Danielle Wood is the author of a novel, The Alphabet of Light and Dark, a collection of short fiction, and the biography of Marjorie Bligh. She also writes fiction for children with Heather Rose under the name 'Angelica Banks'. In this interview she speaks with Madeleine Watts about her story 'The good mother' in Griffith REVIEW 42, a direct challenge to the myths of contemporary motherhood.
To start off with a very general question, why did you decide to write a story exposing what is essentially a myth of motherhood?
It's always a bit of a mystery how stories begin. I'm not sure I ever quite 'decide' to write a story about something. It feels more like a story suggests itself and I write it. I have been thinking a lot about fairy tales because I'm working on a book called Mothers Grimm, which uses fairytale ideas and motifs in contemporary stories. The book focuses in on the mother figures in the tales; for example, I'm doing a take on a character based on Rapunzel's mother who exchanges her child for a handful of lettuce. Writing Mothers Grimm led me to think about why, in fairy tales, The good mother is always dead. I know what the fairytale analysts have to say about that, but my story 'The good mother', offers a different perspective. The episodes in the story are based on, or extrapolated, from things I've observed since having children and learned that motherhood is an area of life in which women can get really competitive and opinionated. It's a thing that a lot of women are really intense about being good at – and 'good at' in a particular way. And images of the ideal are created and perpetuated by people who are trying to sell you things, whether those things are health products, baby products, cleaning products, recipes, or appliances. I've noticed how mothers can really offend each other with the things they say and do in order to project an image of themselves as good mothers. I remember being at a mother's group where one woman had a baby that just never slept. She was beside herself with sleep deprivation, and another woman with a baby who slept about a hundred hours a day said: 'you know what they say: calm mother, calm child'. I don't think she quite meant to be smug and bitchy, but it probably wouldn't have taken a lot of thought for her to realise that saying that wasn't going to be particularly helpful. But there's a weird kind of humour in those situations, too, and that's what I wanted to capture in 'The good mother'.
You write for children as well as adults. I wonder what differences you've found between the two – it seems like writing for children would be more of a balancing act, in that with children I imagine you might be trying to protect them in some ways and to teach them as well? Does writing for children have any impact on the way you approached telling the story of 'The good mother'?
I suspect that I have a wellspring of 'stuff' and I just draw from it in different ways when I write for adults and when I write for children. I'm probably writing about exactly the same things – hope, fear, desire, the interactions between human, and sometimes non-human, beings, love, magic, art – but just in different ways. My co-writer in children's literature, Heather Rose, when asked about writing for children after writing for adults, said children's literature involved 'less boundaries, more creatures'. That was pretty spot-on, I thought.
You say at the end of the story that you drew inspiration from Jim Henson's The Storytellerseries, references to which are woven throughout the story. What was it about those versions of the Grimm fairytales that caught your interest?
In my late teens, I watched all the episodes of The Storyteller far too many times, and still have big sections of dialogue by heart. I loved, and continue to love, just about everything about that series, so there's no 'one thing' I can put my finger on. The Storyteller takes fairytales, with all the wonderful array of things that fairytales have – quests, curses, prohibitions, magical reversals of fortune, restoration of all that is lost – and illustrates them with a mix of puppetry, shadow puppetry and live action. The script is wonderful, John Hurt is perfect and his dog is the kind you wish you had at your own fireside. All the elements come together into this bittersweet concoction of humour and pathos that is somehow exactly to my taste.
I thought it was interesting that the story was written in the second person. It makes it very immediate, and more personal for the reader. Why did you choose to use the second person rather than the more common first or third person registers?
There are some stories written in the second person that I particularly admire – 'You Could be Anyone' by Melissa Bank and 'How to Become a Writer' by Lorrie Moore are two that spring to mind. I love the way the second person plays games with distinctions between the categories of narrator, narratee and fictional character, but I also think it's the point of view of choice when you feel like having a rant, which I was in 'The good mother'. From the minute I started, it 'came out' in that kind of nasty, self-deprecating, acidic tone that the second person lends itself to so beautifully. I don't think you'd want to write (or read) in second person all the time, but it's great as an occasional indulgence.
I loved that you built the figure of The good mother from very Australian references – the Vicks mum, the No More Tears mum, the mums of laundry and bathroom product advertisements, dressed in pink with beatific smiles. I was wondering whether you could speak about how all that imagery was pieced together?
I remember long summers at the family shack and my grandmother buying the Women's Weekly and New Idea and so on. She'd cook some of the recipes and read out the star signs and do the crossies. When I was just starting to write 'The good mother', I drew on what I could remember about the iconography of motherhood from those sorts of magazines, but while I was writing, I tuned back in to the kind of advertising I was mocking, and it's still everywhere. Even since finishing the story, I've seen still more of it, including a Westinghouse ad that ran on SBS during the coverage of the recent Australia-New Zealand netball series. In that ad, you never see The good mother's face. You only see her perfect hands: applying a bandaid, putting clothes in a washing machine, stacking a very hygienic-looking dishwasher. It's been a bit like having a theory proved, and I've become a little prone to saying, 'Look! Look! There she is again! It's The good mother!' I'm probably really annoying my family now.
The way you tell the story of 'The good mother' very much draws on the language of old fashioned European fairytales, but it sits in juxtaposition to the way the story debunks the fairytale of motherhood. Was that part of your intention when you wrote the story?
I wonder if traditional fairy tales themselves actually debunk the fairytale of motherhood? After all, The good mother almost never appears. She's so often dead that it's almost as if fairytales can't function in her presence. After all, if she was there, how would Hansel and Gretel end up in the forest, or Rapunzel in the tower, or the Goose Girl in peril? Perhaps her absence is a precondition for adventure? Lots of women are busting their arses trying to be her, but perhaps stories, and life, are just more interesting without her.