Some writers make it all look too easy. Take Ayelet Waldman, for example. The first novel she ever wrote -- heck, the first piece of creative writing she ever attempted -- was not only published, but it launched the successful Mommy-Track mystery series. Six years and eight novels later, Waldman is still wowing fans and critics alike while occasionally moving into more serious territory.
Waldman is most famous for her witty Mommy-Track mysteries, which follow the adventures of Juliet Applebaum. Like her creator, Juliet Applebaum is a former-public defender now playing the role of stay-at-home mom Unlike Waldman, Juliet breaks up her days of parenting with a little amateur sleuthing on the side. Waldman explained the origin of her beloved series during an interview at UC Berkley in 2004. "They grew out of this period in my life when I had left the public defender's office and I was staying home; I started writing them to keep myself entertained."
The novel that Waldman essentially wrote on a self-entertaining lark -- Nursery Crimes -- became the first in a series of lighthearted mysteries that clearly struck a chord among the writer's peers. "I think they kind of hit the market at a time that there were a lot of women like me," Waldman explained. "A lot of ex-lawyers, ex-doctors, ex-CEOs of companies who were finding themselves straight from the boardroom to the sandbox and kind of going crazy, so there was a ready audience for people who were not necessarily all that fulfilled by making homemade play-dough, but nonetheless realized where they were gonna be for the next couple of years."
After the initial four books in the Mommy-Track series (which included such tongue-in-cheek titles as The Big Nap and A Playdate With Death), Waldman decided to use her newfound literary success as an opportunity to try her hand at a non-series novel. "The more I wrote," she said, "the more I realized that [writing] was something that I really loved to do and I wanted to do more with it. I wanted to grow as a writer and I wanted to start writing more serious fiction." Daughter's Keeper, a tale that sheds some critical light on the War on Drugs, revealed that she was more than capable of handling heavier subject matter. As Publishers Weekly noted: "Waldman's passion and affection for her characters shines through."
Having broken into a new realm of writing, Waldman then delivered two more installments in the Juliet Applebaum adventures before penning her second non-series novel. Like all of her previous works, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits addresses Waldman's favorite subject, motherhood, but this time around she also touches on the grittier issues of grief and death. Once again, Waldman's foray outside of her popular series has proved a resounding success. In Chelsea Cain's laudatory review in The New York Times, she described Love and Other Impossible Pursuits as "a romantic, shocking and sometimes painful page-turner does the unthinkable: it actually says something new and interesting about women, families and love."
While more Mommy-Track mysteries are likely on the way from the prolific Waldman, the side roads she has taken thus far confirm that she is a writer willing to defy expectations.
Good to Know
Back to Top
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Waldman:
"My children are my inspiration. I write about mothers, and about maternal ambivalence. No matter what I set out to do, it seems, I end up writing about that. My four kids have veto power on anything I write about them, but the only time it's ever been exercised is when my eight-year-old told me never to write about breastfeeding him ever again, as long as he and I both walked the earth."
"My husband and I both edit one another's work. Nothing leaves the house that the other hasn't gone over with a fine-toothed comb.
"Nursery Crimes, my first murder mystery, was the first piece of fiction -- the first piece of creative writing -- I ever did.
"I have no hobbies, other than reading. I love to read, and on my web site I keep a log of every book I read, along with a few words about the book and about what I thought. Check it out at www.ayeletwaldman.com
Back to Top
In the winter of 2006, Ayelet Waldman took some time out to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and inspirations:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Gosh, only one book? I suppose then I'd have to say Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Austen taught me that you can write elegantly and with great humor about traditionally female concerns. Marriage, family, love. And no one has ever tried to shove Austen into a chick-lit ghetto!
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?All of Jane Austen -- When I was in junior high I went through a crazy phase of reading nothing but gothic romances. You know the kind: women in long gowns with heaving bosoms on the cover. One day my librarian handed me a book that looked pretty much like the others. Perhaps the heroine's dress was not as low cut, perhaps she wasn't as busty, but she was wearing a pretty gown so I figured it would be good. The novel was Sense and Sensibility, and as I read it I suddenly realized what real writing was, how language could transform a story, could make it sublime.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens -- I read this before I started law school, and I think everyone who wants to be a lawyer should read this book! It will terrify you -- and hopefully make you more responsible a lawyer!
The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis -- I don't even like chess, and this novel is the most suspenseful thing I've ever read. In fact, I think I'll go reread it!
On Beauty by Zadie Smith -- She's just the perfect writer. Her writing is lush and elegant; her characters are at once insane and very real. If I could be one writer in the world, I'd be Zadie Smith.
A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul -- I know this writer is widely considered to be 1) a genius and 2) sort of cold, but this book I found to be only the former, not at all the latter. The story at once broke my heart and made me laugh. I need humor in a book, it's like the yeast in a loaf of bread. It makes everything rise.
Howards End by E. M. Forster. I reread Forster periodically. I've learned more about writing unlikable characters in a sympathetic way from a single page of Howards End than from piles and piles of other novels.
Patrimony: A True Story by Philip Roth -- As you can see, I love fiction. And I love Roth's fiction. However, there's something about this book -- something about the depiction of Roth's father and their relationship -- that makes it verge on the profound, and overcame my disinclination to reread memoir. I may, by the way, be the only person left in America who has not read A Million Little Pieces.
I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots by Susan Straight -- This is a writer who deserves to sit on top of the bestseller list with every book. Her prose is delightful -- charming andtrue. It can be at once sharp as a blade, and gentle. Her characters are amazing and she inhabits them like few others. I wish I could write like Susan Straight.
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov -- For a long time, whenever I sat down to write I would read a few pages of this, hoping fruitlessly that a bit of his genius and gift with language would rub off on me.
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore -- Everyone who cares about writing should read Lorrie Moore, over and over again. She's another person I read before I begin work. It's amazing how she's at once funny and bitterly sad. And her language. God. Incredible.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Heathers is my favorite movie of all time. As a goobery, geeky, unpopular girl, this farce about the horrors that befall a group of mean, popular girls makes me absolutely shiver with delight!
I cannot watch Four Weddings and a Funeral without weeping like a baby. I'm waiting for my daughter to be old enough to watch it with me. It's all those "buggers" and "f**ks" in the beginning that make me think we need to wait a year or so.
Twelve Angry Men taught me so more about jury trials than I'm even comfortable admitting, as a former public defender. It's an amazing film.
Rushmore is a perfect movie. My favorite thing? The titles. "October." "January." I can't explain why those are so funny, but they are.
And Say Anything is the best date movie of all time.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like all kinds of music -- except jazz. I just have never gotten into jazz. But I'll listen to anything from Death Cab for Cutie to the Magnetic Fields to Patsy Cline. When I work, however, I listen to a very particular kind of music -- modernist classical music. Steve Reich, Philip Glass. I find that music propulsive -- it keeps my mind of my work and keeps me moving forward.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Novels. From every epoch! I was once in a book club and ended up leaving after we read both volumes of the Lyndon Johnson biography. I mean, great books, right? But I was craving fiction. Right now we'd be reading Paul Auster's new book, Brooklyn Follies. Because that's what I'm reading right now!
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love giving books to kids. We have assembled -- my four kids, my husband and I -- a box with 20 books in it. Each child picked his five favorites. That's the present we give to the new babies in our lives.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have no rituals, but I have a phobia. I hate desks. I write in an armchair or on a couch, with my laptop on my lap. That's probably why I have so many repetitive stress problems!
What are you working on now?
A novel called Winter's End. It's inspired by the experience I had on Oprah last year. So many of the women on the stage with me were so very angry with me, and so many of them seemed so depressed. Frustrated and sad. I couldn't help but feel that I had little to do with either their rage or their sadness. I also realized that that is exactly the person I would have become had I not started writing. Writing saved me when I left my job to be with my kids. It was the distraction I needed, the thing I had that was separate from the kids.
I am writing a novel about the person I might have become had I not found this outlet. It's sort of a Madame Bovary set in Silicon Valley.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I got my start writing murder mysteries. No mounds of rejection letters, but definitely a fear that because that's where I began, I'd never be allowed to write anything else. And, in fact, Daughter's Keeper was rejected 31 times. That's not a misprint. Oy. Even thinking about that period makes my skin crawl.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Ryan Harty. He's got a gorgeous collection of short stories published by the University of Iowa Press, and he's working on a novel that I know is going to be magnificent.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Forget discovery. Think about discipline. Writing is a habit -- a physical habit. You can't wait for the muse -- you must just sit down at the same time every day and do your work. Remember Annie Lamott's fabulous advice: All you need to do is write a sh*tty first draft. That's it. The rest -- good drafts, publication, etc. -- will follow.
Back to Top