December 21, 2011
Mona Simpson is the author of five novels, including her latest, My Hollywood (Vintage Contemporaries, 2011), in which she examines the complexity, and also the currency, of raising a child. In it, Simpson, who believes that novels are “explorations of how to live,” revisits and elevates an important but often-unsung familial lynchpin, the domestic worker, and the overlapping, often-conflicting allegiances between parents, children, and “the help.”
Nanny fiction has had an explosive presence in literature since The Nanny Diaries, perhaps longer. But it seems, by your op-ed in The New York Times (“Pay Your Nanny on the Books”) that you have more invested in the issues of domestic workers than most authors. Was there an experience, beyond that of being a babysitter at 11, that made you aware of their plight and was perhaps part of the impetus for the novel?
I think it’s the other way around. The character in the novel came first, and then I began to poke around and research the lives of domestic workers. And once I began to seek out stories, I found some pretty dramatic ones, as well as some troubling documents. I was looking, in particular, for memoirs or letters written by nannies. I found a huge cache of letters in the Library of Congress, written by housekeepers and babysitters and maids to President Roosevelt, Eleanor and Francine Perkins, begging in plangent, colloquial voices for the rights and protections offered to so many other American workers in the New Deal. Many of their envelopes had also been carefully microfiched and the return addresses match the numbers of houses still standing here in Los Angeles, lived in, (I imagine) by families with children and housekeepers and nannies who may have some of the same frustrations and complaints as the writers of those letters. The rights and protections for domestic workers have not substantially changed since then, although the demographics of both the employers and the workers is very different and the cultural norms, which dictate the way most households negotiate these relationships have changed greatly too. But those letters are sad reminders of how little we’ve moved, in terms of legislation and this is particularly important now, since the number of people who employ domestic help is much larger. At the time those women wrote letters to the president, they almost all worked for the wealthy. Now middle class families hire nannies, for a few years, because both parents work.
But as a novelist, I’m most interested in particular characters. This is a new way we live now. My own mother worked, but in her generation, that was incredibly unusual and seemed to be the result of a minor personal tragedy. She would never have said she chose to work. Nor did she work in the field she would have selected if she had chosen. Yet I saw her derive deep satisfaction from her work. Most people I know though who grew up when I did had a dad who worked and a mom at home. In just one generation, that’s radically changed.
How much of the book comes from your own experience?
(This answer was originally in the New York Times Papercuts): When I was in high school, in Los Angeles, my mother, who was a speech therapist, agreed to stay over the weekend with one of her clients and his little sister while the parents went away on vacation. She brought me along. I felt like any other American kid. I already worked at a steady job as an ice cream scooper, but I didn’t feel less in any way than my more affluent friends from school. Then, in this large house, where we chased two kids down long, echoing hallways, I realized–these people saw my professional mother as a servant, like the silent housekeeper who’d scurried out when we arrived. My mother had a M.A. in speech pathology, an accomplishment of which we were both proud. But I understood, even if she didn’t, that no part of that translated here.
The parents drove away and the kids threw eggs at the walls and hid. My mother came armed only with a book about high-energy children. We should have been furnished with nets on poles. Most of what I remember now is running. There were two of them and two of us and so eventually we caught them and locked us all inside an upstairs room, where we tried to play an orderly game. I remember one full run of Monopoly but when my mother left to stick the TV dinners in the oven, the boy escaped and we had to start all over again. My mother stayed up until she found him, sprawled snoring behind a sofa, and then she dragged him to his bed. We got up early Sunday morning, to wash the walls. An hour later, they’d disappeared again. I remember my mother going through the house, calling the stutterer’s name. In the afternoon, we were out of breath, our hearts clanging, when we heard the Porsche come up the gravel drive. My mother and I looked at each other, hands empty. Now we’d really failed. The back door banged.
“Hello, everybody,” the mother’s voice belled. And then, like good ghosts, from out of the furniture, the two kids materialized, pale and wan, and stood for the first time all weekend holding our hands. They didn’t tell. And we didn’t tell.
That experience–of understanding my mother seen not for the person I thought she was, but as someone whose care could be bought–may be somewhere inside this book. That said, I feel as if all of it comes from my own experience, because I’ve lived so long with the characters and their triumphs and losses. In my real life, I have children and I’ve had plenty of experience employing nannies and others to help me with my kids. But in a deeper way, I feel I’ve lived the experience or at least the truest experience of each of the central imagined characters.
The strangest thing is that I keep having experiences now, long after the writing has been copy edited and put between covers, that seem to belong to this book. For example, I was taking a walk with a friend along Ocean Avenue recently and saw two nannies pushing strollers. One of the white babies held a bottle filled with Coke.
I also read, in another interview you gave, that as a young mother you spent a lot of time in the park, where you befriended some Filipina nannies. And that you were drawn to their English, their turns of phrase and syntax, as much as their experiences! Did you keep coming back to that, when you decided to begin the novel, ie, that there was this incredible voice you wanted to capture, or was it more the idea of the mother-nanny relationship, or both equally?
I was entranced by the voice, because there seemed to me so many things inside it, about us and how these women found the new world they found themselves in.
Of course, My Hollywood is so much more than the plight of domestic workers. In the alternating narratives of Claire, the mother of Will, and Lola, who Claire and her husband Paul hire to help with their son Will, this novel is really about the domestic and social roles of women across cultures and their surprising, modern similarities. Claire and Lola are both women who sacrifice time with their children for things they believe to be more precious: for Claire, her work as a composer; for Lola, paying her children’s way through college in the Philippines. There’s great equality and care in their narratives, but I couldn’t help but feel a little more sympathy for Lola, whose choice of leaving her children feels less leisurely, more necessity (although one can argue that Claire has a right to pursue her career just as much as her husband Paul—in fact, there’s a wonderful scene about the “50/50” agreement early on in the novel). But it’s also because Lola is so convincingly drawn as “the other.” Where did the inspiration and research come in for Lola? I almost expect that if I went to Santa Monica, I would find her there.
Like all of us, I’d read novels I’d loved for years and years and barely noticed the servants in them. Of course, servants were there. I remember a nanny holding a baby at the end of The Golden Bowl, the homesick weeping au pair in To the Lighthouse, the discerning German tutor in War and Peace who takes out his notebook to record the courses in the Rostov’s banquet, so he can recount them in detail in his letters home. But these are cameos, sometimes the servants weren’t even named, or, if they were, who knew if they were their real names. (Henry James makes the point that families often required servants to take on a name, rather than having to learn new ones.) When I realized the central energy of this book came from Lola, the character in this occupation so often only fleeting glanced in fiction, I became excited. Of course you feel more sympathy for Lola, whose choice to leave her family and move across the Pacific to work, feels less like a choice than a moral imperative. But that is always the problem and the relationship of the first world to the third, the extreme to the daily. And what does it mean, for Lola’s granddaughters who reap the reward of her hard work and get to stay in the country they belong to and find work they love¾will their legacy be moral ambivalence? And what exactly is a man’s role in raising children?
All such valid points. In fact, in an interview with Larry Wilson, you said that My Hollywood is “what it means to have a child, an exploration of what we owe when we have a child.” Given, like you said previously, most mothers work out of the home now, as well as the fathers, and even though the mother obviously has a greater role in carrying the child for nine months and nursing, we no longer seem to know who should raise children or how they should be raised. Despite our advances in pediatrics and child care (ie, Dr. Spock), it’s almost as if we strive for authenticity without, perhaps, doing the work ourselves. Or knowing how.
It’s not even altogether clear what the work is–of raising a child. I think if you followed a wife and mother around in l965 and recorded all her activities and then followed two women now, one a woman who worked outside the house and the other a stay-at-home mother, you’d find that there was more overlap between the two contemporary women than between either and the woman in 1965. We all spent inordinately more time entering the intricacies of our children’s lives now than our parents did. Our parents entered the school once or twice a year.
Getting back to nannies, it seems that money oftentimes is a factor during the hiring process, rather than qualifications, ie, who will work cheaply. Did you find, in your research, any sort of vetting process for nannies or au pairs, other than someone like Ruth, who in My Hollywood takes in immigrants and finds them work as nannies?
Of course for many people, the price is a crucial factor. When writing this I first typed the price “of a person” then deleted it, because it’s just too repellant a pairing of words. Of course there are many vetting agencies for nannies, but the more expensive agencies vet more (vetting is expensive in and of itself). But sets fundamental questions into play. Just as there are beautiful smart affectionate animals in the pound as well as at pet stores or breeders at a high price, given the vagaries of immigration, someone wonderful could come cheaper than someone else with perhaps more experience but fewer qualities that matter. Many of us have been that bargain employee when we were young.
The critical accolades for My Hollywood have been astounding. What has been your experience with readers? Have any former or current au pairs reached out?
Several women employed as nannies have written to me or come to readings. One nanny sent me some of her own poems and one was so deft and funny I put it up on my website, though, when she decided to look for another job, she asked me to take it down.
I’ve read somewhere that My Hollywood took ten years to write; you’ve said that “[I]t’s the book that took me too long because it meant too much to me.” Assuming that these passions find you, rather than the other way around, have you been struck by a new passion/story? If so, where are you in the journey?
I think they do find me. I’m just finishing a short book right now that came to me three years ago. Like relationships, every book has its own daily life. This one has been thrilling, and it’s also given me some glimmers of understanding I deeply needed, about hope and its afterlife.
To find out more about Mona Simpson and My Hollywood, please visit www.monasimpson.com.