Friday, July 19, 2024

Catherine Newman. (Photo: Ben Newman)

]As a writer, Catherine Newman has worn many hats. She spent years writing for magazines and digital publications, including as a columnist for BabyCenter and Real Simple. Her blog Ben & Birdy, about raising her kids, was the inspiration for two parenting memoirs, “Waiting for Birdy” and “Catastrophic Happiness.” She has also written a middle-grade novel, a craft book for kids and two award-winning skill-building books for kids, “How to Be a Person” and “What Can I Say?” Her debut adult novel “We All Want Impossible Things,” published in 2022, is an poignant portrayal of female friendship amid tragic circumstances. In “Sandwich,” her latest novel, she returns to the themes she wrote about for years: child-parent relationships and family dynamics. “Sandwich” is ostensibly about a family vacation – it takes place over the course of one week on Cape Cod, where narrator Rocky, her husband Nick and their semi-adult children Jamie and Willa have been vacationing for years, always renting the same house – but really, it’s about the interpersonal relationships at the center of it. Rocky spends the week struggling (hilariously) with menopause, contending with buried secrets from years past and feeling sandwiched between her kids and her aging parents, and what emerges is a moving and heartwarming tale of family that rings deeply true. “Sandwich” comes out Tuesday, and Newman speaks at Porter Square Books on June 27. We interviewed Newman on May 13; her words have been edited for length and clarity.

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You started your career with two nonfiction, memoir-style books, “Waiting for Birdy” and “Catastrophic Happiness,” and only recently started writing fiction. What inspired that transition?

When the kids were little, I felt really comfortable writing about parenting because it was always clear to me that I was primarily writing about myself — the kids were just being kids, so I wasn’t revealing anything about them. As they got older, I stopped writing nonfiction about family life because it felt like those stories were getting revealing, and they didn’t really feel like my stories to tell anymore. That was where the desire to write fiction came from, and the thing I love about it is that it can still be so close to life. I’m a total fiction cheater, but I love that I can write characters that are similar to the characters in my life and the relationships I have with them, and it’s still fiction. And because it’s fiction, I have the liberty of telling the absolute truth in a way that I don’t feel like I can do with nonfiction. If I’m writing nonfiction, I feel the need to protect myself and everyone else, but with fiction, I can fictionalize the people so they don’t get revealed to the whole world, while also fully telling the truth. That’s why I think I’ve been able to get at what matters the most to me in “Sandwich” and in “We All Want Impossible Things.” Fiction can be this screen for everyone to hide behind, even if it’s a very thin screen.

How does it feel to pull on your own experiences? 

For me, it feels really good. I only recently heard the term “autofiction,” and that is what I write: a kind of fiction that’s really close to memoir. That just works well for me. Sometimes I think it’s because I have almost no imagination; I’m not the kind of writer who wants to build worlds or do a lot of research, I just take a lot of notes about my life and I go from there. I don’t have a lot of creative storytelling in my repertoire, I just have life as I lived it. They’re small stories, but I like them that way. I always get Goodreads reviews where people are saying nothing happens in this book, and I totally get it, because if you’re looking for something to happen, this is not the book for you. But that’s why I love my books, and that’s why I love “Sandwich”: What happens is a family vacation, with a little tiny slow burn revelation. 

Why set the book over the course of a one-week vacation, such a singular moment? 

We have gone to Cape Cod every summer since the kids were teeny, and we rented the same house for decades, so that was very real to me as a setting, and the one-week rental was very real to me as a timeframe as well. The kids have grown up, and we have all these layers and layers of memories from summers spent there, and I really wanted to write about that, both from my perspective as a mom and from my kids’ perspectives. At first I thought I wanted to write it as a novel that would take place over one week every year in sequential years, the reason being I wanted to capture all these other years and all these other experiences – no spoilers, but they’re sort of working out this set of profound memories and secrets — but then I realized I could do it all in one week and add in flashbacks. I thought that would distill it for me, and it really did.

How do you think that slice-of-life style affects the narrative? 

I’m not really an artist, and I know this is going to sound pretentious, but bear with me. There’s something truly special about taking a piece of paper, taping off the edges and leaving yourself this tiny little place to paint. I did that with “Sandwich,” by leaving myself a really narrow window of time and space, and I think when you have that narrow window of setting, the memories and the feelings and all of that emotional stuff gets to be bigger. So I think that’s a benefit and, honestly, I just had fun doing it this way. There were a couple summers in a row where I was gathering information for the novel, when I would sit on the beach with my grown kids and tell them to tell me every single thing they remembered about vacationing on the Cape. It was so fun to hear all the things they remembered, all the things they thought about, and all of their best and worst experiences. This will be extremely obvious to people who have read the book, but I love the Cape, I just love it, and so I loved getting to set a book there too.

We don’t often get older female protagonists, especially not ones going through menopause. Do you think representing this demographic is important?

It was definitely intentional. Somebody recently said, “Menopause is having a moment,” which I thought was so hilarious, because I’m sorry, but menopause through the history of humankind has been having a moment! But I do agree that it’s coming into the forefront, and I’m thinking maybe it’s because all of the OG mom bloggers are hitting menopause; all of us who have been shining light on these hidden experiences are now shining it on this. Anyway, I wanted to write about menopause because it’s one of those things that women are hugely culturally gaslit about. We learned about it in health class as the end of fertility or whatever, but it’s actually this major recapitulation of teenagerhood with crazy hormones and a changing body. It’s so profound, and I had no idea it was going to be like that. Now I feel like more people are talking about it and writing about it and being funny about it, and I think that’s so important because you don’t need to feel like you’re crazy on top of every other horror about it. So I’m happy to be part of dismantling that.

Catherine Newman reads from “Sandwich” in conversation with Laura Zigman at 7 p.m. June 27 at Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Porter Square, Cambridge. Free. Information is here.