Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Friday, August 1, 2014

"Don't be afraid to be vulnerable:" author Laura Mullane talks about her books, motherhood, and horses

I've been doing many author interview lately because I love to discover new authors and share views on writing, finding inspiration and marketing. Today my guest writes in a completely different genre than mine, and I'm totally blown away by how she completely masters it: Laura Mullane is a freelance writer, horse rider, editor, author, and communication consultant based in New Mexico. Her first book, God Sleeps in Rwanda, which she co-authored with Joseph Sebarenzi, was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. And her second book, Swimming for Shore, Memoirs of a Reluctant Mother, is a brave and painfully honest take on motherhood that will make you rethink the relationship not just between you and your children, but also with your partner and parents. Laura's writing is witty, funny, and insightful, and you'll find yourself unable to put this book down.

So, it's my great pleasure to have Laura come here to CHIMERAS to talk about her books. Welcome, Laura!

EEG: Tell us about your first book, God Sleeps in Rwanda, which you co-authored with Joseph Sebarenzi, the former speaker of Rwanda’s parliament. How did the opportunity to write it show up and what did you learn from the experience?

LAM: Joseph found me on the web, believe it or not. I’m a freelance writer whose “day job” is writing for companies and organizations—articles, speeches, web sites, marketing materials, etc. I have a web site promoting those services, and Joseph found me just by Googling “writer Washington, DC,” which was where I lived at the time. It’s funny, I wasn’t interested when he first called me. I get a lot of requests from people to write their life stories, but usually the stories are pretty boring and no one would ever read them. When Joseph called me and said he wanted me to help him write his memoirs, I kind of rolled my eyes, thinking, “Here we go again.” But then he started telling me his story—about surviving a Tutsi genocide when he was a child by hiding under his neighbors’ bed; about fleeing before the horrific genocide in 1994 that killed nearly 1 million people, including his mother, father and seven brothers and sisters; about returning to become Speaker of Parliament, only to have to flee the country again when he found out the President was trying to have him assassinated. I knew this was a story that had to be told—and that it would have a wide audience.

Writing it was an amazing experience in many ways. I got to learn about this small African country I knew nothing about. I had to immerse myself in a culture and landscape I had never seen firsthand. Being a white American woman and having to write in the voice of a black African man was a challenge, but one that I really loved. The hardest part was reading and writing about all of the incomprehensible violence that took place during the genocide. Reading about children being raped and murdered in front of their parents before they, too, were killed—well, it kept me up a lot of nights. My children were only three and four years old when I did most of the writing and it was hard to look at them and imagine the horror those children endured. Thinking about it now, I get tears in my eyes. I think it really changed me. I have a sense of vulnerability as a parent that I don’t think I had before.

The other, more mundane, challenge was the challenge that comes with writing as a team. It’s a very laborious process—many, many hours of interviews and then a lot of back and forth on each chapter. And sometimes we’d disagree and argue with each other, but that’s to be expected, and we always worked it out.

But mostly it was a great experience and I’m very grateful for it. Joseph is an incredible man—with a capacity to forgive that is unmatched in most people. I’m glad I got to know him and that he trusted me with his story. It was also exciting because the book got published by a big publishing company (Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster) and they nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. I doubt that will ever happen again with anything else I write, so I’ll cherish it always!

EEG: When did you get the idea to write a memoir? And how does one go about writing a memoir?

LAM: I was very reluctant to have kids and then, after I had them, I was overwhelmed by it—and not in a good way! I’d heard all my life that having children would be the most rewarding thing I would ever do, and then I had them and all I could think was, “Really?”—because it didn’t feel rewarding; it felt suffocating. I loved my kids, but I didn’t love being a mom—the exhaustion, the monotony of daily life, the crying and tantrums.

I found myself fantasizing about my life before kids and truly mourning its loss. I was always outdoorsy—hiking, backpacking, training and competing horses—and none of that was conducive to having young kids. All of that got put on hold and I was really heartbroken. I didn’t like what my life had become.

I wrote this book because I felt so alone in those early years. I never heard other mothers talk about the deep doubts that I had. I figured no one had them but me—that I was some sort of freak. So I wrote an article about it that was published in The Washington Post, and was surprised by the positive reaction I received. So many moms wrote me saying, “I’ve felt the exact same thing, but been afraid to say it.”

So I basically wrote the book I wish I’d had when my kids were young. I really hope it can help other mothers of young children feel less isolated and have more courage to talk openly about motherhood—both the good and the bad.

As for how I went about writing a memoir, I started by just writing notes about everything that happened that I could remember that was relevant. And then I thought about the major themes I wanted address—isolation, feeling smothered, feeling overwhelmed, marriage and the division of labor, the “perfect mother” myth—and kind of built chapters around those themes while creating a narrative out of the stories. It took me a long time. I wrote it in fits and starts over the course of about three years. Then I finished it and gave it to my agent (Faith Hamlin at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates). She liked it and took it on, sending it to 13 big publishing houses—they all rejected it, saying that the mommy market was saturated and/or I wouldn’t be sympathetic to other mothers, which I found laughable, but, whatever. I was pretty depressed after that and didn’t do anything with the book for another three years, when I finally decided to self-publish—so here I am!

EEG: What was the most challenging task you faced when writing Swimming for Shore?

LAM: I think the biggest challenge is just continuing to write despite the internal soundtrack of self-doubt that says I’m a bad writer; no one will ever read this; those who do read it will think I’m selfish and spoiled; etc. etc. Really, there’s no end to it! I have a quote by Samuel Beckett that’s framed and hangs in my office: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I read that whenever I feel myself wavering.

It’s also hard to write about your own life because you’re writing about people close to you—your husband, your kids, your parents. You want to represent them and your relationships with them honestly without being cruel or compromising their privacy. That’s a delicate balance.

EEG: What's the best advice for people who seek to be "more effective" in their communications to the public?

LAM: Be honest. Really, I think that’s the best advice for every writer. Take your ego out of it. Even if it’s fiction, a reader can tell an honest writer from a dishonest one. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Expose those wounds you don’t necessarily want others to see. It’s those wounds that show the true nature of being human—and readers recognize that and respond to it. They might not necessarily agree with you or feel the same way, but most readers respect the honesty regardless.

EEG: And, of course, I have to ask you about your horses: I know this passion of yours started when you were a little girl. Tell us what you feel when you're riding and when you accomplish new milestones, like you recently did with your horse West, whom you trained to jump and compete.

LAM: I try not to talk about horses too much because I worry I’ll bore everyone to death ... but since you asked ...

There’s a great quote by Helen Thomson, “In riding a horse, we borrow freedom.” I think that’s why I love riding so much. It gives me a sense of freedom unmatched by anything else. It’s funny, my father flew high-performance military jets and then became an astronaut. He hates horses—doesn’t ride, won’t even pet them—and I hate flying—yet I think we share the gene that makes each of us love those things: the gene that longs to be free from the bonds of earth. And, of course, there’s probably an adrenaline junkie gene in there, too. I think with both riding and flying, you’re always on the edge of chaos. You’re controlling this thing that’s so much more powerful than you—that with one wrong move can kill you—and yet there’s great serenity in it. Riding for me is a meditation of sorts, because it’s one of the only times in my life when I’m completely in the moment. (When I’m on a good writing streak, I feel that way, too.) The type of riding I do—dressage and jumping—requires a lot of concentration. You have to think about what your legs and hands and seat and even shoulders are doing, and how the horse’s body is responding to what you’re doing, and you have to make constant, sometimes miniscule adjustments to make sure you’re communicating to the horse what you want to communicate to him. It really is a conversation—just a physical one instead of a verbal one—and so it requires absolute focus. If I’m in a bad mood or tired or have had a bad day, riding always, always makes me feel better. It’s my therapy—very expensive therapy, but therapy nonetheless!

I have two Thoroughbreds who are ex-racehorses. One, named West, is a six-year-old I got off-the-track a year and a half ago. When I got him, he didn’t know how to do anything but run. I’ve been retraining him to do dressage and jumping and he’s doing amazingly well. I’ve taken him to a few horse shows and he’s placed in the top three each time. He’ll jump anything I put in front of him. This is the third ex-racehorse I’ve retrained and he’s by far the biggest star. So often a horse has the body for the job, but not the brain, or vice versa. West is the whole package.

It’s really gratifying to see his transformation—especially considering I got him for free because he was a track discard! This happens more than most people realize. Horses can live to be 30 years old, but most racehorses’ careers are over by the time they’re four years old. So that’s another 26 years when they need a job. More and more, people like me are getting these off-the-track Thoroughbreds for not a lot of money and retraining them, and they’re doing really well.

Laura and West competing at the Watermelon Mountain Horse 
Trials this past May. It was West's first competition at this level
and he placed third. Picture © Mike Mullane.

My husband asked me the other day if I ever thought I’d stop getting off-the-track horses and someday just buy a horse that’s already trained and that I can just get on and go. There’s a lot of appeal to that, because there’s definitely risk in retraining off-the-track horses—you don’t know what you’re getting and they can be pretty explosive—but I’m not sure I’d enjoy riding a “made” horse as much. It’s such a feeling of accomplishment bringing a young horse along. It makes even the worst days of writing seem tolerable!

EEG: Wow, congratulations! Sounds like you gave West a new life and he's doing so well! Thanks so much Laura for sharing a bit of your life with us!

To find out more about Laura Mullane's writing and riding adventures, check out her blog for future book release and of course, lots of pictures of horses, kids, and life in New Mexico. ;-)

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