Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Dancing With Dawson

By Claiborne Smith

JANUARY 19, 1999:  When people talk about a "free spirit," they're talking about someone like Carol Dawson. When I first met her, it was at an event where dancing was going on, and after we met one another she asked me if I knew how to two-step. I said no. Immediately, I regretted that answer not only because I thought, "It's called 'The Two-Step.' How hard can it be?" but also because saying no precluded dancing with a free spirit, and I've never done that before. But I don't regret that we ended up talking about The Mother-in-Law Diaries, Dawson's fourth novel, out this month from Algonquin Books.

The Mother-in-Law Diaries is an alternately hilarious and gut-wrenching journal that Lulu Penfield writes to her son Treatie, who at the book's beginning calls his mother to tell her he's getting married. The book treks Lulu's conjugal adventures through four marriages and four mothers-in-law. Lulu reveals all; her second mother-in-law, Filalia Miller, is a witch who knows quite a bit about her sons' past lives. In this excerpt, Filalia has some intriguing news for Lulu about Declan, her oldest son and Lulu's husband:

"Well, I'll fill you in on something you should know: in one of his past lives, Declan was a monk."

"Really?"

"It's true," her head bobbed solemnly up and down as she filled a tall glass with rum, placed it and the bottle beside two mugs on a tray, and carefully carried them back to the sofa. "All the peasants who lived around the countryside just loved him. They wanted him to get sainted by the pope. This was in England during the Middle Ages."

"I had no idea."

That sly humor is prevalent throughout most of the book but so is the eye for detail that Dawson displays here. The reader gets the sense that Diaries just may have been lived by the author; Dawson acknowledges that "it was so convenient to use my own life for the theme because I have had the experience of being married more than once," but also refers to her personal experiences as only "a skeletal armature with which to explore a larger idea." When we sat down to talk about The Mother-in-Law Diaries, I asked Dawson if she had ever thought about writing the book as a memoir.


photograph by Kenny Braun
Carol Dawson: No. I have no interest in writing a memoir.


Austin Chronicle:And why is that?

CD: I just don't want to. I don't want to. I'm far more interested in fictional lives. There's a certain kind of self-absorption involved in writing [a memoir] that implies that one's own life is transcendent enough to justify being broadcast and I just don't think that's true of most people. I think that most people have particular experiences that might be quite graphic and quite exciting in a book or introspective and reflective and of value that way but as a whole life, you know, unless you've done something major -- and then it's not memoir, it's autobiography. ... I think it would be extremely tacky for me to write a memoir.


AC: If The Mother-in-Law Diaries is not so much a book of Lulu's advice to her son but examples of how to think about mothers-in-law, did you frame the book -- particularly given that the book is structured with each mother-in-law having her own section -- with the sense that each one of them would teach the reader something? Bo, for example, has this sultry sadness and Hazel Vonick is cheerful beyond measure ...

CD: Absolutely. Absolutely. What I wanted to do was twofold: I wanted to draw a portrait of late 20th-century women, like a portrait gallery of late 20th-century women and I wanted a big field to play on; I didn't want just one character that we go into deeply and it's just one story. I really wanted a whole gallery of people. And the other thing I wanted to do is to have something valuable emerge from each of these relationships, so that it's when Lulu is looking at it all in retrospect that she's suddenly going, "Oh my God, this is what this person gave me, this is what we shared." The tricky thing about being in the middle of a relationship, whether it's a mother-in-law or sibling or whatever it is, is that when it's actually going on we quite often cannot see what it is for the noise around us. And it's only in distance that we can see a much fuller picture and really recognize the qualities of the person that we're relating to.


AC: Lilian Hellman has this great quote that "People change and forget to tell each other," and I kept thinking of that just because all of the changes that Lulu goes through. One of the reviews, I think Publishers Weekly, had said that Lulu doesn't gain self-knowledge until late in the book but I think she gains it earlier.

CD: She gains it bit by bit. She really doesn't want to keep fucking up. She really doesn't but she also has this way of brushing fairly blindly into something and not listening to her own alarm bells and not taking the time to really listen to herself and the consequences are unfortunate.


AC: Of course, the stumbling is what keeps the book going. If she had learned right away ...

CD: One trip-up after another! In a way, you know, I love the form of the picaresque novel and I think this book is a late 20th-century version of a picaresque novel. But these days for us it
doesn't necessarily take the form of an adventure across England or down the Mississippi or something but the adventure through relationships that just happens to carry you these other ways, the chick version, you know. Chick picaresque.


AC: Well that's one thing I wanted to ask about -- who do you think the audience for this book is?

CD: Everybody. I don't say that blithely or facetiously even. I really think that it's quite simple -- we're all enmeshed in certain kinds of relationships. I mean, there are certain people I'm sure who wouldn't find it as interesting to read except that sooner or later almost everybody has a mother-in-law. ... I really feel that it's been a very maligned and underrated relationship and it really needs to be looked at. I really think that as far as women are concerned, with prospective husbands, they need to find out what kind of relationship he's got with his mother. ... You know, you get a boy who's angry with his momma, and you're going to wind up with a disastrous marriage.


AC: I think it will probably be tagged as a "woman's book."

CD: Yeah. The fact that it has the word mother-in-law in the title instantly tags it as a woman's book, and the original title actually was The Mothers-in-Law Diary rather than Mother-in-Law Diaries and it got changed by my publisher because the marketing division of Workman [which owns Algonquin Books] said, "Is this a typo? Everybody's going to think this is a typo," and I said, "No. Get used to it, you know." I liked Mothers-in-Law because it was more piquant, it was really provocative, but Mother-in-Law it is.


AC: What I would imagine would have required the biggest shift in thinking for you as author was the shift from the chapter on Geoff to the last section with Dan because here with Geoff we have drama of a really intense sort, physical and verbal, and with Dan it's arguments about who broke a lamp, a more quotidian kind of drama.

CD: Very child-oriented and the thing about it is that's how many relationships end. You know, they founder on what seem to be small things like that.


AC: The pesky details.


CD: But God is in the details.


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