Rumaan Alam Talked with Emma Straub about That Kind of Mother

By on Tuesday, June 19th, 2018 at 3:32 pm

Rumaan Alam and Emma Straub discuss THAT KIND OF MOTHER at Books Are Magic in Brooklyn

Two years ago, Rumaan Alam launched the humorous debut novel Rich and Pretty. He launched his second novel, That Kind of Mother, at Books are Magic in Brooklyn, and discussed the book with friend and shop owner Emma Straub.

Alam read from the opening of the book, about protagonist and first-time mother Rebecca Stone awake all night with her baby. Straub described the passage as a bit of PTSD.

Straub then asked if having a second book is like having a second child.

“You keep one alive…” Alam responded. “Hopefully the book will not die, and if it does, it isn’t my fault.”

With publishing his second book, Alam believes that he is less nervous. He says he bothers his publicist less the second time around–then added, maybe she disagrees. The second time publishing does feel easier, and he jokes that eventually, when he has as many books published as Joyce Carol Oates, he’s certain he’ll feel great about promoting the book.

Straub observes Alam is an ambitious writer who wants to be prolific. He has concepts for at least a half-dozen novels at any given time. He admits he’s close to finishing another novel.

“I do have two children to send to college…” he jokes, before adding that there are ideas and concepts he would like to experiment with.

Part of his desire to be prolific stems from his reading habits. He admits that when he falls in love with an author, he’ll read their whole body of work, and that impacts his desire to experiment. Reading generates ideas.

What is something that he has learned is he doesn’t need to read what he doesn’t want to read. There are a lot of authors Alam is not interested in, and it’s alright to skip books by them. For instance, he doesn’t need to read Joseph Heller, but if he wants to read all of Saul Bellow, he can do that. He has come to terms with both choices.

The plot of That Kind of Mother is built around Rebecca, a new mother, also adopts the child of her nanny, who dies in childbirth. The mother of the adopted child quickly disappears from the narrative.

Alam admits the scenario is a bit of a stretch. He needed to eliminate the birth mother to tell the story he wanted to, but also having her die in childbirth meant it felt less far-fetched. He describes it a bit like “hidden mother photography,” a technique used to photograph babies in the early era of the photography when subjects had to remain still for a period of time. The mother is obscured by some piece of fabric while she holds the baby for the photograph.

The book takes place in the 1980s. Partly this choice allowed the characters to have a slightly less evolved view of what it means to be a family, and of mixed-raced families. The adopted child has an older, adult sister, for instance, and while all these characters have familial relationships, that isn’t as easy for characters in the 1980s to process as it might be for cosmopolitan characters in the present.

Also setting the novel in the past allows the reader a better understanding of the future. For instance, in the 1980s, Bill Cosby might seem the arbiter of morality, but the contemporary reader understands him as a millionaire rapist.

There are things now that make us reevaluate things from our past that we loved, Straub observes.

“Context changes very quickly,” Alam says, “but we also live in this era where all of these things are eerily still relevant. Donald Trump is such a creature of the 1980s.”

Rumaan Alam and Emma Straub
Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Books Are Magic

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