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Mothers Who Write:
By Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D.
"Since Liz's mother had been killed in a car crash three
years before, Ethel had been trying to muster up enough motherhood
to do right by the little girl. Right now she stroked the child's
red hair and rubbed her fingers gently across her forehead.
She had just gotten word that she had a tremendous gig singing
her brand of bebop jazz if she could just be in New York City
in two weeks…..But what about Liz? Liz was her dead sister's
only child. Surely she couldn't move Liz to New York, where
the scarlet nights blazed much hotter than they ever did in
Philadelphia, and the mornings were hungover with the deepest
shades of blue. The child needed soft pink things, stability."
-- from the novel Tumbling by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
Diane McKinney-Whetstone attended the University of Pennsylvania
in Philadelphia, PA, and graduated in 1975 with a Bachelor of Arts
degree in English. For the first ten
years after college, she worked in a series of government positions,
spending several years at the Philadelphia City Council, and
then at the Forest Service. She then began writing creatively
and went on to publish three novels:
Tumbling (Simon & Shuster,
Tempest Rising (William Morrow & Co., 1998), and
Blues Dancing: A Novel (William Morrow & Co., 1999). In
addition, she regularly contributes nonfiction pieces to
Philadelphia Magazine, Essence, and had a short fiction
piece in Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday.
One reader commented that her writing: "…makes me marvel. It
is smooth, sure-footed, wise as old folks, hip-hop street
smart, a beam of laser light that illuminates the human
condition." Another reviewer said: "…from the first pages
the book, Tempest Rising locates us on an intricate map of
relationships, trying to find in which direction lies home…"
Another exclaimed: "If you haven't read this book [Tempest Rising],
run out and buy it right now! Ms. McKinney-Whetstone, keep
doing what you're doing!!!! Hey Oprah-how about making this
a selection for your Book Club?"
Ms. McKinney-Whetstone has twins, a son and daughter who
are now 18 and in their first year of college.
What inspired you to write?
I was approaching a significant birthday, and doing the
life examination one does as the age of forty comes around.
At the time, my professional writing involved public affairs
and public relations, as well as 'translating' scientific
reports into lay terms audiences could understand. I realized
this wasn't the type of writing I was burning to do, and
if I didn't do it then, I never would. I had written poetry
in school, but creative writing was one of those things I
always told myself I really wanted to do. Because I read a
lot, it inspired me to want to do the same type of writing.
Given that motivation, I took a short non-credit course at
Penn where participants were required to turn in a critique
and short story. This forced me to come up with a chapter
that seemed like the possible first chapter of a novel.
When it came time to get feedback, the group raved over my
piece, and wanted to know where it was going from there.
Inspired by the encouragement of my classmates, I got involved
with the Rittenhouse Writer's Group in Philadelphia. In
that group, I worked on the novel, getting each chapter critiqued.
At this point I was falling in love with the actual process
of writing. I was so energized I would get up at 4:30 in the
morning and write until 7 A.M., when everyone else woke
up. That became such a precious time to me -- I felt more alive and
more engaged than I ever had before, which sustained me to keep
How old were your children when you started to
They were about 10. I would bargain with them for Saturday
mornings, would let them stay up late Friday, and would
make all kinds of deals with them, like be quiet in the
morning and then I'll do something special in the afternoon
with you. I'd get a lot of writing done on Saturday mornings,
which was a big help.
I meshed the roles of mother and writer by continuing to write
early in the morning, a practice I still try to follow. When
I get to the intensive stage, I just have to write all the time,
which can be intrusive to my family. Sometimes when I'm in that
phase, I have to leave the house and go to
Pendle Hill, a nearby
Quaker retreat and write there.
If I don't get away and try to get through this phase at home
it's too easy to put the writing aside and get caught up in the
activities of my children. There are times when they will say
"You were busy with your book" in a way that lets me know they
needed me at that point. Sometimes they want my attention
on them first, but that's natural.
Could you have written the books you have if you weren't a mother?
I'm sure motherhood has contributed to the expanse of my
worldview, it's reflected in my books. I would be writing
very different books if I weren't a mother. There is a certain
emotional intensity that comes with motherhood, and that bond
gets reflected in my work. My children were part of why I started
writing -- I wanted to be able to give them everything I could.
From a practical standpoint, how has being a
mother affected your writing?
Intellectually, my children understand that I need to get
work done and that this is my career, especially after I left
my government job to write full-time. After my first novel
came out, I did a series of extended leaves-without-pay, and
tried going back for a few months, but wasn't able to go back
in the same way as before. It was a wonderful job, but my
focus was elsewhere. Although I had some trepidation about
leaving, it was an act of faith. I took a deep breath and
left, and I haven't regretted it, although I like the social
aspect and being involved with people. One thing I really miss
is coming home on Friday afternoons with that "TGIF" feeling.
Now that my children are leaving I have no more excuses for
not being productive and meeting deadlines. Initially, it
will be very difficult, trying to prepare for it since so
much of my energy and focus has gone to them.
Are your books like children to you?
Oh yes, my books are like children because I can't take criticism
about them. I read what people say about them, and if it's bad
I just flip right on by.
Does it make your children uncomfortable to have a mother
who is a writer?
My daughter was first person to read Tumbling, and her
reaction was what led me to send it to an agent. I'd go
into her room when she was going over it, pretending I was
looking for something but really seeking her response. She
was so enthusiastic it gave me the confidence to send the
book to an agent.
One time I was scheduled to go to their school to talk about
the book, but a reading at Borders was scheduled for the same
time, so my children's classmates circulated a petition to get
the meeting changed, and they packed the reading at Borders.
So I think my children and their friends like my writing career.
Are your children in your stories or novels anywhere?
Neither of my children has ever seen themselves in my characters.
They were so thrilled when the first book came out they would
have probably liked to be written about. Even now they listen
to early pages and give their opinion.
Has there been anything from your children's lives that
you wanted to write about but didn't for privacy reasons?
Not from my children's lives, but when I get going,
the events in the stories get scrambled up. I don't use
specific things but draw on a sense of someone I know, and
I do write about real things. For example, foster children
lived around the corner from us when we were younger, and I
remembers seeing their eyes, an impression I carried with me and
drew on when I wrote. So although I've never been a foster parent,
that powerful memory stayed with me and helped me to write about
it years later in my fiction.
My stories come from so many places. I didn't know much about
heroin addiction, but I did know people who had been addicted.
Watching them affected me in a way that led to writing about
a character with that problem.
How did your own mother influence you as a writer -- if at all?
My father was a state senator for two terms, so his world
was politics. Writing fiction seemed like frivolity to him.
Then I got a grant from the PA Council on the Arts to finish
Tumbling, and he just couldn't believe that I would leave
my job to write. He gave me a lot of input on what Philadelphia
was like in the '30s and '40s, the setting for the book, but he
never got to read it because he died before it was published.
My mother always told me I was a good writer, but she looked
on writing as a means to an end, never a fulltime job. I have
5 sisters and one brother, and we're very close. Several of
my sisters are also good writers: one has a public relations
firm, and one works for the government in Washington. They are
my readers and give me feedback. I think one of my sisters will
try to write now that she has a small son and is at home more.
Any other thoughts on how being a mother has influenced
you as a writer?
My husband and sisters are a real support to me.
When I went on the road tour, even my children's classmates
would help out! It was like their parents went through this
whole process with me, volunteering to drive my kids places
or whatever was needed. Emotionally, though, there is the part
of me that never leaves, even when I'm on the road. I call
home every morning to check on how things were going, partly out
What are you working on now?
I'm working on my fourth novel, which is also set in Philadelphia.
I'll be turning it in shortly, and am at that point of reviewing
it with a critical eye. It's like when you're having people
over, and the house you live in every day suddenly needs
completely revamped. You see things you don't see every
day, and that's what's happening right now. I'm seeing
things about this book that I had been comfortable with before,
and trying to clean it up as much as I can.
You can read more about Diane at her
**Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., is a mother, wife, writer, and
Associate Professor of Medicine at Penn State University
in Hershey, PA. Her book, Surviving Ophelia, will be
published in Fall 2001 by Perseus Publishing.
Her website is located at
http://www.survivingophelia.com. She can be reached by