Ten Questions Archive

Ten Questions for Jessamine Chan

What inspired you to tell this story?

I began writing The School for Good Mothers in February 2014. At that time, I was heading into my late thirties and constantly ruminating about whether or not my partner and I should have a child. The biological clock pressure was intense, as was my ambivalence. The other source of inspiration was a New Yorker article by the journalist Rachel Aviv, “Where Is Your Mother?,” which appeared in the magazine late 2013. That mother’s heartbreaking story made me start thinking about the injustices of the family court system and planted a kernel of rage in my mind. 

What did you edit out of this book?

If you can believe it, the book I sold to my publisher was actually bleeker. Some scenes of death and violence were edited out. I also worked with my editor, Dawn Davis, to streamline the lessons. We cut about 35 pages in total.

Chan signing books at Women and Children’s First Bookstore.

How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion?

Most of my professional experience has been as an editor and I could tinker with individual sentences forever, so I consider something done when I have to turn in approval on final copy edits. I worked on these edits in 2020, so my memories of that time are a bit fuzzy, but I was surprised that it was hard to let go. I’d devoted my life to this book for so many years, so it was a strange transition to no longer spend all my time in Frida’s head.

What was your agenting process like?

I was in touch with a few agents over the years for my short stories, but I waited until I had a full novel manuscript ready before I queried agents in June 2019. I sent query letters to 13 agents, some via blind queries, some via introductions from friends who were represented by those agents. I wound up receiving five offers. My agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, had the clearest, heart and soul vision for the book and was the best match in terms of literary sensibilities. For the past four years, she’s been my agent/editor/therapist/sister/friend/mom. I can’t believe there was ever a time before Meredith in my writing life.

Signed copy at Pilsen Community Books

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

While I have purchased some nice gifts for myself in the past two years, the most necessary spending was on childcare. This book only got done because I had the resources to pay for childcare.  

How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.

I sometimes go long periods without writing, so I’m not one of those writers who can tell you about a daily practice. When I am writing, I typically write in the morning and try not to spend too much time online before doing so. The number of hours varies greatly. I always write longhand, so writing is a continual process of rewriting as I type up drafts, write on those drafts, start cutting in MS Word, rewrite some more, cut some more. 

Chan at the Center for Fiction First Novel Fete and Awards Gala. L: Chan posing with book. R: Chan posing with finalists at the Fete.

What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?

1. Read widely. 2. Try writing longhand. 3. Embrace the messy first draft. 

What does literary success look like to you?

The past year and a half have far exceeded my wildest dreams of what publishing my first book would be like. Going forward, I hope to carve out space to play and dream again and get back to the feeling of being able to write whatever I want.  

Chan at P&T Knitwear. L: In conversation with Jia Tolentino. R: Chan posing with Dawn Davis

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

When I was in my twenties, my greatest dream was to be part of a writing community, so to be friends with so many writers now, in my forties, is incredible. To give you a sense of my friend group, my daughter thinks the only job people have is “book writer.” My closest writer pals are Diane Cook and Hilary Leichter (check out their books!), who are old pals from the Columbia MFA program and our post-MFA writing group. They are a huge part of my life and our constant conversation helps me stay excited about writing and creating a life as an artist. We also talk about nitty-gritty business matters and the hustle and remind each other to rest and take care of ourselves.

Translated editions of The School for Good Mothers.

Who are you writing for?

While I’m of course speaking ultimately to readers (and extremely grateful to now have readers!), in my writing practice, when it’s just me with my notebook, I’m writing only for myself. I have to pretend like no one is ever going to read it in order to get my ideas down on the page.

Jessamine Chan is the author of The School for Good Mothers, which was a New York Times bestseller, a Read with Jenna/TODAY Show Book Club pick, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize and the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Carnegie Medal, and one of Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2022. She lives in Chicago with her family.

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Sherisa de Groot (she/her) is a writer, community builder, and founder of Raising Mothers, literary membership community Literary Liberation, and pens A Home Within Myself. Her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Kindred by Parents, Refinery 29, Mutha Magazine, and Oldster Magazine and she was a contributor to the book ‘100 Diverse Voices on Parenthood’ by A Kid’s Company About. With a focus on intersectionality and social justice, de Groot’s writing explores the nuances of motherhood and the experiences of BIPOC mothers and marginalized genders. Through her work, she aims to amplify the voices of those who have been historically silenced and create a more equitable world for all. Raising Mothers was the 2021 Romper People’s Choice Iris Award Winner. Originally from Brooklyn New York, she is a first-generation American turned immigrant living in Amsterdam, NL with her husband, two children, and cat.