Author Debra Monroe is a beautiful boss. We’ve only met online, but even there she wields her every word like a gentle weapon of stark civility. Her writing is equally precise and deadly in the most beautiful way.
Widely published, her first book, 1990’s The Source of Trouble, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction. She’s since been busy publishing four other titles, most recently the nationally acclaimed On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain.
She’s also widely published online. I am particularly fond of this essay on unhappy Christmases.
I asked her the My Monomania questions of WHO WHAT WHY WHEN WHERE and HOW recently, and this is what she said.
WHO: I’m the author of five books, just now wrapping up a sixth. Their titles are The Source of Trouble; A Wild, Cold State; Newfangled; Shambles; On the Outskirts of Normal; and My Unsentimental Education. According to reviewers, my books are “shrewd,” “feisty” or “fierce” as they explore (one reviewer’s phrase) “the disintegration of the American family.” This sounds tragic. It’s change, not disintegration, and it’s not tragic. People who think all change is bad are under the illusion that the life they knew as children was Eden and every modification since is a fall from grace. In my lifetime, the definition of family changed. People who see this change as bad blame women. People who don’t see this change as bad still understand that the attempt to remedy women’s lack of autonomy caused it.
WHAT: I’m obsessed with minute details about lives of women who accumulated power in times and places that discouraged them. I’m grateful to radical feminists because they made women like me seem moderate and so we got away with more, but I’m fascinated by women who increased their influence without explicitly breaking rules, women who held onto traditional facets of identity while adapting them. A new version of an old recipe, an improvisation on an old melody: a version of womanhood that retains the best bits of the past, modified.
WHERE: My grandmother was a North Dakota version of a flapper for a few years before she married. Then she cooked, gardened, canned, and sewed for six children. Her husband did what he would (gambling) with the annual chunk of cash from harvest. Rejecting this life, my mother became a shopkeeper’s wife, a bookkeeper who’d keep an eye on how the money came and went. My preoccupation with women who sought power without becoming outcasts focuses on middle-America.
A rags-to-riches story of a woman’s rise to power is interesting because a poor person breaking rules has risk-taking courage: nothing to lose, everything to gain. A suffragette or feminist with economic means might lose social standing, but her risks are existential, not material. I’m interested in women who held onto what they had and enlarged it. This occurs in a specific social class. What they had was hard-won. It couldn’t be discarded. It had to be altered, let out.
WHEN: I was a school child in the 1960s. The mechanization of housework increased women’s leisure, yet the socially sanctioned list of what to do with that leisure didn’t increase. Stereotypes from this era suggest that most women had no desire, or a mere caprice of desire, for an enlarged field in which to pursue careers. But there were rewards for the old role, for being regarded as “the angel of the house,” as Harriet Beecher Stowe once called a wife and mother, “the facilitator of the family dialectic.” There were punishments for rejecting this role too. Alice Munro said, “It wasn’t the housework or the children that dragged me down. It was the sort of open rule that women who tried to do anything so weird as writing were unseemly and possibly neglectful.” She had a different sort of courage: tenacious, covert. She spent decades carving out routes toward her career.
WHY: This era and social class was the template I was impressed by. Or it was impressed on me. I couldn’t reject this flattering description of my easiest, immediate options. If wives or mothers were the essential undergirding for the world’s business, run by men, did I want to walk away from the chance to be essential? No. But I wanted more.
HOW: I read nonstop, from an early age. If local norms suggested I should be one kind of woman, books triggered new desires. I left home forever. I was a woman divided, with a huge split between my private life—defined by how and to whom I made love, how found my way to a man’s heart via good cooking and housekeeping—and my public life, in which I must have seemed like a confident feminist. I was a good actor. Both of my selves interlock now. But I didn’t arrive here without shredding connections to the past. My sense of tradition is abstract, not tangible. I long for family reunions, for what was once called Old Home Week. In real life, I’m stranger to my past. In my imagination, though, I live there forever, or in the gap in the ragged seam between who I was and who I became.