Monday, January 16, 2012

Twice the work: Motherhood and Career: An interview with women's fiction author, Karen Bell

Today I'm talking with Karen Bell about her women's fiction book, Walking With Elephants.


1) Tell us about your book.

When I wrote this book I considered the story to be a platform for an underlying message, my burning observation concerning the change in families since women have joined the workforce en masse. Although, a serious topic, I have always inserted humor into my assessments about life and the human condition. The story was from the heart and came together on its own, but the message was from seeing the transformation of women's roles in my lifetime.

2) What inspired this book?

One day at work, I walked into the ladies room and a young woman was pumping her breast. How sad, I thought, that somewhere, right now, a baby is crying for its mother. I began to do some research and found out that there are countries that provide mothers with a much more civilized maternity leave, provide the necessary time to finish nursing, have the child imprint on the mother instead of a caregiver. I was bothered by this. Mothers are given short shrift in this country, and nobody is pushing to change this. Abortion is a focus, but not how to weave work with family time. Also, I had my own lab experiment so-to-speak, working full time while trying to run a household with all its accompanying chores and give a normal childhood to my kids.

3) Are any of your characters based on and/or inspired by people you've known in your life? 

Yes. Some of the characters are exaggerated versions or composites. Some spring just from my subconscious.

4) Though written with an overall light tone, your book tackles some serious issues concerning gender roles and responsibilities. Why did you choose to approach the topic in this way?

As I said earlier, I find humor in everything. That's who I am and my writing is an extension of that. A spoonful of sugar and all that. And, we can't take ourselves too seriously. As I quote Shakespeare, all the world's a stage… But there are also serious moments of high emotion. I was invited to speak at a book club today and two of the ladies said there were times where the book brought tears to their eyes.

5) Given that slice-of-life stories don't necessarily benefit from common reader appeals like escapism, what do you feel it is about books like this that continue to appeal to readers?

Being real. A feeling of, I think I know that person, or that's me this is how I feel. We look at Jane Austen novels as being historical romances but when they were written they were about people of the day, a slice of life, if you will, but because they are now period pieces we think of them differently. There is lasting power to characters with real problems in real situations. Werewolf and vampire stories are the rage and then they are gone.

6) Some reviewers have compared your book to Bridget Jones's Diary. In thinking about that, it's interesting that many of the popular working-woman books of the 90s and 2000s were defined by somewhat younger protagonists that, though entangled in business and romantic matters, rarely had children. Do you feel that the working mother is under-represented in mainstream women's fiction? If so, why do you think that me be?

Yes and no. There have been a few attempts--I Don't Know How She Does It for example. But, for the most part the hook in stories is the erotic tension between two singles. But if you make your characters real enough and women connect on a deep level then that's the hook. Women who have read my book have had a sense of loss when they are finished--missing the characters that they had come to know. That is a real feat for an author. I was quite taken aback by that. To be able to create a world of friends for my readers. That's heady stuff. But you know the publishing world isn't about finding a niche market. It's about slam dunks. Widespread appeal, lowest common denominator, easy marketing. Hard to fight that. This book was a tough sell and still is to publishers. I didn't realize that but I would not, could not write a book to pander to that reality. I never thought about the underrepresentation of working mothers. It was just a story I felt I had to tell. Funnily, I wrote it before any of the others that have since come out, but no one would publish it then.

7) The passing of the decades continuously changes the status of women in the United States. How do you see the situation of working mothers changing in the coming decades?

Interesting question. My book raises these questions with no real answers. My hope was to get a dialogue going among women to figure out how to fix the current situation. Along with the the thrust of women into higher and higher positions in the workplace and in government there is also a backlash of women who opt out of working to raise their kids--who leave lucrative careers. That's the real problem because right now women can't have it all. Something, someone suffers. Unless women decide that raising their children is a priority and getting that done in the most satisfying way for all is a priority, women will bear the burden and the guilt. You know when kids go crazy like in Columbine there is an undercurrent of Where was the mother? When the news was full of the shaken baby by the nanny, it was Where was the mother? I grew up in a world where roles were more defined in the family unit. It was hard on a woman if she had to work. Jobs were menial. There was very little support for that situation. It is easier today to go work, expected, lots of support with daycare popping up everywhere. But is it easier on the child? The generation of children raised by caregivers has to grow up and become adults for us to see if this works. From my perspective, there are not too many jobs as satisfying as raising your child (a sentiment I realize not shared universally by women). In the absence of a plan, a structure, that gives women the opportunity to somehow have time with their babies and still remain viable in the workforce, I see the status quo continuing. Each family figures out what's best, based on what they can afford. And fingers are crossed that the kids don't feel too neglected.


Thanks, Karen.

If you'd like to see more from Karen, you can visit her at
Walking With Elephants is available at Amazon and Smashwords.


Karen S. Bell said...

Thank you for interviewing me today. Your questions were smart and got me thinking again how important this topic is for women.

J.A. Beard said...

You're welcome.