An Interview with Michelle Kennedy
Andi Buchanan: Eight years ago you were a homeless, single mom of three kids, working as a waitress, and living out of your car. Now you’re a happily married mother of five and a published author whose book has not only garnered rave reviews from the New York Times, Elle, and the Los Angeles Times, but is also being made into a Lifetime movie. Can you even believe your own life?
Michelle Kennedy: No, I can’t believe my own life! What’s been amazing (besides having five children) is the amount of things I’ve learned in so little time. Not only was I able to progress in my career from small-town newspaper reporter to “real writer,” but the number of people who have written to me and told me either their stories of poverty and homelessness or how my story has made them open their eyes has been truly wonderful.
AB: When you wrote Mothering without a Net in 2001 for Salon, did you imagine it would evolve into a book deal?
MK: No, not at all. I really wrote the initial essay as my own rant against Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. I thought that book was well written, but downplayed the struggles the working class have when raising children. In addition, I was angered by Ehrenreich’s ability to rent a car as needed or whip out her medical insurance card when she had to — even though her book was supposedly an experiment in poverty. She was basically poor “with a net,” and my essay was my way to show what it was like when you were working without one. The amazing response I got to the essay, particularly from people wanting the rest of the story, was why I decided to try my hand at writing a book.
AB: Did you keep journals during that year you were homeless, writing about what was happening as you lived it? If so, did any of that make it into the book, or did you just reconstruct that time relying on your memories?
MK: I didn’t keep a journal — or take pictures — which was something I had to keep explaining during the publishing and publicity process. It wasn’t exactly a time in my life I wanted to remember or chronicle in any way. So, when I wrote the book, I had to really focus on the whole experience and then break it apart. My first readers also helped me out a great deal by asking me very specific questions.
AB: Did you know, as you were living it, that you would one day write about this experience? Was the thought in the back of your mind as a way to cope (“this will be a great story someday”)?
MK: Absolutely not! I just wanted to get through it. If I had [thought about it], I would have snapped a couple of pictures.
AB: I read the book in one sitting — it was compelling, harrowing reading, mostly because I’m not certain my kids would survive an afternoon in the back of the car, let alone three months. What is it like having your own personal story turn into a narrative that someone else can devour in the space of a few hours?
MK: It’s bizarre. It was enjoyable to write and I love that so many people have gotten so much out of it and enjoyed the story (or not). But it’s weird that so many people know so much about me. Given the choice, I don’t know if I would write a memoir like that again.
AB: The New York Times reviewer seemed to wish the book was less about the developing love story between you and your co-worker (now husband), writing that you “needn’t have worked so hard at spinning [the story] as a fairytale.” But I thought that was part of what made the book so enjoyable — it read like fiction in that way, like one of those old-fashioned stories where the hard-working heroine, abused by fate, finally finds the love she deserves. It plays right into those old fairytale expectations of finding a happy ending. How does your husband feel being immortalized that way? And do things still feel like “happily ever after?”
MK: It’s funny because one of the reviews called him the “hunk” of the story. I don’t know, I can see the point of those who want it to be more of a cautionary social science/feminist manifesto, but at the same time, I like a good story and so I just wrote what happened and hoped that some people would learn from it and some people would just like that it’s a good read. But I never sought to make it a political statement — I just wanted to write well and hope that someone would come along and like what they read.
John has been wonderful through the whole thing. He thinks it’s odd how much people know about us, but he also knows how much I love to write. Besides, I’ve been writing about him in my column for years, so he’s getting used to it. As for happily ever after — it’s such an odd thing, isn’t it? But if there is one, I’d say we’ve found it. John and I are very similar in many ways and we enjoy just hanging out together with the kids. We’re the best of friends and I can’t imagine my life without him . . . so I guess that is happily ever after. I think he still likes me, too.
AB: What has the reaction been from your children? Do they remember that year of living in the car? Are they old enough to really understand that you’ve written a book about their experience?
MK: Matt and Lyd, who are 13 and 12 years old now, have read it and so they understand; Alex, who is 9 now and was between 15 and 18 months old at the time, really doesn’t yet. The kids don’t remember it the same way I do — they don’t remember the anxiety and struggle, mainly because I tried so hard to hide it. They remember a “long camping trip” and they remember meeting John. Other than that, they don’t appear to be scarred for life because of it.
AB: What are you working on now?
MK: My second novel and a humor memoir about the restoration of our Vermont farm.
AB: How do you find time to write? How do you balance writing and motherhood, especially when your children are so young?
MK: Well, my oldest two are 13 and 12 and pretty self-sufficient now. The middle two are 7 and 9, which means that I take advantage of school time as much as possible. The addition of baby Jack to our family in January (as well as the farm animals) has made writing harder — but I always squeeze in time!
AB: Any lasting impressions or wisdom you can impart that you gained from your experience of being homeless with kids? Anything you learned from turning that experience into a memoir?
MK: The biggest thing I learned from the experience of homelessness is to ask for help, even if it means looking like an idiot or feeling ashamed. I should have gone to my parents and asked for help, but I was too ashamed by all the poor choices I had already made.
From writing a memoir, I learned that one needs a thick skin. Even though I wrote the book as an exercise in learning not to be judgmental, people will always judge. And though the reviews have been kind to me, I am still unsure sometimes if laying it all on the line is a good thing or bad thing. I have always been the kind of person who would just tell someone anything they wanted to know. But I wonder, now, if it isn’t better to be a little more guarded. Either way, I’m happy to have done it if it’s brought some measure of comfort to those who have struggled in a similar fashion — or are still struggling.