Joan Lester, author and diversity educator, has just published a riveting new novel, Mama’s Child, which focuses on the deeply entrenched conflicts between a white mother and her biracial daughter, and which both Ebony and Juicy magazine just selected as Editor’s Pick for the month of May. Here, Nan Fink Gefen, author of Clear Lake (forthcoming from She Writes Press), interviews Joan about the inspiration behind her novel, her process, and the difficulty of writing about complex relationships.
Nan Fink Gefen: Can you tell us about the genesis of Mama’s Child?
Joan Lester: I’m a member of a biracial family and also a veteran of the civil rights and women’s liberations movements, which rocked this country during the 1960s and ’70s--and we’re still feeling the ripples. Those movements were so powerful that not only did they rock the country, they tore through families. I’ve always been fascinated by the way social movements shape individuals--their self-perceptions and behaviors--so thought this was a perfect opportunity to explore the dynamics of one ’60s- and ’70s-era family, as they struggle to retain the bonds of love which unite them.
Nan Fink Gefen: Once you began to write the novel, what was your process? Did you share early drafts, and what did you do with the feedback?
Joan Lester: I worked on this book for eleven years, on and off, rewriting, rewriting. I did submit early drafts to several critique groups, but learned one must be selective in soliciting feedback on such highly charged material as mother-daughter relations. Some women writers got triggered by the fictional mother’s actions (“How could she?”), others by the fictional daughter’s (“What a brat!”). While it was encouraging to see how engaged they were by the story, their emotional, rather than literary, reactions were sometimes difficult to absorb, and not very helpful.
I’ve also gotten extremely useful feedback. One skilled writer completely trashed the first 30 pages I’d so lovingly crafted over a period of years. Immediately I saw that she was right, so I jumped right into the heart of the story, retaining only a few key background pages which I doled out as flashbacks. Almost immediately I secured an agent team who adored the book, and sold it. I understood that those “background” pages, which had seemed so necessary to me, had slowed down the opening.
Nan Fink Gefen: The focus of this story is on the complex feelings of love, disappointment, and anger between these two women. Do you have suggestions for how to write about such intense feelings?
Joan Lester: Honestly and with courage. Go deep within to find those places inside where you either still harbor such emotions, or have strong memories of them; then tap that vein! That’s your gold.
Nan Fink Gefen: In this novel you have chosen to vary the narrative voice between the mother and the daughter. Why did you tell the story in this way? Was this a comfortable form for you?
Joan Lester: I’ve always been fascinated by seeing a story from several perspectives. The film Rashomon, which shows alternative versions of the same incident, was one of my early artistic inspirations. Another, for Mama’s Child, was the memoir The Color of Water (also told in two voices) which is a comparison already being made by others. I love the idea that reality is not fixed; our interpretations can be various, and all “true.” This is exactly what happens in Mama’s Child, where both mother and daughter view their lives together so differently. Yet ultimately, during a healing process, their visions merge.
Nan Fink Gefen: You have written three well-received nonfiction books (Eleanor Holmes Norton: Fire In My Soul; The Future of White Men and Other Diversity Dilemmas; and Taking Charge: Every Woman’s Action Guide). You’ve also written another novel (Black, White, Other: The Search For Nina Armstrong.) What is the difference for you in writing fiction and nonfiction? Do you prefer one over the other?
Joan Lester: Ah, during the years I wrote nonfiction, it flowed easily out of me, in those three books, scores of op-eds, and other personal essays. There came a time, though, when I felt I’d said all I had to say about the topics in my chosen “beat”: gender and race equity. I’m also a person who loves to learn new things, so exploring fiction as a genre--”How hard can it be?” I thought. “You just make things up”--was a great adventure. Of course I learned through years of studying the craft, that this sophisticated, deceptively simple genre, was a huge challenge, but one I was totally up for. At the moment I am completely in love with fiction, and have already signed a contract for a third novel.
To learn more about Joan Lester and her work, visit her website, www.joanlester.com --and if you’re in the Bay Area, don’t miss Joan’s book launch party for Mama’s Child: Sunday, May 5 at 4 p.m. at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore, 2904 College Ave, Berkeley CA (there will be music and champagne)!
To learn more about Nan Fink Gefen, visit her website, www.nangefen.com.