A Conversation with Jenn Crowell
Jenn Crowell released her first novel, Necessary Madness, to wide critical acclaim at age 18. Just five years later, in 2002, she followed it with her second novel, Letting the Body Lead. Her third novel, Etched on Me, was recently released by Washington Square Press. In addition to writing, Jenn also serves as a mental health advocate: She is a survivor of sexual abuse in a psychiatric hospital setting and has advocated with health care agencies for more sensitive and safe treatment of women with mental illness. Jenn lives outside Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughter. Writer Kristen Witucki spoke with Jenn about her choice of writing fiction, mothering while living with a mental illness, the value of teachers, and how motherhood has shaped her as a writer.
Kristen Witucki: I understand that your original inspiration for Etched on Me was the story of Fran Lyon, a 22-year-old woman who fled Britain after she was warned that her baby would be taken away shortly after birth, because she had exhibited self-harm when she was younger. The novel’s protagonist, Lesley Holloway, begins the book by commenting that all journalists wanted was the basic story, so you—and she—give us a very nuanced account in place of the simplified media version. Why did you choose fiction to tell this story?
Jenn Crowell: Fiction is my natural medium. I’ve played around with poetry and creative nonfiction, but I’ve never felt more at home than when I’m working on a novel. Fiction allows me to inhabit other mother-voices and take on socio-cultural aspects of motherhood that, while partially inspired by or resonating with my own experience, are much bigger and richer than my story alone.
KW: In my opinion, Lesley’s relationship with her friend Clare is not so much a blurring of rigid psychiatric hospital boundaries as it is about a person’s capability to nurture another person even while dealing with mental illness. Is that notion accurate and how does this relate to your ideas about motherhood with a disability, particularly a psychiatric disability or trauma?
JC: As someone who lives with bipolar disorder and who has recovered from self-harm, I can tell you that yes, it is absolutely possible to nurture another human being, including your own child, when you have a mental illness and/or a trauma history. But I won’t lie: There are times when it’s very, very hard to do.
I often use my ability to engage and connect with my daughter as a health and equilibrium barometer; when it’s relatively easy to do, I’m in good shape, and when it’s a huge struggle, that’s a tip-off that I need more support. Of course, sometimes you just have a shitty parenting day, and you talk to your friends and get affirmation that, yes, even parents without a diagnosis feel that way in similar situations. It really does take a village.
KW: Readers who are familiar with your first novel, Necessary Madness, quickly discover that Gloria Burgess, the protagonist from the earlier novel, returns as a mother-figure in Lesley’s story. How does their presence in each other’s lives expand them as mothers and as human beings?
JC: The Kirkus review of Etched on Me described Gloria as Lesley’s “guardian angel,” and I definitely think that’s true. But I also felt it was really important to show Lesley providing comfort and counsel to Gloria as well, particularly during the subplot in which Gloria and Jascha adopt a little girl from a Russian orphanage. When Lesley helps the family through their first rough night together in their Moscow hotel room, she’s providing the Kremskys with the same support they gave her and showing the reader how far she’s come in being able to harness and offer up her inner wisdom and outward nurturance during such a stressful situation (in which Gloria doubts her own capacity to mother such a challenging child).
And then later, when a frazzled Lesley is pacing the floor with her inconsolable teething baby, she phones Gloria, who gives her the same reality check my friends give me about shitty parenting days. So they form a bond of mutual mother-support that goes far beyond their initial roles of needy adolescent and guardian angel.
KW: In Letting the Body Lead and Etched on Me, teachers serve as second-mother figures in different capacities, even though Isobel and Lesley both ultimately journey alone. The teachers, Sylvia and Gloria, are also complex, compelling characters. Were you conscious of the role teachers play in these novels? How have teachers influenced your own life as a writer?
JC: When writing Lesley and Gloria, I was definitely struck by the repeated motif of a teacher-student relationship in my work. The bond between Lesley and Gloria/ “Miss” becomes far more intimate than that between Isobel and Sylvia/ “Ms. J.” in Letting the Body Lead, but the dynamic of a mentor providing intellectual stimulation and emotional solace is deeply present in both books.
Personally, I owe a huge debt to my educational mentors. I was a weird, pedantic, precocious kid growing up (think Isobel, only more arty), and my teachers were just wonderful in nurturing and validating my interests in feminism and creative writing. Plus I got to participate in a critique group with adult writers, which was fantastic; they’d take me along to writers’ conferences and totally treated me like a peer even though I was only in my mid-teens.
And then, as an undergraduate, I was blessed to have Madison Smartt Bell as my mentor. I don’t think I’d have kept my head on straight during the surreal and tumultuous experience of publishing my first novel during my sophomore year of college had it not been for him.
KW: Etched on Me was the first novel you wrote as a mother. How has motherhood shaped you as a writer?
JC: Joyce Maynard summed up the intersection of writing and motherhood far better than I ever could when she said that since she’d become a mother she had “much more important things to say, and far less time in which to say them.” I heard her make that statement at Wordstock, a literary festival here in Portland, Oregon, and I almost fell off my chair, I was so stunned by how apt and true that sentiment was.
Going along with that, I’m also reminded of an interview with PJ Harvey (can you tell Lesley and I share similar musical tastes?) in which she noted how keenly aware she’d become of the sheer amount of music that’s put out in any given year, and how realizing that fact made her exquisitely mindful of the need to only produce art that contributes something unique and meaningful. Motherhood has made me similarly conscientious about what I’m putting into the world, both in terms of furthering the cultural and literary conversation and in terms of the legacy that I leave behind for my daughter to read. Etched on Me is dedicated to her, and it’s my hope that when and if she reads it later in life (she’s seven now), it will resonate full of my fierce love for her in the face of my own mental health challenges.
KW: What are you working on now?
JC: The “staying sane gig,” as Lesley calls it, which, as she rightly notes, is a full-time job—particularly during the excitement attendant upon book publication! I have some ideas percolating, both with familiar characters and new ones, and I hope to see those come to fruition in less than the decade-plus it took me to publish Etched on Me. As a recovering overachiever with chronic health issues (who missed the phone call from her agent about her book getting picked up because she was in the middle of emergency surgery to treat acute glaucoma), I’m taking it one grateful day at a time.