Gayle sits in her sunny backyard in New York City as she chats to me. Her dog, Rudy, is running around but not daring to go anywhere near his owner as he shows her a little attitude after a much-needed grooming session.
1. You have made some pretty big changes to your parenting life after publishing Leave Me in 2016 – a story about Maribeth Klein, a mother who leaves home. What prompted this social commentary?
“That was probably the most true-to-me book reflecting how it felt to be such an overwhelmed, default parent.
We live in a world where parenting is supposedly egalitarian. But more often than not, it really comes down gender lines if you’re in a cis, hetero household.
When I was younger, I was just so overwhelmed by it all. And the way that we do family and parenting in the United States – and in much of the West – is very f*cked up and in isolation. [Parenting] is meant to be done in a community. And I was really feeling the strain of that.
In the 10 years since I’ve written that book, I’ve made some pretty big changes in my life. So it does not feel that way anymore. But that desire to run away, and that fear that if I drop the balls or if I get sick, who is going to take care of me?; I think that resonates with a lot of people and a lot of women. It really speaks to how kind of siloed we become in this idea of a nuclear family.
So that was me in my first adult novel, excavating all that. And it was a little tough because people really hated Maribeth. If you read the one star reviews of that book, most of it is because a mother leaving her children is still very, very, taboo.
2. Maribeth gets so stressed from her responsibilities as a mother that she does not even realise she is having a heart attack when she does. Although you did not have a similar medical scare, why was the idea of escaping home so appealing to you at the time?
My friend Marjorie used to say there’s two kinds of mothers, the ones who fantasise about running away, and the liars.
I think we so harshly judge mothers. Just how we police them and have these insane expectations – and we women and mothers internalise that.
I remember one morning I was getting on a plane. I had my phone in my hand, my suitcase behind me. I’m on two lines on my telephone because the school bus hasn’t come, and one kid’s sick. Just the constant, ‘women tend to be very good mothers’ or ‘tend to be very good at multitasking’ because it’s so necessary – It’s just, oh God, someone take the wheel.
You sort of have this fantasy. You love your children for sure, but you just wanna break. You just want somebody to take over for a bit and just let you not worry about anything.
It’s so unrelenting doing child care. And working and doing it; particularly in a place like the United States where there is really no safety net. And again, not a lot of communal structures will support that. It’s such an unhealthy way to do it.
3. What was it like in your household when you initially started your own family?
My first professional job was an internship for Ms. Magazine (an American feminist magazine). And yet, there was just the assumption that when me and my partner had children, that I would be the one to stay home and take care of them.
It never for a minute crossed our minds that he might be the person who was the default parent. So that was just like, wow. How come we never even had a conversation about that? It’s so baked-in, these gender norms and these gender rules. I hadn’t even really thought about that.
I also started to notice that there were certain chores that I hated doing. And I asked myself, why is the expectation that I will do these household chores? Because I was born with breasts and a vagina? Like it didn’t make any sense. Why are we doing it this way?
So that really started to create a revolution within my own household where my partner wound up leaving full time work for a good period of time. He hated his job. And I remember it being almost an embarrassing thing, as if he was less of a man or something.
Even if you think you’re pretty evolved and pretty progressive, to realise that about myself was just shocking. But I do think that the next couple of generations, millennials and the Gen Zs, really have found a paradigm shift in how they define and perform gender.
4. When Maribeth leaves after her heart attack, she meets Stephen Grant – her new cardiologist. They develop a comforting affection for each other. What was the reason for Stephen’s character in the book?
I wanted her to have a platonic romance. It’s not like an affair is the end of everything, but I figured nobody wants to have sex less than a mother of four-year-old twins who recently had bypass surgery.
But I wanted her to feel and see what it was like to be taken care of and to make a specific choice to go back. And Stephen needed some taking care of too. It’s not like I would never have wanted her to be with Stephen because [he] is heartbroken. They both kind of just got each other to a place where maybe they can move on.
But it felt important after the way the doctors had treated her before, which is not atypical for women and is very typical for women of colour to have everything written off as stress. So it felt important that somebody took her seriously and took care of her.
5. Why would you say that Leave Me is still relevant today?
I really do see some radical shifts with how people are defining gender. And so I hope that means they’re going to be radical shifts in parenting.
I look at my friends who are progressive New Yorkers, feminists, and I would say in almost all of the cases, who does most work in the family? And in the cis, hetero couples – it’s the woman!
It’s so baked into it and then we beat ourselves up when we’re not perfect as if that is an attainable thing. It’s still relevant in the fact that that kind of a book is still taboo tells you how relevant it is.
6. Your books often have so many pronouns in their titles. From If I Stay, to Leave Me; I was Here to Where She Went. Is this a coincidence? Why are your characters always moving or trying to find a place for themselves?
I mean, that’s life Right? They are striving for something. And in some cases, like with, If I Stay, the circumstance has been thrust upon them. She has to decide if she’s gonna stay with her boyfriend at home or go off to college. And then she has to decide if she’s gonna live or die.
It’s interesting that there are so many pronouns in my book; We are Inevitable, I Have Lost My Way, Where We Went, I Was Here, If I Stay, Leave Me. I feel like at least my next two books don’t have any. There’s no pronouns!
But it speaks more to how personal they are. You get so deep into the characters’ feelings – you really do feel how they’re feeling. So that’s one of the reasons why.
7. Your books often touch on many social issues, but found family is a strong recurring theme. Why is that so?
For I Have Lost My Way going back to our earlier theme of needing community and these three strangers on the lowest day of their lives kind of bumping into each other literally and forming this found family – Found family and chosen family are definitely a big theme of mine because that’s your family of origin.
Even if you have the most wonderful family, it’s not enough. We shouldn’t be living in isolation. We need these people around us. We need multiple wells, so to speak.
As for social issues I want to convey – mental health is not really a social issue, but the way that we treat it as something that is different than physical health, is. I’ve had characters grappling with social isolation.
And, I would say that the importance of community is becoming increasingly so important in my books. If you look at like the last several ones, it really is just about having this network of community, which can be great.
I keep coming back to this idea of found family and chosen family, even if you have a wonderful, biological origin.
8. You say that you write about young people but you do not write young stories. Why is writing about death, loss and tragedy important for young people?
I think it’s important for young people to understand – in developmentally appropriate ways – that life is gonna throw some sh*t at them.
And that they have more resources than they might believe to deal with them.
That is when you’re really starting to see the world, its injustice and its beauty in complicated ways. When you’re younger, it really is when you are beginning to form yourself as a person.
Some people say that my books are about death and they’re really not. They’re about people facing their fears, whatever those fears might be.
And finding that they’re stronger than they think they are, and rising to the occasion.
So young people more than anybody need to understand that you can’t be protected from pain in life – it’s coming for all of us.
If you have love, you’re gonna have loss. They go hand in hand. Ultimately, the answer to dealing with that loss is more love – different kinds of love.
9. If I Stay falls closely on this theme and has done massively well. Did you expect for this to be your most popular book?
I started writing this one, and I remember I saved it on my computer as why not? Because I didn’t really think it felt viable as a book.
It jumped around. It was about teenagers, but it was very intense.
So I didn’t really think it was gonna be anything anybody would want to read, but I felt compelled to do it anyhow. So I saved the file as ‘why not?’
On one hand, it was surprising just because I didn’t have any experience with any kind of success before that.
I’d written a couple books and they’d kind of come out ‘eh’. On the other hand, it was such an emotional experience writing it.
There was something so pure and profound when I wrote it.
I’m not entirely surprised at that emotion translated to the reader, which I think is part of the reason the book has done so well.
But that’s more in retrospect. At the time I had no idea.
10. What kind of writer do you want to be in 2023?
That’s an interesting question because to some degree, I think the same kind of writer I’ve always been.
When I started writing, I was a journalist and I wrote about social justice issues and young people and felt very strongly that that was a very good way to get into people’s minds and hearts.
And then I discovered that when I moved over to doing fiction, that even though it wasn’t straight up advocacy work, it was the same thing.
Fiction is the lie that tells the truth. And in some cases, the books are explicitly about issues.
A book is an empathy delivery device. And I think by being able to, as an author, delve into my characters’ hearts and minds, it increases my empathy.
And if I do my job, well, readers will transport there as well and you get to kind of really imagine the world from different eyes than your own.
So I want to continue to do that.
I think in 2023 as I get older, I want to just say, f*ck the ‘shoulds’ – this idea of what I’m supposed to do, and just liberate myself and my writing.
And to some degree, that means separating the author from the person because it’s gotten very intertwined. I’m a very social and outgoing person. I love meeting people and connecting with them.
But I want that to be separate somehow from books that I write.
11. What can we expect from you next?
I have three books, one script and one project that I’m working on with my daughter in the works. None of them are announced. So I absolutely know I’m juggling a lot of, a lot of balls right now.
It hasn’t been announced yet but my next book for younger readers is really just about again, going back to books as empathy delivery devices. I think it’s important to understand why people become the way they become.
Award-winning author and journalist, Gayle Forman, has written several bestselling novels for young adults, including the Just One Series, I Was Here, Where She Went and the #1 New York Times bestseller If I Stay, which has been translated into more than 40 languages and in 2014 was adapted into a major motion picture. Gayle published Leave Me, her first novel starring adults, in 2016 and her latest novel I Have Lost My Way was released in March of 2018. Gayle’s essays and nonfiction work has appeared in publications like The New York Times, Elle, The Nation and Time. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and daughters.