A Conversation with Sybil Lockhart
Suzanne LaFetra: What was it like to go from working on a few columns to being an author with a huge publishing house?
Sybil Lockhart: It was really flattering and encouraging to have Simon & Schuster put their money on me. At the same time, it meant I had to answer to someone else for the first time in a while, and I had to try to live up to their expectations–so I was both buoyed up by their support and stressed out by the pressure to perform.
SLF: Mother in the Middle landed on bookshelves in February. Is there anything about having your Book Baby out in the world that is frightening?
SL: Just like real babies, Book Baby takes me places I would normally not choose to go. For example, a week ago I went to a television studio for a seven-minute bit on a local talk show. I learned two things: first, I can do that just fine; and second, I don’t particularly like it! TV is too rushed, too much about show. By comparison, bookstore readings are peaceful, interactive, reflective, and community-building. But Book Baby has brought me, both online and in person, into contact with complete strangers who were touched by my words. That is resoundingly satisfying; that is one of the big reasons to write.
SLF: More even than the daunting balancing act of writing and mothering, your life had the additional burden and heartache of caring for an ailing parent. How did you squeeze in writing?
SL: It was more like writing squeezed itself in. For me, writing when life gets overwhelming is like drinking when thirsty; it’s imperative. One of my favorite times to write was just before picking Zoë up at kindergarten. If I timed it just right, I could arrive early, nurse Cleo to sleep in the car, and then sit there with my journal balanced on top of her as she slept, and scribble away. Sometimes this afforded me a mere 15 minutes; other times almost an hour. Also, sometimes after Pat and the kids and Ma were all asleep, I would sneak out to a late-night café and work at my laptop until 1 am. I got very good at switching gears quickly, so I could immediately drop into whatever I was working on. Now I find that transition takes much longer, and those late nights just kill me. Perhaps the only reason they didn’t kill me at the time was that I needed them so badly.
SLF: Mother in the Middle is written through the lens of neurobiology. Did you know from the get-go that the scientific thrust of the story was the primary thread?
SL: Since I’m trained as a biologist, I’m simply never without it. So to me every story we live is a biological story, by definition. It’s hard to get a book contract as a complete unknown, but in nonfiction, it really helps if you can claim some authority on a subject.
SLF: So much of your prose has a poetic quality to it. “Sorting through random household goods, I found multiple copies of certain items: five bottles of glue, two knife sharpeners, four whetstones, three compasses, three magnifying glasses, no fewer than four pairs of binoculars, rolls and rolls of tape… locate it, these things said to me, find it, illuminate it, hone it, keep it together magnify it, fasten it, maintain its edge.” Does that come naturally, pouring onto the page, or do you work at it? What do you suppose is at neurological work when lyrical prose is flowing?
SL: Those moments of insight often came in a flash and poured onto the page, but then I would keep tweaking them for days afterwards, worried that no one would “get” them but me. Then every once in a while I would look at the original passage and decide to revert all the way back to that. I am not versed in the neuroscience of creativity, but Alice Flaherty has written beautifully on this subject in her book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.
SLF: You write so beautifully about place, which if not a character, often plays a supporting role in your book. “As the plane dipped lower, I could make out dark green clumps of stout, stubborn grandmother oaks hunkered in the brown ravines.” Was this intentional, and why do you think the physical setting is so vivid in your work?
SL: Thank you. Well, I feel so deeply connected to place — to this place, my home in Northern California, especially. Place, home, and family are so intimately related, aren’t they? Maybe this is especially true for me in relation to Ma and the East Bay, since she not only raised me here but introduced me to the land when I was little, by taking me and my sister on hikes around the regional parks and encouraging us to explore; she taught me to love this terrain. It seeps into my writing quite unconsciously, because it is rooted deep in my oldest self.
SLF: What was the most difficult part of writing Mother in the Middle?
SL: Making the science accessible. I found myself either brushing over it so lightly that it became almost meaningless or having to provide so much explanation that it became dense and unwieldy. I really admire writers like Natalie Angier and Diane Ackerman who write so lyrically about biology; they manage to convey so much information while maintaining a juicy, fun read.
SLF: You write about sex from the perspective of what’s chemically happening. What was it like to write sex scenes this way?
SL: I was not planning to do the sex scene. My friend Sophia Raday author of Love in Condition Yellow: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage, suggested it, one day after I mentioned something about picturing his sperm running to greet my little eggs even as I was lying there. “You should do a whole conception scene!” she urged. I thought, “Really?” It seemed so risqué. But this really is how I think.
SLF: Memoir is a tricky genre for lots of reasons, but especially because it involves telling the stories of actual people. Some of Mother in the Middle‘s characters are no longer living, but how did the rest of your family react to being the subject of a book?
SL: I ran into trouble writing about my marriage. First I painted it to be too rosy and perfect. Then in an attempt to create a realistic portrait of a marriage under pressure, I went overboard. I revealed too little, then too much. I sounded fake, then bitchy…I still don’t know how I did with it, and I don’t think I’ll be able to judge that until some years from now when I can look back with some relationship perspective.
One could argue that the “truth” is never complete. When I asked [my sister] Alice about what I’d recounted in the book she told me not to worry about it; she understood that my memories were mine, and they might differ from hers. She was supremely supportive of my right to record my experience however I wished.
My family has tolerated being written about for a while now-they are used to it. That said, I think Zoë, who’s now an adolescent, would be much less comfortable with exposure at this point. But I’m not writing about them as much anymore, so it has become less of an issue.
SLF: What are you working on now?
SL: Small things: some light essays, some poetry, a bit of fiction–but no memoir! I needed to clean my palate. Toward the end of writing Mother in the Middle, I got so utterly sick of myself. I do believe my story needed to be told, and I hope it will help guide others through similar situations. But no matter how good one’s intentions, after 300 pages or more, memoir begins to feel ridiculously narcissistic. So recently I have been following around a fictional family that has taken up residence in my head.
SLF: If you could dive into any scientific subject and write a book about it, what would it be?
SL: This is such a delicious question. I’m very interested in the science of learning — from the biochemical and cellular realm on up to the psychological and social levels. I don’t know the field well enough, but I have a hunch that in our schools both public and private, we are not taking proper advantage of recent scientific insights into human learning, and I’d love to play a role in changing that. I’m also very interested in the biology of drug and alcohol addiction and even more so in the biology of recovery.
SLF: You talk about taking time to pray at various points in the memoir. How does spirituality mesh with neuroscience for you?
SL: I’ve always felt, and my training in neuroscience has tended to reinforce the feeling, that mind and body are inseparable. I’m an empiricist, and I have never observed one to exist without the other. As to spirituality, because I was raised atheist/agnostic, I’ve really had to find my own way with this one. I believe in a benevolent force of inexplicable power that manifests when people come together and listen to each other. Something bigger than ourselves sometimes emerges, and it does not create, destroy, or control anything in life but it carries us through intact. I call that thing God. It is absolutely a product of our brain chemistry, since it is a product of human goodness, which emerges when we work together, using our minds for good.
SLF: Near the end of the book, you write, “People write to keep each other company.” Did working on this book add to your sense of community?
SL: Writing in the context of my critique group and my writing group really helped me to accept something that I’d been resisting for so long: that I didn’t have to do things alone; that as soon as I let go of the American ideal of the “rugged individual” who powers through her greatest achievements in complete isolation, the sooner I am freed up to live life fully. I’m a social being. As I wrote this book, I came to embrace my dependence on others. Yes, I did write alone, a lot, but I always had help as soon as I asked for it. Mother in the Middle is a better book for that, and I am a happier person.
SLF: Your book was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick and given starred reviews by Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. Do those external acknowledgements translate into feeling like a “real writer?”
SL: Writing became real for me when I put my whole being into the work of it, at which point surprising connections began to reveal themselves to me; layers of meaning became accessible, much as they do with psychoanalysis or daily meditation. For me, writing is a form of mindfulness and is its own reward. In fact, the external validation has pulled me away from myself in a way I find extremely disconcerting. As much as I crave it and seek it all the time, I’m beginning to see that in fact too much of it makes me feel scattered and out-of-touch with the writing itself, which comes from a place so deep inside of me. When I focus on the attention, I get off-balance because it is coming from so far outside of me.
SLF: Many writers claim that putting words on the page helps them to make sense of their world. What insights did the writing process offer you about your mother’s death and that time in your life?
SL: One insight came while writing the final chapter when I pulled out my mother’s old writings: I realized how alike Ma and I were in our desire to create meaning in our time of distress. I realized that what I had accomplished in writing this book was a form of homecoming. Now my sense of loss centers around the fact that my two parents cannot be here to see me so in love with my writing life.
SLF: What do your children think about their mom’s fame?
SL: I asked them, and here is what they said:
Cleo (age seven and a half): I think it’s cool and fun–and just nice to know that you’ve reached a new goal by writing a book.
Zoë (age eleven and a half): It’s fun for us. Sometimes you get stressed out, though!
SLF: In your book you say you “wanted to write my mother home.” And that, thanks to writing, “our loved ones literally never leave us.” What do you believe your mother would say about Mother in the Middle?
SL: Something like…
“I can really picture it!”
“Some of the science was a bit much for me.”
“I’m glad that you can tell the truth the way you see it.”
“Daddy would just love knowing you wrote this.”
“I’m so proud of you, darling. I’m going to tell all my friends.”
Thank you for asking this. Now I am hearing her voice again!