Publishing, parenting, puke: This author’s club covers everything

Rachel Kadish (left) and Tova Mirvis at a writers meeting at Jessica Shattuck’s home.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Rachel Kadish (left) and Tova Mirvis at a writers meeting at Jessica Shattuck’s home.

Thankfully, no child threw up this particular morning.

The six women authors, with at least two published novels and as many kids or more to match, amble into the sunny Brookline kitchen, ready to put daily parenting crises aside and dive into the nitty gritty of book publishing — agents, editors, submissions, and proposals.

This particular critique group sprang up two years ago when novelist Jessica Shattuck (“The Hazards of Good Breeding’’) attended her husband’s high school reunion and met fellow writer Emily Franklin, author of several novels for both teens and adults, including “Last Night at the Circle Cinema.’’


“Emily and I started talking about writing and motherhood and the various challenges of doing solitary, creative work, and finding readers to bounce things off at a very preliminary state,” Shattuck recalls. “And out of that came the idea of starting a writing group. We decided to reach out to a few other writers we knew [Joanna Rakoff, Tova Mirvis, Rachel Kadish, and Heidi Pitlor] . . . and voila!’’

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Despite the imagined glamour to the uninitiated, publishing can be a field rife with uncertainty and doubt, even for accomplished authors. The never being sure everything will work out, the molasses-slow submission process, harsh reviews, sparsely-attended book signings, and even readers who feel compelled to nitpick over typos. Each book presents a new chance to fail — or to just call it quits.

“Publishing is such a solitary profession,” explains Shattuck. “We don’t have a water cooler,” Franklin adds. “This is the water cooler.”

The monthly get-togethers initially focused on workshopping — the group collectively pored through Newton author Tova Mirvis’s upcoming memoir, “The Book of Separation,’’ on leaving her marriage and Orthodox faith — but have expanded to address their craving for shoptalk. “It’s a relief valve,” says Shattuck. “Writers can be competitive. This group was formed to be in opposition to that.”

The honest exchanges and balanced level of accomplishment has helped them put professional envy aside. “It’s a relief to be in a group where we are all at similar places in our career,” says Cambridge transplant Joanna Rakoff, whose breakout memoir, “My Salinger Year,’’ is being developed for film. “We’re not at that moment where we’re struggling to write a first novel. We can help each other to remember: You don’t have to worry so much.’’


They arrive at Shattuck’s home one recent morning, dressed in jeans, gulping down coffee and cake, and kicking off with an update of each woman’s most recent triumphs and tribulations: Shattuck’s new novel, “The Women in the Castle,’’ slated for release next week, has been selected the indie booksellers’ April pick of the month; Mirvis’s tattered unbound manuscript, peppered with Post-It notes, has made it through editing to page proofs; Pitlor’s satirical novel, first submitted to editors in June, has scored a publishing home.

Brookline Ma 03/07/2017 Author Jessica Shattuck (cq) held a roundtable discussion at her Brookline home for a group of female authors. Jonathan Wiggs /GlobeStaff) Reporter:Topic
Jonathan Wiggs /GlobeStaff
Jessica Shattuck

Talk turns to the delicate art of self-promotion in the days of social media (“I got a nice e-mail back from my gynecologist . . . I don’t know why we’re Facebook friends,” confesses Shattuck) and guiding Kadish on where to pitch an essay pegged to the June launch of her book “The Weight of Ink,’’ a work of historical fiction set in 17th-century London and a 12-year labor of love.

There are also the woes: the perpetual battle with art departments over layouts and cover design, the challenge of placing a poetry manuscript, and even grappling with more existential questions, such as the relevance of literature amid the current contentious political climate. “I’m not feeling like these matter — that we read short, quiet stories,” confesses Pitlor, who edits an annual short-story anthology and has been struggling with crafting this year’s forward.

“Art matters,” says Franklin, quietly. “Say what’s true,” advises Kadish.

“That feels disingenuous right now,” Pitlor replies. “I don’t know how to do this in a way that feels real.”


“Maybe you don’t need to offer an answer,” concludes Shattuck. “There’s something sublime about a really good short story. That does have meaning, even when everything else is so confusing.’’

‘It’s a relief valve. Writers can be competitive. This group was formed to be in opposition to that.’

The delicate art of balancing child-rearing with world-building is another evergreen concern. When she was pregnant with her third child, Shattuck recalls reading a provocative essay that claimed having more than one child was the kiss of death to the female working writer. “That trope was definitely hanging over all our heads,” she recalls. “It was like: ‘Have I just shot myself in the foot?’ ”

The practicalities of parenting inevitably seep into the literary life. One author relates delivering a book talk with dried milk in her hair; another tells of the pressures of “writing on a meter” — paying $75 for child care in order to write three lines. Mirvis recalls a New York photoshoot for her book jacket being interrupted by a call from the school nurse that her child was vomiting. “You can see [the worry] on my face [in the photo],” she jokes.

Finding fellow authors who understand those realities helps. “The mom thing matters,” says Pitlor, who has 10-year-old twins. “We’re working on similar schedules; our kids are the same age. We’re all good at helping each other cut ourselves slack.”

“As I tell my women graduate students, if you can’t write for three weeks, forgive yourself,’’ says Kadish, a mother of two school-age children who teaches M.F.A. students at Lesley University in Cambridge. “[I tell myself that author] V.S. Naipaul did not just spend the last hour cleaning up dog vomit.”

Yet for all the challenges, the women say, parenting has added “depth” to their work. The ability to truly know worry and fear on a gut level. Balancing complexes, grimly notes Rakoff, who is currently back in the trenches, juggling a toddler and two elementary-age kids.

Is there a male equivalent out there, a group of Boston dad novelists who drop kids off at day care and meet for a coffee klatch critique? The women wrack their brains, but come up empty. “I did know a group of male writers who did meet,” Rakoff finally offers. “But I think they [got together and] played poker.”

A prior version of this story incorrectly stated the number of children Rachel Kadish has.

Melissa Schorr is a contributing editor at the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine and author of the young adult novels “Goy Crazy” and “Identity Crisis.” Her upcoming nonfiction book, “Shame Nation,” will be published in October.