things about her too, she wrote Runaway Bunny, but she would go beagling. She was a member of this beagling club and would hunt rabbits. That was one of her favorite hobbies. Yet she wrote this book. It adds so much complexity to these children’s books. I would definitely encourage people not only to read my book but then to go reread her with that lens and see what they take out of it. You can’t really look at Goodnight Moon and say “this is kind of boring” once you know that about her in the same way that you might be able to if you’re like, this is somebody’s grandma.

Zibby: Do you know more about that particular book?

Julia: Yeah. The story that gets told is when she was a little girl, she would go around her room saying goodnight to all of her different things. I think there’s probably some truth to that. In reality, she was just a really prolific writer. She had worked for this, it’s actually still a school in New York, the Bank Street School for Children, which started as the Bureau of Educational Experiments and was at the forefront of progressive early childhood education. One of their projects was writing books. At the time, they were fairy tales. There were books for elementary readers. Nobody had really said, what if we give eighteen-month-old babies books? What if we give three-year-olds books that are for them? Bank Street had basically a laboratory where Margaret was part of a group of writers who would write something who would bring it in, read it to the kids. The kids would say, “That’s not what a car sounds like. Oh, that’s yuk,” whatever it is that kids say. Then they would edit it and adjust it until it became a book that really resonated with the age group that they were going for. Most of Margaret’s books were written in that experimental way.

My thought is that Goodnight Moon is less about this memory of childhood saying goodnight to things and more about, what do children need in the moment of going to sleep in terms of familiarity and routine? Then what I love about the book is she’s like, let’s just break that routine and say goodnight nobody, let’s go out to the stars, let’s do this, which is very in character for her to not be able to stick to this strict script. She wrote it with Clement Hurd who also illustrated Runaway Bunny. Another reason that she seems to have been very focused on this particular book is he was just back from World War II and he was sort of at odds. She’s like, here’s a project for you, my friend. She said, stay at my writing — she had this writing studio on the Upper East Side that was this weird little house behind tenements. She is just such a weirdo. I love her. She said, come stay at my house, come illustrate my book. There’s a lot of love there in terms of trying to help her friend who’d just been through this harrowing experience and was trying to get his feet back on the ground.

Zibby: Very cool. I feel like there should be a movie about her. Is there?

Julia: You know, knock on wood. I was shocked that there hasn’t been more exploration in film or television or other novels of her life. She’s so fascinating. There’s so much there. My door is open if anyone wants to work with me.

Zibby: There you go. Awesome. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors or maybe a snippet or two of what you teach to your students?

Julia: I would say for aspiring authors, my biggest piece of advice, which is also the thing that’s the hardest to take, is that if you are working on a draft of a novel, just keep pushing ahead until you have that full book, which you’ve probably heard from other writers before. It’s so easy to write the first chapter a million times until it’s absolutely perfect, but you might get to the end of a draft and realize that first chapter is totally wrong and has to go. You’ve spent all this time on something that isn’t going to bear fruit, necessarily. I would say just keep pushing forward and living the moment. If you can set up for your writing practice, a particular candle that you like that gets you into that mindset, a poem that you read, a picture that you have by your computer, anything that can pop you back into that space as quickly as possible. That was something that during my naptime writing practice was really key to have to jump back in right away. I think every writer goes through moments where you absolutely hate what you’re working on and think this is the worst thing ever. How could I be doing it? You just have to push past that because you might wake up the next day and say, I’m totally brilliant. It’s just part of the process. Mostly, don’t give up in so many ways.

Zibby: Love it. That is the best advice that there is. Otherwise, if you give up, there’s definitely not going to be a great book.

Julia: Yep. Then you’re done.

Zibby: Thank you, Julia. Thank you for your book that literally kept me pinned to my couch reading it on my iPad. I was inhaling this book as — I think I read it over Thanksgiving. I don’t know. There was some holiday. My in-laws were all like — everybody was starting to eat dinner. It was getting dark. I was like, no, no, no, I’m good. I’m going to sit right here with this. Thank you for that.

Julia: Thank you. That’s the highest praise.

Zibby: It’s true. That’s exactly what happened. Thank you for that. Maybe we’ll see your depiction of Margaret Wise Brown on the screen sometime. That would be very cool.

Julia: We’ll see. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thanks. Buh-bye.

Julia: Buh-bye.

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