A Little Bit Married

Q&A

1. A Little Bit Married focuses on the character of Bitsy Lerner and how she tries to restore her picture-perfect life. What does Bitsy learn from her trials and experiences in the novel that other women today can relate to?

The lessons aren’t new ones, most of them have been preserved in cliché’s that pepper the growing up years and often appear on Hallmark cards. Things like needing to find ‘you’ before you become a ‘we’ or learning to listen to the voice inside.  When I first decided to explore the kind of woman who ‘woke up and found herself in the middle of her life’ I knew it would be a disturbing expedition.  I wanted to know what would keep someone in a marriage and a lifestyle that was unsatisfying even though it held no major, outward problems; no abuse and no disasters, just a kind of low level unhappiness and perhaps and indefinable sense of despair.  What I soon realized was, that while fascinating to me, this exploration wouldn’t necessarily make for compelling fiction and something big had to happen to engage the reader.  What I didn’t expect was for this revelation to have a kind of parallel reality; most likely a real life Bitsy wouldn’t make a drastic change, either, unless forced to. There is just too much, or the perception of too much, to lose.  This I determined primarily through my very un-scientific research of talking to women I know. 

There is a saying in social work; people only change when it’s too painful not to. But in real life something big just doesn’t conveniently occur.  So what’s a woman to do?  I guess the shared learning experience from A Little Bit Married would be that if you’re caught in that kind of life trance, (and you’re not lucky (?) enough to have a writer craft you a little catastrophe!) try to tune in to the voice that will help you figure out where you need to be. That voice is there, I promise.  It’s the one that tells you when you’re in the zone; in that slightly Zen state of contentment.  There is something that gets you there; be it nurturing or baking or balancing the books.  Try to design your life so there’s more of that.  I often speak to reading groups about the multiple years I actually avoided writing.  In retrospect, there were so many neon signs, there were practically men in jumpsuits with orange wands (like on the tarmac) trying to wave me to the writer’s path, and still I didn’t listen.  When I finally did, and when Bitsy did, the world became a magical and transformed place.


2. You used to be a licensed clinical social worker. With your experience in that world, what were you able to bring to your writing, particularly with this novel?

I’d like to think I always use my clinical background to inform my characters and their moves.  In my daily life I use many of the tenets of behavioral and cognitive therapy to guide me and I remain perpetually fascinated by the idea of ‘reframing’ and the ability that language has to influence a person’s sense of self.  We’ve all heard the warning about what happens when you continually tell a child they’re stupid–how it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Deeper still are the messages we tell ourselves; I can’t, I’m not, I’ll never.  These have a cumulative effect on how we do or don’t perceive and achieve.  Recently I spoke with a friend about their ADHD child; they were at their wits end and wondering how they managed to have one child who was so ‘easy’ and another who was causing such emotional havoc on the family.  I suggested that they reframe the child as a blessing; a chance to challenge themselves to grow in ways they never would have with two ‘easy’ children and to identify these new ‘gifts.’  After a little discussion came the realization that both parents were more patient, compassionate, and had actually grown closer to each other by raising this child.  For the first time they could see themselves as lucky to have had the ‘difficult’ child and they could now begin to lift the negative moniker of ‘problem’ from the child, and you can imagine the positive ripple effect this had.  I’ve oversimplified the example but it’s this kind of thinking that I hope comes through when my characters question themselves and evolve.


3. You have a tremendous talent in portraying the everyday and sometimes tumultuous lives people go through in suburbia. Why does this subject resonate so much with you? What sort of research do you do? 

 

Well, first of all, thank you.  I think the easy answer is, as Bitsy says, “I have always been the ultimate suburban girl, full-fledged, card carrying…”  I grew up and raised my family in the suburbs of New York City and I’d like to think I have a feel for the humor and angst and nuances, linguistic and otherwise, of this region.  Again, everything always seems to come back to the tenet, ‘write what you know.’  Also, as a writer and social worker, my natural tendency is to record and register and perhaps parse through the surface tidbits of life that others don’t.  My antennae are always out, so much so that my friends have been known to stop themselves mid stream and say, “you better not write about this.”  Conversely, anything peculiar that happens prompts them to say, “You need to write about this!”

 

The somewhat more pathological answer is that the suburbs have been both the bane and the life force of my emotional journey; a subject I am continually coming back to, perhaps until I get it right.  Others see a bland world, the manicured lawns and lives that are the butt of jokes, but I’ve lived it.  I’ve experienced the myopia of mothers who obsess for an entire three hour PTO meeting about the songs in their fourth grade child’s holiday show (Is Jingle Bells non-sectarian?) and fathers who believe their sons will be the next Michael Jordan despite the fact that little Elliot has mastered the Pythagorean Theory sooner, and more effortlessly, than the lay-up.   I’ve seen parents hold their children back from entering kindergarten until they were a full year and a half older than the other children to ‘give them an edge’ and I’ve seen parents throw parties and provide alcohol for 14 year olds so their child will be popular.  On the flip side, are the parents trying so hard to be perfect that they have front door decorations for every holiday including a life-size plastic blow-up of Christopher Columbus on the lawn.  (Truly, these are the ones you have to watch out for—one day it’s chocolate kisses in the lunch box and the next thing you know they’re on top of the elementary school with an Uzi shouting ‘Marissa needs two milks at lunch.”) They still have decorations at their house; yellow and black police tape on the perimeter.

 

 

These little dramas may not seem as compelling as the threat of nuclear war or a rescue on Mt. Hood but just spend an evening with a parent whose kid didn’t make the travel baseball team and I’ll show you angst, obsession, and the demons of the psyche.  I am naturally drawn to the mudslides and avalanches and land mines of the mind and suburbia is a rich and fertile dig site.   Mostly, there is the dance of adults re-playing their childhoods and adolescence, a tender and fascinating, sometimes torturously pathetic ballet.   Having been there, it’s easy to criticize and satirize but I am always mindful of my own missteps and aware of the times I, too, crossed over to the dark side.  Of course, I’ve also seen wonderfully grounded and reasonable parenting but who wants to read about that? 


4. What made you depict the children in the novel the way they are? Are you trying to say something about the way kids are brought up today and the lack of control parents have more and more? 

 

 

As I said, it’s easy to get caught up in behaviors and thinking you don’t truly embrace.  You love your child and you want him to be as happy, lucky, talented, gifted, and well-liked as the next kid.  Well, really you want him to be just a little bit more, but you’re too polite to say this or maybe even think it.  So before you know it, despite your best impression of yourself as a balanced and moral adult, you are screaming at your 5 year olds T-Ball game that the other father blocked your child from fielding the ball.  I did this.  And I really regret it.  One of my pet peeves is the over-organized leisure activities that have become de rigueur across the country.  I think it started with the seemingly harmless ‘mommy and me’ class but it’s morphed into a monster of a problem.  First it was bumper bowling, then Kindermusic, then yoga for infants.  Soon it will be Spanish Immersion in the Womb.  Wait, I think we have that. 

But as crazy as I think these activities are, the real harm is in the way that parents have become so child-centered (and so busy) that they’ve lost their authority and credibility.  So afraid to harm their child’s self esteem or not be the ‘best dad in the whole world’ that they rescind their power as parents and the children are undisciplined, untamed, and ultimately unhappy.  A father who screams at a coach is a sorry sight.  But a child who screams at a parent with no consequence is a tragedy.  And I think, if a bit dramatically, a national problem.  And while I don’t think I specifically portrayed this in A Little Bit Married, I do think my annoyance seeps into the ‘asides.”  


5. Even though your characters face difficult circumstances sometimes, you ultimately see the funny side of whatever the crisis is. Why do you do that? 

 

I remember when I was nineteen and I briefly dated an older man who asked me why I seemed to be so happy all the time.  I answered quickly.  “Well,” I said, “I’m unhappy when I’m unhappy.” 

I know this seems trite and even I wasn’t all that impressed with my answer at the time, but the older I get the more I see the simple truth; it’s all about attitude. I’ve had numerous setbacks in my life, some physical, some financial, some spiritual; the MAIN thing that got me through and continues to serve, is my sense of humor.  I could never discount the other sources of strength, especially love and support from family and friends, but ultimately, in every crisis, it comes down to just you and you, and how you brave the demon, be it a creditor, a cancer cell, or a humiliation. 

I am an exceptionally positive person and it’s because I choose to be.  I make that choice every chance I get, in every situation, and it’s not because I’m so happy all the time, it’s because if I didn’t do it I’d be miserable.  I hope this makes sense.  Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the theory of the laws of attraction.  Simply put, how you think about your life will determine what your life will be; there is even mention of thoughts being akin to a magnetic force.  I’m the last person to engage in a discussion of physics but it’s hard not to validate the idea that thoughts are energy, if only in the way that they influence the thinker.  I’ve already mentioned that I think language is an enormously powerful device, I have to believe that thought is tied up in that and I’ve integrated that idea on some level for awhile, which is why I choose to think positively.  The bottom line in terms of my books is that you can pretty much count on me for happy endings.  That doesn’t mean unrealistic endings or that no one will ever die, just that, if given the choice, I’m still hoping for the fairy tale; still hoping that we can survive great setbacks, and still have a chance at happily ever after.


6. What’s next for you?  Have you written another book?
I’m very excited about my next book, which is almost complete.  Like my previous novels, the new story is set in suburbia. The book follows a family with teenage and young adult children whose lives are turned completely upside down when both parents change careers, a grandparent seems to be losing it, and the mom at the center of the story is more concerned with “wine time” than family time.  There is a slapstick element to the story that is reminiscent of moments in Lucky Me, as the family is typical but also blindsided by an onslaught of atypical events.  Before the story ends, they will navigate SAT’s, nursing homes, college applications, adulterous liaisons, special education, phone sex, and the Food Channel.  Yes, the Food Channel.