“When you have kids, you can find yourself really interested in writers and artists who leave their children. It’s not usually about wanting to leave your own children, but about wanting to have your old self back.
Author & biographer Julie Phillips joins the show to celebrate her amazing new book, The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem (WW Norton). We get into the tensions of being a mother & having a life in the arts and how that mirrors the Hero’s Journey, the definitions of motherhood and how women’s roles changed in the 20th century (and what’s different (and not) in the 21st century), how she chose the mother/artists she focused on in the book, like Alice Neel, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Angela Carter, and the challenges of writing about African-American subjects like Audre Lorde and Alice Walker. We also talk about what it means to consider motherhood as interrupted consciousness, which artist/mother she came to love more than she expected & which one frustrated her the most, how her bio of James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon led to her next book, a biography of Ursula K. Le Guin, why motherhood gets short shrift from most areas of theory, and more. Give it a listen! And go read The Baby on the Fire Escape!
“Motherhood had taken up such a large place in all my subjects’ hearts and their souls and their selves and their daily lives. They all felt lost for a while. They all had the search.”
“As soon as you tell the story of someone’s life, then you can imagine your own life having a story. If you tell a maternal life-story, then you can believe that there is a maternal life-story.”
About our Guest
Julie Phillips is the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon and The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem. A biographer and critic fascinated by questions of gender and creative work, she has written for many publications including 4Columns, LitHub, and The New Yorker. The recipient of a Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant, she lives in Amsterdam with her partner and their two children. She’s working on a biography of Ursula K. Le Guin.
Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Julie by Chris Van Houts. It’s on my instagram.
Library of America was having a 20% off sale a few weeks ago. Also, they discount the books on their site AND they’re a non-profit doing the Lord’s work, so I kinda splurged.
If necessary, I can explain myself:
- Thoreau – Walden – I never read it, and there’s a seminar on it this May at St. John’s College.
- Dos Passos – USA trilogy – I never read it and who knows?
- Saul Bellow – They were selling all 4 collections of Saul Bellow’s novels as a group for $115 (before the 20% discount), and I figured I need to add more heft to my 20th century Jewish writers shelf, alongside Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, Bernard Malamud, Joseph Heller and James Salter (nee Horowitz).
- Susan Sontag – Essays of the 1960s & 70s – I never read her, and really have to correct that.
- Philip Roth – Nemeses (novels 2006-2010) – I own these books separately, but I have the rest of the Roth L.O.A. collections, and I’m a completist.
- Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology – it was only $9.95, and I’m now interested in LA after a my trips there this year.
Why don’t you come by and check out the library sometime? And go buy some books from the Library of America!