Elizabeth Mosier’s recent novella, The Playgroup (GemmaMedia, 2011), explores that intense time when the children are small, toys constantly litter the floor, and mothers — especially playgroup mothers — become central to each others’ worlds.
Mosier teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College, a program she previously directed. She’s a graduate of Bryn Mawr and Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers and has published the YA novel, My Life as a Girl (Random House, 2000). Mosier lives in Philadelphia and is mother to two teenage girls.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser spoke with Elizabeth Mosier about children’s books, playgroups and volunteer archeology.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser: You’re a writer, teacher, mother, and archaeology enthusiast. You’re at the office, though, so let’s start with teacher. What are you teaching this year?
Elizabeth Mosier: This semester I’m teaching a course on writing for children, picture books to YA novels. I begin by having the students learn to read as writers. My syllabus makes up part of the reading list; for the rest, my students choose books that matter to them personally.
SWB: What are some of the books you assign?
EM: Charlotte’s Web, The Hobbit, Where the Wild Things Are. I assign something by [Caldecott-winning illustrator and author] David Wiesner both because his books are so wonderful and because he sometimes comes to speak to my class.
SWB: What do you learn as a writing teacher?
EM: I like how teaching expands my world. My students, in bringing me books they are passionate about, broaden what I read. Many students these days grow up reading science fiction and fantasy, which isn’t really my preference. One student brought me a book called Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl. It’s a wonderful mash-up of fantasy, sci-fi, and fairy tale that I’d never have found myself or read without a nudge.
SWB: How do you balance teaching, writing, and parenting?
EM: When my children were very young, I tried everything to find time to write: swaps with other moms in the playgroup I belonged to; hiring babysitters to be with the kids while I wrote; writing deep into the night. When they started school, I had volunteer activities and softball coaching and playdates to host. I feel that period of parental involvement ebbing. We’re about to start the college process with our eldest, and our younger daughter is a sophomore. I loved those years when I was so involved with parenting; I found new networks and new ways to fill my days and discovered myself as a parent. I’m glad I was active and hands-on.
My main focus was parenting though, and after that, teaching. I didn’t — couldn’t — give much to writing. I worked in the hallway upstairs for a while. It was as if writing didn’t fit into the center of my life. I drafted a novel over five years and directed the creative writing program at Bryn Mawr and parented. I couldn’t switch gears enough to feel really “in” the writing, so I set the novel aside.
Now that my kids are in high school, they are up late doing homework and so I can work — for teaching — while they study. The daytime hours when they are in school have become prime writing hours. Part of that unfinished novel informed the novella, The Playgroup. I am a compulsive finisher and I needed some closure.
Here’s one funny thing: My daughter moved her music equipment out of the playroom and into her bedroom. We took the opportunity to fix up the playroom and now I work in a beautiful office. I didn’t think I’d get this room until both of my daughters went off to college. It’s as if writing reclaimed its place in the center of my life again.
SWB: Tell me about The Playgroup.
EM: Part of the novella was first published as a short story entitled Gifts. That was my first attempt at writing about motherhood. I was so moved by Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Ten-Year Nap. I didn’t want to write that book, but I did want to write a book mired enough in the details of motherhood to convey the experience and to show that motherhood is novel material. The idea of a playgroup seemed to work. There’s a lot of dark material associated with motherhood and, in a way, mothers who share a playgroup are like war veterans, having spent time together in the trenches.
SWB: How did you get that “in the trenches” perspective? How much did you draw upon your own experience of motherhood when writing The Playgroup?
EM: The plot and characters in the novella aren’t borrowed from the real-life playgroup that I went to with my children, but what was taken from real life is this: Drinking coffee together every Thursday morning for seven years while your kids play breeds the intimacy to know what everyone else in the room is thinking.
Also, I felt so present in the moment when my children were small — and at the same time so steeped in the past (the ghost of my own mother and my experience as her child hovered over every choice I made) and pulled toward the future (as I sorted and donated outgrown clothing every few months, and anticipated developmental milestones). In my book, the narrator, Laurie, describes that feeling as “fall feeling” (referring to the season) — the sense of wanting to hold onto your children although you must learn to let go.
SWB: Why did you choose to make one of your characters, Amy Marley, such a seemingly perfect, nearly mythic mother?
EM: Amy Marley is based on a real mother (though not one from my playgroup). This mother is beloved and revered for her common sense and her contentment with her choice to stay at home to raise her kids. For dramatic effect in the novella, however, I had to give my protagonist Sarah “ruinous envy” of her. It’s my experience that competitive motherhood sunders our relationships with other women. As Laurie says, trying to be a perfect mother is “not only pointless, it’s painful.”
SWB: Were you aiming to give your readers a takeaway message?
EM: In the course of the story, Sarah finds that she and Amy are both motherless — Amy’s mother has forgotten her, Sarah’s mother has abandoned her — and this point of commonality surprises her. That’s the message, among many, that motivated me while writing the story: Our shared experience binds us, even though we make different choices about how we raise our children.
As a fiction writer, I’m much more interested in discovering and conveying something universally true — the surprising sense of loss that shadows the experience of giving birth, for example — than I am about continuing a tired conversation on the “Mommy Wars.”
SWB: Did the “Mommy Wars” come up in your parenting life?
EM: I used to spend half the day with my own playgroup — in my Mickey Mouse sweatshirt chasing after kids — and then get dressed in my writer’s “uniform” to teach. I had a foot in both worlds. I had to dress up in order to remind myself that I’m ready to do the job of teaching. I felt invisible as a mother heading into the world of teaching. I felt invisible as a writer or teacher with other moms who did not see me teach. And no one sees a writer write! So yes, the notion of “Mommy Wars” came up, but I think there’s a futility to continued argument.
SWB: You don’t shy away from motherhood’s minutiae in The Playgroup.
EM: I wanted to capture the day-to-day details of that time when your children are small (like Wolitzer does in The Ten-Year Nap). I kept notes back then to keep myself honest. I didn’t want to write a sentimental book about motherhood, but rather one that captured the intensity of that time, the “second adolescence” as Laurie calls it, back when those women in my playgroup were my lifeboat.
SWB: You grew up in Arizona where The Playgroup is set. Have you attempted to write about Philadelphia, where you live now?
EM: I’m working on a YA novel set in Wayne, the Philadelphia suburb, where I live. I know all the metaphors for the desert but all this lush green landscape, these old houses, I don’t have the vocabulary for this place, at least not in the same way. I’ve lived here for a long time, but I still look at Wayne with a fiction writer’s eye. I really like that challenge.
SWB: Along with writing and teaching and parenting, you’re a budding archaeologist. Explain.
EM: I took my girls to central Philadelphia when the entrance to the Liberty Bell was being moved. That block hadn’t been dug up since before the 1976 Bicentennial. Given the site’s historic value, there has to be a dig before new construction could begin. George Washington’s house had been there and it was also the former site of the African Methodist Church.
While there, we met the lead archaeologist, Jed Levin, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Living History Museum. During the dig, they discovered the foundation of a bowed window in the reception room which was replicated when the White House was built — the Oval Office. Three feet away, there’s a passage to the slave quarters.
I learned that the Living History Museum lab takes volunteers and have been volunteering there on Thursdays for four years now. I bring patience and nearsightedness, that’s all.
SWB: What do you do there? Why do you like going?
EM: I wash, catalog, and piece together. The experience has made me think about objects differently. I hadn’t before considered how things, physical objects, are meaningful in context. The timing for this discovery has been especially meaningful since over these four years, my mother has experienced memory loss due to Alzheimer’s. It’s allowed me time to reconsider her loss of all the things that surround her, and even the ability to recognize her family. The chance each week to focus on a singular task, to dive into the quiet at this workplace and to take time suspended from my life each week, along with this emotional and intellectual opportunity to appreciate how archaeology deals with memory and history conspired. My daughter-self needed it. The rest of me — the mother, the writer, the spouse — is grateful for the many ways it’s influenced me and contributed to the pace of these past years.
SWB: Have you written about this experience?
EM: I’ve written only one essay about my volunteer work but its reach into my writing is greater than that. In a way, this is true of parenting too. While motherhood may not remain my literary topic, it has changed everything about me; I can no longer disentangle myself from myself-as-mother.