Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers is a gut-wrenching debut novel propelled by a mother’s longing for her baby. The book’s premise—a mother must win her daughter back by proving her maternal fitness in a government rehabilitation program—highlights the pressures of modern American mothering and pushes readers to consider the undertones of racial and cultural bias in the discourse on “good” parenting. Writer Robert Jones, Jr. called the book “a piercing rebuke of both the misogynist social order and the traps it lays for women, girls, and femmes.” Writer and critic Pandora Sykes declared that Chan’s debut is “destined to be a feminist classic.”
In addition to The School for Good Mothers, Chan has published work in Tin House and Epoch. When I asked Chan how she found her way to writing, she admitted that she had planned to be an Asian-American studies or English major. “I definitely did not have the intention of being a writer one day,” she said, explaining that she initially took a creative writing class because she thought it would make her a better book editor. At that time, Chan knew of Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, but there weren’t many other Asian-American authors on the scene. She had few models to emulate. “Representation,” Chan reminds us, “is important.”
Brianna Avenia-Tapper: Tell me about the life of the manuscript that is now The School for Good Mothers. When was it born? How many years did you spend growing it? How did it change across drafts?
Jessamine Chan: I took my vacation days from my job at Publisher’s Weekly and stayed at my friend’s house in upstate New York. I was there for two weeks, snowed in, in a very free state creatively because it was this amazing solitude. In the process of coming up with short story ideas—a huge pile of terrible ideas—I had one really good writing day when I wrote for six hours, and what that day’s scribbling produced was really the foundation of the book. I definitely didn’t think, Oh, I’ve started a novel now. I thought, I’ve started a really weird short story. At the time, starting a novel was just so far beyond what I could imagine.
From there, I didn’t have a plan for the themes I was going to tackle or the structure of the book. I showed a cleaned-up version of that day’s writing to Percival Everett at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference months later, and he’s the teacher who said, “You know, I don’t want to make your life bad, but I think you have a novel here.” I don’t think I really understood until I was several years in: Oh, this is what he meant. This is quite painful.
The first draft of the book was written entirely longhand, all moving forward in time. I didn’t go back and edit anything until I had reached the very last scene, so that process took a year and a half. Then, in summer 2016, I started rewriting it chapter by chapter. The first messy, crazy, long draft was not in chapters; it was just scene after scene going forward into infinity. Pregnancy really slowed things down a lot for me. I had my baby in early 2017. I finally started making progress again in fall 2017, when I enlisted two of my friends as accountability partners. They read each chapter as it was revised and contributed ideas and feedback. Hearing them say, “I want to know what happens next. You need to send me the next chapter,” really helped me keep going.
I was working on one chapter at a time for years. In 2019, my friend Emma Eisenberg invited me to attend a writing retreat that she called the Grace Paley Palooza, with the possibility that some of us could exchange entire novel drafts. I had two goals that year. I would have a full novel draft for Grace Paley Palooza, and I would sign with an agent. I ended up signing with Meredith Kaffel Simonoff that July, which I will say was a total shot in the dark because I was emailing her from her slush pile. It turns out we are on the same wavelength in terms of our tastes and interests. It was clear that she had a heartfelt reaction and understanding of the book. With Meredith, the book gained a lot more humor and warmth. The original version was way darker.
BAT: How did you resist giving in to self-doubt during that journey?
JC: Well, there were the freak-outs with my therapist and petty arguments with my husband when the writing wasn’t going well. But one of the things that helped is when I would tell people about the project, they would be really excited. When you write about motherhood, people have an opinion. Even the most cursory chitchat felt like it was hitting a nerve. Another big vote of confidence was getting a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation in 2017. Writing a book is a solitary effort, but you need a lot of support along the way.
BAT: The School for Good Mothers begins when the main character, Frida, leaves her 18-month-old child, Harriet, home alone in an ExerSaucer. Child Protective Services then takes Harriet from Frida on the grounds that Frida is unfit to raise her. Frida spends the rest of the book “learning to be good” in a residential rehabilitation program.
You’ve said this plot was inspired by a Rachel Aviv article (in The New Yorker) about an actual mother who left her toddler at home. Could you talk a little about your initial response to that article and the thinking that got you from there to The School for Good Mothers?
JC: I think there were two threads of inspiration for this book. One was the emotional inspiration. I was heading into my late thirties, and it felt—biological clock-wise—like time to make a decision about having a baby. As artists, my partner and I were conflicted about parenthood. We worried it would affect our careers. We also felt conflicted about bringing a child into a world that felt like it was falling apart. So when I started the project in 2014, I was already ruminating on motherhood and feeling a lot of fear, pressure, and anxiety.
The Rachel Aviv article provided a spark by encouraging me to wonder about a mother in that situation. What if love could be measured? What if maternal instincts could literally be measured? Those questions really lodged in my subconscious. I think that article stayed with me because it made me so angry. It seemed like they were holding this mom to an impossible set of standards. It felt like she really deserved a chance to have her son back and to raise him herself. The way that the family court workers and the judge and the social workers spoke to that mom was chilling. It felt cold and impersonal and like they were holding her to one set of universal standards. I was also shocked once I learned the sheer numbers of families where the children are taken from the parents. It seemed like the greatest tragedy to have the government take your kids away. I was surprised that this is so rarely on the front page of the news.
BAT: You became a mom while you were working on this book about motherhood. How did your daughter change the book?
JC: After I became a mom, the love between Frida and Harriet became much more real. Before I became a mom, I could imagine the negative feelings that went along with it. I have depression and anxiety; I was very nervous about having a kid. Pregnancy was difficult for me in terms of mental health. So getting to the dark feelings wasn’t as hard as getting to the light and the moments of love between mother and child. I really felt like having a baby allowed me to depict a lot more love on the page.
BAT: I have a musician friend who has decided not to have children because “babies kill art.” What are your thoughts on this?
JC: That’s exactly how I felt; I wouldn’t have used those terms, but I wanted to be an art monster. When we decided to have a baby, my big challenge was trying to figure out how to get back to my book and how to get this done.
BAT: And how DID you get this done?
JC: It was slow. The book got finished because I had a supportive spouse, help from my family, and childcare. I did some writing during nap time, but at the point when my daughter started going to full-day preschool, that’s when my life really changed.
BAT: In The School for Good Mothers, the reader learns the “crimes” of many of the mothers who are undergoing rehabilitation. There is variation in the severity of the crimes, which serves a number of purposes. As a reader, confronting these crimes pushed me to get curious about my judgments of other mothers and then my judgments of my own mothering. You also pushed me to acknowledge how racism and classism create double standards for parenting (e.g., when Frida is awaiting her court date, her lawyer tells her that white judges tend to give white mothers the benefit of the doubt, and that Frida is ‘pale enough’). You inspired me to reflect on these issues without sacrificing any of the narrative tension or slowing down the action. Do you have advice about this aspect of writing, advice for writers who want to push their readers toward critical reflection while maintaining a compelling narrative?
JC: If it felt effortless at all, it was because of editing choices. I’m sure I hammered my points too hard in earlier drafts. I definitely wanted the book to have a lot of narrative momentum. On the question of advice for writers, I think an author’s preoccupations and the things that they care about will come through. The writer has to trust the reader to understand the nuances. I tend to not want to spell things out. In terms of writing about race and class, I wanted to gesture toward the reality that in America, the tragedy of having your children removed by the government disproportionately happens to Black and brown mothers who are poor. I wanted to gesture toward that truth and raise questions about systemic injustice while acknowledging my own blind spots. Hopefully readers will want to learn more.
BAT: I imagine a sort of sisterhood between The School for Good Mothers and Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch or Diana Evans’s Ordinary People. Both of those books use the supernatural to communicate and interrogate the experience of motherhood. Similarly, you use a fictional future reality as a way to critique the amount of pressure put on modern American parents. How do you see this work in conversation with previous writing about parenthood?
JC: I love being in conversation with Nightbitch. I haven’t read Ordinary People, but I want to. I would love for my book to be in conversation with Red Clocks. I have also been steering people toward the nonfiction book Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear by Kim Brooks. Small Animals is a good one if you want a deeply-researched, compelling story of the real-life family court system.
BAT: Do you know what’s next in your writing life?
JC: I wish I had a good answer. I am kind of trying to get my brain back from the internet and trying to start writing fiction again. I’ve mostly been doing book publicity and occasionally seeing my child. I’m trying to tip the balance more toward writing again and trying to spend a little more time with my child, who is not thrilled with the amount of attention she’s gotten in the past few months.
BAT: When do you feel good about your own mothering? When do you feel like, Yes I’ve got this?
JC: I do not feel this way when I’m getting my daughter out the door in the morning or at bedtime. Those are two times I feel the lowest about my mothering. My daughter is a big cuddler, so we do a lot of cuddling and reading. She loves snuggling under a blanket and having me read to her. The only problem is she wants the entire Ramona book read to her! If only I had more stamina.
What I’m always searching for in both my writing and my mothering is more focus. I would love to be totally tuned in to my child and not thinking about tasks, or emails I need to answer. I wish I could be totally locked in. I wish in my writing that I could be zoned in and not thinking about everything wrong with the world and all the laundry. I’m saying this now because literally, when I get off the phone with you, I will call my publicist and then finish doing the laundry. I think I’m supposed to tell you that my life is very glamorous, but I’m still at home doing a lot of laundry.