I first knew of Jennifer Gilmore as the author of two ambitious, warm, hilarious novels (Golden Country, 2006, and Something Red, 2010) that, placed side by side, provide an admirably thorough and thoroughly amusing take on the some of the most interesting ideas, inventions, characters, and past-times of the twentieth century—television, immigration, two-in-one cleaning products, radical politics, Joseph McCarthy, cults, and Ian MacKaye.
I first met Jennifer Gilmore on an early spring day nearly two years ago when we both went to meet the same writer friend for a late afternoon drink at the same Brooklyn bar where another writer friend bartends every Tuesday. We soon discovered that we are around the same age, live one Brooklyn neighborhood apart, and have many more than two friends in common. That spring, Jennifer was working on her third novel, told from the perspective of a woman trying, and mostly failing, to adopt a child through the byzantine process of domestic open adoption. I was about to go back to my twentieth high school reunion, during which I planned to visit the school for pregnant teenagers run by the Salvation Army where I spent the spring of 1989 believing I would release my own daughter to another couple through domestic open adoption. Jennifer and her husband, like the fictional couple in her novel, The Mothers, released last Tuesday, had already imagined themselves into the lives of many mothers and their children, only to find that the mother had chosen another couple, or decided to parent her own child, or, in the most outrageous cases, was not even pregnant at all. In 1989, I became that kind of mother when, two days after my daughter’s birth, I told the couple I had chosen to be her parents that I planned to do it myself instead.
Jennifer had read some of the stories I had written on my own failed adoption when they had appeared in Salon (where I was once an editor, and to which both of us have contributed essays). Although we had been on opposite sides of the story, our mutual fascination with what we sometimes referred to as “The Topic” was one of the reasons we became friends. We had both read and thought and obsessed over the tangle of race, class, and politics throughout the institution’s history. We both knew about orphan trains and maternity homes and the Hague Adoption Convention. We also both knew well how sometimes the end of the story could feel like just plain dumb grief all around.
Last month, Jennifer and her husband brought home their son. Last week, Jennifer and I met for a late afternoon drink on a early spring day at Lavender Lake, the Brooklyn bar with the name that references the exotically colored Gowanus canal that connects our two neighborhoods, to discuss her new novel, first person vs. omniscient narrators, open adoption and all the intellectual, political, and emotional issues it raises that should be fascinating to anyone at all.
Your first two novels were sprawling, multi-generational social sagas: Your first novel, Golden Country, took place in your grandparents’ era and covered, among other things, the Jewish-American immigrant experience, World War II, the World’s Fair, and fortunes built on mob life, cleaning products, and the invention of television. Your second novel, Something Red, which takes place at the end of the seventies inches closer to your own childhood. That novel dealt with radical politics, the Cold War, and the D.C. straight-edge punk rock scene.
The Mothers is totally different: it is your first novel narrated in the first-person, and your narrator, Jesse, along with her spouse, is trying to adopt a child through domestic open adoption, as you have also done. You also wrote the novel while you were going through the process of trying to adopt. After so many years of writing your fictional characters from a certain distance, what like to write a character whose experiences veer so closely to your own?
If I was going to come closer to myself in this particular trilogy of history, I wouldn’t have chosen this particular book. Given the situation, I just wanted to make my life interesting to myself, as opposed to wanting to blow my head off.