The Rumpus Interview with Meghan Daum and Elliott Holt
Meghan Daum casts a wide editorial net with Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. Though the anthology’s sixteen writers (thirteen women, three men) all write about their decision not have kids, they are all hardly writing about the same thing. As Daum says in the anthology’s introduction, “Those of us who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or nonnative Californians; we tend to arrive at our destinations via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths.”
Contributor Lionel Shriver writes in her essay “Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later” that she could have had children. Her finances and relationships were stable. Her health was good. But children, she writes, “would have messed up my apartment. In the main, they are ungrateful. They would have siphoned too much time away from the writing of my precious books.”
Contrast that sentiment with the one put forth by cartoonist/essayist Tim Kreider in “The End of the Line.” He writes: “It simply never occurred to me to have children, any more than it ever occurred to me to enlist in the Coast Guard or take up Brazilian jujitsu. I never understood why anyone else was doing it.”
Other contributors write about their own childhoods, about miscarriages and abortions, about their siblings having kids. The essays look inward, and never is the book a hit piece aimed at those who do create other little humans. Those interested in braggadocio about free time and abundant disposable income need to look elsewhere. Either you’re a breeder or a narcissist, is how this conversation often unfolds. But this anthology not only refuses that binary but actively pushes against it, which was one of the reasons I wanted to talk to Meghan, who edited the anthology, as well as Elliott Holt, who contributed its penultimate essay.
Meghan Daum is the author of two essay collections, the most recent being The Unspeakable. Elliott Holt’s debut novel, You Are One of Them, was a finalist for the National Book Critic Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Award. Released last year, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is out this April in paperback.
The Rumpus: Can you tell me a little bit about how Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed got under way?
Meghan Daum: I’ll tell you a funny story that I haven’t told that many people. Originally I was editing this collection with Hanya Yanagihara (author of A Little Life), who I’ve known for many years and who has edited some pieces of mine. She’d written this hilarious article for Condé Nast Traveler about how to avoid children while on vacation. It was so over the top and so extreme. (A line from the first paragraph of Yanagihara’s piece: “A merely kid-intolerant hotel isn’t enough: I need a kid-intolerant destination.”) It was hilarious, and I told her, “I can’t believe this got published. It’s amazing.” The article was really like: she hates kids and she does not want to see a child when she’s on vacation and here’s how you can avoid seeing children on vacation, too.
So I emailed her and I said, “Oh my gosh, your piece is hilarious and I can’t believe they published it,” and she said, “Oh, you know I’ve been trying to get Picador to do some kind of project about this for years.” So we actually started off doing this together and she recruited a couple of writers.
Elliott Holt: I’m one of the writers Hanya recruited. She emailed me and her fantastic first line was “How creepy is this that I’m writing you out-of-the-blue about what will be, as you’ll see, a highly intimate subject?” When I found out the anthology was being edited by Hanya and Meghan—neither of whom I’d met in person at the time, but both of whom I admired a lot—I said yes before I even knew exactly what I was going to write about.
Daum: But Hanya had to leave the project because she sold A Little Life and it was coming out at about the exact same time, so I was left on my own.
This is a project that I’d been wanting to do for years and years and years and I had actually pitched it and mentioned it to various people in publishing over the years and they always just said, “Oh there’s not a big enough audience. What are you talking about?” And I kept saying, “No, this is of interest to everybody and it’s even of interest to parents.”
Holt: Yes, when Hanya told me about the project, I thought, “Thank God.” The world needs this book. Our culture was so busy valorizing—even fetishizing—parenthood that another point of view seemed essential.
Rumpus: It’s surprising that Yanagihara’s article was the genesis, given that the sixteen writers in the anthology are for the most part very cordial and complementary to both parents and children. The contributors have a resistance to being the anti-mom or anti-dad. Even Lionel Shriver (author of We Need to Talk about Kevin), who was the anti-mom for a while resists that label.
Daum: I think the key to this project was to frame the discussion in a way that’s more thoughtful and more respectful than the way the discussion generally goes. So often the way we talk about this is that people who have chosen not to have children call parents ‘breeders’ and call the kids ‘brats’ and when people ask why they don’t have children give these responses like, “Oh I’d rather have an expensive car, I’d rather sleep late,” or whatever it is. To me that’s just really missing the point and I wanted to reframe the way we talk about these things.
Rumpus: And these writers really did go out of their way to make sure people know they don’t hate kids.
Daum: Unfortunately, we’re still in a moment culturally where I think that that point has to be made. It’s a criticism that’s been made of the book and I hear it and I think it’s a valid one but I also think that it was necessary to maintain as respectful a tone as possible in order to reach a wider audience, and we have reached a wider audience.
I think maybe in ten years it would be perhaps less necessary, but I also didn’t want to put out a book that was in any way mean-spirited and over-simplistic and kind of sarcastic. That’s not what the project was.
Holt: I wasn’t conscious of feeling like I had to make that point. I’m sure on some subconscious level, I’m aware that as a woman, I’m expected to be a nurturing person who likes children. But writing about my relationship with my nieces was an intuitive choice. My relationship with my three nieces and my nephew is central to my life. I love being an aunt. The title of my essay is “Just an Aunt,” which refers to something one of my nieces said once. But I don’t feel like I’m “just” an aunt. I feel like being an aunt is the best possible situation. I get to read bedtime stories and sing lullabies and snuggle and teach the kids all kinds of things. But I also get to give the kids back to their parents and return to my wonderful independent life. I’ve got the best of both worlds. Thank goodness I’m not an only child and thank goodness my two sisters had kids so I didn’t have to!
Rumpus: The essays in this anthology seemed to consistently be very anti- what goes viral on the Internet, where radical, dogmatic points of view so often get all the oxygen. These pieces are not clickbait.
Daum: Yeah, they were long pieces. I wanted them to be between 3,000 and 5,000 words. I very specifically wanted them to be written by professional writers. That’s another question that comes up sometimes. People wondered why they should care about what writers think about this subject. Some people said that writers are exceptions to begin with. They’re weirdos anyway. They’re selfish, shallow, self-absorbed to begin with because they’re writers.
And my answer to that is: writers are the ones who look at the world and articulate their own experiences and synthesize those two things. That’s the kind of book that I wanted. I really wanted people to go deep and write very thoughtfully about this. I was not interested in having anybody write about how they hate all children and want to run down strollers on the sidewalk, and none of the writers produced those sorts of pieces.
Rumpus: Meghan, you have two phenomenal collections of essays. Was this your first time editing such a large group of diverse writers into one book?
Daum: Yeah, and a lot of people who edited anthologies kept saying, “Oh my gosh, it’s terrible, it’s thankless, it’s so much more work than you anticipate.” Putting the book together was definitely a lot of work but I think what helped me was that I was really choosy about the writers. Most people just handed in beautiful pieces. Certainly there was editing that went on, but there was nothing terribly major. They did their job. These are professionals so it was really a pleasure in that way. I can tell you the hardest part was actually finding the people willing and able to contribute.
Rumpus: Can you say a little more about that difficulty?
Daum: Well, it became this interesting parlor game. I had to ask myself questions like: What writers do I admire who do not have children? Why do they not have children? Do I think their decision is intentional or not? I wrote a lot of carefully worded emails asking people if this was something they might be interested in. Most people said no, for a variety of reasons. Some writers said they never wanted children and it was a nonissue for them; they had no angst about it and therefore nothing interesting to say on the topic. But it went all the way to the other side, too. Writers said they had a lot to say about this but couldn’t say it right now because of family issues. I also had a lot of writers drop out, who said they could do it but then realized they just couldn’t go there. There was one writer, a novelist who had previously let it be known (or so I’d heard) that he planned to never have children, who I asked to contribute and who, in response, sent me back a picture of his infant son.
Holt: When I accepted this assignment, I didn’t think of myself as a personal essayist. Before this anthology, the only personal essay I’d written was one for the Lives section of the New York Times magazine. Writing from such an intimate place, about my own life, scares the hell out of me. I mean, my fiction is close to the bone, in terms of my own emotional life, but in fiction, I get to change the facts and events. I love reading great personal essays—by Joan Didion, Charles D’Ambrosio, Leslie Jamison, Meghan Daum, among others—but this assignment from Hanya and Meghan was terrifying.
I accepted it because I think it’s important to do the things that scare you. And because I realized that writing this essay would help me figure out what I knew about myself. The best essays give you a sense of the writer trying—you know, the word essay comes from the French verb, “essayer,” which means to try—to understand something. I don’t want to read an essay by someone who has it all figured out before she starts writing. I want the essay itself to articulate the process of trying to understand. I want to sense that trying on the page.
I didn’t really know exactly what I was going to write about, but when I started really thinking about why I don’t have children, I found myself writing about my own experience with depression and anxiety. It took months to finish the essaying and it was hard, but in the end I’m glad I kept trying to tell my story without any dodges. I didn’t avoid the hard subjects.
A lot of people have told me how much they loved my essay and that’s gratifying. I’m proud of it as a piece of writing. I might be an essayist after all.
Featured image of Meghan Daum © David Zaugh. Elliott Holt author photograph © Rebecca Zeller.