Fiction

Interview: Julia Fine on Modernism, Motherhood, & Margaret Wise Brown

In her newest novel, The Upstairs HouseJulia Fine delivers a chilling depiction of postpartum depression interlaced with the story of modernist women creators who lived a century before.

Photo of the cover of novel The Upstairs House by Julia Fine. Red-orange background with white font, with an inked sketch of a rustic cabin with a few touches of primary colors

The Upstairs House by Julia Fine, available Feb 23

When Megan gives birth to her first child, Clara, she puts her dissertation on hold—only to start hallucinating her research subject, Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown, living above her Logan Square apartment. Megan struggles to care for her baby while managing the demands of ghostly Margaret and her volatile lover, poet Michael Strange. Part psychological thriller, part romantic tragedy, part postmodern academic horror, The Upstairs House entangles the beloved children’s author with a modern woman’s fight to reclaim her child, home, and her own mind from postpartum depression.

Julia Fine was kind enough to give an interview with Third Coast Review about her upcoming release, in-between juggling promotion, writing, and her own two small children. This is the second interview I’ve done with Julia Fine: you can find our conversation on her debut, What Should Be Wild, here.

One of my favorite things about your storytelling is how you spin the daily drudgery of being a woman into tightly knit narrative tension, which you don’t often see represented in art or lit. This book is incredibly really well done.

Thank you. The Upstairs House is about a number of taboo subjects. Not only the day-to-day drudgery of being a new mother and doctoral student, but also the difficult parts of parenting in general. For a very long time, the focus of great literature has been the minutia of men’s experiences. It’s well past time we look at things like breastfeeding and make it “literary.”

Given the lack of literary precedent, how did you make craft decisions about including grotesque physical details of postpartum—both the physical and emotional?

In general, I write what I want to read. As a new parent I really wished that I had seen more discussion of postpartum experience in fiction. Megan’s feelings are what a lot of new parents experience, and you don’t necessarily see it reflected in literature or media around us.

While there’s been a swell of good memoirs on new parenthood, at the time I had not seen fiction that really went into the weeds—about what happens with your body after giving birth vaginally, or what nursing is like, or what it’s like when your kid’s diaper explodes all over you. How difficult it is when your kid won’t sleep, and how that feeling affects your body as a parent.

As a new parent going through that, you might be thinking, “I’m so wrong to want to throw my baby out the window!” But if you talk to any parent with a five-month-old baby going through a sleep regression, they’ll say “Yeah, sometimes I just want to throw my baby out the window.” Feeling recognized, feeling seen—that’s why we read, right? I wanted to write a book where people in this situation can say, “Yeah, I see myself here.”

Now, clearly this exact story is not my life and I don’t make the decisions Megan makes. But these particular details are universal, and it’s okay to have these feelings. Just because you feel a certain way doesn’t mean you’re going to act on it, or you should act on it. This is also what What Should Be Wild was about: Just because you feel these feelings doesn’t mean you need to act on them.

As a Puritan American society, we come from a history of repression. If you feel frustrated with your baby, you think there must be something wrong with you. When your body is leaking after having a baby, you’re embarrassed, you feel like there’s something wrong with you. But that’s all natural, and this is how other people feel too! My hope is that people will read this book and see their experience reflected there in a way that they haven’t found before.

Author Julia Fine, woman with long brown hair in a sleeveless grey shirt giving the camera a dark look

The Upstairs House is incredibly real—almost too real. Like a horror story that hits too close to home. I was only somewhat prepared for that. I knew your first book What Should Be Wild was nominated for the Bram Stroker Award—though that felt more literary with bits of horror in it. Meanwhile, The Upstairs House had me at the edge of my seat, terrified at every corner. I’m wondering—did you sit down with the intent of writing horror?

Oh gosh! No, I didn’t specifically sit down to write horror, though retrospectively, it seems that was the only way that it was going to go.

While What Should Be Wild was a riff on fairy tales, and thus intentionally surreal, The Upstairs House takes place very much in the real world. And that made it so much more horrifying.

Oh yeah, you’re in Logan Square. You know that bar that they’re walking past.

I actually walked around looking at Logan Square condos, trying to figure out which kind of building you were writing about.

There is no answer to that, because I lived in two different places while writing it so the one that I’ve created is a combination of the two!

And you included so many innocuous, chilling details, like the neighbor making noise on the roof, the cabin in Wisconsin…. I got physically stressed out when she was waiting for her sister to come on the Blue Line, but it’s delayed. And when she’s trying to find parking at Lincoln Park Zoo, and her mom’s being mean about it. That scene really freaked me out.

Good. I’m glad the tension’s coming through. I mean, if you’ve been to Lincoln Park Zoo on peak hours, you’ve tried to park on Cannon. Everybody’s had that, and with an infant and an overbearing mother that can really put you over the edge.

On top of all that, I think the most horrifying part was Megan’s isolation.

Yes—being the primary caregiver of small children is very challenging. Babies are wonderful, but they’re boring. They don’t give you scintillating conversation.

There’s a part of parenting that necessarily means being separate from the non-parents. I was the first of my close friends and family to have a kid, and at times it could be very isolating. For example at a restaurant, everyone’s at the table, except you because your kid’s running around and you have to follow them. Or at night, at four in the morning, it’s just you and this baby alone when everyone else is asleep. It’s very lonely, even without the hormonal aspects of it, even without conditions like postpartum depression.

It’s normal to feel slightly, or very, depressed after having a kid. You’re sacrificing a lot—your body, your personal free time. They call it “baby blues” for anything that’s not full-on depression, which I think is a ridiculous and patronizing term.

Even people who’ve been trying for years, or have been doing IVF, or have lost babies previously—there’s moments where you wonder, “What have I done to my life?” It’s such a traumatic thing. It’s literal trauma, it’s bodily trauma. There’s an impact there that we don’t necessarily address for new moms in the way that we could, and should.

How did you go about researching postpartum mental health? Any titles you’d recommend?

I did a lot of reading on postpartum psychosis and postpartum depression. I didn’t want to sensationalize anything. I didn’t want it to feel like I was exploiting Megan’s condition or her experiences.

A lot of the cutting-edge research on postpartum psychosis comes out of the UK. In general, other English-speaking countries like the UK and Canada provide much more care and attention to postpartum mothers. There was a BBC audio series of women talking about their experiences with postpartum psychosis. There’s also a website that aggregates information, Action on Post-Partum Psychosis, or APP.

Additionally, I read and listened to women talking about their thought processes. What was going through their heads when they had the big moment that caused them to seek treatment—or caused someone around them to say “Hey, you need treatment.” I wanted the book to reflect what good treatment would look like—which might not necessarily happen in the US like it would in the UK, so I did take some liberties there.

I found that psychosis looks a bit like modernism. Doctors call it a “flight of ideas” where your brain is running from one thing to the next, free associating and jumping around. To me that is—Gertrude Stein, isn’t it? A structure that is built around the idea, as opposed to the other way around. Another example is James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man. It’s sensory impression after sensory impression. In the moment of reading it, you’re not necessarily giving it a rational structure, you’re not necessarily thinking about cause and effect, not until after the fact. Modernism is impressionism in literature, in a way; I would say modernist literature is more like impressionist painting than modernist painting.

So you were able to connect the “theory” behind psychosis to the “theory” behind modernism. How interesting! So is this your “modernist” book?

I guess so!

How did you come to pair these ideas with Margaret Wise Brown? 

When your whole world changes so drastically—when you have your first baby—there’s a sense of the uncanny. There’s a question of what is normal, and what isn’t, and that lends itself really well to Margaret Wise Brown.

Margaret Wise Brown was heavily influenced by modernism. She lived in Greenwich Village during this Bohemian renaissance in the 1930s and ’40s and was really very interested in these new forms of literature. She adored Gertrude Stein. Once you start studying the way she plays with rhythm and punctuation and repetition in her children’s books—the Stein influence is obvious!

For me, it was easy to put Megan’s experience as a new mother up against Margaret’s theoretical framework. So many of us know Margaret Wise Brown through reading to small children, and so it made sense that there would be a motherhood story involved.

At the time I started writing this book, I had a new baby, so I was very preoccupied with new motherhood. I realized that I hadn’t read a ton about the immediate postpartum experience, and what I had read framed the experience as very rosy and cuddly and cozy…which was not my experience at all. Now, clearly my experience was not a negative experience—but I was feeling overwhelmed and just not right, more like a character in a modernist story than the elation we’re told we’re supposed to feel as mothers

I had done some journaling about the postpartum experience, and actually finished drafting most of the-first person narrative. Then I needed to incorporate Margaret somehow, and I had no idea how to do it.

I started by collecting quotes from research and dumping them in the word document, combing through the things about Margaret that are relevant to Megan. It basically was the equivalent of Megan’s doctoral notes. But it’s one thing as a writer to say these things are relevant and another to expect a reader to read a novel and be engaged and invested.

I worked with my editor, Erin Wicks, who had a lot of faith in me. She said, “I know this can be a book—and you need to actually write these sections. You can’t just have these lists!” I had actually already sold the book—I was on a deadline and they were paying me to do this, so I really had to go for it.

How had you initially conceptualized the book?

Early on, I though I would do historical fiction about Margaret Wise Brown, like a biopic. But that turned out to be very hard to do as a novel. A novel you need to make go in certain directions to make a certain point, which is really difficult when you’re just trying to use facts. If I wanted to write a biography, maybe I could have, but I had to improvise. It had to become more than just the Margaret Wise Brown story.

It was challenging because she’s a recent historical figure. There’s only so many liberties I could take writing fiction about her. I did not make up a single person in the Margaret sections—they’re all real people, and some of them are alive today, like her fiancé Pebble Rockefeller. I was trying to do Margaret justice, to make her more than just the author of these kids’ books. I would want Margaret herself to be able read it and feel that it was authentic. It felt like a big responsibility.

The way you wrote Margaret Wise Brown’s love life was intense—and also very scary. Her relationship with Michael Strange, a much-older woman, seemed abusive at times, which you mention was the impression of Margaret’s biographers. Did that contribute to your discomfort writing those sections?

Michael Strange in her day was well-known, and she was well-known because she made herself well-known. She liked being in the spotlight. In the 1930s she was a celebrity and socialite, married to John Barrymore, and then she married again into even more money. She wrote an autobiography and some poems that were not that good. She was a product of her time and her memory hadn’t really lived past it.

As Michael was on the down, Margaret was on the up. Ultimately Margaret is the one who made her mark, and the one that we remember. Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, and her other books are known around the world, and have catapulted her into fame that Michael would be extremely jealous of. But back in the day, nobody knew that Margaret was posthumously going to be this massive best-selling children’s author.

When I read her biography, it felt like a good story—the tension in their mentor/mentee relationship, of whether or not Michael was good for Margaret. Margaret’s friends agreed it was a toxic relationship. While neither woman was perfect, Michael was certainly a bad influence on Margaret’s self-esteem and decision-making, and Margaret wound up losing friends who did not like Michael.

Then again, at a certain point you can’t have Margaret without Michael. She was such an influential part of her life. Margaret was 40 when Michael Strange died, and Margaret died just two years later, at 42. It’s fascinating to look at Goodnight Moon, Runaway Bunny, and Margaret’s other books in the context of what was happening in her personal life. I just couldn’t put it down—I couldn’t let it go. The Upstairs House came from that.

The thread that I saw in fitting these two stories together is the way that parenting a newborn can be a bit like a—toxic or abusive is the wrong word—but it’s a very intense relationship. One second you love them, and one second you hate them. They’re dependent on you. I was looking at those connections.

What advice would you give to someone who’s afraid of potential postpartum mental health issues, or experiencing it right now?

Lean on your support systems. It’s hard to ask for help, especially when society is telling us that as mothers, we should “just know,” that it should just be an innate thing. But that’s not reality. It’s really important to find somebody in your life who you can be honest with, and who is going to see you for what is actually happening. Megan is not honest with anyone, including herself, and that is what gets her into the predicament that she ultimately ends up in.

After having my son, I worked to build these support systems. I thought the second kid would be easier because I now know how to ask for help. And then the pandemic hit. My support networks are still around, even if we can’t see each other physically, but it’s not ideal. It would have been a lot harder had it been my first baby.

It’s been a tough time for all parents with kids in general, but especially new parents. If you have someone in your life that has a new baby, just check in on them. We’re not meant to be doing this all by ourselves.

Also, be gentle on yourself. Knowing that there are going to be really tough moments—but there’s also going to be really wonderful moments as well. Especially with the small kids. This too shall pass—the sleep habits and the breastfeeding—none of it is forever.

I’m sure it feels like forever.

I mean, if you time it like me and you line your kids up right, it could be forever!

Is it true that that you gave birth just a few hours after finishing edits on The Upstairs House?

Yeah, I had literally finished the “first pass” pages—when they show you what the book is actually going to look like and you can make any last-minute changes—the day before. My daughter was three and a half weeks early. Literally the next day she felt “Oh, you’re done, Mom. Okay, here I am!”

It was timed perfectly in terms of the brain space that I had available to give to the book, but obviously the pandemic was not ideal.

That’s a great mission for putting a book out.

Like I said, this book is for somebody who has a kid and is feeling weird about it. I wanted this book to allow them to feel their feelings and allow them to feel however they’re feeling. There’s nothing wrong with you because you aren’t immediately bonding with your baby or you’re not loving changing diapers for your baby at two in the morning. That’s ridiculous. You should never feel that you have to love those things in order to love your child.

That’s a much-needed and powerful message! Are you working on any future books?

The pandemic put a pin in a lot of the work I hoped to get done this year. There will be another book, but I’m not quite ready to talk about it yet.

But you will be on the core staff of Story Studio!

Yes! I’m joining the cohort for 2021–2023 of core faculty there, so I’ll be teaching classes and helping with curriculum and available for manuscript consultations. I’ve been working with Story Studio for a while in person, and for the past few months virtually. It’s exciting to take on a larger role there.

Good! And your specialization is going to be genre?

When they pitched it to me, they said it was going to be genre-ish. That’s perfect for me, since I’m not the person who’d write a beat-for-beat cozy mystery novel. Rather, I’m interested in how you can play with genre and reader expectation. I’ve taught several classes for Story Studio, as well as at Catapult, about how to use genre to your advantage as a writer.

That’s super exciting. That’s such a great group of people you’re there with.

Yeah, it’s going to be a very nice team!

For a bad year, a lot of good things happened, eh?

Yeah, I mean 2021, it can’t go anywhere but up, right?

The Upstairs House will be available February 23, 2021.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *