Write On, Wednesday: Helen Klein Ross on her astonishing debut, WHAT WAS MINE, motherhood, poetry, China, & so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Absolutely mesmerizing, astonishing, and emotionally riveting. I couldn’t put WHAT WAS MINE down. Cover Image - WHAT WAS MINE

It’s one of those horrific ‘daydreams’ all parents have, they turn their back for just one second and—poof—their precious child (or baby) is missing. In that sense, it’s a harrowing story and so I struggle saying WHAT WAS MINE was an ‘amazing’ book about infant abduction? But it is.

The chapters are short, filled with complex emotion and gentle prose. It’s women’s fiction meets psych suspense meets thriller…and one of my favorite styles of books, hands down.

Join me and author Helen Klein Ross as we chat about her debut fiction.

Leslie Lindsay: Helen, it’s such a joy having you here. Thank you! I have to admit that I picked up WHAT WAS MINE because I am working on a similar theme in one of my works-in-progress. That was my reading motivation, but what was your writing inspiration, what was haunting you enough to bring you to the page?

 Helen Klein Ross: Thanks for inviting me, Leslie. And thanks for reading and recommending the book. As you know from your research, there are plenty of real life stories about kidnappings. As I was writing this book, I sometimes got links from people who assumed I was writing a “true tale.”  But the novel came out of my own deep-seated fear of having my own babies kidnapped. I raised two girls in New York City and being with them on a crowded bus or busy sidewalk, I’d think how easy it would be for someone to make off with them. I was always kidnapping my kids in my mind, neurotically anticipating how it might be done and by doing so, hoping to prevent it. It worked, ha! My daughters are safely in their late twenties now. Clearly, I was writing this novel decades before I sat down at the keyboard.

L.L.: I understand the impetus to WHAT WAS MINE began as a short-story. What was it like in short-story form and what changes did you have to make to turn it into a full-blown  novel? 

Helen Klein Ross: What Was Mine started out as a story I sent to Atlantic Monthly in 2005. Michael Curtis, who was then fiction editor, responded with a note I still have (this was when mail required actual stamps) saying that the piece seemed to him “a gravely compressed novel rather than a short story.” I wasn’t happy when I got his letter, of course, but I’m grateful to him now. It got me thinking: how could I expand the story into a novel? In my story, the protagonist doesn’t keep the baby for more than a few hours. She takes her to a park, then leaves her in a picnic area crowded with mothers and children, where she knows the baby will be immediately found. But, what if she kept her? How would that work? How could a normal person get away with something like that? And, how was it the baby was alone in the cart in the first place? And what about the birth parents? How would they go on after such trauma? More and more questions produced more and more pages and soon I had a huge, rambling world too big to be contained in a story. The one thing I kept from the story was its title “Baby Drive,” the title of the fictional book that plays a role in the plot.

L.L.: The idea of a female abductress—is that even a word?—is a bit unusual. We’re usually talking about men who abduct children and hold them hostage I their basements. But this story is anything but. Lucy Wakefield is an educated, successful woman working for an NYC ad agency. Her daughter isn’t starved of food and water in a cellar, but sent to private school. What, in your opinion is the difference between your character and the seedy folks we hear about in the media?

Helen Klein Ross: Ha, I resist abductress for the same reason I dislike poetess. Lucy is an abductor. She never thinks of herself as one, though, despite the fact that she took someone else’s child. Her motivations aren’t ones that cause men to take children. That she is, like them, a criminal doesn’t even occur to her until she sees a television reporter announce a search for the kidnapper. She thinks of herself as having “taken” a baby, not “kidnapped” one, which is, in part, how she lives with herself after committing such a monstrous act. To me, it’s an example of how we humans rationalize things: using language to detoxify horrendous situations. It’s something I learned about, working in advertising. In a pitch meeting for a company that made weapons, among other things, I first heard the term: collateral damage. I was appalled to find out what that actually meant.

 L.L.: You have this wonderful foray to China in your story. A Chinese nanny helps care for little Mia and then later, we pack our virtual bags and head overseas with your characters. Do you have any connection to China yourself?

Helen Klein Ross: My husband and I were lucky enough to visit China in 1982, just after it opened to individual tourists. We spent six weeks traveling around, despite not being able to speak a word of Chinese, and were amazed by the place: its natural wonders, its ancient architecture, the kindness of strangers who welcomed us. Many things in China were different then than they are now. In 1982, China was a poor country, just coming out of the Cultural Revolution. We–and the things that we carried: our backpacks, our clothes, our shoes, even our brand of soap and toothpaste–were objects of fascination. Crowds gathered around us wherever we went; some had never seen blue eyes before. China had been closed to the West for many years. People were eager to know how we lived. We’ve had the fortune to return to China many times since then and I marvel how, in a mere thirty years, the country has catapulted so far ahead. I used to feel, travelling to China, like I was stepping back in time. Now, each time I go, I feel as if I am stepping into the future. Cell service on subways! Wifi booths!  Clean and free public loos everywhere. Why can’t we figure out how to have these things? Now, visiting China, I sometimes feel like an emigrant from the Olde World, constantly astonished by new sights. And yet, much of Old China still remains. Ancient temples abut glassy skycrapers. The juxtaposition is often breathtaking. 

L.L.: WHAT WAS MINE is told by alternating POVs (12 to be exact), and while that sounds like a lot, it is so well done. How did you make this structural decision? Do you every have characters ‘talk’ to you, demanding to be put into the story?

 Helen Klein Ross: Fifteen, actually, but who’s counting, ha. It took me a long time to figure out structure. This story couldn’t be told by one character because no one character could know the whole story. I first tried a collage approach, assembling emails and newspaper reports, trying my hand at an epistolary approach. But, fun as that was to do, the narrative felt flat. I decided to simply start telling the story from the points of view of those affected by it. I saw that multiple first persons made the pages read urgently, as if people were pulling you aside at a party and saying, Look there’s something I’ve got to tell you!

“Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes joyous, and always riveting, What Was Mine masterfully makes you question where your sympathy should lie at every turn.   I couldn’t put down this fast-paced, fascinating psychological study of motherhood.”  —Lynn Cullen, bestselling author of Mrs. Poe and Twain’s End

L.L.: Ultimately, this is a story about motherhood. What do you hope readers take away from it?

Helen Klein Ross: I’m interested in all the ways there are to be a mother these days. I hope I have written something that conveys what my own motherhood has taught me: there’s no one right way to be a mother. A good mother is one who acts out of love for her child.  Of course, the part of the sentence most salient to this book is the modifier: “her child.”

I also hope the book helps energize discussions about what it means to be a mother, and also employed. One of my first readers was a father who said it opened his eyes to how many decisions mothers in the workforce have to make, decisions he himself never had to consider.

L.L.: I’m so curious about your previous career in advertising. You’ve also written a book about it. Can you speak to that, please?

Helen Klein Ross: Yes, I worked as a creative director at several ad agencies in New York, and that experience really helped in writing a book from multiple points of view. To channel many voices, I felt trained by the years I spent as a copywriter learning how to write convincingly in the voices of multiple brands. My years of exposure to focus groups for products as diverse and dogfood and fashion and pharmaceuticals really helped teach me how to speak in the voice of various characters.

The protagonist in What Was Mine works in an ad agency and the book provides glimpses of making_it1what that is like, but my first novel, Making It: A Novel of Madison Avenue totally immerses the reader in the wild, wacky, wonderful world of advertising, thirty years after Mad Men. That novel is full of stories about what it was like to work in Adland at the end of the 90s, before the business went digital: crazy shoots, unlimited budgets, glam award shows. I think the business was more fun in those days. Survivors still in it seem to agree.

L.L.:  As a writer, I love to read. Good reading will often get my fingers itching for their next session at the keyboard. What inspires you?

Helen Klein Ross: Like you, Leslie, reading good books makes me itchy to write. I just finished Bettyville by George Hodgeman, a sad, funny, beautiful (true) story about a man going home to care for his mother at the end of her life. It makes me want to write memoir. I also audio-read Janice YK Lee’s Expatriates, a riveting story that coincidentally revolves around a kidnapping. Last night, I sadly came to the end of Anne Enright’s The Green Road, a gorgeous, ranging portrait of a big Irish family and that is leading me to reread Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster– dysfunction in families can be a great topic to explore and they do it masterfully.

L.L.: What can we expect next from you?

Helen Klein Ross: I’m very excited about a book I have coming out in September, an anthology of poems with telegrams as titles. It was inspired by a tweet I saw a couple of years ago, linking to a compendium published in 1853 called The Traveler’s Vade Mecum. It was written by a man who wanted to save people time and expense in sending telegrams. He compiled a book of 8466 sentences, anything anyone might want to say in a telegram, and numbered them, so all you’d have to send is a number. The sentences are a wonderful insight into 19th century life, such as Do you know of a person going west soon, who would take a lady under his protection? or I am aboard a steamer ship bound for Paris. I approached poets and asked them to write a poem with a title consisting of a sentence I’d chosen for them. The resulting book of the same name (The Traveler’s Vade Mecum) will be published by Red Hen Press in the Fall.

I’m also at work on my next novel, of course. Like What Was Mine, it will involve a crime committed by someone who doesn’t consider herself a criminal. And–perhaps inspired by Enright and Toibin–it’s a story that will span several generations of a family.

L.L.: What question should I have asked but may have forgotten?

Helen Klein Ross: A lot of people ask me which mother I side with. I don’t have a preconception of how readers should react to the characters. My intention was to create a story that is morally ambiguous and in which the reader might justifiably side with any of the characters. This isn’t a morality tale. I didn’t want to make Lucy out to be purely evil, even though she commits a monstrous deed. Some readers have compared this book to Gone Girl but I see it more as that book in reverse–in Gillian Flynn’s story, a normal woman turns out to be crazy. In What Was Mine, someone we assume is crazy because of what she did, turns out to be normal, or as close to normal, as any of us come.

L.L.: Helen, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. It was just lovely!

Helen Klein Ross: Thanks so much for great questions and the opportunity to share thoughts with your your readers, Leslie. I know you’re working on a novel that also involves
kidnapping. I look forward to reading it!Helen Klein Ross author pic (standing) credit to John Gruen

For more information, or to follow on social media, please see:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Helen Klein Ross is a poet and novelist whose work has appeared in The New YorkerThe Los Angeles TimesThe New York Times, and in The Iowa Review where it won the 2014 Iowa Review award in poetry. She graduated from Cornell University and received an MFA from The New School. Helen lives with her husband in New York City and Salisbury, CT.  To read more, visit http://www.helenkleinross.com.

[Special thanks to M. Harris at Simon & Shuster/Gallery Books. Cover and author images used with permission. Cover of Making It: A Novel of Madison Avenue retrieved from author’s website 3.23.16] 

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