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. . . And Baby Makes Two

. . . And Baby Makes Two by Judy Sheehan
Feb 13, 2007 | 336 Pages
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    Feb 13, 2007 | 336 Pages

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    Dec 10, 2008 | 336 Pages

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Author Q&A

A Conversation with Judy Sheehan

. . . And Baby Makes Two ends with Beth’s epilogue. Although Beth had the final word, she still had a few burning questions for the author. What follows is Beth’s conversation with Judy Sheehan.

Beth: You used to be an actress, then you turned into a playwright, and then you turned into a novelist? Are you done changing? And how did all of the theater work affect your novel writing?

Judy Sheehan: When I was in fourth grade and the teacher went around the room asking us all what we wanted to be when we grew up, I said that I wanted to be a writer. But then I got distracted by theater, and it was a really happy distraction, one that I needed. I got to experience great stories and meet memorable characters, and it helped me to think more creatively. But then I woke up one day and said, “Okay, now that’s out of my system,” and I swore that I’d never go on another audition–and I haven’t. Writing a novel was definitely a challenge for me. I had to get used to the idea of painting the whole picture myself. I couldn’t rely on actors, designers, and a good director to complete each scene for me. But in the end, a good story is a good story, so it doesn’t matter what format you’re using to tell it. And I have to say that the theater gave me a tremendous sense of discipline. I got used to meeting really tough deadlines, as well as taking input and criticism from everyone from the cast to the props managers. Everyone has an opinion, so it’s good to have a thick skin. Am I done changing? I doubt it. I’m not sure that we’re ever done changing. But I promise that I’m done with acting. That chapter is over for me.

B: Were you really part of the original company of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding off-Broadway? What was it like? Was it the coolest thing you’ve ever done?

JS: Tony n’ Tina was a fun experience; it was very weird, and it was also hard work. Beth, imagine doing the same show, same story, same everything for two years. That’s what I did, and by the end, it was hard to keep it fresh and exciting. Still, it was interesting to see a silly pet project launched by a couple of my college friends explode into a big hit. And now I have to admit that I never believed that the show would become any kind of hit. We used to hold weekend workshops, inviting our friends as the audience/wedding guests. When the people in charge of the show announced that they would open the show for a six-week run, I sighed and thought that this was a big mistake: we would run out of friends! All these years later, that six-week run is still going strong. So that shows you how little I knew. As cool as it sounds, Tony n’ Tina was not the coolest thing I ever did. After all, I was just a minor player in a theatrical event that was bigger than all of us. As it became more and more successful, it changed a lot of the relationships that built it. Sometimes there was more drama behind the scenes than the audience ever got to see.
I’ll always be thankful that the show allowed me to act full-time and figure out that acting was not for me. It also allowed me to experience one of the coolest things I ever did: I visited with Eugene Ionesco in his home in Paris. The Tony n’ Tina company owned the rights to some children’s stories that he had written, and I was there to discuss theatrical adaptations of the stories. That ranks pretty high on my list of cool things that I’ve done.

B: I have to write for school, and it’s hard to get started. How do you get started? If you don’t have a teacher, how do you know if your writing is any good?

JS: You’re absolutely right–it’s really hard to get started. It’s even harder to stay with it, and almost impossible to complete your work. While I was writing this book, I was also living life as a single mother with a very busy full-time job. I would write at my little laptop computer at night, after my daughter went to bed. This sounds kind of sad, but you have to understand that I’m a single mom and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had gone off the air, so there was nothing left for me to do, at least not then. So, I got to work. You have to really want to start and want to finish. I wrote so many drafts of this book, I actually lost count. At one point, I was working on a big overhaul to the plot, but my job became really busy and the holidays were upon us. For a few weeks there, I didn’t write a word, and it scared me a lot. I figured that I’d lose momentum and never finish the book. Anne Lamott, the supremely gifted writer, once said, “No one will care as much as you do if you don’t get your writing done.” That sentence absolutely haunted me. I knew that the world wasn’t holding its breath for a debut novel by Judy Sheehan. But I knew that this mattered to me. And Buffy wasn’t coming back to distract me further. So I got back to work. It’s impossible for you to know if the writing is good, medium, or really stinky. All you can do is your best. So you need to show it to people that you can trust. I was lucky in that I had my literary agents, Dan Lazar and Simon Lipskar of Writers House, to tell me the truth about my work. And here is a key factor: I listened to them. I knew that I had nothing to lose if I at least tried on their advice. After all these were very smart guys who knew what they were doing. They became my teachers.

B: I thought that you made my grandfather, Howard, way overreact to the adoption in the novel. Why did you do that?

JS: Hey, I’m sorry if that hurt your feelings, but I had to do it. Someone had to voice all of the objections that a potential single mother faces. And Howard was the perfect candidate to own all of that. After all, he loved his daughter and sincerely felt that he needed to protect her from a dreadful mistake. He knew that he had to be completely honest and direct with her. The fact that Jane kept going forward with the adoption, even after that rather blistering speech from her father, means that she really owned this decision fully. Her father’s words presented a huge obstacle for her and she fought her way past them. Good for her. Also, my job was to put Jane in trouble and give her lots of conflicts to work out. She was my central character, and if I protected her from scenes like that, I’d be writing a very dull book. Whenever I put Jane in a really difficult situation, I knew that I was making the story better. And let’s all applaud Howard for coming around at the end of the story and giving his blessing. See? Even Howard got to grow up a little.

B: Did you know how everything would work out, or did we surprise you when you were writing us?

JS: I thought I knew what would happen. I was writing from an outline, and yes, from a lot of my own experiences. The outline served to keep me from getting stuck. If I didn’t know what was supposed to happen next, I would turn to the outline for a little guidance. But I didn’t stick to that outline very strictly, so it didn’t take long for you, Jane, Peter, and everyone else to become your own selves and give me plenty of surprises. For example, I didn’t realize how Irish-Catholic Jane’s family life was going to be. Looking back now, it fills in a lot of blanks for Jane’s perspective on the world, but it didn’t appear in the outline at all. Also, I had no idea that you, Beth, were going to get the last word in this story. I didn’t foresee the big fight about the suburbs vs. the city for Jane and Peter. And I was absolutely flabbergasted when Bianca revealed Jane’s adoption plans to Howard. I didn’t know that was going to happen until I was typing the words. Days like those were a lot of fun for me.

B: You adopted a baby girl from China yourself, didn’t you? How much of what happens to me and to my mom came from your own experience?

JS: That’s the question that everyone asks me, so let’s put it all on the table. Yes, I did adopt my daughter from China, and yes, it did inspire the story for this book. So yes, the heart of the book is mine, all mine. But of course I played with the particulars of my story to develop it into a full-fledged novel. Jane has different experiences than I did. Sometimes, I would steal aspects of friends’ lives, and sometimes I made things up out of thin air. Even though Jane got to do a number of things that I did, Jane is not me. And the people around her are really and truly fictional characters. Remember, these characters took on a life of their own as I was writing them and gave me a lot of surprises. Of course, no one is ever going to believe me, but this book is not my memoir. My memoir would have to include lots of mundane afternoons of laundry, diaper changing and making mac and cheese.

B: What do you think the pluses of adoption are?

JS: There are more pluses to adoption than I could ever name, but I’ll offer a few highlights. Adopting my daughter was the best–and by the way, the coolest thing–I ever did. While I was working on the adoption paperwork, I was conscious of my choice to become a parent and how easily I could pull the plug on the whole operation right up until the last minute. I really owned this decision. As a result, my daughter is a child who was really, really wanted–by me. Sometimes, I look at her and realize how far away she was born, and I’m overwhelmed with appreciation that she’s my kid. Since we don’t have any genetics in common, adoption has really freed me up to let her be herself. If she’s good at music (which she is) or at drawing (which she is), it’s her own gift, not something that she got from “my side of the family.” I don’t find myself looking for more Sheehan in her. I’m really free to let her be herself.

B: Are you adopted and did you grow up with siblings? Do you think being an only child is a plus or a minus?

JS: Oh, Beth. I am the tenth of twelve children. Tenth of twelve. That’s a lot of siblings. And we’re all biological kids: none of us was adopted. While it’s great to have so many personalities in one family, I personally think that twelve is too many. No matter how devoted a parent may be, it goes against the laws of physics to say that there could be enough time for all twelve children. And, by the way, our house contained twelve kids, two parents, and just one bathroom. Now that’s crazy! Sometimes I feel guilty that my daughter is an only child. Maybe she should have at least one sibling. But one of the things that I say to her is, “No one gets everything. You get what you get, so don’t get upset.” The minuses of being an only child may get counterbalanced by the attention and time she gets from me. And she’ll never have to wait quite so long to get in the bathroom.

B: How did you feel when you first met your daughter? Was it like how my mom, Jane, says she felt about me?

JS: Jane and I definitely shared this experience, because seeing my daughter for the first time was the purest happiness I’ve ever known. When I wrote scenes like that one, I felt like a Method actor/ writer because I’d be sitting at my keyboard crying as I relived some of the most emotional aspects of my journey to China. When I wrote about Jane seeing her daughter’s face for the first time, I floated through the rest of the day as if I had just seen my own child for the first time too. In the book, I make a reference to West Side Story, and the way that Tony and Maria can’t see anyone else in the room because they’re so in love with each other. That’s exactly how I felt. Sometimes I worry that my daughter will grow up to resent how I pillaged this intimate experience for a book. I hope that she won’t feel that way. I hope that she’ll see that this was a story that needed telling, and I hope that we’ll both know that it helped others to really grasp the extreme joy associated with adoption.

B: Why do you think my mom decided to adopt me instead of having in vitro or one of those new things doctors do?

JS: I have a lot of respect for the women who undergo the many infertility treatments out there. They’re physically fighting for the child that is meant to be theirs. But, since I got to create Jane, I got to decide what child was meant to be hers. And that was you, Beth. You were meant to be Jane’s daughter. Beyond that, I think that Jane might feel that she is sidestepping a certain amount of criticism by exercising the Dan Quayle Was Right idea. Jane decides that two parents are better than one, and that one parent is better than zero. By adopting a child with zero parents, she can satisfy her very deep need to be a mother and make that child’s life at least somewhat better. I just can’t picture Jane going through in vitro or any other path to motherhood. Once she sees the photo of the little girl in the red bathing suit, she is drawn to China and to you, Beth.

B: My mom makes me go to Mandarin lessons now that I’m older. Do you make your daughter go? How much do you make your daughter study Chinese traditions, and does she like it?

JS: Ha ha ha. As long as your mom is in charge of you, you’ll be taking Mandarin lessons and learning all about your Chinese heritage, like it or not. I’m happy to say that my daughter goes to a school that is about 96 percent Chinese and that she has studied some Mandarin and some Chinese dance. The interesting thing here is that some of her peers refused to believe that she was born in China because she isn’t as fluent in any Chinese language as they are. She is Chinese-American, with an emphasis on the American. Sometimes she uses Irish expressions that I got from my parents or grandparents, and it makes me realize what a unique little person she is becoming. It’s important for her to know the reality of her background– where she came from and how she came to be here with me. But it’s a constant reminder that I am not really at the wheel of control here. She takes in all of these influences and ideas, shakes them around, and turns them into her one-of-a-kind personality. She is quite a girl. You’d like her.

B: What’s next? Are you going to write about us some more?

JS: What, you have more to say?

My next book is entitled Women in Hats, and it’s set in the world of the theater. It’s a mother-daughter story, where both are grown-ups. Mom is a famous actress, a former TV sitcom mom. She has a difficult relationship with her daughter, who is a theater director off-off-Broadway. The daughter gets her big break to direct a Broadway play, but it will star her mother. Ouch. As for writing more about you, Beth, my best answer is maybe. I have an idea for a sequel to this story, which would focus on you, Ariel, and Grace at age thirteen. Jane and Peter are finally going to
get married, and you three girls are sort of thrown together into a forced friendship while you attend a Chinatown summer school. It’s about first love, lasting love, friendship, and figuring out who you are. Wow, that sounds like a big book. I’d better get to work on it right now.

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