What inspired you to write The Underside of Joy?
I had a vision of a young woman, curled up in bed under a blanket, feeling that she’d once had everything she’d ever wanted and now she’d lost it all. I didn’t know anything else about her, so I wrote to find out her story.
Since you're a mom and a stepmom and you have a mom and a stepmom, how much of the story and characters are based on your own life?
My situation was very different from Ella’s story or Paige’s story. My stepdaughters’ mom has always been in their lives, and I’ve always been in my sons’ lives. None of these characters are thinly disguised people from my own life.
But I did pour my own emotional truth into this story. I know what it’s like to lose someone I love suddenly. Like most of us, I’ve felt like I was drowning in grief. I know how it feels to share my kids and stepkids with other women who also love them. And I definitely tapped into some of my own mommy moments with the kids…everyone has a poop in the crib story, right?
Do you relate more to Ella, the stepmom, or to Paige, the biological mom?
I relate more to Ella. I liked her right away and grew to love her. She obviously loved Annie and Zach and Joe. She wasn’t perfect, but she wasn’t trying to be. I wanted to traipse through the woods with her or play in her garden with the kids and Callie. At times she frustrated me, but I forgave her and loved her despite her flaws, and respected her for her best intentions.
Paige intimidated me at first. She walked onto the scene, and I thought, Whoa. Who does she think she is? She was so put together and confident, and then there was the whole flawless beauty thing that was hard to get past. All that was small stuff when I realized her intentions with Annie and Zach. But as I uncovered more of her story, I grew to understand her, and my heart went out to her too.
What does being a mother mean to you?
It means so much to me that I had to write an entire novel about it! But here’s a condensed version: Being a mother is the single most wonderful, rewarding, difficult, fun, challenging, self-sacrificing, fulfilling, frustrating, consuming, exhausting, emotionally draining, thrilling, loving, heartbreaking, joyful experience of my life.
What message do you hope readers will get from your novel?
I get asked this quite a bit, and it’s a good question. But I really don’t have one message I’m hoping to get across. Readers take away different feelings and realizations, depending on their experiences. Something that kept hitting me as I was writing it is that everyone has a story. It’s so easy to judge people if you don’t understand their history. I didn’t set out to say that, specifically, but the process of writing this novel, of asking the questions, revealed that to me in a deeper more tangible way.
What do you like the most about the publishing process? What has been a challenge?
I love hearing from readers. They have been extremely kind and generous, and their feedback means a great deal to me. We lead such busy lives. Yet, people take the time to read the book and write me? And go to readings? And spread the word about my novel? I’ve been in a constant state of gratitude.
The challenge is that there’s a ton to do in the months surrounding the book launch. I had no idea how much. And it’s easy to become the obsessive mom, hovering over your book every step of the way. I’ve had to learn to focus on what I can do, to let go of what I can’t. Now I leave some of the obsessing to my little sister, Suzanne, who will call me if something pops up on Google that she thinks I need to know!
What are you working on now?
A novel about a young American artist who visits her father, a doctor working in Saudi Arabia. Things do not go smoothly.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know about you or your book?
It took me a ridiculously LONG time to finally get a novel published. We’re talking decades. But The Underside of Joy will be published in sixteen languages. I just got word that it will even be translated into Slovenian. (My grandmother would be so proud.) So, I guess I’d like your readers to know this: If you have a dream, don’t give up. Keep going. Even if it takes a ridiculously LONG time!
Thanks for answering our questions, Seré!