The Mother Interviews are designed to link women as caregivers and creatives, vocations that can sometimes feel lonely and under appreciated, yet are vital to our happiness as a species. I hope you find something you can relate to here. If you, or someone you know, would like to take place in an interview, please get in touch.
I’ll begin with myself and leave the door open.
- Please tell us about your creative work.
I write poetry and novels and run an independent publishing house, Backlash Press. The Book of Dirt, The Carving Circle and forthcoming The Book of Insects are published by Scrutineer in Brighton.
- Where do you work? What does your space look like?
I don’t have a specific place where I write. My life isn’t like that! My daughter is dyslexic and is home educated, so I often write in the car, at the bus stop waiting for my son, on the train or inside corridors waiting for my daughter to finish a lesson or a project group. I write when I’m waiting, which is strange to consider, so I always carry a small notebook with me. On the glorious occasions when I have the house to myself and am able to work on larger pieces, I tend to remain nomadic and follow the sun like a lizard. If the sky is grey, I light a candle and work at the kitchen table, close to the kettle and tea caddy.
- Apart from time, what do you need consistently throughout the week in order to be creative?
Dog walks in the woods or on the South Downs. We are a family of ramblers. Books, music and important conversation. I also need a monthly (at least) trip to London for an event and dose of dense population.
- Is there a creative routine that you swear by?
I write everything longhand and in a single journal specifically purchased for the project I’m working on. Then, I type it, print it, cover it in longhand notes and type it again. After the first draft is finished, I print the whole book out and spread it chapter by chapter on the floor. I go through each chapter with various highlighters. Pink = don’t change. Blue = move to designated place. Orange = delete or save for another project. Then, I create a new file on my computer and start the transformation, changing the font to red on the original manuscript after I’ve edited or moved the passage to the new manuscript. Then, I print out my new manuscript and start my longhand rewrite. I usually have to rewrite it two or three times before it’s ready to be put into the computer as a final draft and line edited. Notice that I always have something portable that isn’t a laptop computer. I need to be able to physically and mentally carry my work around with me.
- Do you have a mantra?
No, not as such, although I do have my own little set of commandments:
If you desire something from the world you must give it of yourself first. For instance, if you desire respect, give respect to others and yourself. You desire love, give love to others and yourself. You desire creativity, give yourself to creativity. This was advice I took from a Nelson Mandela speech. He is a hero of mine.
You become your most frequent thoughts. This is less about positivity and more about obsessive thinking. I don’t enforce that all my thoughts are positive; it takes too much energy, feels false and isn’t actually feasible for me as a writer. I need to see the whole picture, good and bad, but there are healthy ways of engaging darker ideas and that’s what I’ve had to teach myself. Plus, the darker side of my mind and my proclivity towards melancholy is a fascinating part of my character. I ward off depression through exercise, diet and keeping my negative thoughts varied. The pathways you continuously follow in your mind tend to concrete. And I work hard at maintaining those pathways and ensuring that they remain healthy, that way, I feel safe when I venture off road, which is often, but seldom in the same mud.
Have a huge ambition and then do one thing, however small, each day towards realizing your goal. Focusing for one minute every day adds up to six hours of intensity at the end of a year. Life digests in small bites.
- Imagine you have two hours to yourself. The house is a mess and there are fifty work emails to answer, errands to run etc. Are you able to focus and how?
Yes, most of the time I am able to focus, otherwise I would accomplish nothing. I’ve trained myself to give my worries, to do lists, waiting laundry piles, etc. a pair of legs. I mentally put legs on my distractions, allow them to walk into my mind, take a bow of recognition, and then walk out of my ear until my mind is a clear auditorium. Try it. Cheesy, but it works.
- Do you cook for your family? Do you have a ‘go to’ meal you can make in a rush that the whole family enjoys?
I do most of the cooking during the weekdays. Every year I tell myself that I am going to cook healthy meals in batches and freeze them for instant access, but it never happens. I do make a meal plan when I’m trying to finish a novel, but the meals are always really simple and involve pizza on a Friday. I normally rely on Every Single Veg in the Fridge Stir-fry with 2 min rice noodles or beans on toast with obligatory spinach straight from the bag.
- Did you find that your creative head changed in the early days of having children and has it changed your ability to take creative risks?
Yes and yes. My brain just froze for a while following childbirth and was only capable of managing the basics of survival. I think a new parents inability for developed and philosophical thought is nature’s way of protecting the infant, otherwise the parents would be immobilized by the sheer miracle and responsibility of creating another human being. That’s my excuse for a sieve brain anyway! So, every method I use for deep focus has been devised out of the result of having children. Rising to such an immense challenge has forced me to really study every corner of myself and, therefore, take greater risks through greater understanding. This sounds grand, but in practice, I probably find balance 25% of the time. Maybe less. Right now, certainly less! Ugh.
- Can you tell us one surprising aspect of your work that changed after you had children?
Before children, I could tell uninterrupted stories, but now I am asked a zillion questions with every new plot twist, so find myself travelling down really random avenues of development. It’s great practice and often hilarious. Though, it was a great relief when we got beyond the poo, wee, fart and butt stage!
- Do your children participate in your art and what form does this take? Physical action / inspiration / the subject of your art?
They participated heavily in The Book of Dirt. I modeled certain aspects of my characters off of their existing personalities or how I hoped their older selves would respond to a given circumstance. The idea for the book began with a story that I was telling my son about a hidden pearl. When I’d finished the manuscript I asked my son, who was of the appropriate reading age, to read through it and give me advice, which he did with gusto. I’ll ask my daughter to read through The Book of Insects. Even though she was very young when I started the series, she is actually turning out to be quite like Marianne.
- Do you have a support structure to help you with your work and children?
I am slowly building one, but it’s not consistent because in home education you work in chunks of project time, so need to be flexible. Also, it’s difficult because we don’t have family near by.
- How do your children articulate what you do and what do they think of your work/art?
They are really proud of what I do and tell me this often. I’m pleased that they have witnessed the process of writing and publishing a novel. It means that they have a very clear and realistic understanding of the level of dedication it takes to fulfill an ambition.
- Is there a little voice inside your head that endeavors to knock your confidence as an artist and a mother? How do you silence it?
I silence it with great difficulty. The paradox of fulfilling myself as a writer means compromising myself as a mother and vice versa. One side is seldom wholly satisfied, but I’ve come to understand that I waste precious energy berating myself over this struggle and there is nothing I can do to change it. The very fact that I feel torn means that I am giving all I can in both directions and I wouldn’t want it otherwise. So I’m much more productive if I just recognize my feelings and move forward. Easier said than done though!
- Explain a situation, related to your work, where you’ve had to combat misogyny. How did your work grow from this experience?
I believe that our societies general acceptance of small misnomers in equality is as corrosive as blatant acts of misogyny and as damaging in the long run. Women, and sometimes men if they are caretakers, are expected to shoulder the majority of nurturing and household management alongside their ambitions. This is simply not the case for men. I find it’s the subtle perceptions of society that are personally infuriating because you can’t shout about them without seeming like a neurotic ass. Not that that often stops me, mind you. A case in point:
One day, when my daughter was in school, I was working from home juggling 2 businesses, 2 kids, 5 animals, a draft deadline and an appointment with a publicist. I lit the fires for our hot water and heating (we manage an ancient woodland and use fallen wood as energy). I got my son to the bus stop on time with all of his sport kit, clean uniform, pocket money and homework. I made a healthy lunch for my daughter and promptly forgot it in the fridge. I remembered when I dropped her off in her classroom, ran back to the car, flew home, grabbed it and rushed it back before my morning meeting. I explained to the receptionist what had happened and she raised her eyebrows of disapproval and asked me to be more organised in future. Even though I knew she was a cow, I still felt like she was, on a minor level, correct, and I internalised a feeling of incompetence. The exact same thing happened to my husband the following week. When he brought her lunch in the receptionist said to him, “Mr. Heffernan you didn’t have to do that. We know you’re busy and would have given her a hot lunch. You’re such a good daddy.” Competence is the feeling he internalised. The difference is purely the prescribed roles of our genders. As a one off incident, it is not a big deal, but the reality is that subtle inequalities like this happen continuously over the course of a lifetime and that is seriously damaging. Sexism though the back door or the front door is still sexism. It’s just that one we tend to rally against and the other we tend to accept.
- Name one self-imposed distraction that leads to procrastination and tell us how you handle it.
Design. I really love looking at design and modern architecture. I’m very disciplined about it though. All of my other obsessions fall under the category of research and development. Thank God!
- What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
A friend of mine said to me, “Gretchen, you can do everything you want to do, just not all at once.”
- At what stage did you begin to take your work seriously?
I’ve always taken my writing seriously. I know this sounds ostentatious, but even as a child, I felt a sense of archival duty and the need to use my imagination as a means of understanding myself and my place. But it was only about five years ago that I began to take my career as a writer seriously. It was after I’d finished the first draft of my second novel that I knew I had the stamina for the long haul. Everything I’d written up until that point had been an avenue for personal knowledge. I had a compromised childhood on many levels and used writing as a coping mechanism. It’s taken me a long time to begin to understand and trust myself as someone who has a meaningful message to share with a wider audience. I think there is an enormous difference between viewing writing as a career and as a lifelong compulsion. Many people want to write a book, but only actual writers feel a compulsion that is akin to breathing.
- How could your community help you grow as an artist?
The obvious answer is that they could read my books and offer feedback! But more than that, they could invest in themselves and collaborate with other creative minds so that we all feed an atmosphere of possibility.