Episode Five! Conversation with Nancy Werlin
Welcome to episode five of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Every week this podcast will feature an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, Nancy Werlin discusses her essay "Financial Fear" (which can be heard HERE) with Jacqueline Davies. Nancy and Jacqueline discuss the psychology of fear around money that affects women writers.
On today's Podcast you will hear:
Nancy Werlin is an author of 10 novels (and counting). She was born in Peabody, Massachusetts and graduated with a B.A. in English from Yale College. She was a National Book Award nominee for her 2008 book The Rules of Survival, a winner of the Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Novel for The Killer’s Cousin in 1999, and an Edgar award finalist for Locked Inside. Her other books for teens include Impossible, Unthinkable and Double Helix. Her newest book is And Then There Were Four. See more about Nancy at her website.
Jacqueline Davies is the talented author of YA and middle grade novels as well as picture books. Her beloved The Lemonade War series, tells the story of a brother and sister who make a bet to see who can sell the most lemonade in five days. The second book in the series is The Lemonade Crime; the third book is The Bell Bandit; the fourth is The Candy Smash; and the fifth and final book in the series in The Magic Trap. Her newest book Nothing But Trouble (HarperCollins, 2016) tells the story of two smart girls in a small town who can't help but get into trouble by pulling pranks. See more about Jacqueline at her website.
Jacqueline: Hi, this is Jacqueline Davies and I am here with Nancy Werlin, and we're going to be discussing her essay about fear and women and art and money. Hi Nancy, how are you?
Nancy: Hi Jacqueline, I'm fine.
Jacqueline: It's nice to see you. Thanks for being on the podcast.
Nancy: I'm happy to be here.
Jacqueline: I'm happy to have you. There is so much in this, this is a meaty, meaty essay and there is so much here, so I'm going to get right to it. I just want to jump into the part, I'm going to read a little bit. "Sometimes a particular woman's financial fear is suppressed by years of personal plenty, but often it is right there on the surface alongside the pile of monthly bills." Can you talk a little bit about why writing for children is so particularly precarious? Because we have listeners who may be are outside writing for children, or maybe new to it or pre-publish, so talk a little bit. Explain a little bit about the precariousness of being a writer for children.
Nancy: I think that when you're writing for children, there is first of all in our industry, we are simply paid less than writers for adults are. Which is not to say that writers for adults are well paid, they are not. But our royalty percentages are on average several points lower, and the advances are also quite a bit lower. So it's just a financial fact.
Jacqueline: Right, that makes it difficult, and then there's also the disparity with gender in terms of men getting paid more than women. So particularly women and children's writers.
Nancy: Yes, and the majority of writers for children by far are women, so baked in is a huge disparity in money.
Jacqueline: That can't help but come up as this feeling of fear and insecurity.
Nancy: There is also an aspect, whenever you do things for children, in which in our society it is felt that you ought to be doing it for free. "It's for the children-"
Jacqueline: We hear that all the time.
Nancy: "Why don't you donate your time and your effort?"
Jacqueline: "It's for the kids, it's for the kids."
Jacqueline: Yeah, which is another form of guilt.
Nancy: It is indeed.
Jacqueline: And women are susceptible to that.
Nancy: Very susceptible to feeling like we ought to be donating our creative efforts to any child who needs it.
Jacqueline: Right, so in addition to the structure of the publishing world, there is also the ways in which women ... so many requests are made of women authors to give time, to give books, to give of themselves. And because we have a tendency to respond with guilt ...
Nancy: There we are.
Jacqueline: There we are.
Nancy: Suddenly we find that we are giving away 20 hours of our work week to unpaid labor.
Nancy: Sound familiar?
Jacqueline: Yeah. You talk about the wonderful fantasy of being taken of. Have you found some version of that fantasy in your own life?
Nancy: I did have a little bit of that fantasy. When I first married my husband Jim, who's a terrific guy. He was working for Microsoft and he was earning a wonderful living. It turned out that Jim hated working for Microsoft, and he is now self-employed with an income that goes up and down. But we did have a few years in which Jim was earning this luxurious Microsoft salary, and oh my God, the Cadillac benefits. We didn't even have co-pays on our medical insurance.
Jacqueline: Tell me how that affected you as an artist. Can you remember those two years and was there a change [crosstalk 00:03:35]?
Nancy: It's actually very interesting. Jim said to me, "Nancy, you don't have to work. If you give up your job, I can easily support us."
Jacqueline: And by "work" you mean your day job?
Nancy: I had a day job, that's exactly [crosstalk 00:03:48].
Jacqueline: Not give up writing?
Nancy: Not give up writing, and you know what? I was too afraid. I thought, "No, I can't let go of the side of the pool," which is the metaphor that I use for myself. "What if Jim loses his job? What if something happens?" I can't take the leap of faith that all will be well, because I'm 45 years old and I don't believe in the fairytale that all will always be well. And indeed ... Actually it's a longer story, but Jim eventually said to me, "If you can't take that leap, I can."
Jacqueline: We are laughing heartily here. Yeah, men seem to be able to stand up for themselves and take risks.
Nancy: Men can take risks of all kinds that don't frighten them.
Jacqueline: Why is that? You talk about historical, you talk reasons, you talk about even think that are almost woven into us. What do you think it is?
Nancy: I wish I knew.
Jacqueline: Yeah, it's a big question, but you yourself were not able to indulge in the fantasy of being taken care of?
Nancy: I was not, I have seen too much.
Jacqueline: Let me ask you this. Is the having the day job your version of that fantasy? Is it that the corporation is taking care of you, which then allows you to be less afraid to make art?
Nancy: I believe that it is. I believe I have actually been very fortunate in my day job, which is as a technical writer 30 hours a week at a company that appreciates the work that I do, and appreciate that I need those other 10 hours a week to do my own thing. I think I have made my own security. I never believed it will always last, but I have managed to keep a day job alongside my creative life my entire career. For me that has been the best possible answer for this puzzle that I think every woman artist needs to come to grips with.
Jacqueline: Right. I'm going to read a little bit from ... it's the thesis but it comes towards the end. "The more afraid you are, the harder it is to make art." Can we just take that one sentence right there? Can you just expand on that a little bit? Imagine, put yourself in the head of a woman who is currently has no reliable income coming in. What do you think it does to her art?
Nancy: I think it might make it impossible to do art at all. The emotional-
Jacqueline: Total paralysis?
Nancy: It could be total paralysis. It could be that you sit down at the end of the day and this is the one half-hour that you have for yourself, and the bills are pressing, and you are afraid of various things that might or might happen when you have financial insecurity, or food insecurity, or social insecurity. And how do you push that aside and put yourself emotionally into the head of the character in the story that you are creating? It's not that some people aren't able to do this, because they can and they do, but I think of Tillie Olsen, As I stand Here Ironing, talking about the difficulties of art-making for women, and I think everything that she says in that wonderful essay is still true. And I also think of the ultra-privileged Virginia Woolf, saying that what you needed to make art ... We always say, "Oh, a room of your own." That's the second thing she mentioned. The first thing that she mentioned was an independent income. She was a well-off woman.
Jacqueline: One of the things that's well known for women in terms of the psychology of fear around money is that we fear homelessness. We fear that we're going to be without a home, and I think that's just ... I'm just spinning off of that, that it goes that deep. That it's not just that, "Oh, we won't be able to afford to buy something that we want, or to go somewhere that we want, or to eat out, or something like that." It goes all the way to the core of our very home will be taken away from us.
Nancy: I think that is so astute. I think that for women the idea of having a home is wrapped up with the idea of safety, of warmth, of caretaking. I'm thinking of something that a good friend of mine said when thinking about a friend of ours who was getting a divorce, and who was making a big stand about keeping her house. My friend who is male said, "You know, women self-immolate on their houses." Women will do anything to stay in the house in which they were making their life work before the divorce, and they'll make financial sacrifices to do that, and make some foolish decisions sometimes, because of the idea of the house.
Jacqueline: And particularly when the house is the home of their children.
Jacqueline: Because to lose the house is to take away your children's home, in some cases the only place they've ever known. So I think it's true, I think women do, in the face of loss, whether it's being divorced or losing a job, they hold onto that house.
Nancy: They cling.
Nancy: They cling, and that's not necessarily a bad thing but it can be. I think it's got to do with the power of the idea of home and the power of the idea of homelessness.
Jacqueline: Getting back to fear, we're imagining this imaginary woman who is facing a financially tenuous situation. Do you also think that it might cause women to consider the market more than maybe men do? Maybe men might feel more able to write what they want, to write whatever seems to call to them. Whereas women, who have very specific financial needs, might be thinking, "I need to make a sale, I need to sell well. I should study the market," and we all know that writing to the market is generally a bad idea for creating art.
Nancy: That is a very interesting question, which I've never thought about before, but my instinctive reaction is no, I actually don't think it would work that way. I believe that I think this because the men that I know in our industry are very market-focused, and come at it in a very open way. "What will sell? How much money can I expect to get from that?" Those questions tend to come much more frequently from men than from women. I think that alongside everything else, women expect to be paid poorly and accept it. So maybe [inaudible 00:10:58] backward way is sort of giving yourself permission as a woman to not be financially successful, even as you go after your art. Which is strange to think about.
Jacqueline: It's strange to think about, isn't it? There is so much more to talk about here but we are running out of time, and I do have a couple of questions that I want to ask you about. First, what are you working on right now? Anything that you'd like to talk about? Kind of your elevator pitch of what you're working on right now or what's coming out right now. Whatever you'd like folks to hear about.
Nancy: I am working on a novel about a girl who is in love with a show on TV which she keeps desperately secret from her very serious boyfriend, because she thinks he'll think it's frivolous. It's just a tiny little secret until she sneaks off to [Dragon Con 00:11:51] to see the season two premiere. She's only going to be gone for less than 24 hours, only she has such a great time at the Con and meets some other people, that she decides to do it again the next month with her new friends. And it becomes a big secret in her life, that little by little threatens to explode the relationship that she really does care about with this guy, who is really a very good guy but very serious. What's going to happen when he discovers her secret life? I don't know.
Jacqueline: It sounds like a good one. I'll be looking for that. Is there a title yet or is it still in progress, so there's no title?
Nancy: Right now it's called Same Time Next Month.
Jacqueline: I like that, that's a good one. All right, I'm going to spring this question on you now.
Jacqueline: Because this is just looking for a shoot for the moon, reach for the stars, let your inhibitions go ... At this point in your career right now, if you could have anything happen, anything. The craziest, most outrageous thing, what would it be?
Nancy: I am working, as my side project, on a graphic memoir about my ex-boyfriend who was, in shorthand, one of those people who leads a number of secret lives in parallel. I really really want to make this project work. I'm doing the art myself in a weird way. I'm learning as I go. It's taken me five years so far. I expect it will take another five years. I want to do this book.
Jacqueline: Can we also add, just because we're going for the pushing, your first graphic memoir will be on the New York Times bestseller list?
Nancy: And stay there.
Nancy: For a good year.
Jacqueline: That sounds [crosstalk 00:13:45].
Nancy: Because it's really a crazy story and it's all true.
Jacqueline: I've seen pieces of it and it's quite remarkable. I can't wait till that comes all together. Thank you so much for being with us today. It was a real pleasure talking with you.
Nancy: Thanks for having me, Jacqueline.
Jacqueline: Okay, we'll talk to you soon. Bye bye.
Jacqueline: Thanks so much-