Julia Fine’s new novel, The Upstairs House, is a ghost story about a new mother being haunted by beloved children’s book author, Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown. I was sold on this deliciously curious premise far before I opened the book, but after reading The Upstairs House, I’m still thinking about Fine’s artful weaving together of narratives that explore what it is to find oneself as a mother and artist.
The Upstairs House is Julia Fine’s second novel. She is also the author of What Should Be Wild, which was shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Superior First Novel Award and the Chicago Review of Books Award. She teaches writing in Chicago, and you can find her online at julia-fine.com, and on Twitter at @finejuli.
I emailed her to talk about the massive (and sometimes very scary) identity shift one undergoes as a new mother, and how a story about the disorienting haze of the postpartum experience was a natural companion to a love story all about power and resentment.
The Rumpus: I have to start with an admittedly simple question, because I’m dying to know the answer. Where did the idea to create a postpartum ghost story centered around the author of Goodnight Moon come from? I don’t think I had ever consciously considered the quiet eeriness of the book before, but as soon as I heard the premise for The Upstairs House, I thought to myself, Yeah, Goodnight Moon is creepy as hell.
Julia Fine: My approach to novel writing has always been to take my current obsessions and somehow make them work together to find some sort of emotional truth. With my first book, it was fairy tales and female sexuality—which admittedly make a lot more sense together than Margaret Wise Brown and postpartum depression (PPD). But I read Goodnight Moon to my son every night for almost a year as part of his sleep training routine, and was stuck on the “goodnight nobody” page. It sneaks up on you—everything thus far has been following a fairly regular pattern, and then there’s this blankness, both in the language and the illustrations. And we all just accept it, probably because we’re exhausted and trying to get our kids to go to sleep. I love that page, I was just constantly thinking about that page. It led me to look into Margaret, which led to an obsession with her life. I couldn’t believe no one had made a biopic or written her into a novel. She’s such a rich, complicated woman.
At the same time, I was coming out of the haze of my first time postpartum, and thinking that those early months with a newborn—when your world is upside down and you’re awake at all hours and your former self feels like a dream—would be a great set up for psychological suspense. I’d initially thought to write a book that could be like Rear Window with a nursing mom instead of Jimmy Stewart. That very quickly turned into more of a gothic horror take on the fourth trimester, with “nobody” stepping in as the connective tissue between Margaret and the present-day new parents.
Rumpus: The book operates a bit like a nesting doll in that there are multiple stories within stories, including the protagonist Megan’s experience finding herself as a mother, Megan finding herself as a writer and academic, Margaret Wise Brown finding herself as a writer, and Margaret Wise Brown finding herself within an often-toxic relationship with her lover, the poet Michael Strange. Did you use one of these stories as your writing center in the drafting process? How did you ensure that each of these narratives spoke to each other in meaningful ways?
Fine: It took a decent amount of restructuring and redrafting to make the puzzle pieces fit. At heart, I always saw the book as built around the relationship between Megan and Clara, and the relationship between Margaret and Michael. I tried to find commonalities between the two pairs—the intertwined love and resentment, the dependencies, the feelings of inadequacy. It sounds awful to say it out loud, but the newborn-mother relationship is kind of sadistic. Both Megan and Margaret are giving huge amounts of themselves to someone who doesn’t show much appreciation, and basing a sense of self around another person who isn’t able to give them what they need.
I also hit upon this idea of modernist literature as a bridge between the stories. Margaret was a massive fan of Gertrude Stein, and a lot of what she was doing in her own work was sort of translating Stein’s ideas into the language of early childhood. When you read accounts of postpartum psychosis, women talk about what psychiatrists call “flights of ideas,” where they’re completely immersed in immediate sensory experience and making these quick associative jumps from one thought to another. What is reading James Joyce or Gertrude Stein but a literary flight of ideas? The similarities allowed me to use Megan’s dissertation on modernist children’s literature to both fill readers in on Margaret’s life and career, and subtly introduce that psychological slippage early in the book.
Rumpus: Megan experiences postpartum psychosis in the novel, but so much of her postpartum experience is highly relatable, whether you’ve had a postpartum mood disorder or not, particularly the disorientation that attends the massive identity shift upon becoming a mother. When Megan goes out for her first drink after childbirth, you write: “The goal for the next two hours was to be Megan, not Mother.” While we’ve made some strides towards acknowledging the postpartum period as being complicated and challenging for mothers, I think we have a long way to go in terms of recognizing that aside from leaky boobs and sleep deprivation, adjusting to a life-altering identity shift can’t simply be diagnosed away with Zoloft or therapy. If you could design a postpartum utopia for new mothers, what would it look like?
Fine: One of the toughest things for me was the complexity of my needs and desires postpartum, specifically after my son (my first baby) was born. I was simultaneously obsessed with my newborn, and resentful that I was missing out on other things I needed—exercise, social interaction, uninterrupted time to write. The intensity of that feeling has faded as my kids have grown, but I think the push-and-pull between wanting for your children, wanting for yourself, and wanting your children for yourself is an inevitable aspect of parenting. Ideally, new mothers would have forty-eight-hour days, and their babies would sleep straight through for twelve of those hours.
Of course, there are actual changes we can make as a society to help new mothers through the postpartum period. My realistic postpartum utopia would include paid parental leave, lots of extra hands—maybe some subsidized night doulas—and multiple well-visits not just for the baby, but for parents, too. I’d like to do away with the shame surrounding the choices mothers make. Are you pumping? Great! Are you formula-feeding? Great! Who cares why! There shouldn’t be this need to explain why you decided to stop nursing, or to sleep train, or to put your infant in front of the TV (hi, pandemic). I think getting rid of the shame around these decisions—and the shame around the experience of new parenthood as less than idyllic—would encourage women to ask for help, and to go easier on themselves.
Rumpus: You write in your Author’s Notes that your own postpartum experience (although “vastly different from Megan’s”) was “traumatic and isolating.” Can you speak to how your experience of becoming a mother informed not only this book but how you think about yourself as a writer? Megan, like so many of us, desperately wants to hold onto her identity as a thinker, and as a person valued for her professional achievements, and I think sometimes motherhood can stoke the fires of ambition in really interesting ways.
Fine: Before having kids I definitely subscribed to the “art monster” school of novel writing. In Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill’s narrator uses this term to describe the obsessive, all-consuming nature of art making—Nabokov needing his wife to lick his stamps, Sondheim’s Georges Seurat who can’t tear himself away from his painting, etc. I loved being an art monster. My first novel was an art monster novel, where I’d stay in my pajamas and write for hours and live in the fog of my imaginary world. It was wonderful and indulgent, and I think it resulted in a decent book.
Once my son was born, I had a responsibility to compartmentalize the art-making from the day-to-day life. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I actually think my writing is much stronger for that discipline. As a writing teacher, I talk a lot about constraints, and how valuable it is to have guidelines and rules for your work. As a parent, there’s obviously the time constraint—I wrote The Upstairs House mostly during nap times and on weekends. But there’s also the brain space you make in order to give your children the care and attention they deserve. It’s more of an active choice to say okay, I’m here now playing dinosaurs or giving you a bath. I definitely still daydream, but I try to be present for them in the moments I’m with them. This has made my art-making time more deliberate, and has resulted in more urgent, purposeful work.
I’m an ambitious person. Like most of us, I want the accolades and the residencies, the recognition that I’m intellectually valuable. But I’m trying very hard to remind myself of how fleeting the career success can be, and to separate the big-ticket items that are harder to come by as a parent from the actual impact of my writing.
Rumpus: Megan’s husband Ben is a “nice guy.” He’s kind, warm, dependable, and doesn’t shirk diaper-changing duties. But he’s also wholly oblivious to the intense inner turmoil Megan undergoes as a new mother. And, the more deeply Megan falls into postpartum psychosis, the more tenuous their marital connection becomes. Can you tell me a little about how the character of Ben came to be, and why you chose to make him “nice” but ultimately entirely separate from Megan’s emotional journey?
Fine: Ben is the safe choice for Megan. What she really needs is a partner who will challenge her, but she’s married to Ben because he’s dependable, and her own family situation has always been unstable. While I was writing, I was thinking about how people (knowing better!) will have babies to try to fix their marriages, and then realize that having a baby just makes the cracks more obvious. If something isn’t working before you have a kid, taking care of a newborn together is just going to exacerbate that problem. Ben is oblivious and he misses the signs that he really should have been able to see and address—but he isn’t a bad husband or a bad father. He’s just not the right guy for Megan, and that ends up manifesting in dangerous ways.
Rumpus: The book contains two incredibly charismatic ghosts based on real people—the author of Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown, and her socialite lover, poet Michael Strange. Margaret operates as a sort of good witch, offering Megan an escape from the monotony and isolation of her own life, while Michael does the traditional ghost work of haunting Megan via overflowing bathtubs and wildly circulating ceiling fans. Tell me about this! How and why did you make your ghostly choices?
Fine: The ghost versions of Margaret and Michael are drawn from their real-life counterparts. Margaret was a bit of what I’d affectionately call a space cadet—a dreamer in a way that could be both charming and very frustrating to those around her. She was a bohemian who had come from money and therefore didn’t concern herself with money, so she’d do things like buy the entire wares of a flower cart on a whim and then forget to pay her electric bill. Even after having read her journals and biographies and letters, she remains a bit slippery, which is part of what drew me to her. She had a lot of conflicting desires, and that makes her relatable even as Megan is sort of swept up in her glamour.
Michael has less documentation but she’s easier to understand. She was a forceful personality, and could be incredibly charismatic and sociable and lovely, but also quite cruel. She would be furious at the disparity in how she and Margaret have been remembered by history. They had some unhealthy career competition during their lifetimes—Margaret’s was on the way up while Michael’s was decidedly on the way down—and I asked myself what Michael might want were her spirit to return, and how she might go about getting it. As a general rule, Michael was pragmatic, but toward the end of her life she was increasingly interested in spiritualism and reincarnation. Once I learned that, the ghost story wrote itself.
Rumpus: Megan’s mother experiences some sort of mental breakdown that is never specifically diagnosed in the novel, but it clearly operates as a big identity shift in that Megan and her sister refer to their mother “before” and “after” the incident. We also get a little peek into Megan’s own daughter’s future. Without giving anything away, can you speak to how heredity and the lineage of mothers and daughters operates within the book? I’m gonna go out on a limb and assume your choice to give Megan a daughter and not a son was deliberate.
Fine: I’m interested in inherited trauma. How do you parent when you haven’t had a good example in your own life? How do you process your mother’s and grandmother’s experiences? Since family history is a big risk factor for postpartum mood disorders, Megan has a literal, biological legacy as well as a larger sociocultural one. We like to think we can shield ourselves and our kids, but we, and they, are the product of our lineage. This means different things for different people, and in Megan’s case it’s a psychiatric history, and a culture of silence and conformity and burying desire that a lot of women can probably relate to. I don’t think anyone looks at that kind of inheritance and thinks, I want this for my daughter, but breaking the cycle can be extremely difficult.
Rumpus: So much of the book has to do with Megan’s desire to label herself definitively, to know what type of woman she is. You write: “Since adolescence I’d done everything I could to find the category that would explain me to myself, the category to do the work of self-examination for me.” I think often we assume that becoming a mother entails a certain kind of identity completion, like we’ve checked off this huge biological and social box, when in actuality, having a child can often lead one towards deeper self-examination. Did you set out to explore the theme of self-knowledge at the beginning of the writing process, or did it emerge as you wrote?
Fine: It sort of came up organically. Megan has been taught to suppress her feelings, and as a result she really clings to definitions and categories as a way to understand her place in the world. When she realizes she doesn’t necessarily want to be defined as a mother—or at least not only as a mother—she goes into a tailspin. I loved the idea of someone who has kept this strict control over her emotional life being forced to let go of the reins. The transition from not-mother to mother is so massive—I think you’re right in that we view it as a sociocultural milestone when in reality it’s a total re-conception of identity, which includes ripping off all the bandaids we’ve put on our own issues.
Rumpus: While the book is super plot-driven in terms of Megan’s haunting (and deliciously so!), the central thread to me seems to be Megan’s grappling with the terms of motherhood, which really doesn’t become clear to the reader (or to Megan) until the book nears its conclusion:
It felt very unfair that because I loved her, I would always have to wonder where she was, what she was doing. Very unfair that there was not a part of my brain forever focused on Clara—I couldn’t escape into my research or writing, I couldn’t zonk out in front of the TV or get gluttonously high and play video games or take an impromptu vacation or even lounge about, enjoying my own heightening delusions. This was so obvious, this had been creeping up behind me all along, but it was only here, as I was beagling without her on Long Island that unfairness of it hit me.
Megan’s emotional awakening taking place within the active climax of the book underscores that this idea of motherhood being “unfair” is actually just as dark and dangerous as the high-octane haunting. Tell me about how you thought about structure as it relates to the literal action of the plot alongside Megan’s own emotional arc.
Fine: Megan’s feelings about Clara follow Clara’s developmental progress. The fourth trimester gets its name for a reason. Those first three months are rough not only for their sheer physical demands, but also because the baby can’t give much back to you. As Megan’s newborn becomes more of a person, her experience of motherhood changes. But because the ghost plot line has a more traditional build, the end of the fourth trimester coincides with the climactic “plotty” moments, which allowed me to play these two very different story arcs against each other. The book actually has a pretty traditional shape (the thesis and historical sections not withstanding), but because there’s an inherent tension between what Megan is feeling and what she’s experiencing, I like to think it feels fresh.
Rumpus: Tell me about the ending. What does it say about what we pass down to our fellow women? Is it a blessing or a curse, or is it both and neither? Did you play with alternative endings?
Fine: The ending felt inevitable to me. Based on everything I knew about Megan, this is where she’d wind up. At the very least, we know Clara will have the opportunity to make different choices. In a way Megan does get her love story, that marriage you always see at the end of a classical comedy. It’s just with her daughter instead of her husband. The fact that she loves Clara and they’re able to form this bond—it’s not your traditional happy ending, but given the circumstances it’s kind of amazing.
Photograph of Julia Fine by Nastasia Mora. Book cover design by Jarrod Taylor.