Writing Mothers: Anna Funder

Author Anna Funder
Author Anna Funder

I’ve been writing an essay for Island Magazine on the topic, Writing Mothers, where I’ve been looking at mother characters in Australian fiction (written by women), and talking to novelists and bloggers about how they even begin to juggle their writing with pregnancy and having children. I’ve also talked to writers (who are not mothers) about how they go about creating characters (who are mothers).

I’ve been surprised at how little research has been done on the topic (although the Australian Women Writers’ Network has been brilliant at giving me leads). It seems that mothers shimmy out of the limelight wherever possible. The article will be published in July but, in the meantime, I thought I’d start a series on Writing Mothers where I publish some of the interviews in full that I’ve quoted from in the article.

First up is Anna Funder, author of Stasiland (which won the world’s biggest prize for non-fiction, the Samuel Johnson Prize) and an outstanding debut novel, All That I Am (one of the best Australian novels of the past year, nominated for the Miles Franklin). She is one of Australia’s most exciting writers and here she talks about the challenges of writing when you have three children.

When you were pregnant, what were your expectations regarding having a baby and writing? Were you planning to write after the baby was born?

Anna Funder, Stasiland
Anna Funder, Stasiland

AF: I was finishing Stasiland when I was pregnant with my first child. I think pregnancy is a wonderful state, in that it chemically blurs all kinds of anxieties about the (completely and utterly unimaginable ) future that is coming. That applies to both babies, and books — how can anyone have any idea what it’s going to be like with either? I think I expected to have a quiet time with my baby, which I did for a little bit, but then the book took off and I was travelling and talking a lot for a couple of years.

When my baby was two weeks old I went out and bought a three-piece set of matching luggage on a whim. My dear friend, a mother of four, said to me, ‘You have a two-week-old baby. Where do you think you’re going??’ I had no idea, but I ended up travelling all over the place with my daughter.

What was it like in reality? Did you get any writing done in the first year after your baby was born?

AF: I wrote a lot of articles and speeches. I didn’t really have the mental wherewithal to nut out the architecture of a big novel — that came later. I found it hard to organise my time. My husband was overseas weeks at a time for about half the year, and I was in a city without much family support. I have three children now, and imagine I’m a bit better at outsourcing some of the care and making time to write. But truth be told, I put my novel All That I Am away for the first six months of my son’s life. I tried to have a break from it. Of course I wrote other stuff during that time.

Did you find it difficult to sit down and write? Or was it the opposite? Were you more creative, as you had less time, and had to be super disciplined?

AF: I don’t find discipline so hard. I find writing hard, but I am more stressed out by not doing it than by doing it, so I organise my life to be able to work. What is not good for writing is sleep deprivation and lactation; the brain function that is important for writing — the wordy, analytical, associative, creative part of your mind — is shut down by prolactin I believe. This is so that grown women who are used to doing a great many things can stay seated the eight hours a day it takes to feed a newborn without going mad, so it’s a good thing.

Also, a mother’s focus is incredibly directed, and her emotional energy is absolutely heightened by having a baby. This intensity of living and loving — this experience of being part of a dyad — is a wonderful gift. Like all intense emotional experiences, it broadens you in the longer term, which can make you a better writer. Motherhood also makes you a whole lot more vulnerable to the world, you have a greater stake in the future, and in the little people you’re putting into it. That’s not bad for a human being, or a writer.

Anna Funder, All That I Am (Translation)
Anna Funder, All That I Am (Translation)

Did you find the experience of motherhood starting to seep into your characters? Into the way you portray people?

AF: One woman whose story I wrote in Stasiland was separated from her baby by the Berlin Wall. I always found it a terrible story, but I realised much more shockingly after having a baby what she must have gone through. It wasn’t possible to do this solely by an act of sympathetic experience. I had to have the emotional receptors for it, and the only way to get those is –—in this instance — to have had a baby. I probably wouldn’t have written the story any differently. I still think it’s fine. But this experience is salutary for me. If what you do is work to enable people to understand and experience others, and other things through words, it makes you realise the limits of them.

Have you written about any mothers in your fiction before or after the birth? Did having a child mean you had to go back and rewrite or change characterisation?

AF: I do write about mothers. Often it is influenced more by my own mother, than by my experience of mothering. But I feel pretty well-equipped now, after three children, to write a convincing mother character. Or twenty.

Stay tuned for the next interview in the Writing Mothers series: blogger Bianca Wordley (isn’t that just the perfect name for a writer?).

Have you read Anna Funder’s Stasiland or All That I Am? What are your thoughts on these books?

Or are you a writing mother? How do you juggle your writing time with looking after the kids?

29 Comments

  1. Angela (Ms LiteraryMinded) April 24, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    What a great idea for a series. I enjoyed reading this. As a writer who sees herself becoming a mother one day, this is very enlightening (ie. about the prolactin!). Looking forward to the next one.

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth April 24, 2012 at 5:17 pm

      Thanks, Angela. Yeah I was amazed at how little I could find on this topic. I found that part enlightening (I am still breastfeeding and it just took me about 10 attempts to spell that last word for example). The pregnancy (and after) hormones are amazing, as you will discover… But I actually find them really helpful for writing, the creative part of fiction anyway.

      Reply
  2. Claire Thomas April 24, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    Hello Kirsten. Are you familiar with Rachel Power’s book The Divided Heart (and her blog The Rachel Papers)? It is extraordinarily insightful about the creative process and motherhood. I’ve only just found your blog so forgive me if I’ve missed reference to this elsewhere. This whole mothering/writing thing is something I find endlessly fascinating partly because of my own experience of first book and first baby out in the world within a fortnight of each other, and subsequent struggles with second child and second book! The chaos of it all is my biggest problem. I used to LOVE silence. The question of characterisation/the writing of mothers is an interesting one too. I really look forward to reading your article when it comes out. Cheers, Claire

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth April 25, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      Hi Claire, I hadn’t come across Rachel’s book, but a few other readers have just let me know about it too, so I’ll certainly take a look at it and comment in future posts. Sounds wonderful and her site is great. I agree about the silence. I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old and find it quite hard having few moments of solitude, just for myself, let alone for writing… Please give me details of your books, thanks. Do you have a blog of your own?

      Reply
      1. Claire Thomas April 25, 2012 at 2:47 pm

        Hello again. I have an (oldish) website where you can check out details about my novel, Fugitive Blue. http://www.clairethomas.com.au
        I don’t have a blog but am pondering starting one!

        Reply
  3. Nicola Redhouse April 24, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    Looking forward to reading your article in Island … I have been consumed with this topic since I had my little one.

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth April 25, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      Thanks, Nicola. Do you have any favourite mother characters, or are you a writer-mum?

      Reply
      1. Nicola Redhouse April 25, 2012 at 5:11 pm

        Yes, I’m a writer-mum and a book-editor-mum. I have found it really difficult to fit writing back into my life since having a child – my ‘writing mind’ is alive and well, but time is scant … I hope to prioritise it again soon. Meanwhile I’m enjoying reading about mother-writers – just discovered Shirley Jackson: http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/75032/the-read-i’m-sorry-ms-jackson

        Reply
        1. Kirsten Krauth April 26, 2012 at 10:23 am

          Thanks for this link. We are in the same boat doing both writing and editing (I really enjoy switching between).

          Reply
  4. Rachel April 24, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    Hi Kirsten. Great interview! I don’t know if you’ve come across my book, The Divided Heart, but it might give you a few leads: http://www.rdog.com.au/main.php?id=dividedheart
    I think Charmian Clift also had interesting stuff to say on this subject.
    Good luck with your article. Can’t wait to read it!

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth April 25, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      Hi Rachel. I have just had a number of readers tell me how wonderful your book is, so I will definitely get myself a copy. Always miss things in research but I’ll mention it in an upcoming post once I’ve had a read. It’s a great topic to explore. I had a look at your blog – is there a way to subscribe by email? I wasn’t sure how to do it. Charmian Clift, I will check out too.

      Reply
  5. jillinabox April 24, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    Hi Kirsten,
    You might be interested in this doco about mothers who make art (one of them is a writer) – http://www.maandpafilms.com/lostinliving/about-the-film/index.html
    The trailer is great and I found it a very truthful and gutsy exploration of mothers being artists.
    I really liked ‘Stasiland’ (I read it while pregnant with my first child) but she lost me with ‘All That I Am’ – I found myself wishing she would go back to non-fiction.
    Thanks for the post.

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth April 25, 2012 at 2:10 pm

      Thanks for that link, I will check it out. It’s such an interesting topic to explore. I think I can feel a PhD coming on:-) Yeah, with all the time on my hands. I haven’t read Stasiland yet (on top of the list) but I loved All That I Am. Why do you prefer her nonfiction?

      Reply
  6. bigwords April 25, 2012 at 10:05 am

    Oh wow, what a tough act to follow! Loved reading this, loved her story and am now off to find a copy of her book. Thank you x

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth April 25, 2012 at 2:11 pm

      Ha! Don’t worry. They will all be very different. That’s why I am looking forward to mixing all the responses up a bit. I might try and link the images so you can purchase a copy…

      Reply
  7. Nicola Redhouse April 26, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    I meant to also say, re the interview with Anna, I loved this part of what she says: ‘Motherhood also makes you a whole lot more vulnerable to the world, you have a greater stake in the future, and in the little people you’re putting into it. That’s not bad for a human being, or a writer.’ Her novel affected me profoundly, in ways that touch on this idea. Thoughts about how I might act in the face of persecution, or in the face of another’s persecution, have become all the more acute, and the future all the more vivid, now that I have a child. And I do think this depth of feeling can only be a good thing, as a person and as a writer.

    Reply
  8. wendy james April 26, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    Hi Kirsten,

    I’m another mother/writer who has found the whole process fascinatingly fraught. I had my first two kids kinda young, and though I’d been scribbling for years, the writing didn’t really happen seriously until after they were born, so I’ve really only written in the midst of that chaos … The third & fourth child were born while I was writing my first novel. Most of my work deals pretty explicitly with motherhood – both historic & contemporary – and one, Steele Diaries, is about motherhood & creativity – though the focus is art rather than writing…

    I’d also like to recommend Rachel’s amazing book – it’s both illuminating and inspiring. And it’s a good one to read when the going gets tough & despair sets in.

    The vulnerabilty is paradoxical, I think — it’s terrifying and yet weirdly liberating, in that it opens you up to the world in ways you couldn’t have imagined previously.

    Thanks to you and Anna for a terrific interview.

    All best,
    Wendy

    Reply
  9. wendy james April 26, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    Oh, and I’m with Nicola re Shirley Jackson. I’ve found her Life Among The Savages, when taken with a glass or two of wine, to be a very effective remedy 🙂

    Reply
  10. Alison Oakley April 27, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    Well I guess I’m a late developer since I didn’t start my blog till I had 3 teenagers! It’s a constant challenge! But the raw material on a daily basis, well, it’s never ending really.
    In my ‘other life’ I’m also a midwife and I tell people that having children will be one of the most challenging things they will ever do. And that children will stretch them mentally and emotionally (not just physically) and that they will be a person with a wider focus than what they were before. I tell them they will do things for their children that they never dreamed of doing for themselves…..Parent teacher nights for instance (God help us.)
    And then you look at them – blinking at you; and you know they are thinking – we are going to fit this kid into our lives, not fit into this kids life!
    They have so much before them.

    Reply
  11. inner pickle May 5, 2012 at 8:15 am

    Prolactin and sleep deprivation. That’s IT. I adored Anna Funder even before I read this. Fabulous to find this blog. xx

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth May 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm

      Thanks so much for your feedback and glad you’re enjoying it…

      Reply
  12. Irma Gold May 15, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Hi Kirsten

    I’ve just found your blog via Island and love that you’re doing this series on Writing Mothers. I’m one of those writer-editor mums and I find that there are so many benefits and challenges. I have three kids and I’ve always found pregnancy to be a immensely creative time. I think having kids — and the range of emotional experiences and the kind of self-reflection that goes on — makes me a better writer, but then there’s the time factor! During my last pregnancy I was going through the editing of my short fiction collection and working on a novel but — frustratingly — that novel is still no closer to being finished and my baby has just turned one! Of course I’ve been doing lots of other writing and editing several books but I can’t seem to get a big enough chunk of time (and the necessary headspace) to finish the novel even though it’s millimetres from the finish line. On the upside I find that procrastination is a thing of the past. I use the time I have available pretty effectively.

    You might be interested in this article on this same topic from the perspective of a father: http://wheelercentre.com/dailies/post/a4b84663aa04/
    I didn’t agree with all of it but he makes some really good points in weighing up the rewards and the difficulties of being a writer and a parent.

    Thanks for an insightful interview. Looking forward to reading more in the series.

    Best
    Irma

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth May 15, 2012 at 3:10 pm

      Thanks for the feedback. I’ve got a baby who just turned one, too. It’s not easy to find that headspace is it. Just chunks of time, especially if you’re breastfeeding! I also am getting good at doing a lot in a short timeframe. I look forward to checking out that link – I was just thinking today, perhaps I’ll do a series on fathers at some stage too…

      Reply
  13. Pingback: Anna Funder’s All That I Am wins 2012 Miles Franklin | LiteraryMinded

  14. Kristen Levitzke July 3, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Thanks Kirsten and Anna. I’m quite preoccupied by this topic! I just read the novel, ‘Where’d you go Bernadette?’; it’s a fascinating examination of the inherent danger when mothers overlook their creative urges. I know that I go a little bonkers when I don’t write- I’m definitely a better, more patient mother when I feel creatively fulfilled! More thoughts on this at kristenlevitzke.com

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth July 5, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      Great to hear from you, Kristen. I’m preoccupied by this topic too! I look forward to reading the novel you mention. Have just added it in Goodreads. I’ll check out your blog!

      Reply
  15. Heather Taylor Johnson December 7, 2013 at 12:03 am

    When I was pregnant with my first, I was writing a novel and a collection of poetry. When all three of my babies were very young and I was breastfeeding, I wrote only poetry. Had no time or energy for anything longwinded and spurts of brilliance came forth – perfect timing for the half page poem. When they were older and could walk around more independently (I’m talking two and a half or three!) I began new or edited old novels. I think I needed concentrated time more than I did when they were little. Or many not needed it, but allowed myself it.

    Reply
    1. Kirsten Krauth December 7, 2013 at 9:18 am

      Thanks, Heather. I’ve never written much poetry but am attracted to it. I feel my way with it, a bit. My daughter is two now, and I still find it hard to get that concentrated time, but it’s so absolutely pleasurable when I do get into it…

      Reply

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