JILL KELLY is the author of several books including the memoir Sober Truths: The Making of an Honest Woman, a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and three novels, The Color of Longing (Three Cats Publishing 2013), Fog of Dead Souls (Skyhorse Publishing 2014), and When Your Mother Doesn’t (Skyhorse Publishing, 2015). A former professor of literature, she now works as a text and developmental editor and coach for writers and other creative individuals. She is a visual artist who works in soft pastels and acrylics to create both representational and abstract pieces, one of which is included below. She lives in Portland, Oregon. In an email interview, Jill answered my questions about how her relationship with her mother informed her latest novel, her experience as a recovering alcoholic, and how writing and visual art gave her something alcohol had failed to: joy in meaningful, creative experiences.
KRISTA LUKAS: You’ve said that the idea for When Your Mother Doesn’t came from a prompt: evening at a rest stop. From there, some of your characters came to you, and you eventually realized the book was going to be about mother and child, mothers and daughters, your mother and you. Can you talk more about the roots of this story in your relationship with your own mother?
JILL KELLY: My mother and I had a difficult relationship, compounded from the start by the death of her first daughter at 3 months of age, something I didn’t learn about until I was 14. I was born a year later and was clearly not the daughter she was still mourning. Like my character Frankie, I’m a sensitive, and my mother wasn’t prepared for that either. In the decade before she died at 80, my mother developed dementia, and at odd moments I would learn pieces of her childhood and early married years, which had been fraught with even more anger and sadness. I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I found Frankie at the rest stop or even while I was writing the first several chapters of the novel. But I had been thinking for several years about the difficulties of daughters whose mothers can’t love them and all that we daughters don’t know about the lives of our mothers in the years before we are born. So as I moved further into the “Reunion” section of the book, it became clear that this was what I needed to explore.
I can imagine that finding out at age 14 that you had a sister would have affected you profoundly. It sounds like that information created a new lens through which you began to understand your mother. How has your understanding of her changed over the years?
Actually, more difficult for me than the existence of this sister was the fact that my mother had an enormous secret that she had kept from me, me who loved her so much and who tried desperately to make her happy. When I told my grandmother that I had learned the secret, she made me promise never to talk to my mother about it, which I never did. This, of course, created a huge wall between me and my mother and taught me that you don’t talk about what is too painful, that no matter how much you love someone, there are always important things they don’t share and shouldn’t and you can’t either.
As the decades passed though, I learned to see my mother as a product of her generation. In 1945, there was no counseling available to her. She was a housewife on a Navy base during the war and had to grieve on her own. My parents, like many of their peers, distrusted psychology and any reflecting on their feelings. In fact, my mother repeatedly told me that I thought and analyzed things way too much, that that only caused suffering. At the time of these conversations, I felt she didn’t understand me. Only later did I see that it was I who didn’t understand her. It thus seemed quite natural to give Lola my mother’s “get over it” attitude.
Would you like to tell how you learned the secret?
Here’s how I described it in my memoir, Sober Truths: The Making of an Honest Woman:
It’s a hot summer morning. My cousin Beth and I have slept late, sunburned and exhausted from a day at the lake, swimming and riding in the electric boat launch into the water and playing the way that kids do. We’ve stumbled out into the kitchen, still groggy from heat and sleep. Beth is frying up grilled Velveeta sandwiches, something my mother would never let us eat, and I stand there in my baby doll pajamas watching. Beth’s mother, my Aunt Helen, sits smoking and swinging her crossed leg at the Formica breakfast nook with her sister, a woman I have not met before. There’s an introduction to Jeannette to which I pay little attention. Helen, an aunt by marriage, is not one of my favorite relatives. Her sarcasm and tight smile make me uncomfortable. And I’m not curious about this sister who looks just like her with their identical home perms and shellacked nails and cigarettes.
The hot butter and melting cheese smell good. I am hungry. But the women’s voices are loud, and Beth and I can’t help but listen to their conversation.
“Is this the one who was born after the baby that died? Such a tragedy that must have been for Lucile.” Jeannette stubs out her cigarette as I look her way and then lights another.
“What are you talking about?” I ask. I can tell she means me.
“Oh, you know,” Jeannette says. “The daughter your parents had that died in that accident.”
“You’re lying,” I say vehemently. I’m surprised at my own willingness to confront an adult. “My mother never told me about that. If it were true, she would have told me. You’re lying.”
Jeannette doesn’t say any more. Helen too remains silent. The fact that they don’t contradict me, the fact that they don’t respond to my rude outburst tells me that it’s true. Beth is watching me, fascinated. I start to cry. The room remains silent, the only sound the sizzling of the cheese in the pan. Suddenly, I have to get out of there.
In the bedroom, I pull my clothes down from the top bunk where I have stashed them under the pillow and put them on as fast as I can, wincing at the pull of the cotton blouse on my sunburned shoulders. I feel sick. I walk back to my grandmother’s, eager to talk to my mother, to have her tell me it isn’t true. Instead, when I see her, I feel tongue-tied and guilty. How can I bring up this tragedy that she has kept from me? I sleepwalk through the day, angry that she has had this secret all my life and didn’t tell me, angry that I now know this thing that I don’t want to know, that she must not have wanted me to know.
That evening, I find myself alone with my grandmother. I tell her what Jeannette said. “Why didn’t Mom tell me this? Why did I have to find out like this?”
My grandmother is tiny and when she puts her arms around me, I tower above her. “She never talks about it. It makes her too sad. You must keep the secret too now. You must never speak to her of it. That’s what we all agreed.” I cry and make a promise that I will keep all of my mother’s life.
And how has your understanding of your mother affected your understanding of yourself?
It takes a long time to pass through the blaming stage that Callie and Frankie seem stuck in as When Your Mother Doesn’t opens. Writing this book gave me a chance to rethink my own disappointment with my mother. I’ve always been angered by the pat phrase, “she did the best she could,” and I came to realize that it’s never the best or worst, it just is what it is. In each moment, we can only make the choice we make and that defines our life. My attitude about my mother’s choices and their impact on her and then on me began to soften; concurrently I became much less critical of my own choices. I made some terrible decisions early on in my adult life, but they brought me to where I am and I’m grateful for that.
Are there any of those terrible decisions you’d like to tell about?
There were no big terrible decisions. Instead, they were terrible in their repetitiveness: bad relationships, increased drinking, misplaced loyalties, trusting the untrustworthy. All that contributed to my descent into a hell that I lived in for a number of years until I got sober.
Are you a mother?
No. After several tedious experiences with babysitting and growing up steeped in my mother’s unhappiness as a housewife, I decided that that kind of domestic life was not for me. I wanted to travel, have adventures, and be free. So I turned my maternal instincts into college teaching and rescuing shelter cats.
What are you reading and enjoying at the moment?
I usually alternate between literary fiction and mystery/thrillers. In the literary vein, I recently finished Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s a jewel of a dystopic novel. And I am now embarking on the long voyage of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’m also a reader for the Dashiell Hammett book award this year so I have lots of brand-new mysteries on my shelf.
You describe a very disciplined writing process and schedule (journaling every night and working on your current project every morning), and you take great joy in writing. What is the relationship between your disciplined practice and joy?
My first book was a memoir about my journey into and out of alcoholism and then into long-term recovery. While I wouldn’t call that a joyous experience, I worked on it regularly, both at home and on writing retreats. I began to see that writing was deeply meaningful to me and that one of the things I needed in recovery was more deeply meaningful experiences. After the memoir was published, I wrote a 10-minute prompt every day for 20 months. That gave me a solid habit of writing every day. Then when I discovered the fun of writing fiction and living in that imaginative world, I reorganized my schedule so that I could write for an hour every morning. I moved the journaling to the evening so I’d have a meaningful experience to end the day as well. I get great joy from the meaningful. I think we all do.
The need for more deeply meaningful experiences makes sense. Mihały Csikszentmihalyi says if you’re feeling deeply engaged with something, you get to a state of flow. When we are in the flow of creativity, he says, “we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.”
Six or seven years ago, I discovered the connection between the meaningful and creativity through the work of Eric Maisel, a creativity coach. Working through his books and online courses, I saw that the gap in my life that I had been trying to fill with alcohol was a search for satisfaction. I didn’t expect to find that satisfaction in painting and writing but I did. And that sense of living more deeply and enjoying it became irresistible. This idea forms the basis for my book on creativity and recovery, Sober Play.
Did your recovery process help you develop discipline?
Oddly enough, 20 years of heavy drinking helped me develop discipline. To be a high-functioning alcoholic, you have to pretend a lot and do many things that you don’t feel well enough to do, like teach, or go to dinner, or pay your bills. I developed an elaborate structure that held my drunk life together. What recovery has taught me is about being goofy and unstructured, following my impulses and taking risks (in safe areas). It’s actually a very good combination.
You belong to a writing group where members write together. Both in the group and by yourself, do you tend to generate your own prompts, or where do you find them?
When I started writing prompts, I was working with a great book by Judy Reeves, The Writer’s Book of Days. She has a very encouraging style and the book had more than 400 prompts. When I ran out of those, I started creating my own by the month: a month of adjectives, a month of words that I loved from the dictionary, a prompt for each piece of jewelry I owned. I would assign a number to the prompts and do them in order so that I was forced to deal with whatever came up. Some of the ones I didn’t like produced the most interesting stories.
You’re also a visual artist. When you’re impelled to make something — whether in words or visual images — how do you choose the medium?
That’s an interesting question. I get my ideas for painting and writing in much the same way. My books have all developed from quick writings prompted by a word or phrase (I give myself 10-15 minutes to start a story), and then a particular “story start” will stick with me, moving in my imagination and then coming to life on the page over some months. As I work on the book, the themes and ideas come forward; they aren’t planned out in advance. In a similar way, my paintings come from a visual prompt. I collect photos of landscapes, flowers, faces, patterns that I would like to explore more deeply, and when I go into the studio, I pick something that speaks to me that day. Often the only correlation is the underlying mood of the chapter that I’m working on and the photo that I choose to paint from. However, there have been some stronger connections. My first novel, The Color of Longing, begins with an art performance where colored silk is being woven into a split rail fence in the Virginia countryside. I knew I had to paint that. It took me a lot of searching to find a photo of the kind of fence and trees I had in mind, but once I did, the painting came quite quickly.
Is there anything else you want to say about When Your Mother Doesn’t?
Frankie, Callie, and Lola are characters who are not necessarily easy to sympathize with, although most of us know people whose lives have been this complicated, and some of us have had such lives ourselves. I think it is very important to write about these kinds of problematic relationships, and I think it’s equally important to portray the kind of acceptance that Frankie comes to in the end, and which brings her a measure of peace.
How are your painting and writing interrelated? It sounds like they inform each other; one helps you work on the other.
I’ve always been a highly visual person. When I was four, I wanted to learn to read for myself because I didn’t like being read to. I couldn’t “get” it until I could see it. When I started drawing and painting in 1996, I had a very unusual teacher, Phil Sylvester, who teaches totally from observation. That was perfect for me and I began to experience the world in a much fuller way as we usually do when we draw. Not only are we looking for composition — the placement of objects in relationship to each other — but we are looking for details large and small, and for patterns. In 2002, when I got serious about writing, I realized that those six years of visual art-making were standing me in good stead, because I had developed an eye for detail, for color, for the placement of objects, and including these in description is an important part of my style. I have also written some poems about my paintings and it is fun to see the same image come alive in words.
Like many of us, I was squashed early on as a creative by teachers who believed only in immediate and apparent talent. I labored for decades under the unfortunate impression that being able to draw meant you could do a realistic rendering in a few minutes. When I learned that it was about practice and skill and willingness to risk and more practice, I tried again. I took drawing classes for a couple of years (including Phil’s beginning course three times) and then branched out on my own because he didn’t teach pastels and I wanted to work in color. I just kept practicing and after about three years of turning out a lot of terrible paintings, I began to turn out very cool things that I liked a lot. After I had worked for a few more years, I started taking classes from other painters to pick up different techniques and gain more confidence. Then about three years ago, I found an affordable studio space near my home and I go two to three times a week now. It’s a very happy place for me to be.