An Interview with Ayelet Waldman

One day while getting in my daily walk I listened to a podcast of Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. I do this often. I find most of Terry’s guests informative, entertaining, or sometimes both. But the guest I listened to on this day was beyond any I’d heard before. She was an intelligent woman who talked about her bipolar condition as easily as she talked about the drapes on her window. That openness caught me by surprise. She explained as a result of her illness that her internal editor sometimes skipped a beat in preventing her from blurting out things about herself that most of us would keep in the closet. Like her obsession with pictures of dead babies (that’s not as macabre as it sounds, her blog explains Victorian era photography), loving her husband more than her children, and having bipolar.

But it is this frank discussion about socially taboo subjects that made listening to her so riveting. She touches the very nature of the human condition; secret curiosities that pique our interests but are frowned upon in polite discussions.

So many conversations are just that.  Nice and polite…and devoid of what’s real. Listening to someone speak so honestly was, well, refreshing. I felt even a bit saddened to learn that a disease like bipolar may be what it takes for most of us to be a little more real.

I continued listening to this podcast while pacing the trail at my neighborhood park, all the while entranced by the discussion going on in my ear buds, until I heard Terry speak the name of her guest. Heart rate be damned, I stopped in my tracks. What a name! So exotic! So mysterious. I needed to learn more. I rushed home and searched the Internet and although there was a plethora of information about this woman, I couldn’t find anything about her name.

I learned that she was the author of the recently published Red Hook Road, Bad Mother (a NY Times bestseller), Daughter’s Keeper, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, and a series of books called the Mommy-Track Mysteries. She’s had essays published in the NY Times, Elle Magazine, Vogue, Parenting, Real Simple, and Health. She’s also had radio commentaries on All Things Considered and the California Report. You can find links to many of these on her site. She’s also married to Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon with whom she has four children.

What is this accomplished woman’s name that intrigued me so? Ayelet Waldman. Have you heard of her? I wouldn’t be surprised if you have. Her provocative essays and books on being a bad mother and loving her husband more than her children have certainly exalted her into the public limelight.

Below are excerpts of my interview with Ayelet. I hope you find her as fascinating as I did.

What did your parents name you when you were born?

They named me Ayelet. Believe it or not, my mother picked this name for me because she always hated her name. My mother’s parents named her Roxanne, but she loathes being called that. She grew up in Brooklyn and at the time no one was called Roxanne. So instead she chose to go by Ricki. And to this day, no one calls her Roxanne.

When my mom was pregnant with me, our family moved to Israel. Because of her experience with her uncommon name, she decided she wasn’t going to curse her daughter with an unusual name as well.

She thought about naming me Petra, but the nurses told her it was an Arab name. That shows what they knew. Ayelet was the most common name she could think of, so that ended up being my name!

Did you grow up in Israel?

No. When I was two and a half we moved back home to Montreal where I was saddled with the exact situation as my mom when she was a child. Ayelet was a very unusual name in Montreal.

Did you go by the name Ayelet as a child?

My family actually called me Lellie. They didn’t register me as Lellie, but they told the school to call me that, so I never heard the name Ayelet even on the first day of attendance-taking.

What did you think of the name Lellie?

Well, I guess this illustrates how complicated all of this is because I hated the name Lellie. I thought it sounded like a baby name. My mom  — who hated Roxanne and went by Ricki  — gave me this little girl nickname, Lellie. I went to college and I knew I had this new start so I changed it. I started going by Ayelet. It wasn’t easy either. It felt incredibly uncomfortable for the first few months.

Does everyone call you Ayelet now?

There are some in my family that still call me Lellie. And some people who knew me from before still call me that. Some of my parents’ friends have transitioned and call me Ayelet. It’s interesting the respect that it shows for people to call you by the name you prefer.

So changing names is a sort of family tradition?

Yes. Even my sister changed her name from Emma to Noga, an old-fashioned Hebrew name. You still see that name in Israel. She changed her name about 10 years ago.

It’s interesting that you changed your name when you went to college. That seems to be a common time to make these kinds of changes. For example, President Obama went through a similar experience of changing from his boyhood nickname, Barry, to his real name, Obama.

Yes, I think it’s natural that you reject a childhood nickname. You want to adopt an adult persona. Sometimes that means rejecting a childhood nickname.

It’s interesting the respect that it shows for people to call you by the name you prefer.

What do you think of your name now?

I don’t love it, but I do like having a name where I don’t have to give out my last name. I like the idea of saying only my first name and having most people know whom they’re talking to. Unless I’m in Israel.

However, sometimes I wish I had a name that I didn’t have to spell all the time.

Do you think your name has helped you in any way?

Yes, having a unique name helps you stand out.

Let’s talk for a bit about your books. How do you name the characters in your books?

The process I use is different for every book. A lot has to do with the time period about which I’m writing. I often check the Social Security website for names the year the character was born. Depending on the character, I check to see which names were more or less common that year and choose from that list. If it’s a more creative character, then I might look further down the list.

Sometimes there’s a certain part of their personality that inspires a name. In my book Red Hook Road, one of the characters is named Jane because that’s what I was after. She’s a very “plain Jane” character and the name worked for her. Another character, Iris, is more pretentious, so I was looking for a beautiful and unusual name. The iris flower just seemed appropriate for her. It also has an old-fashioned quality, hearkening back to previous generations.

Is it fun playing with character names because it gives you a chance to try out names you might have liked to have chosen for your children?

Choosing a name for a character is very important. I only have 4 children and there were only so many names I could have used. So I love the name Ruby but didn’t give that to my daughter. It gave me a chance to use it with one of my characters.

How do you pick names of your books?

You mean the title of the book? Oh, that’s so hard. I go through something like 3,000 titles and they’re never right. Some titles I didn’t think of myself. It’s a team effort. Sometimes the publisher thinks of it.

You obviously have experience in naming children. What process did you use to pick names for your children?

All our children are named in the traditional Jewish way. They’re named after family members who have died.

What do you think of unusual spellings parents use for names today?

I think people who give their babies common names with weird spelling are torturing their poor children.

What advice do you have for other parents when picking a name for their children?

Choose carefully. Don’t express your personality when naming a child. Give a name that adapts to the child’s personality.

What would you think if one of your children changed their name?

I’d be sad. A lot of thought went into their names. I mean, I would understand. Everyone’s entitled to make his or her own choices. But I would be sad.

I read where someone described your writing as a true lightning rod. They said that your books are “generously studded with Ayelet-astic grenades.” What do you think of comments such as this?

Half the time I don’t even realize that what I’m about to write is provocative. I am under the impression that what I’m writing is obvious. Then it’s published and it’s like a bomb goes off. And I’m standing there in disbelief. I just try to write as truthfully as possible, and hope for the best.

Speaking of explosions, I guess there was a minor blast after your book about being a “bad mother” was published. I find myself perplexed with this notion of perfectionism. It seems to me to be a shield covering insecurities. Were you surprised by the responses to your book Bad Mother?

There is no such thing as a perfect mother. We all feel insecure. We attack others because we feel insecure. When you’re content, you don’t feel the need to lash out. We feel tortured for whatever reason and to feel better about ourselves we lash out at others. What we really need to do is start forgiving ourselves. We need to not be so knotted up and not be so mean.

If there were such a thing as an alternate universe and you could have a clone living there, what would you like her name to be?

Adelaide. I just love that name.

Do you find the topic of names interesting?

Sure.

Have you ever known someone with a really odd name?

Besides myself? Yes. I think it’s funny when doctors have ironic names – such as a gastreonologist named Dr. Probe.

What inspires you in your life?

Everything. Books. My family.

I noticed you were a blogger for a time. Do you have any advice for bloggers?

I think blogging is great, but for me personally it was not. I want to use my writing energy to write novels. I know some manage to write and blog, but I also have four children. Blogging was good for me because it led to the opportunity of writing personal essays. The blog gave me an outlet for that.

Your blog was fairly well-known?

I really only blogged for a few months and I did have a fairly large readership and I think if I had kept up, it could have turned into something else. But this was during the early days of blogs. Mine was one of the first. As result there weren’t 2 gazillion mommy blogs to compete with.

The way you describe hypermania in your blog makes it sound…like something I wish I had! How do you write 3 books in 7 months! Did you sleep?

Yes, hypermania can be exhilarating. And yes, I did write 3 books in 7 months. And I slept. I just wrote really fast.

I want to end this post with an excerpt of Ayelet’s book, Bad Mother: A Chronicle Of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace.

When my son Zeke was in preschool he came home every day and headed straight for the couch. He pulled me down next to him and cleaved his plump body to my own less adorably rotund one. He pressed his soft lips to my neck, nuzzling under my chin, breathing deep as if he wanted to inhale every molecule of the fragrance he had missed in the four hours of our separation. He placed his palms on my cheeks and kissed me on the lips, languidly yet gravely, like a very small, round-cheeked lover.

If that’s not enough to make your ovaries ache for a baby, I don’t know what is. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to Ayelet’s interview with Terry Gross, I encourage you to check it out. You can learn more about her books and essays on Ayelet’s site.

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