By Leslie Lindsay
A terribly haunting and visceral take on the delicate postpartum period, featuring the ghost of children’s author Margaret Wise Brown.
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When I first learned of THE UPSTAIRS HOUSE (Harper, February 2021) by Julia Fine, I knew I had to get my hands on it. Not only does it feature ‘house’ in the title and cover, but it’s surrealistic, feministic, and provocative, melding present-day with the past, a genre-bending exploration of children’s literature, folktale, literature, horror, and more. Truly, THE UPSTAIRS HOUSE is a read unlike any other.
Megan Weiler is home from the hospital after giving birth to a beautiful baby girl, her first child. Her husband, Ben is around, but not near enough, he must travel for work (in this sense, THE UPSTAIRS HOUSE reminds me a bit of Helen Phillips’s THE NEED), leaving Megan alone with infant Clara. Megan is physically exhausted and mentally drained plus, she’s still stewing on that unfinished dissertation, the one about midcentury children’s literature, specifically the life and contribution of Margaret Wise Brown–author of the beloved classic, GOODNIGHT MOON.
THE UPSTAIRS HOUSE vacillates between the present-day (2017) new motherhood, and the 1940s-1950s, the publishing woes and love affair of Margaret Wise Brown and her lesbian lover, the once-socialite and actress, Michael Strange. But it’s also a horror story, in a sense, because Megan is seeing–and interacting–with the ghosts of these women. Here, the reader must suspend reality a bit, but those who are accustomed to speculative fiction will appreciate the dichotomy of this tale.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented—and local Chicagoan—Julia Fine back to the author interview series.
Julia! Welcome back. I am so intrigued with THE UPSTAIRS HOUSE, I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it. What was haunting you—what big question were you seeking answers to?
I started thinking about a postpartum ghost story when my son was born in 2017, and drafted most of the novel when he was about a year old. The experience seemed ripe for psychological horror, and I initially imagined a Rear Window-type situation with a new mom up all night with her baby. Obviously that took a very different turn… Like Megan, my protagonist, I was trying to figure out how much of my old identity I could maintain after becoming a mother. I’ve always been fairly career-oriented, an introvert who needs a lot of alone time, and never someone who felt motherhood to be a calling or “always dreamed of kids” and wanted to make parenting my full-time job. I had a new baby, and I loved him fiercely, but I was also mourning who I’d been and the life I’d had before. I wanted to pay tribute to these conflicting feelings, and I wanted to explore what might happen were a new mother even less comfortable in her new role and given less support.
I had a great support system when my first baby was born: family nearby, an involved partner, no real financial stressors—basically every opportunity to succeed. The transition to parenthood was still the hardest of my life. When I talk to other parents, they generally feel the same way about those first few weeks, but it still feels taboo to admit that occasionally you’ll feel resentment or anger or just gutted by exhaustion and responsibility. Culturally, we need to do better by new parents in so many ways. One of the things I felt like I could do was push this particular conversation forward, and let parents know that these feelings are okay, and they aren’t alone.
Let’s talk a bit about motherhood and the writing/creative life. In some ways, you’re a lot like Megan, your character in THE UPSTAIRS HOUSE. Megan is an academic. She’s working on her dissertation about children’s literature. You have a son and infant daughter, and of course, you’re writing. Am I current in thinking there’s some overlap? And what tips or advice might you give a mother who wants (needs?) to focus on her own mental stimulation while raising kids?
This is such a tough one, and it’s been made so much tougher with Covid. Margaret Wise Brown herself once wrote in one of her journals that in the creative life there are times of receptivity, and times of creativity. I’ve been trying to remind myself that being a parent of small children is a season of my life, and it’s alright if I’m not accomplishing as much as I would like outside of keeping my kids loved and well. I wish I had more tangible advice here! With just one kid, I wrote when he napped, but now that I have two under the age of four and no childcare, scheduling is much more difficult. I’m immensely lucky to have a partner who supports me and makes time for my work, whether it’s handling bedtimes or giving me time on the weekends.
I was particularly enthralled with the descriptions of Margaret Wise Brown’s writing, the *way* she wrote, how children’s literature emerged, why (and when) it became different, focusing on the sounds the words made, rather than pure entertainment or simplicity. I recognized this when I was a young mother reading GOODNIGHT MOON to my kids. It has a sort of lulling, buoyant rhythm. Can you talk about that, please?
Once you know that Margaret Wise Brown was a big fan of Gertrude Stein it seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Margaret was part of a group of progressive educators who pioneered the Here-and-Now style of children’s book, which eschewed “once upon a time” for real world scenarios like “a siren goes whoo whoo” or “here comes the train on the train track”– the kind of thing we’re used to seeing in picture books now but was novel at the time. Margaret came up in this new style, working as a teacher at the Bank Street School, which had a research-based approach to writing for children. They’d test all their books on actual kids and were trying to replicate the way a young child experiences the world through their writing. As she became more successful, Margaret strayed from this more practical, real-world based approach, and sort of straddled the line between the fairy tale and the strictly Here-and-Now book. Her work is a lot more whimsical, has a lot more of a mystical element, than something like Dorothy Kunhardt’s Pat the Bunny.
“Formidable new talent” (San Francisco Chronicle) Julia Fine, author of the “surreally feministic tale” (Family Circle) What Should Be Wild, returns with a provocative meditation on new motherhood—Shirley Jackson meets The Awakening—in which a postpartum woman’s psychological unraveling becomes intertwined with the ghostly appearance of children’s book writer Margaret Wise Brown.
I also enjoyed learning about the various homes and cottages inhabited by Margaret Wise Brown. Homes like Cobble Court in NYC and The Only House in Maine, with the ‘door to nowhere.’ And what more can you tell us about the “Witches Wink?” I found all of these really sparked my imagination. And are they really part of the ‘great green room’ from GOODNIGHT MOON?
The Witch’s Wink was an actual second story door at The Only House (Margaret’s isolated cabin in Vinalhaven, Maine) whose outer staircase had blown away years ago, so it had turned into a door that opened straight onto nothing. There’s a photograph of Margaret leaning out of that door that inspired my book’s cover. She had a very quirky sense of interior design—very fur-centric, very whimsical. Her Maine house didn’t have a refrigerator, so she kept her milk in the well and her wine in a nearby stream.
So much of the great green room as we think of it is really the artist, Clement Hurd’s, concept. Margaret had a notebook with the words for the book, and a vague design concept (a little bunny in bed in a room that grows gradually darker), but Hurd had worked with her before and clearly knew how to capture her aesthetic.
Switching gears to postpartum psychosis (and depression), which are such real and serious—and common occurrences—yet stigma still surrounds. Can you talk about that, please and what resources exist for new moms?
Yes! Postpartum depression is so common! The cultural conversation around PPD is inching forward, thanks to a lot of brave women bringing their experiences into the public eye. Pediatricians in the US now have moms fill out questionnaires when they bring their babies in for those first few check-ups, but as a country we really lag behind much of the rest of the world in the level of support we give new moms right off the bat.
There’s an organization called Postpartum Support International that can connect you to local care providers, support groups, and other resources, that I’d highly recommend. Action on Postpartum Psychosis is another great resource–though UK based, it can help you look for warning signs and risk factors, and offer community during the recovery process.
I think it is so important that we make it clear that there’s no “right way” to feel postpartum. If you miss your old life, if you’re overwhelmed, if you’re in love with your baby, or angry, or scared, or ecstatic—it’s okay to acknowledge all of it. Someone else out there is feeling that way, too, and there are avenues for support.
Julia, this has been so lovely. Thank you! Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Thank you, Leslie. I think this covers so much.
Cover and author image courtesy of Harper and used with permission. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Join her on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagram
For more information, to connect with Julia Fine via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE UPSTAIRS HOUSE, please visit:
Further reading: I referenced this article several times in preparation of this piece. You might find it enjoyable and enlightening as well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Julia Fine is the author of What Should Be Wild, which was shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Superior First Novel Award and the Chicago Review of Books Award. Her second novel, The Upstairs House, is forthcoming from Harper in 2021. She teaches writing in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and children.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir. Her writing has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art was featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal, and CNF in Semicolon Literary Magazine; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available this fall. Leslie has been awarded 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. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Harper and used with permission. Image of Margaret Wise Brown with dog retrieed from the 2017 WSJ article on 11.9.20. Image from the interior of GOODNIGHT MOON retrieved from on 11.9.20. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Join her on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagram]