In I’m the one who got away, Andrea Jarrell chronicles the complicated and intertwining relationships that have spanned her life, including the strong bond she has had with her mother since childhood. In advance of the September release, Motherwell had the opportunity to interview Andrea about her debut memoir, including the inspiration for writing the book, her creative process, and what she has planned for the months ahead.
Randi Olin (Full disclaimer, I read this book from cover to cover in one sitting; I couldn’t break away.): Take us through your writing process. Did you know back in 2012 when your essay A Measure of Desire appeared in The New York Times Modern Love column that the seedling for your memoir had been planted, or was it the reverse?
Andrea Jarrell: This book began years ago when I was starting my MFA in writing and literature at Bennington College. I was a fiction writer and thought I was writing a short story collection. Gradually, though, I realized the material I was covering had more power as creative nonfiction. The Modern Love essay was one of those. It was about the early days of marriage and parenting, which coincided with my husband’s new sobriety. When it was published, I didn’t have the shape or full scope of the book yet but I knew this essay wove together many of the threads.
RO: It’s not a coincidence that you are publishing this book after your kids have left the house. Tell us more about your creative life and how writing about your family and children has changed over time. Are there certain rules you adhere to, about particular topics or themes that have become off limits to write about, and if so, why?
AJ: No, it’s not a coincidence. I was 35 and seventh months pregnant with my son, my youngest child, when I quit my full-time job and decided to apply to graduate school. School was my way back into the writing life I’d set aside while establishing my professional career, getting married, and starting my family. The year my son graduated from high school was the year I completed the book and got my deal. There were several little milestones along the way—graduating from Bennington, getting my first pieces published, getting my first grant, starting to gain recognition for my writing—but the fact was not lost on me that it took me all that time to reach my big goal of publishing my first book.
There have been some wonderful essays about how hard it can be to carry on one’s writing career and be a mother. For me, it was kind of the opposite. Once my kids were born I felt even more creatively able and alive. It wasn’t that I was always writing about them but that I began to look at my own growing up from a very different vantage point. As an only child I’d never seen anyone else’s childhood up close. It made me reinterpret some of what I experienced as a kid and that fed my writing.
In terms of how I write about my family, when my children were small they were so much a part of my experience in the world that they were often featured in my essays. My daughter has always been easy for me to write about. She just shows up in my work. This is more about her femaleness than it is about her being my child. I also write about my mother and grandmother a lot. It’s because I’m interested in what it means to live in the world in a female body, sexuality, being desired, my own desires, vulnerability, and danger as a woman. In one of the book’s early chapters, I recount being a young girl with my mother when we witness a woman being harassed on the street by three boys. The woman seems to take control by using her sexual potency—a very different response than what I was learning from my mother.
Before publishing essays about my daughter I’ve shown them to her and she’s always been fine with them. Intuitively, I don’t think my son would like me writing about him in part because he is a more private person. My children are 19 and 22 now and I find myself writing less about them than I used to. I’ve learned never to say never but a sort of curtain has gone up as they’ve become adults. In the future, I can imagine writing about them as the children they once were but not as the adults they now are. They don’t need their mother interpreting them on the page as they are trying to create their own identities.
RO: A version of one of the chapters in the book appeared on Motherwell, A different kind of birth, an essay about facing different phases of life head on, and the difficulties which can come along with that. But it’s also about hope and wonder, despite the grief and sadness that may accompany certain stages. Can you expand on these feelings, how they’ve shaped who you are as a mother and as a daughter, and what you meant when you so beautifully wrote: “I’ve learned again and again that I can’t go over, under or around, and I can’t turn back. No matter how high or rough the surf, going through every stage is where the living is.”
AJ: I’ve never liked the idea that a certain period in one’s life is “the best.” It’s tempting to want to hold on or to recreate especially good times. But that’s a fool’s errand in my opinion. I’d rather delude myself in a different way: thinking that as good as one period may be, what’s next may be just as good. Maybe just in a different way. I’ve written extensively about the melancholy I felt when the time for raising my children and our little family of four was coming to an end. During my daughter’s last couple of years of high school I would be out running errands and suddenly need to race home to be with them because I felt our time slipping away. But I’m too much of an optimist to stay in a wistful place. It’s funny, one of the things I’ve really come to understand through the writing of this book is that my mother taught me how to be an optimist. I hope I’ve passed onto my kids such positive thinking and resilience.
RO: Much of the book centers on the closeness between you and your mother. Even now, you visit her a couple of times a month, making the trip from Maryland to New York City. Can you elaborate on this relationship, the example your mother has set for you?
AJ: My mother is an extraordinary person—the book only scratches the surface of that. I love that she is also interested in writing. I hope one day she will tell her own story. For many years, I measured myself by the way I saw my mother. And I often fell short. It may seem odd to say but I think I truly grew up after I married and had kids. It wasn’t until then that I measured myself by my own standards. It wasn’t until I came into my own could I see how I too possessed many of the attributes I’d always associated with my mother—her curiosity about the world especially as it manifests through traveling, her work ethic and financial independence, and the optimism and resilience I mentioned before. Of course she instilled these things in me but I no longer see them as traits I’ve “borrowed” from her. Now they are as much a part of me as they are of her.
My mother sacrificed so much for me but she also always had a strong sense of being a person in the world with driving interests and passions. I think I’ve carried that over with my own kids. I feel like I am absolutely devoted to them but also that part of what I want to model for them is to pursue one’s dreams. Sometimes that has meant they could not have my undivided attention.
RO: What are your plans for the launch, and tell us, will your mother and your kids be there?
I’ll be doing several book events around the country and my family—husband, kids, mother, in-laws, and extended family will all be there!
Andrea Jarrell’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other popular and literary publications including Motherwell Magazine. Her debut memoir, I’m the One Who Got Away, hits shelves on September 5. Connect with her at www.andrea-jarrell.com.