I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Tova Mirvis about her new book, “Visible City,” the all-consuming nature of parenting, and the freedom that comes with accepting imperfection.
In “Visible City,” unlike your previous novels, Judaism isn’t a central theme. What took its place in this book?
To write a novel, (especially to write a novel while you have three kids!) you have to be really obsessed and consumed by a subject; it has to pull at you all the time. With my first two novels, “The Ladies Auxiliary” and “The Outside World,” I wanted to explore issues of belief and doubt, and the tensions between community and individuality, tradition and modernity. On a personal note, those books were a way for me to grapple with my own upbringing and life as an Orthodox Jew.
When I started writing “Visible City,” those themes were not at the forefront of my mind. Rather, what kept me writing and thinking for so many years, was the question of how we imagine other people’s lives, how we create narratives about other people we watch or know just casually, and then, what this tells us about our own lives.
This idea is so apt right now, as we live with the complicated feelings that social media breeds–when we compare our parenting or our marriage or our work to those carefully crafted lives that people present on Facebook and Instagram, etc.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way we imagine other people’s lives–and how this reveals our own longings and insecurities and desires. I feel like motherhood especially invites us to look at other people, usually with self-doubt. When I was a young mother in Manhattan, I knew only one thing for certain: whatever way I was doing it was the wrong way. Was I not singing enough songs? Was I not playing enough games? Worst of all, was I not enjoying this enough? I heard that constant undermining, self-defeating voice: wrong, wrong, wrong. And this was before the advent of Facebook, when from the comfort of my own home, I could have tortured myself with the fact that we didn’t bake cookies today! We didn’t finger paint!
Now my kids are older, ages 15, 11 and 6, that voice has quieted. Yes, I am doing some things wrong, and yes I am doing some things right, and yes mistakes have been made, and yet even so, my kids are okay. That notion of perfection has long ago been shattered and thankfully so–there is a lot of freedom in imperfection.
In “Visible City,” I gave to [the character] Nina this stew of insecurity, along with the simultaneous wish to free herself from that ever-present voice. I also gave to her the way we appoint other mothers–in Nina’s case, her friend Wendy–as the judges of our own selves, the people we both idealize and hate. I think that at the outset of the novel Nina assaults herself with the notion that everyone is happier, better, than she is, but one of the things she learns over the course of the book is that all these façades are illusions.
And it’s not just about the comparison to other mothers, right? It’s about marriages, too. We compare ours to that of people we know, but really, we should just focus inward. Parenting takes quite a toll on a romantic partnership…
I wanted to write about marriage as honestly as I could. At one point [the character] Nina is thinking about her marriage and describes how she and her husband are like the co-owners of a day care center. So much work goes into parenting, it is so thoroughly exhausting and so ravaging. Even sex becomes one more thing to check off on the ever-present to do list. And yet, that busyness also serves, however paradoxically, as a protectant of sorts. There is so little time to talk–you don’t have to worry if you don’t have that much to say to one another.
The older couple in my novel, Leon and Claudia, are grappling with what is left after having raised their child. After all these years it’s just the two of them again, and there is nowhere to hide. All those problems that were pushed to the side during the hard working years of parenting, and those problems are still there, waiting for them.
Speaking of the hard working years of parenting, how did you manage yours, while parenting young children? When your kids were small, what did a day-in-the-life look like? What does it look like now?
Writing novels while raising children is always challenge. On one hand, I am grateful for the flexibility of writing; I could be there on the seemingly endless snow days and sick days. But at the same time, that flexibility makes it very hard to get work done. It’s rare to have an emergency with a novel, rare for me to be able to say, “I’m sorry my child is vomiting but I just can’t get out of this scene I’m in the middle of right now.” And yet writing requires that kind of single-minded focus. It’s not just an issue of finding time in the day but forging space in your head.
When my children were very young, I had a part-time babysitter and I learned to be very disciplined. I also learned to write in the spare scraps of time, to do one small piece of the book. I had to let go of the idea that I needed open-ended chunks of time in order to write. I had to get used to the fact that there would always be a sense of undoneness.
Now that my children are older–15, 11, and 6–I write during school hours. But even now, there are always breaks, always days off. I’m more used to that feeling of work being put on hold though. I know there will be weeks when I get a lot of writing done and weeks when I get very little done. But the disruption doesn’t scare me as much. I know that I will always go back to my writing.
Fiction writing for me is about this–to see the world as it exists through the eyes of my character, to attempt at least to shed our own selves, to vault out of our own constraints and really experience someone else.
And I think the same thing is asked of us as parents: can I see my child not as a projection of my desires and hopes but really see who this child–this separate being–is. It’s hard to do, and the irony is that the more comfortable we are with ourselves, the less entangled we are inside our own inner knots, the more we can really see someone else.
Ok, Tova Mirvis. What makes you kvell these days?
Oh, so many things. My children of course: that my 15-year-old son, who started out as a 32 week, three pound preemie, is in ninth grade and is our in-house tech expert. That my 11-year-old son walks to school by himself every morning and has discovered a love for reading. I kvell watching my six year old daughter with her wild mass of blond hair, belt out “Let It Go.” And I’m kvelling too about new possibilities for myself–after coming through a few very hard years, I feel like I am on the other side, and am excited about what comes next.
In celebration of the publication of Visible City, Tova will be reading in New York City at the Upper West Side Barnes and Noble on Monday March 24 at 7:00 pm. On March 31, she’ll be reading at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn at 7:30, with Lara Vapnyar, author of the newly released “The Scent of Pine.” Check out her website for more book tour dates and buy her new book here.