December Book of the Month: Motherest

It's the early 1990s. Agnes is a new college student. She is caught between the wilderness of the college life and the broken home she's left behind. What she needs the most is her mother, who has vanished, and her brother, who left the family tragically a few years earlier. Agnes, like most girls her age, tries to navigate romance and female friendships and the intimacy and struggles they bring. This novel is a discovery of self, intimacy, motherhood, and home.

We had the honor of speaking with Motherest author Kristen Iskandrian about her amazing book - read on, Gems! 

What was the hardest scene to write? 

Writing about Simon, the details and circumstances of his suicide, was hard. The hospital scenes with Agnes were also hard. I wanted to make sure I captured these ‘big’ moments—death and life—with the specificity and tonal precision they deserved. 

Did you always plan for Agnes’s mother to come back in the end of the novel? 

No. I surprised myself there, which is the best feeling while writing—the goal, really, though you can’t ever plan it.

Did you edit anything out of the book which you loved? What was it? 

We excised quite a bit of text, which was hard at first, but everything I really loved, stayed.

Which author/book was the biggest inspiration when writing Motherest?

I feel like all of the books by and about women that I’ve ever read, inspired and guided and informed my writing. Childhood favorites by L’Engle and Konigsburg and Alcott, books and letters by Plath and Woolf and de Beauvoir which I’ve read and re-read, short stories by Lydia Davis, novels by Elena Ferrante and Jenny Offill, and probably dozens of others that have all been mashed into my psyche.

You brilliantly captured the world of the 1990s. Why did you choose this decade for Motherest?

It was a formative decade for me, the one during which I left childhood and became an adult. It’s still so vivid to me. I didn’t want to fetishize it or wax nostalgic; I just wanted to reveal it in an intimate and personal way, through Agnes.

For those who want to explore more of the world of Motherest what would you recommend in terms of films, music, and/or books? 

I made a Spotify playlist for my publisher; I think you can search for it under Motherest playlist” or something. There are great books that were written in the 90s, of course, that weren’t “set” in the 90s: Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel stands out as a very 90s book, although I believe the milieu may technically have been the late 80s? Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides came out in the 90s—I read it during college—but was set in the 70s. By the late 90s/early 2000s everyone was talking about Infinite Jest. More recently, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is set squarely in 1995. In terms of movies, I think of Singles, Pulp Fiction, Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Clerks, Clueless, Sex, Lies & Videotape, Fight Club, Trainspotting—so many.

If you could cast your book, which actors would you choose to play the characters?

So fun to think about but I honestly don’t know. Anjelica Huston would be amazing as Agnes’s mom.

Did you own pregnancy/parenting experience influence how you portrayed Agnes?

I’d say I tapped into the underbelly, if you will, of what were my own pregnancy fears and experiences. I could use those as a starting point and then grist them through my imagination, through Agnes’s spirit. I spent a lot of time meditating on what it means to be a daughter and a mother.

Why did you choose the title Motherest for your work? 

Originally, it was going to be Mother, Motherer, Motherest, to denote a kind of generational sense of mother. But it’s such a mouthful, and kept tripping us up, so we went with the essential part of it, the superlative, the ‘most mother,’ which to me, is the crux of the whole story. I love that it’s a made-up word that can evoke different things for everyone.

What are your top 10 favorite novels? 

I don’t play favorites, see the question above for a few that have meant a lot to me. In no particular order I’d add: The Portrait of a Lady, Madame Bovary, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Lolita, Middlesex, The Trial, Beloved, Dead Souls, Pride and Prejudice, Things Fall Apart, Good Morning, Midnight; Disgrace, Geek Love, The Hour of the Star, and so many others. 

What advice would you give to aspiring female writers? 

Guard your writing time against the other things of your life—jobs, family, socializing, being online. Time management, especially once a project that you’re desperate to finish is underway, is vital. Try to read more than you do pretty much anything else. Read books that challenge you and pay attention to your feelings as you read. Find the joy in what you’re writing, so that you’ll want to keep writing it.

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