JUNE 20, 2020
“THERE WAS A POINT in Carrie’s labor when she wouldn’t stop asking if I was okay.” And so begins Emily Adrian’s wonderful new novel, Everything Here Is Under Control. In that flashback, the narrator is telling us about watching her best friend give birth when they were both 18. The scene gutted me. It made me want to write a whole essay on what it really means when people ask each other if they are okay. It’s a loaded question, and yet a totally familiar one, and it sets the tone for this precise, poignant, and thrilling story of friendship, motherhood, and the one-way road to adulthood.
Emily and I first connected on Twitter in 2015, when we were debut authors with new young adult novels on the horizon. Five years later, we are both on the other side of our first two books and Emily’s new novel is decidedly not YA, even though there is a lot of teen action in it. Emily is my first real internet friend, someone I’ve never met in person but whom I feel like I know. That’s due in large part to her books, which are so honest, so companionable, and so deep, that you feel as if you are communing with a long-lost friend.
Whenever I see the word “motherhood” in a description of a novel, I immediately think “pass.” There is something virtuous and exclusive about the topic that turns me off. But it turns out Everything Here Is Under Control is my exception. Besides, to say the book is “about motherhood” does it a disservice. It just happens that the narrator, 31-year-old Amanda, has a 10-week-old baby, Jack. But Amanda doesn’t treat motherhood as some otherworldly condition that only moms understand. In fact, early on, Amanda wishes that having a baby had made her instantly “[m]aternal and disciplined and kind,” when actually becoming a mom brought no transformation at all. The “problem isn’t that having Jack changed me,” she says; “the problem is that it didn’t.”
The book takes place in Amanda’s hometown of Deerling, Ohio, where Amanda returns for the summer with her newborn baby, Jack, in order to reconnect with her childhood best friend, Carrie. Carrie is the girl whose labor we see in the first scene, and whose daughter, Nina, is now 12. To give away much more of the story would deprive readers of the pleasure of discovery that makes this book so compelling. But I will just say that Amanda is possessed by a need to heal, to understand, and to restore a balance that’s long been broken. It’s Amanda’s emotional journey, urgent and searching, that drives the book, moving it with the pulse and pace of a thriller.
JULIANA ROMANO: YA as a genre is a bit of gray area and arguably just a marketing category. What does YA mean to you? How you did end up writing it in the first place?
EMILY ADRIAN: I’ve always thought that if a novel features a teenage protagonist, and if the narrator’s point of view is believably narrow in the way that a teenager’s perspective is, then it’s a YA novel. So, if a novel seems to be about teenagers but is really about an adult reflecting on adolescence, it’s not a YA novel. I think, these days, publishers more or less agree with me — though maybe there’s also a cap on how “literary” a YA novel is allowed to be.
The books I loved as a kid were books that captured the emotional urgency of that age without straying too far from the limitations of being a child. I wanted the conflict to feel high stakes while remaining true to the regular stuff of high school: uncertain identity, awkward romance, strained friendships. And that’s what I tried to do with my own YA novels.
I will say that writing YA was almost an accident. I finished my first manuscript when I was 21, and I signed with my agent when I was 22. Before that, I had tried and failed to write books that would be considered “adult.” So it wasn’t that I was specifically drawn to the idea of being a young adult author; it was that adolescence was the only phase of life from which I could tell fully developed stories. Adulthood was too new to write about.
That’s interesting. I always default to thinking of YA in terms of the age of the intended audience, which is problematic because a lot of YA readers are adults. Seeing it in terms of the perspective of the characters is much more clarifying. But I guess I’m curious how you see the teen perspective as being different from an adult one. In some ways, YA novels are easier to resolve because reaching adulthood is a destination in itself. One of the things that your new book does so beautifully is that it doesn’t treat adulthood as an ending. Amanda is always struggling to define adulthood, and the transition to motherhood only deepens her questioning. I loved it when she says, “[As a teenager] I couldn’t believe I would ever become an adult. Now, I can’t believe I’m supposed to stay one forever.” Is the idea of adulthood something you set out to explore when writing this book, and/or your young adult books?
That’s a good question. I think I have tried to explore the concept of adulthood in all my books. When we’re teenagers, we tend to think of adulthood in terms of what we will gain. We look forward to independence and autonomy. To having sex in our own beds and ordering drinks from bars and buying whatever we want from the grocery store. We imagine that we will have a lot of control over what happens to us and how we spend our time. And for many of us, those fantasies do come true, at least to an extent. But as adulthood picks up steam, we also gain an understanding of what we have lost. At one point, Amanda says, “It should not come as a shock to me that I am no one’s baby.” But it does shock her! When her son cries, she tends to him; when Amanda cries, no one tends to her.
Writing from a teenage perspective, for a teenage audience, I’m often writing about wanting more agency, more freedom. When writing from an adult perspective, and particularly from the point of view of a new mother, I’m writing about wanting to shrug off some of the responsibility we accumulate in our pursuit of those other things.
I love that. Being a teenager is about longing for freedom and being an adult is about wanting to shrug off the responsibility. In a way, longing for freedom is freedom. Because as Amanda says, “That’s the thing about babies: after you have one, all imagined alternatives to the past become tragedies.” She can’t fully long to be free because that would mean being free of Jack.
Yeah, that’s a good point. She even says, “All I know is that I cannot un-have him, and I have never, for a single moment, wished I could.”
Tell me about the phrase, “High school was supposed to be like Vegas.”
[Laughs.] Amanda is referring to the city’s stupid slogan: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” She thought that the decisions she made in high school would have no effect on her future. Of course, the opposite proved true: the choices she and Carrie made at 17 have defined their adulthoods. (And I wonder whether teenage Amanda ever really believed high school was like Vegas, or if it’s a belief she assigns to her younger self in order to rationalize behavior she regrets.)
One of the things I loved about Everything Here Is Under Control is how beautifully it deals with happiness and fulfillment. I loved that this was a book where Amanda “has everything” and yet still experiences a constant existential searching. If we had met Amanda before she had Jack, do you think she would have sounded happier? Or, rather, even though she doesn’t think she changed, do you think she did?
I think if we had met Amanda just before she had Jack, she might have sounded more settled. There were whole years in her mid-to-late 20s when what happened between her and Carrie seemed firmly in the past, and when her relationship with Gabe felt stable. And then having a baby shifts her perspective on everything. Was abandoning Carrie in Ohio with a newborn forgivable? Can she adapt to a major change without the support of her best friend? Does her partner understand who she is and what she needs? These questions have become urgent. And to the extent that Amanda can no longer answer them, she has changed, or at least her experience of her own life has changed.
Amanda is white and Carrie is black. The power dynamic in their relationship is complicated and constantly shifting, and Amanda’s desire to balance it is one of the driving forces of the story. I know it’s hard to answer this without spoiling anything, but how did you imagine race playing into their relationship and/or into their own individual narratives?
Something that Amanda desperately wants to know is whether Carrie mourns the loss of their childhood friendship as much as Amanda does. She wants to ask: “Did I matter to you? Do you ever google me?” Amanda reflects on a time when she, still living in New York, happened to hear Carrie being interviewed on NPR about her work as a tattoo artist. Amanda wonders how Carrie would react to Amanda’s own voice on the radio: Would she listen with bated breath? Change the station?
It’s no coincidence that Carrie, on NPR, is talking about her career as a black tattoo artist. Hearing Carrie refer to herself as a black artist, and to racism in the tattoo industry, surprises Amanda, who has mostly thought of Carrie’s race as incidental. It’s the moment when she begins to sense some deficiency in her understanding of Carrie’s experience. By the time Amanda returns to Ohio, it’s the summer of 2016 and people in Deerling are painting Trump’s name onto their barns. Amanda can no longer assume that her discomfort with her hometown is equal to Carrie’s discomfort — or that it ever was. For Amanda, it’s annoying that Deerling’s politics don’t reflect her own; for Carrie, who was a young black girl and is now raising one, it’s deeply threatening.
Reconnecting with her friend requires Amanda to give up the idea that she ever understood Carrie as well as Carrie understood her, and to realize that race is one of the (many) causes of their ever-shifting and often disheartening power dynamic. Now that she’s older, now that a presidential candidate is running on a platform of shameless bigotry, now that she feels a maternal protectiveness toward Carrie’s teenage daughter, Amanda is more aware of Carrie’s blackness — and of her own whiteness.
The book is set in the summer of 2016, right before Trump got elected. Carrie’s teen daughter, Nina, and her friends, are the activists in this book. The adults are equally liberal but more … cautious. Do you think that, if the book was taking place now in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and amid the current wave of Black Lives Matter protests, the characters would be having different conversations?
It’s hard to imagine the book taking place right now because the story is so much about the unease of not knowing what will happen. The characters are aware that Trump winning the election is a possibility, but his victory still seems to Amanda (as it did to so many white liberals) preposterous and unlikely. And, in her postpartum state, the future in general seems theoretical; she can’t look past the current moment without feeling exhausted. She even describes the idea of her son’s personhood as “notional”: “When I think about his future, more than excitement or curiosity, I feel hope. A desperate kind of hope that makes me wish I were religious so I could pray for his safety.”
Our present moment feels like an answer to a question we asked when Trump was elected: “What’s the worst that could happen?” (This. June 2020. And whatever the fuck comes next.) So, yes, I think that setting the book in 2020 would change both the tone of the novel and the conversations the characters have with one another. In the book, Nina’s activism centers around an election whose outcome Nina — in Deerling, Ohio — has no real hope of affecting. I think it would be much harder for Carrie and Amanda to see the Black Lives Matter protests organizing not only in major cities but in small, Republican-voting towns and conclude that their (and Nina’s) participation wasn’t important, wasn’t worth some risk.
I have one more question. This one is very open. What was the biggest revelation you had while writing this book?
I would say that there was a first draft revelation and a second draft revelation. When I started writing Everything Here Is Under Control, my own son was still a newborn. I was writing on my phone while breastfeeding, writing while he slept with his face smashed against my thigh. I was sleep-deprived, and in physical pain, and often deeply unhappy. There’s a scene early in the book, which has always been in the book, where Amanda’s partner observes that she doesn’t seem happy. She responds, “I didn’t have a baby because I thought it would make me happy.” He looks at her as if she has “said something laughably illogical. I didn’t order this pizza because I was hungry.” Only in writing those lines did I realize the truth of them: that I had never believed the primary emotion of motherhood would be happiness. That I had opted into the experience for deeper, more complicated reasons — and that enduring what Amanda calls the “postpartum nightmare” was part of what I had wanted.
The second revelation came after I had a revised the manuscript a few times. And it relates directly to what we were talking about before. As I write in the book:
Is this what everyone wants, secretly? For another person to accept both the blame and responsibility for all our bad feelings? Maybe the adolescent struggle for independence is misguided. We grow up and fire our mothers, insisting their work here is done, before realizing we cannot hire a replacement.
The revelation was that with motherhood comes a level of independence that we never imagined and didn’t fantasize about. After giving birth we are suddenly responsible for another person’s well-being, and no one is responsible for ours. Often, even a woman’s partner, own mother, doctors, friends, and relatives are more focused on the baby than on her. The realization can be galvanizing. To care for your child, to postpone your own needs, to steer the goddamn ship — those are satisfying challenges! Succeeding feels great. But I also think that becoming a mother might be an opportunity to finally grieve the loss of childhood, the safety and comfort of being someone’s baby.