The Rumpus Book Club chats with editor and writer Michele Filgate about the new anthology, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence (Simon & Schuster, April 2019), what makes for a cohesive essay collection, maintaining boundaries when sharing personal work, favorite television shows, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Nicole Dennis-Benn, Elissa Washuta, Trisha Low, Ayse Papatya Bucak, Jeannie Vanasco, Leigh Camacho Rourks, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi everyone! Welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Michele Filgate about the new anthology, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About!
Eva Woods: Hi everybody!
Michele Filgate: Hello!
Marisa: Hi Michele! Thanks so much for being here tonight!
Michele Filgate: Thanks for having me!
Eva Woods: I’m so excited to chat! Can you talk a little about how the idea for the collection came about?
Michele Filgate: Absolutely! Longreads published my title essay in 2017 right as the #MeToo movement took off. I heard from so many readers who responded not just to the subject of my essay, but the title: “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.” So many strangers and friends told me they had their own stories to share about what they couldn’t talk about with their moms. It seemed like an ideal topic for an anthology.
Marisa: Can you share a little about how the collection came together/how you selected the essays that appear?
Michele Filgate: I reached out to a bunch of writers that I admire to see if they had anything they wanted to write about that pertained to this topic. Once I had a few high-profile authors signed on, I sold the collection fairly quickly.
Eva Woods: Also were there any authors you really wanted and couldn’t get?
Michele Filgate: Definitely! I think that’s inevitable when you are editing an anthology.
Eva Woods: Is this the first anthology you collected? I love essay collections and have never really found out how they work.
Michele Filgate: Yup! This is my first book.
Marisa: I’ve heard from at least two or three editors of anthologies that it is A LOT of work. Was that your experience? Would you do it again? (I have thought about pitching an anthology before, but also think that is probably insane given my workload.)
Michele Filgate: Ha! That’s an understatement.
It’s a lot of work. Not just editing the essays, but making sure pieces are turned in by the deadline, being persistent and friendly but also enforcing said deadlines, etc. And then there’s the whole aspect of promoting it.
Marisa, you’d be an amazing anthology editor!
Marisa: Thank you! Maybe one day. The kid starts full-day school in the fall, so maybe next year.
You’ve been traveling a ton, speaking of promotion. And the book has been mentioned and reviewed and listed everywhere, which I know takes time and effort. How has that experience been?
Michele Filgate: I’m extremely grateful for all of the buzz/publicity, and I’ve loved having a chance to travel around the country and talk to strangers and friends about such a universal topic. I’ve heard from so many people who have told me this is exactly the book they need right now: particularly around Mother’s Day.
Eva Woods: Mother’s Day is a lot!
Michele Filgate: It really is! But mothers are an evergreen topic, so this book will continue to resonate with readers well after that holiday.
Eva Woods: There are so many ways to approach the topic of mothers and motherhood; how did you make sure the essays stayed cohesive?
Michele Filgate: Great question, Eva. I wanted to make sure that the essays were different enough from each other to reflect a wide variety of mother/child relationships. People who are or were close to their moms, people who are or were estranged, people who struggle to communicate with their moms, and so forth. So I worked closely with all of the writers to make sure there was a wide spectrum of experiences reflected.
Lauren Durso: Were there any essays that you received and ended up not using in the collection? Or did they all make it?
Michele Filgate: Absolutely, Lauren. I think that’s inevitable when editing an anthology.
Eva Woods: I liked that you included men in the collection. A lot of times, books about moms focus on daughters exclusively and I think the mother/son relationship is so interesting. Was this something you thought about when approaching authors?
Michele Filgate: Yes! I wanted this book to appeal to a wide audience.
Marisa: You mentioned the responses you received when your essay first published at Longreads; I’m sure you’re hearing more stories and people are sharing again now that the book is out. How do you handle receiving people’s personal experiences without becoming overwhelmed?
Michele Filgate: Marisa: That’s an excellent question. I won’t lie: publishing my essay and now this book is the hardest, most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I love hearing from people. That’s one of the greatest pleasures and rewards that comes with being a writer. But I think it’s important to have boundaries. I don’t always respond to every single email, for instance. I always think of the terrific essay that Melissa Febos wrote, “Do you want to be known for your writing or your swift email responses?”
Marisa: I LOVE that essay by Melissa. I have a real problem being OCD about replying to emails, and I read that piece a lot to remind myself to at least try and prioritize. I’ve even talked about it in therapy, and written a Rumpus newsletter about it!
Michele Filgate: I have the opposite problem. Ha! I feel like half the time my emails start with “Sorry for taking so long to respond to you.”
Eva Woods: That connects to my next question Marisa! Michele, how do you deal with writers inclusion of so much personal detail in the essays? Do you feel protective of them?
Michele Filgate: Absolutely. And that’s why I felt it was really important to keep that in mind while editing their work, too.
Eva Woods: What was the most surprising thing about this experience?
Michele Filgate: A few of the reviews questioned whether this was a good book to give for Mother’s Day, and that surprised me. I’m biased, but I envision this book as the perfect gift for one’s mother. It’s an invitation to have conversations about difficult topics and all that goes unsaid.
Marisa: I am planning on giving my copy to my mom after our chat tonight!
Eva Woods: What do you think makes a good editor, especially in an anthology capacity?
Michele Filgate: To me a good anthology editor needs to make sure they are inclusive of all kinds of stories and writers. It was important to me not just to have a diverse set of writers, but a diverse set of experiences and backgrounds and relationships between mother/child.
Eva Woods: There was also a ton of diversity in writing style; I really loved that.
Michele Filgate: Yes! I aimed for that as well.
Marisa: What did this process teach you about editing? And will you/how will you take that forward into your own writing?
Michele Filgate: A good editor is a gift for a writer. (Also: editing isn’t easy!) I learned a lot from collaborating on this project with my editor at Simon & Schuster, Karyn Marcus. We both worked with the writers on helping them polish these pieces. I have a newfound appreciation for what editors do, and I also feel better about my own messy first drafts. Good writing often takes several drafts.
Marisa: That is such a good takeaway! I spend so much time editing that it’s hard for me to turn it off and let myself be a messy writer.
Michele Filgate: Those messy first drafts are so important.
Michele Filgate: And a necessary part of the process.
Eva Woods: Sometimes when I’m down about writing I go looking for old, old essays from writers I love now, just for that feeling.
Eva Woods: That “it takes practice; just keep going” feeling.
Michele Filgate: I wonder if there’s an anthology where the writers share multiple drafts of an essay or short story. Now THAT would be interesting!
Eva Woods: I love that idea!
Eva Woods: On average, how much do you think the essays changed between first draft and finished version?
Michele Filgate: That’s hard to say. Every single writer is different. So it varied.
Marisa: Did you talk with other anthology editors during the editing process?
Michele Filgate: Yup! Jennifer Baker [Everyday People] and Brian Gresko [When I First Held You] and Lilly Dancyger [Burn It Down] and Sari Botton [Goodbye to All That, Never Can Say Goodbye] are all amazing writers and editors, and I’m so grateful that I could bounce ideas off of them/ask advice/etc.
Marisa: Wow, that is indeed a brilliant group of editors and writers! It’s so helpful to have that kind of community when you’re working on a big project like this must have been.
Michele Filgate: I think it’s really important for writers and editors to support each other. I’m a big believer in being a literary citizen.
Marisa: You are one of the best examples of what it means to be a good literary citizen I can think of, truly.
Eva Woods: How do you balance joy and grief in a collection like this? It seems like so many people have challenging relationships with their moms, but the book wasn’t a downer at all.
Michele Filgate: I’m so happy to hear that. It was extremely important to me that the anthology not have a single tone to it. I wanted to reflect all of the emotions.
Marisa: Are you open to sharing what you’re working on in your own writing right now?
Michele Filgate: Oh god, I’d love to talk about new stuff. I’m working on fiction which is very exciting. I just finished my first year at NYU, where I’m getting an MFA in fiction. Last night I read a short story in front of one hundred and twenty people and it was nerve-wracking and thrilling at the same time! As part of the Les Bleus Literary Salon, for their fifth anniversary event.
Eva Woods: Fiction is so exciting! Can you tell us a little about it?
Michele Filgate: Sure! The short story I read is set at a summer camp in Maine in the 1990s and centers around a group of twelve-year-old girls. It examines the power structure between female friends and it’s a coming of age story. They become fixated on the camp director, a woman older than most of their moms, and discover a secret that leads to their loss of innocence.
Eva Woods: WOW, that is right up my alley! I’m excited.
Michele Filgate: I guess I should start submitting it places! I read the fifth draft and I’m still working on it, but it might be ready in a month or two.
Marisa: Who are your favorite writers/biggest influences when it comes to fiction, and especially short fiction?
Michele Filgate: Ooooh, so many. It’s hard to name a few. For fiction in general: Elena Ferrante, Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk, my friend Taylor Larsen, Virginia Woolf, Paul Harding, Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth McCracken, Valeria Luiselli… I could go on and on. For short fiction: Carmen Maria Machado, Grace Paley, Mary Gaitskill, Mavis Gallant, Lorrie Moore, so many other writers.
Marisa: SO MANY BRILLIANT WOMEN! What about new and forthcoming work you’re especially excited about?
Michele Filgate: Ocean Vuong’s forthcoming novel is one of the best books of the year. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I am obsessed with novels written by poets
Marisa: Yes, poets writing prose is my favorite thing!
Eva Woods: Also, if there’s any other media you’re into right now, I get my best recommendations from these chats.
Michele Filgate: I watch a lot of TV shows and movies. The show I’m recently obsessed with is What We Do in the Shadows on FX. It’s a hilarious vampire show based on a movie co-written by Jermaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords. Have any of you watched it?
Eva Woods: I am in LOVE with it.
Michele Filgate: It’s so good, right?! We all need humor right now as an escape from the reality of what’s happening in our country. Another favorite show is High Maintenance on HBO. Each episode is like a short story.
Eva Woods: Absolutely. It gets a little political too!
Marisa: Has anyone watched Dead to Me yet?
Eva Woods: Nope, what is it?
Michele Filgate: No, tell us about it!
Marisa: Dead to Me is a new Netflix show with Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, and I’m loving it.
Eva Woods: I’ll def check it out!
Marisa: Any show centering female friendship and also with a dead white dude instead of a dead woman as a premise is off to a good start, ya know?
Michele Filgate: God yes. I can’t wait to watch it! I’m always looking for good shows. Oh also: check out Sex Education on Netflix. Another brilliant show. And Gillian Anderson is in it and she’s a goddess.
Eva Woods: I am just rewatching the Good Place until it comes back
Michele Filgate: I need to give that show another chance! I started it and gave up a few episodes in, but people seem to love it.
Eva Woods: The twist at the end of season one is wonderful, and I think will hook you.
Marisa: I haven’t seen any of the shows you mentioned, Michele, so I’m excited to check them out!
Michele Filgate: You guys, i’m getting kicked out of the laundromat where I’m currently chatting with you. It’s about to close, so i’m sorry to say that i need to leave a few minutes early!
Eva Woods: Thanks for your time!
Marisa: No worries! Thank you so much for joining us tonight.
Michele Filgate: Thank you for your wonderful questions! And for reading the book! Have a great night.
Marisa: Hope you both enjoy the rest of the weekend, and have a good night!
Photograph of Michele Filgate by Sylvie Rosokoff.