By Leslie Lindsay
Deliciously dark and juicy psychological drama–a DEBUT–you’ll be talking about long after you turn the last page, the issues and concerns surrounding motherhood, family history, genetics, and more.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
THE PUSH (forthcoming from Pamela Dorman Books/PRH January 5, 2021) is one of those buzzy–OMG–books you’ll devour in one sitting. Is it a conversation-started? You bet. Will have it have you puzzling out your own maternal history–going back generations? Yes, that too. Here, we meet Blythe Connor, a woman whose experience of motherhood is not at all what she imagine. Blythe is determined to be the warm, caring, generous mother she herself never had. Still, she can’t let go of the disturbing, nagging thought that her daughter, Violet is not like other children. Is something ‘off?’ She’s distant, defiant, stubborn, antisocial, angry. Is she dangerous? Is Blythe just exhausted? Is it because Blythe doesn’t have much of a mother figure and her childhood was distorted? And her mother’s childhood, too? Maybe.
Here we examine motherhood in the most jarring, unsetting way, in this propulsive read. And then: the unthinkable. THE PUSH is about nature versus nurture, it’s about outrunning our past, healing our scars. I was completely swept away with this story, but also the implications. Because I have such a soft-spot for psychology, THE PUSH, truly made me think and puzzle through human behavior. The writing might be a little different than expected–it’s told in second-person ‘you,’ which I think heightens the suspense and paranoia, but see for yourself. Overall, the prose is raw and visceral, razor-sharp, literary, and powerful.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Ashley Audrain to the author interview series:
THE PUSH is a searing look at motherhood—both the raw, personal experience and the societal expectations and cultural pressures that surround it. Why did you want to tackle this topic?
I have long been fascinated with motherhood—how society perceives mothers, how they perceive themselves, how motherhood changes women, why women want to be mothers in the first place—and so I always felt this would be the focus of my novel. So many things about motherhood are softened when we talk or write about them. When I became a mother myself, this especially stood out to me in writing and in film—the washed over birth scenes and the idyllic children, the tired but fulfilled mother. I wanted to write from a darker place of motherhood, because it can be very ugly and terrifying at times, even if you are privileged to be raising children in the best of circumstances.
I always want to know story origins: where did the idea of THE PUSH come from?
I started writing the novel when my son was six months old—he had some health challenges and we were in and out of the hospital for a while. The experiencing of dealing with that made me think a lot about the expectations of motherhood: how it will be, how we are meant to feel, who our child will be, what life will look like. While thankfully my experience was nothing like that of my main character, those are the seeds of thinking that grew into THE PUSH. There is a lot of fear in motherhood, despite it being something we’re taught is the most natural role there is. As a writer, I find a lot of satisfaction in exploring our common fears, perhaps as a way of understanding them better in myself. I think a lot of us have flashes of nightmarish thoughts cross our mind as we’re expecting children or raising children, no matter the circumstance, and I found it fascinating to let my mind wander further down that path, considering the “what if” scenarios in the lives of these characters.
The narrative of Blythe’s experience is interwoven with memories of her own childhood, and her mother’s childhood. Why did you decide to explore her family history in this manner, and how did you land on the style, which I love, by-the-way.
It’s hard to understand Blythe without understanding her past, and I wanted to explore the idea of how we learn to mother and what we carry from the women we come from, consciously or not. I experimented quite a bit with the best way to weave this into the narrative—the story of Blythe’s grandmother Etta and her mother Cecilia stands on its own in a way, but I wanted to draw parallels in the experience of all three women as daughters and mothers. I also wanted there to be some ambiguity about how much of her past Blythe knows for sure, how much she was told by her father, and how much she has puzzled together herself—I think this is true of how we all understand our family histories. When we landed on the final format for the backstory of Etta and Cecilia, one of my editors suggested it read like a dark fairytale against Blythe’s present-day narrative; I hope it resonates that way with readers.
As with any story about children behaving badly, THE PUSH touches on the idea of nature vs. nurture – how our personalities are formed and what we owe to each other. What do you think of this age-old question, and how THE PUSH addresses it?
The degree to which both nature and nurture shape a person is something that fascinates me. What makes a person with a loving, positive upbringing behave unconscionably? How does a person with a particularly traumatic childhood completely break the cycle of certain behaviors with their own families? When I hear or read about a person who has committed a serious crime, I always think about their parents: what did they know about their children?
I think the evolving science of inherited trauma is particularly interesting, the way a severe emotional experience can physically alter the cells and behavior of that person’s own children. And of course, raising children now with my partner, the idea of nature and nurture is often on my mind as we see who they’re becoming and how they behave. It’s incredibly interesting to observe. In THE PUSH, we as readers, alongside Blythe, examine how she was inevitably shaped as a mother, and how Violet is being shaped by Blythe—the answers to these questions aren’t clear cut, of course, which I think contributes to the ambiguity in the novel along the way.
Blythe’s expectations of parenthood turn out to be very different from her actual experience. Becoming a mother is not what she thought it would be, and her child is not who she imagined her to be. Though Blythe’s experience is very specific, do you think this is common among parents?
A friend once told me that one of her friends confessed she didn’t like her own child very much—not just because of a particularly tough phase, but because she genuinely didn’t like who she was. I had never heard such a candid feeling expressed by a mother before. There is more and more room in discourse among women to share our feelings more honestly about the failed expectations of motherhood, but there are still taboo truths that few women will share, like regretting the decision to have a child, or not feeling the love they thought they would. I have never met a mother who has said the experience of motherhood was exactly what she expected (or that her children were exactly who she envisioned them to be), and yet motherhood is often discussed in clichés and themes of commonality that we are taught to expect when we have children: “The most important job in the world,” or “The days are long, but the years are short.” What if it feels like the worst job in the world? What if the years feel like decades? Those opinions aren’t a part of the mainstream language around motherhood, but I think a lot of mothers can relate to them.
THE PUSH is also the story of a marriage, and the pressure that parenthood can place on partners. Can you speak a little bit about Blythe and Fox’s relationship in the book, and how it breaks down over time?
When Blythe and Fox begin their relationship as young adults, they each find something specific in one another that fills a need—but with that comes lifelong expectations of each other that neither can uphold for long. Blythe can’t deliver on being the perfect mother who pretends they have a perfect family life, and Fox can’t accept that about her. The resentment that grows in their relationship becomes too much for either of them to bear, arguably before they begin to drown in two very different experiences of heartbreaking grief.
I think an interesting debate about Fox is whether or not he’s a good parent: did he sacrifice his relationship in defense of his daughter? Which role—parent or partner—should be the priority in a family unit? I think balancing those two roles is something a lot of parents in a marriage can relate to, especially after experiencing the ways parenthood inevitably changes a relationship.
“Written with a courage that borders on audacity, and with uncanny emotional and psychological precision, Ashley Audrain’s THE PUSH is a taut, tour-de-force literary thriller that draws you in from the very first pages and plunges you into the most harrowing of journeys: parenthood.”
— Bill Clegg, New York Times bestselling author of Did You Ever Have A Family
Did you do any specific research for THE PUSH, and were there any important takeaways? For example, your epigraph, I completely adore. And now I have to read that book about mothers and rhythm. Can you talk about that, please?
I did most of my research in the later revision stages, when I was conscious of ensuring certain things made sense from a psychological perspective. And at one point I asked a psychologist to read the novel through a lens of mental health sensitivity. I did come across some really interesting papers though, in particular one from 1975 in The American Academy of Child Psychiatry titled “Ghosts in the Nursey”—I think that’s such a compelling metaphor for the relationship between a parent’s own early childhood experience and the treatment of their children. And I found a wonderful quote that became the epigraph in the novel while I was reading about theories on matrilineal relationships. It’s from a book called When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythm by Layne Redmond, about how a woman who is pregnant with a daughter carries the egg cells of her grandchildren inside of her. I love the way this quote represents the foundation of the novel.
There are many moments in the book when Blythe feels like she’s lost her mind, like she’s the only one who can see the truth. Yet to the reader, she never feels like one of those unreliable narrators we’re now so used to seeing in psychological thrillers. How did you manage this delicate balance?
To be honest, I’m not sure! Perhaps it’s because the novel is written as a memoir of sorts in Blythe’s voice, and she addresses the intended reader—her husband—as “you” throughout. This is her side of their story. As readers, this feels quite personal, and we get the sense that she really believes this version of the events—there is nothing disingenuous about her intention, although there is certainly doubt along the way as to what is fact and what is fiction. I also thought it was important that we have a substantial amount of empathy for Blythe and that we relate to her deeply—I didn’t want her to be another trope of a bad mother who can’t be redeemed. I hope readers can see parts of themselves in her along the way.
THE PUSH might be particularly relevant for mothers, but it’s also about all the fears and anxieties that weigh on women in general – and what happens when they aren’t heard or believed. Can you speak to this a little bit, and how it connects to our current moment?
Well, on a broader level, we’re still living in a time when women’s voices are often devalued, ignored, or questioned without merit. We’ve seen this over and over in the way society treats women who speak out publicly, and how issues affecting minority groups of women are often dismissed, rationalized, or underfunded. We are, of course, seeing positive change happening in this respect, but there’s no question this broader societal attitude has an impact on an individual level in the domestic lives of women, in particular minority women, when it might feel like speaking out will be met on deaf ears, or worse.
Being ignored, not believed, or even gaslighted, can be a form of trauma. This idea of the “crazy woman” or the “hysterical mother” has existed for a long time, and it creates fear and silences women, particularly where there is a power imbalance. In THE PUSH, Blythe experiences a form of this from everyone around her: what she believes is inconvenient, unsettling, and has difficult consequences, so the people around her shut her down. They make it her problem, not theirs. There are, of course, impacts on her own mental health because of this, and she is pushed to a place that is hard to come back from.
You’re a former book publicist. What’s it like being on the other side of the desk as a first-time author?
Working in publishing gave me such valuable insight into the publishing process—and has also helped to manage my expectations! I know from being on the other side that it’s a mix of art and science that makes a book work in the market. There’s often huge unpredictability in the publishing industry, which is part of what makes it so exciting. My experience has also given me insight into just how many people it takes to get a novel into the hands of readers—it’s incredible how many efforts have to come together, from copyeditors to book designers to marketing assistants to sales reps in the field, not to mention the editors you work with so closely to shape the book into the best thing it can be. There is so much passion behind the scenes in publishing, and I can really feel that now on the receiving end as an author. Publicists have a particularly exciting role in the process, and it’s hugely satisfying when a well-crafted plan works…but it’s also a tough job as the media landscape changes, and the expectations of everyone involved can be very hard to manage. Especially now. I am grateful for every little bit of publicity for THE PUSH because I know there’s a tireless effort on the other end.
THE PUSH is the ultimate page-turner, easy to devour in one sitting. What are your tips and tricks for cultivating suspense? Are there writers or stories in the thriller genre that you particularly admire?
Thank you. The pace and intensity of the novel is likely influenced by the way in which I wrote and revised: in short blocks of time, often racing against the clock for when I had to get back to my kids. I like to read stories that have short but powerful chapters, ones that make me pause for a moment before I turn to the next page—I think that’s reflected in the structure of THE PUSH. I also did a lot—a lot!—of revising and chopping (at one point, I rewrote about three-quarters of the novel entirely) and this let me focus layer by layer on each character and thread of the story.
I’ve always gravitated towards darker, more psychological stories that explore the contemporary lives of women, especially mothers (which won’t be a surprise!). I was completely rapt as a teenager by then-popular books like White Oleander by Janet Fitch and The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard, more so than traditional thrillers or mysteries. As a reader, I’ve always loved a book that I can’t put down because I want to uncover the “why” of what’s happened, but I also want the writing to be so compelling that I savor each sentence at the same time. Now, there are so many brilliant writers perfecting this kind of suspenseful read: Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, Helen Phillip’s The Need, Marjorie Celonas’ How A Woman Becomes A Lake, and Elizabeth Kay’s Seven Lies are some recent favorites…but I could go on!
What do you hope readers take away from THE PUSH?
I hope THE PUSH is a novel that readers can’t put down, a book they read late into the night—that’s the kind of book I love to discover. I also hope for THE PUSH to be relatable in a way that creates conversation among readers. About the expectations of motherhood, about what we owe our children, about the weight of parenthood on a marriage, and about what happens when we don’t believe women’s truths.
Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #bookstagrammer #alwayswithabook
For more information, to connect with Ashley Audrain via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE PUSH, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
ASHLEY AUDRAIN previously worked as the publicity director of Penguin Books Canada. Prior to Penguin, she worked in public relations. She lives in Toronto, where she and her partner are raising their two young children. The Push is her first novel.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012). Her work has been published in Semicolon Literary Journal: Fall 2020, Pithead Chapel, Family Narrative Project, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, among others. Cover art featured in Up the Staircase Quarterly May 2020; other photography featured in Another Chicago Magazine(ACM) and Brushfire Arts & Literature summer 2020, works of photography short-listed in Manhattan Review; poetry in Coffin Bell Journal in July 2020; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA available from Woodbine House later in 2020. Leslie has been awarded as one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Her “Reader’s Response” was published in the September 2019 issue of Poets & Writers. Leslie is a former child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic and has attended writing classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Northwestern University. She resides in the Chicago area.
~UPDATED, 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA now available from Woodbine House~
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Penguin/Random House/Pamela Dorman Books and used with permission. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #bookstagrammer #alwayswithabook]