Writer, with Kids: Sophie Littlefield

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Sophie Littlefield, author of: The Stella Hardesty mystery series (Saint Martin’s Minotaur), The Aftertime series (Harlequin Luna), and young adult fiction (Delacorte).

Ages of kids: 16 and 19.

What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?

I worked full-time in technology before I had children, and I was a hobbyist, writing a few hours a week. At times I belonged to a critique group, but I finished only a few short stories a year. I read a lot, at least as much as I do now.

After my children were born I worked full-time, part-time, and eventually not at all, but I did a lot of volunteering in their schools and elsewhere. During this time I wrote magazine articles and did some freelance copyediting and earned a few thousand dollars a year at it, and began to take myself more seriously as a writer. I had childcare for several hours a week, and that certainly helped. I attempted a novel, and then another. I wrote eight novels over ten years, but never sold any of them, despite trying.

When my children were twelve and fourteen I made the decision to write full-time. I was lucky in that I had been a stay-at-home parent and our household was supported by my husband’s salary, so I did not have to get a “real” job immediately, though I knew that if I couldn’t earn money writing I would have to do so. I still had no agent or contract, but I took the job very seriously. I worked nearly every day, including weekends, and finished several manuscripts. I sent out queries nearly every day. By the end of the year I had an agent and my first book contract.

How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deeply into a current project—say in the sticky middle of a novel’s first draft?

Children first – ALWAYS. Doesn’t matter what age…when my son was nursing, obviously his needs came first. But now that he’s nineteen, if he calls from college, I drop everything. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve put off my children or said no to a reasonable request because I was working. I try to be grateful every day for the flexibility this job brings. For instance, today is Saturday and I was in the chair by 6:30am. When my daughter wakes up, I’ll walk away from the desk to make her breakfast. It’s not uncommon for her to do her homework in my office at night while I’m working.

You know, I hear people saying jokingly that they’ve taught their kids to heat up microwave meals and that they use the TV as a babysitter. I’m as guilty as anyone of poor parenting decisions, and of course sometimes I have to travel and the kids have had to step up and fend for themselves, but the idea of doing this shit deliberately does not amuse me. Can a person be a good parent and hold a job? Of course. And we all work within parameters that are occasionally out of our control. But I reject the notion that you can’t balance a writing life and a family life. Writing is a wonderful job for a parent.

There is a well known literary author who recently said one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. I refuse to googlesearch the exact quote, but he basically said you can’t produce enduring or transcendent work if you have distractions. He works in a quiet room with no internet. I wish this fucker would go have a couple of kids before the next time he sits down to write about a mother’s life. I’ve written with distractions from the day I peed on the stick. I remember being up against a deadline and taking my daughter to some regional band festival. The only place to sit while they rehearsed was on the floor behind the percussion section. I sat there for four hours and wrote 4,000 words through the din.

How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?

Absolutely – how could it not? I just did a quick mental review of all the books I’ve written, both published and unpublished. There are ten published or about to be, eight unpublished, and three proposals. Of those twenty-one, only one does not have parenting as a central theme, and it was erotica… Any time I sit down to consider a new idea, the experience of being a mother informs every character decision I make. I wrote a zombie trilogy that was really about motherhood. I am finishing a historical WWII thriller in which all the central action unfolds from a mother’s decisions. If I sold a couch on craigslist, the ad would somehow have parenting at the core…

Each day when we sit down to work, we bring what we care about. Humans want a pretty consistent set of things, which is why we find fiction relatable: our characters are going to end up searching for meaning and getting laid and making power grabs and doing penance and protecting the children and avenging wrongs because we do all those things ourselves. Can there be great fiction that has nothing to do with parenting? Sure, why not? But I don’t think there can be fiction written by a parent that doesn’t in small and large ways bring the diaper bag, even we neither intend nor want to.

I want to add that child-awareness works its way into the stories of even non-parents as they move through their lives and relationships. Some of my best writing friends are not mothers, but they are daughters and sisters and aunts and are around children and they write beautiful stories reflecting all of that.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?

For all my brave talk, I found myself completely stymied for a number of years when my kids were small. I just couldn’t get the job done. I was dealing with depression at the time, and that was certainly a factor, but there were also entire days that were consumed by girl scouts and carpooling and going to Target and lying on the floor with the baby. I don’t regret any of that. I tell young parents who wish to write that it’s okay to put your writing on the back burner as long as you’re sure your extra time is going to the kids. If you want to use your free precious hours on TV, or knitting, or the gym, that’s cool too, but just do it with awareness, because every time you do so, you are making a statement about what you value, and you value those things more than pursuing writing.

Right now there’s a truly poisonous attitude out there that we have to get a lot of content up NOW, that we need to put a little lipstick on our backlist or whatever we’ve got lying around or whatever we can cobble together over the weekend and send it out on the dance floor. What a terrible mistake. I personally don’t want anything out in the world that I’m not proud to have written, and if I can’t do a competent and thorough job of writing AND parenting, then something’s got to give.

(Actually, I guess that leads me to one of my biggest challenges…financial. How does a working artist afford kids? How can you spend the time to create something you’re proud of, and give your children the attention they deserve, when you don’t have a steady paycheck? But that’s an entirely different problem…)

Do you have any advice for other writers with kids or who plan to have them?

I really think that if you constantly revisit and evaluate your priorities, most decisions aren’t that difficult. For me, age has brought the gift of being able to tune out a lot of the “should” voices and the would-be comparers. The choices your friends, colleagues, and peers make don’t have to be your choices. Give your children what they need and deserve. Give your art the rest.

I was working in a coffee shop with another writer/mother yesterday. A steady stream of babies and young children came into the shop, and we fussed over every one. Did my work suffer for the distractions? Oh, maybe my word count was a little lower – but I’m pretty sure that having all those little human beings parading by enriched my prose in ways I’m not even conscious of. Once you’re a parent, your art changes, and for me, that’s been a good thing.

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Posted in parenting, Writer with kids, writing
20 comments on “Writer, with Kids: Sophie Littlefield
  1. Brad Green says:

    “I’ve written with distractions from the day I peed on the stick.”

    Love that line. So true.

  2. Anna says:

    I am not a writer, but I love these answers, and I think they apply to all parents. We all choose our priorities, our lives reflect those choices.

  3. Carrie says:

    Such a great post. I love her thoughtful answers about priorities and parenting, and how what you choose to do with your time reflects your values.

  4. Um. Don’t know what to make of this. I do write with distractions, but that’s because I have the sort of writerly psychology that actually needs them — when they don’t exist naturally, I create them.

    My problem is with “the dumbest thing” this writer ever heard, in question #2. This misses the point. The paraphrase at issue states that according to nameless writer, distractions prohibit the production of work of enduring or transcendent value. The rant in her response does not disprove this, although it may or may not be the case. It is more in the order of self-justification. She does not say that writing 4000 words to a cacophony of drums produced a works of enduring or transcendent value, only that she could write 4000 words in this environment.

    It is like comparing Tolstoy with Barbara Cartland.

    But like Brad Green, I do like the line about peeing on a stick.

  5. Brad, Anna, Carrie – thanks so much, you guys! I love having this conversation.

    Donigan, I may not have disproved his point, but Nameless Writer certainly hasn’t proved it, either. He’s won awards. I’ve won awards. He makes a lot more money than me, but hey, I’m just getting started. When I’m dead, I invite everyone to consider his work against mine and answer these questions: did distractions affect the quality of this prose? Was it really necessary for him to take over a decade to produce a book…when he has no kids…and apparently a halcyon environment in which to work?

    Oh,and sugar, I don’t think I was ranting. I’m a middle-aged woman using the voice God gave me, which often is mistaken for ranting….especially by middle-aged men…

  6. It’s not worth arguing, since literary history has already made the case. And thank you for the compliment. I wish I was middle-aged, but truthfully, I am really, really old.

  7. Susan Shea says:

    Sophie, What a great interview and what a wonderful outlook on the business of being a writer without excuses. I’m taking away a big reminder for myself. Lately, it’s been too many excuses, too little work!

  8. I’ve re-read your answer to #2 a couple of times, and can’t find any *ranting* at all, just a completely justifiable reaction to the absurdity of that particular author. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Merritt? I would wager that Barbara Cartland has been read and re-read and savored at least as much as Tolstoy.

  9. I can think of nothing to say to anyone who would suppose to compare Barbara Cartland with Tolstoy, so I’ll refrain.

    As far as “rant,” I was probably reacting to calling anonymous writer “the dumbest” and calling him a “fucker.” But I probably read too much into a few words.

    My apologies.

    • admin says:

      It’s interesting to me that a conversation about finding balance between the pursuit of one’s work and one’s children comes back around to Franzen. I think much of the anger toward him—certainly mine—stems from his consistent disregard for women as writers and readers. We saw this with the Oprah thing. We see it now again in his essay about Edith Wharton.

      I see the debate about Franzen as very much connected to the conversation we’re trying to have here, at least as it relates to mothers. The Franzen debate—along with the horror show that is the GOP these days—led me to reread A Room of One’s Own.
      It seems we haven’t come very far at all since Woolf’s time.

      Donigan, you said yourself in a comment responding to my initial post about this topic that you were able to write when your children were young because their mothers were the primary caretakers. Not only this, but your daughters were instructed to play quietly “because Daddy was writing.” The household bent around your need to write. Would it have been the same had one of your wives wanted to pursue creative work? Likely not.

      I hope that things are improving, somewhat. I’ve invited some fathers to speak here too, and I’ll be interested to read how it is for them. But to dismiss any criticism of Franzen as jealous ranting (as you’ve done both here and on Twitter for the last two days)? It’s taking a rather narrow, rather masculine view of the world, don’t you think? We have cause to be pissed off, damnit.

      And no, Barbara Cartland is (was?) no Tolstoy. But neither is Franzen. He’s (in my ever so humble opinion, which you all know I am loathe to express) one of the most overrated authors working in our time.

  10. Yes, let’s get the discussion back to parenting. I’m looking forward to hearing from men and women on the subject. I’m the daughter of an author from the “hush, daddy’s working” generation and the sister of a guy who parents like me – kids first, and the work can wait if they need to be loud/creative/demanding.

    I can’t help saying this, however – women authors, and more specifically romance authors, are routinely snubbed, diminished, criticized, and dismissed by both male and, I regret to say, some female readers/writers/critics. It’s something we all need to be aware of. If our attitudes need adjusting – and who among us can claim to be completely bias-free? – let’s attend to that chore without pointing the blame cannon.

    Just look at the vicious attacks on Picoult and Weiner when they dipped a toe in this discussion. Or check out the furor over the VIDA review stats. I think there are lots of sides to this discussion, and at this point I think it’s safe to say I’ll be reporting to the playground to participate.

    It’s possible to disagree, without throwing about one’s opinion as though it were fact or even the consensus of a cultural majority. (Check out Cameron Ashley, here: http://www.criminalcomplex.com/on-gender-diversity-originality-in-crime-fiction)

    In short, nobody gets to appoint himself the arbiter of literary merit just because he has a dick.

  11. stefani says:

    Good god, hear, hear Cari!

  12. one more thing: a quick check on a few popular reader-review sites reveals that barbara cartland is just as highly reviewed as tolstoy…and i am *more highly reviewed* than franzen. So, wait, is the case you’re making here that readers who purchase, read, and support authors don’t get to judge literary merit? – and you *do*? uh, how does that work, fella? ….oh yeah, “literary history”….

  13. Franzen is a writer of long dull tomes who has a massive publicity machine that ensures each of his opinions is beamed out to the universe, including and especially the stupid ones. Having said that, I think the metaphorical room of one’s own is an invaluable resource to a writer, if you can get one. I wish I had one. But not more than I wish I had my own kids.

    Sophie – “Was it really necessary for him to take over a decade to produce a book…when he has no kids…and apparently a halcyon environment in which to work?” And not only did it take the self-righteous prick a decade, but he spent those 10 years producing a mediocre mishmash that will be gracing the dusty shelves of used book shops and unopened folders on Kindles for years to come.

    “Give your children what they need and deserve. Give your art the rest.” Preach on, sister.

  14. Dan O'Shea says:

    I’ve been a working writer all my adult life and lucky enough to be able to work at home during my children’s “formative” years – I use quotes because I’m in my 50s and I’m still not fully formed. I’m writing a lot of fiction now, but my bread and butter was business writing. I distinctly remember being in the middle of an interview with the chairman of the SEC for a project with a ridiculous deadline and a damn big paycheck when I saw my middle son, who is Autistic and who we were having a hell of a time toilet training, assuming the position. I told the chairman of the SEC that I’d call him back in 15 minutes – my kid had to take a dump. He was actually very cool about it and we had a good laugh when I got back to him.

  15. Wow.

    First, Cari, I didn’t know the anonymous writer was Franzen until you said it. I had no idea who it was, but there are a lot of likely candidates.

    Second, I am not interested in power of the dick arguments.They are almost always psychologically specious.

    Third, how can I know what I cannot know? Vis-a-vis, what would the world have been like in my marriage if I were the business person (like my wife) and she the creative one. Those two ways of living come with different needs, and were I the one without creative needs, I would not have needed that environment for my work (although I would certainly have had other needs.) This is a red herring argument. But I do understand the sensitivity many women feel over this, and think it is natural.

    Fourth, I see a lot of rationalizing in these remarks; but then, who can get through the day without a good dose of rationalization.

    Fifth, the more of these odd hateful attacks against Franzen, the more I end up respecting him … more than I did when I first encountered his work. I have read 3 of his novels and the essays in “How to be Alone.” I think he’s a good writer, in the vein of Tom Wolfe. I read all those works all the way through, enjoyed them, was impressed by some of the work, and had no problem thinking he deserved the National Book Award or the piles of glowing reviews in the major reviewing media. I am not jealous of him because he is a different sort of writer than I am, and anyway, I would feel stupid competing with any other writer. (I am no Hemingway.)

    And Court … massive publicity machine? I can assure you that all a massive publicity machine can get you is a Paris Hilton. No amount of publicity can turn a mediocre or boring writer into a literary star. Besides, which came first? Quality of the work or the media machine? Franzen wrote a lot of stuff before his popularity grew with a growing readership, then the awards, then more media machine. But he was a working writer (like you or I) for a very long time before any of that happened. You may not like the kind of writing he does, but your dislike does not mean other readers ought to also disdain his work. I think he’s a good writer. Being a good writer is disconnected, as it should be, from who he is as a person, as it ought to be for a long, long, long list of writers, from Hemingway and Mailer, to Hightower and Parker.

    And with that, I will stop hijacking this interesting discussion of the effect of children on a writers life.

  16. PS: I would love to see the list of reviews and their sources that Ms. Littlefield says are “higher” than Franzen’s, because Franzen has won every substantial literary award available in this country, and has astonishingly glowing reviews in every, bar none, respected reviewing media. Google his name and you can spend the rest of your day reading thousands of fantastic, glowing reviews. I’m going to go Google for Ms. Littlefield’s reviews now. This is not being snide, but you’re the one claiming you are more highly reviewed than Franzen.

    But I do wish I had the opportunity to not turn down Oprah. She hasn’t asked me yet.

  17. Hey Court, Dan, Susan, Stefani – thanks for joining in the discussion! I think community is so important because – at least for me – it’s the knowledge that we’re all here as readers and writers hoping to shape the literary world into something worthy that gets me in the chair every day.

    Mark my words, Donigan, I’m going to sweep those awards some day. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far, and when I get to the podium I’m going to look out into the crowd and see my friends and family and know that their support got me there.

    I would like to give you one tip for civil discourse, which has been on my mind a lot this week due to that horrible Rush Limbaugh fiasco. Please, talk *to* me, not about me. I’m second-person-Sophie, not third-person-Ms. Littlefield here, in Cari’s living room – as her guest, as are you. I think you’d be a lot happier if you learned to toss ideas around from a position of curiosity rather than self-certainty.

    P.S. disclosure: I like Franzen’s writing. I’ve been reading him for years. I just wish he’d stop revealing himself to be an asshole in public every chance he gets.

    OK let’s call this one done and done – can’t wait to see what other voices have to say! Be well, friends…I’m off to sew with my daughter, who has the day off from school!

  18. Gina says:

    Love this! I was most taken by this thought:
    “it’s okay to put your writing on the back burner as long as you’re sure your extra time is going to the kids. If you want to use your free precious hours on TV, or knitting, or the gym, that’s cool too, but just do it with awareness, because every time you do so, you are making a statement about what you value, and you value those things more than pursuing writing.”

    Huh. But sometimes we DO need to go to the gym, etc for sanity. But a good wakeup call and reminder; thanks.

    I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading lately about the new “Motherhood Mystique,” described well at the end of Stepanie Coontz’s “A Strange Stirring”. We’re way past the idea of the Feminine Mystique (ie women can now do anything we want career-wise, really), but once we have kids, all bets are off regarding our careers (no matter what they career may be).

    Our society has just not figured out how to accept and support woman as both mothers and writers or professionals, etc. We CAN’T really do it all (see exhaustion, time constraints, etc), so there’s an internal dilemma in so many mothers; we’re drawn to work, educated for work, but yet once we have kids, realize that SOMEONE has to be there for them daily (and of course wants to be there for them). Should that be an underpaid child care worker so that we can do more “real” work than raising our own kids? But yet, so many of us yearn for the career, especially if we had it before kids. Gah! Such a catch-22 that will never really be experienced or understood by men, I’m afraid.

    I’m sure this does change with ages of kids (mine are still preschoolers) and even with parenting styles (ie do kids nap easily in cribs or do we nurse them down for hours?). So many variables, so many different solutions. Looking forward to hearing more!

  19. Telaina says:

    I don’t want to get us off topic but I know a bit of literary history and Tolstoy had 13 children (I forget how many lived.) Tolstoy’s wife Sofia cared for them all, educated them all, managed the family’s finances, worked as Tolstoy’s editor and secretary. She also wrote a memoir/journals in her spare time and was even, if I recall correctly, an amateur photographer. Whether Tolstoy could have achieved HIS greatness without this amazing educator, mom, secretary, editor who handled all the details of his life so he could be left in peace, bears mentioning, IMO.

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