Whispering Hush: A Conversation with Julia Fine

March 10, 2021   •   By Crystal Hana Kim

I DEVOURED Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House in June 2020, two months after giving birth. I read it in snatches while breastfeeding, delirious with sleeplessness and exhaustion and pain and joy. In The Upstairs House, I found my experiences mirrored in the main character’s — Megan Weiler is a first-time mom, and Fine describes the banal particulars of her days in exacting detail. There’s the constant breastfeeding, the aching body, the confusion and awe and fear at now being responsible for a tiny being. While Megan’s story veers into the surreal and speculative realm as she befriends the (deceased) children’s book author Margaret Wise Brown, I was struck by how vividly Fine rendered the emotional complexities of becoming a parent. The result is a chilling, raging, and loving feminist examination of motherhood.


Julia and I chatted online over the course of a few days in between taking care of our children and working from home in the midst of the pandemic. We discussed hauntings, the lack of postpartum literature, female desire and agency, genre as metaphor, as well as Margaret Wise Brown and her socialite lover.


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CRYSTAL HANA KIM: The Upstairs House opens with Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon, taking care of her dying lover Michael Strange in November 1950. We then immediately shift to Megan Weiler, a new mom who has just given birth to a daughter named Clara in October 2017. As the novel continues, these two story lines meld together in interesting and unexpected ways. There’s so much packed into these pages, and it’s a difficult book to summarize neatly. How would you describe The Upstairs House to your ideal reader?


JULIA FINE: My elevator pitch is that The Upstairs House is a book about a woman who is either being haunted by the ghost of Margaret Wise Brown, or experiencing postpartum psychosis. At the most basic level, I’m paying homage to The Turn of the Screw and that fine line between ghost story and total nervous breakdown. But if I’m looking at horror comps from the late 1800s, I think Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is probably more apt. I’m always interested in the constraints, and in this case, the tediums of womanhood — the way we internalize societal pressures, and the prescribed roles that even women who try to buck convention end up filling. In this way, Megan and Margaret are in conversation as two women who simultaneously want to conform and rebel but can’t quite manage either, and who each have a codependent relationship with someone they simultaneously love and resent. One of those codependencies just happens to be with a newborn …


The Upstairs House is about the messy, demeaning, exhausting early weeks with a baby, and how easy it can be for someone to get lost in that transition into parenthood. And it’s also about inherited trauma, and the history of modern children’s literature, and, weirdly enough, rabbit hunting.


I read your book after giving birth, so the “messy, demeaning, exhausting early weeks with a baby” part really resonated with me. You depict the minutiae of Megan’s postpartum experience precisely — the various leakages of the recovering body, the milk-hard boobs, sleepless nights, hazy fog. It made me realize how rare it is to read about a new mother’s life in literature. I know that you have two children. Did becoming a mother make you want to write more about these topics? Or to put it more broadly, how has becoming a mother impacted your writing?


I had absolutely no idea what the immediate postpartum experience was actually like before I had kids. I was very uncomfortable in the final weeks of my first pregnancy, and I remember thinking, I can’t wait for this to be over so I can sleep again! I was just criminally unprepared for both the physical trauma of childbirth and the demands of a newborn. As soon as I was through the fog of the first few months, I knew I wanted to write the book that could have given me the emotional and logistical tools to understand what was happening to me. Having a new baby, especially a first baby, is a very isolating and individual experience, but there’s so much about it that’s universal. If the goal of literature is tapping into the universal — connecting in ways we didn’t know we could connect — then the postpartum experience is incredibly ripe for fictionalization. It’s amazing how many people come forward with their own stories once you open the door for this conversation, but there’s still a taboo around the guilt and the shame and the frustration. I hope this book will help open that door, get those conversations going.


I had my second baby this past summer, and while a COVID-19 pregnancy and postpartum presented its own challenges (as you know!), I felt so much better equipped than I’d been the first time around. Obviously finding time to write with two small children is a major challenge, but mentally I felt ready to get back to my own work pretty quickly. Before having kids, I was the kind of writer who really disappeared into a project — with my first book I could just live in my head for weeks on end. Now, I have both a responsibility to be present for my kids, and an understanding of how fleeting the stages of their development really are. With The Upstairs House, the constraints of working during my son’s naps were useful. With a preschooler learning from home and a very social infant, that equation is obviously different. I’m giving myself a lot of grace when it comes to completing a third book.


I think your book will definitely help start a conversation about the fourth trimester and why exactly it is such a taboo conversation. I’ve found myself fascinated by all these bodily, emotional, mental changes I’ve been undergoing and have been talking to anyone and everyone about pregnancy, labor, and what comes after.


A commonality between us is the deep interest in the constraints of womanhood. Before I decided to get pregnant, I was worried about how motherhood would take away from my writing because that was the narrative that I had been told by others — that parenting (mothering in particular) and writing were mutually exclusive. Of course, writing is harder now, but in many ways, I feel more motivated to write. What do you think about the way motherhood and art are pitted against each other?


I understand the urge to pit motherhood against art. Having children makes it harder to find time, harder to ignore your “real” life. Residencies become basically impossible until your kids are grown. But these are issues that arise if you’re a writer who has to hold down a (or multiple) day jobs, or care for a dependent family member, or even handle competing artistic interests. The issue is much less about motherhood and art, and more about the responsibilities of life outside of art. Motherhood is just an easy target. Saying either/or keeps women out, and no matter how far we’ve come from the worst of misogyny in the arts, it’s still there. And of course parenthood is a permanent commitment, and one that has its frustrations and difficulties, but also such deep joys, which makes finding the time for art more of an emotional balancing act. When my son (who is my first baby) was about three months old I had a novel to edit and a deadline to meet, and I remember feeling like I was missing him even from around the corner at a coffee shop. As soon as I really dove into the work, I was obviously fine, but the tenderness, and the pull of a small child even when you’re trying to be selfish for a minute, is so interesting to me. I guess it’s a good problem to have — too much fulfillment. Not to say that there aren’t moments every day when I want to throw my kids out the window, but in general parenthood is more rewarding than that desk job you take to make rent. And it’s rewarding from an artistic perspective! I look at the world differently now than I did before I had kids.


I do get frustrated by the gendered nature of the motherhood versus art debate, though I think not in the way a lot of people get frustrated. I definitely understand the urge to push past questions about how we juggle motherhood and art with “Would you ask a man that question?,” but I think it actually does a lot of harm to brush the topic away. One solution, I think, is to ask all parents about how they juggle responsibilities. It is so entirely possible to be a writer and a parent, but in our quest to be seen as just as literary and just as serious and whatnot as male writers, I think women writers who are also mothers sometimes miss the opportunity to kick open that door.


Before I had a child, my gut reaction was that same “Would you ask a man that question?” Now, it’s become a much more complex, layered discussion for me. I agree that we need to talk about the topic more rather than brushing it away — you’re already doing so through your work. Your writing brims with a ferocious, hot, and surreal energy. The themes of female desire and agency over our bodies and lives is integral to both your novels. Are you actively thinking about these topics while writing?


Oh, definitely. I’ve always used writing as a way to dig into my obsessions, and ever since I can remember I’ve been fascinated by desire, specifically desire that isn’t deemed socially acceptable. Harnessing surrealism and elements of genre fiction has been a useful way for me to filter big ideas. My first book was my fairytale coming-of-age book, where a young girl’s budding desire is both a blessing and a literal curse. Now I’ve got my ghost story, where desire and lack of agency literally haunts the protagonist. Someone recently suggested I’m on a maiden/mother/crone trajectory — we’ll see what happens next …


I would love to read the third novel in this trajectory. This book is about haunting and being haunted — by our desires, thoughts, lovers, our previous and impossible selves. Can you tell me more about what draws you to surrealism?


I often feel like I need an extra something in order to really say what I’m trying to say. I’m a big proponent of using genre and fabulism as metaphor. Why write about the feeling of being haunted when you can explore those themes with an actual haunting? I feel like I personally can get closer to the truth through fabulism or surrealism or speculative fiction — whatever you want to call it — because I can dig deeper into the uncomfortable or the ugly or uncanny. And fiction as a form is so open to surrealism — there aren’t the logistical barriers that you run into in other art forms like film or even theater, so there’s lots of room to play.


In The Upstairs House, you play with this fabulism through the character of Margaret Wise Brown, who may or may not be haunting Megan. Tell me about Margaret and her lover. How did they become characters in your novel? Who came first — Megan or Margaret?


Margaret came first as a fully formed character, though the idea of Megan began fairly soon after my son was born. Once I’d come up for air and could start thinking like a writer again, I realized that the immediate postpartum period was ripe for novelization. I’d be sitting there at 3:00 a.m., the only one awake, thinking that I was basically Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, but instead of broken legs, I had a baby on my boob. I also had a lot of conflicting feelings about my new role as a mother, and a suspicion that I wasn’t the only one who’d been blindsided. My initial thought was to write a postpartum novel that was more Hitchcockian, really lean into the suspense. I started taking notes, trying to push fleeting feelings to more fully formed extremes — if I was frustrated for 10 minutes, what would it be like to be frustrated for three days with no emotional reprieve?


My son was (and unfortunately remains) an awful sleeper, and one of the many sleep training suggestions was to have an extremely tight bedtime routine, which I took to mean reading him the same book every night. (This was unsuccessful, so I probably could have had some variety, but I’m stubborn!) I already had a soft spot for Goodnight Moon — the uncanny is delicious — and after reading it every night for months, I finally looked into Margaret Wise Brown. I was shocked by who she actually was. There’s an automatic assumption (based on marketing, gender roles when the book was written, the bunnies) that she herself was a “quiet old lady whispering hush,” but that’s just so far from the truth. She was a childless, bisexual bohemian (though monied) who died at 42 and loved rabbit hunting and gave a famous interview saying that she didn’t much care for kids. (I will point out this comment was definitely tongue-in-cheek, though it’s pretty clear that she preferred adult company and she wasn’t especially successful as a preschool teacher.)


Margaret Wise Brown was at the forefront of a new school of children’s literature that eschewed fairy tales and fantasy for more practical “here-and-now” storytelling — “a truck goes beep beep,” etc. She was a pioneer of the touch-and-feel and board book, and one of the first who believed toddlers and babies could benefit from books written specifically for their age group. But while she came up in that school, Margaret was more fanciful than her mentor, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, who herself was a huge force in the development of progressive early childhood education.


In her day, Margaret was commercially successful enough, but not critically acclaimed (her books were banned from the New York Public Library because the head librarian didn’t like them), and she was hard on herself about this, and about the fact that she never “graduated” to writing for adults. This self-esteem issue was compounded by a pretty toxic 10-year relationship with Michael Strange, an actress and poet (best known today for being John Barrymore’s ex-wife). Knowing I wanted to share the Margaret I was getting to know, this particular relationship caught my eye. I started thinking about the ways in which the parent-newborn relationship mimics a love affair. This brought me to Megan, who has a pretty toxic relationship with new motherhood, and who has set aside her dissertation in early childhood education to be a full-time parent.


And it turns out my love affair comparison isn’t that far from how Margaret herself thought about motherhood (although, again, she wasn’t a mother or even predisposed to kids, herself). The Runaway Bunny, Margaret’s second most popular book, was inspired by an old French folk poem about someone trying to run away from a lover, and continually being caught — “you can try to run away, but I will find you,” etc. In Bunny, it’s a child running away from the mother, being found again and again. Critics usually interpret this as “Oh, kids will get a sense of safety because mom is always there,” but when you look to Margaret’s inspiration there’s also something quite uncomfortable about it.


I wasn’t familiar with Goodnight Moon until I had a baby of my own. It’s such a strange, delicious book. One last question for you. You mentioned “The Yellow Wallpaper” earlier. What were some of your other literary inspirations?


The Upstairs House was heavily influenced by Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment (lesser known than her Neapolitan books, but equally good if not better!), and Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream. Shirley Jackson is always an inspiration, specifically We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I love what Helen Oyeyemi does with experimental narrative, and her matter-of-fact delivery of the fantastic — Mr. Fox is one of my all-time favorite books. Is it weird to say your book? If You Leave Me feels like a cousin to The Upstairs House in its exploration of motherhood. In another world, I think Haemi and Megan would have a lot to offer one another.


I love thinking of our characters working through motherhood together.


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Crystal Hana Kim is the author of If You Leave Me, which was a Booklist Editor’s Choice title and named a best book of 2018 by The Washington Post, Literary Hub, The New York Post, and Nylon, among others.