One True Thing

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Q&A with Author Meg Waite Clayton: The Four Ms. Bradwells

Novel explores the coming of age in middle age.

Meg Waite Clayton's newest novel, The Four Ms. Bradwells, is a great story about the power of friendship among women. Here's more from Meg:

Jennifer Haupt: How have your relationships been an inspiration for this book? Have you always had a close group of gal pals?

Meg Waite Clayton: Thank you, Jennifer. It's delightful to have any reader see the friendship portrayed in The Four Ms. Bradwells as the powerful force I've found my own friendships to be, but it's especially gratifying to be characterized as "great story" by someone who does such a terrific job of bringing true stories alive on the page, like you do. Tim O'Brien says fiction is for getting at the truth "when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth," but that only works if the fiction is well done.

I have four brothers, and I started life as a pretty serious tomboy. But I've been blessed with great friends--male and female--throughout my life. I now have a great network of gal-pal writers, especially Brenda Rickman Vantrease. And I am really grateful to my friend and agent, Marly Rusoff, for guiding me to Ballantine. My publishing friends--and they are friends as well as colleagues; Libby McGuire does an amazing job of making a business also a place of warmth--quite literally changed my life.

All those friendships provide the emotional heart of The Four Ms. Bradwells, but the inspiration for it (to the extent writing is "inspired") comes from my law school friends.

The novel is dedicated to "the hot tub gang," a great group of women from the University of Michigan Law School class of 1984. Let's just say we're not admitting to anything about the origin of the nickname, but if any of us ever gets nominated to the Supreme Court...

It's also dedicated to "the women of Division Street"--the women I lived with in Ann Arbor. Like the Ms. Bradwells, four of us shared a house with a ratty old couch on the porch our third year of law school: Darby Bayliss, Sherri Young, Jennifer Belt DuChene, and me.

Like Mia and Betts, Jenn and I lived in Room N-32 of the Law Quad our first year. She remains my best girlfriend in the world despite the thousands of miles that have separated us for all the intervening twenty-some years. Jenn is not Betts, but she shares Betts's quality of being able to make people laugh. It's from her that I learned how to laugh at myself.

There is nothing quite like friends with whom you've shared lives for decades, is there?

JH: Like the four Ms. Bradwells, you were an attorney before becoming an author. What inspired you to change careers? When did you know you'd made the right choice?

MWC: For me, starting to write was a small act of ... which is it? sanity or insanity? ... that I came to in my 30s. Growing up (isn't that where most dreams start?), I was a huge reader, but I thought writing novels meant being able to leap tall literary buildings in single bounds. The professional adults I knew were businessmen; the "ladies" were moms and teachers and nuns. Even a girl going to law school was a stretch, but less of one. The law wasn't my dream, but it was something I thought I could do well enough.

My husband, Mac, was the first adult to whom I admitted my childhood dream to write novels-and I only did so after some serious arm-twisting by him. His response, without hesitation, was, "How will you ever know if you can do it if you don't give it a try?"

(Yes, Mac is definitely a keeper.)

There were certainly times along the way when I wondered what I was doing. It took me ten years to get my first novel published-and that was a long ten years. When I started writing, I had a two-year-old and a newborn, which was, like writing, both a challenge and a joy. In parenting and in writing, I had no idea what I was doing. Like my writer-mom characters in The Wednesday Sisters, I just learned as fast as I could as I went along.

I never wanted to go back to the law, though. I feel I'm doing something that matters, that can help others if I do it well. And I enjoy writing even when it isn't going as smoothly as I'd like, which it doesn't always.

JH: In your blog, you talk about how important your writing friends have been in supporting your development as a novelist. How important has writer's karma-the concept of giving back-been in your writing life?

MWC: Very. I get more out of the giving back than anyone does. It's a lovely thing, to feel you are doing some good for someone else. And so many people supported me along the way; I love to pay that forward.

One of the things I've found is that writers are by and large amazingly generous, probably because most of us realize that as hard as we've worked to get published, we wouldn't be on bookstore shelves without a little luck landing on our paths as well. If I can help others find their luck, that's lucky for me.

JH: Do you have a favorite character you've created in one of your novels?

MWC: If I had to choose only one of the characters in my published novels, I suppose it would probably be Ginger in The Four Ms. Bradwells. She's not always the most likable, but she is the most in need of the support of friends. I'd hate to abandon her.

Or maybe Kath, in The Wednesday Sisters, or Emma in The Language of Light--both, I suppose, for the same reason: because they are the most in need of friendship. Or maybe...

I have great compassion for all my characters--even those who are pretty despicable. I think we're all shaped to some extent by things beyond our control. Given different experiences, we would all be different people. So I try to understand all my characters, and I try to love them. I suppose in doing so I'm embracing parts of myself that aren't always lovable.


JH: What might people find surprising about your writing process?

MWC: That English was my weakness in school. I loved to read, but found the lack of clear answers in English class disconcerting. I much preferred the certainty of algebra. So I have no formal training in fiction writing. I majored in psychology and history in college, then went to law school.

People are often surprised, too, that for me writing is much more about discipline than it is about "magic" or "inspiration." It sounds boring, but I sit down and write whether I feel like it or not. The hardest thing for me is to get started. I fear the blank page. So my rule for myself when I'm writing first draft is 2,000 words or 2:00. If I have 2,000 words by 10:30 in the morning, I can eat bonbons and read Jane Austen all the rest of the day--although if I have 2,000 words by 10:30, I am staying glued to that chair for as long as the literary gods choose to smile on me!

And everyone would be surprised to see what a difference my editor, Caitlin Alexander makes. Fortunately for me, she saves me from anyone seeing that!

JH: What is the One True Thing you learned from the Bradwells?

MWC: I love the way you phrase this question, Jennifer, because one of the things I love about writing is that it allows me to spend my days learning about the world, and about others, and about myself.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned in writing The Four Ms. Bradwells was that, as Martin Luther King said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter"--but they can also begin again the day we speak. It can be really tough to stand up for things that aren't universally embraced, or admit things we've done or even things that have happened to us that we had no ability to stop. But change starts with the naming aloud of what needs to change.

One of the things I've begun doing in a more concerted way since I began writing The Four Ms. Bradwells has been to get more politically involved. I pulled the Hillary wagon around my local farmer's market. I renewed long-fallow support for Emily's List, and discovered Emerge. Both aim to bring more women into political office, and get more women to vote.

And I've begun writing shorter pieces about the challenges women face, to help raise awareness. It's surprising how few people realize, for example, the very low numbers of women in Congress and the Senate, and the really bleak percentages of women in prominent business roles despite the progress of women in professional schools. It's surprising that even in literature-which doesn't seem it should be gender-skewed-women have only begun to share in the major literary awards. But if you step back and recognize that the archetype "great American novel" was shaped by Mellville, Hemingway, and Roth, it's easier to understand. You have to look long and hard to find a strong female characters in their novels.

JH: What's next for you?

MWC: I'm working on a sequel of sorts to my second novel, The Wednesday Sisters. It follows three of the daughters of the Wednesday Sisters as they take one of the sister's ashes to the England Lake District home of Beatrix Potter to scatter them. There is a sneak peek of the first chapter at the back of The Four Ms. Bradwells paperback, and I think the book is almost done!

Meg Waite Clayton worked in the high-powered world of corporate mergers and acquisitions for a top international law firm. Her first novel, The Language of Light, was a finalist for Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize, and her second, The Wednesday Sisters, was a national bestseller. She's written for publications including the Los Angeles Times, Writer's Digest, Runner's World, and the Literary Review. A graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Clayton now lives in Palo Alto, California, and remains close to her law school friends. Visit her at www.megwaiteclayton.com.

 

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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