I’m thrilled to share that this week, Lara Lillibridge‘s second memoir, Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent—From Divorce and Dating to Cooking and Crafting, All While Raising the Kids and Maintaining Your Own Sanity (Sort Of)
(Skyhorse, 2019) has hit bookshelves everywhere! This oh-so-real and laugh-out-loud funny book about Lillibridge’s experiences single-parenting her two young boys, “Big Pants” and “Tiny Pants” resonates not just with single mothers, but with anyone who has faced the ups and downs of parenting. Lillibridge’s voice is an engaging mix of sarcasm, self-deprecation, dry wit, and unchecked honesty that makes her a refreshingly relatable and authentic narrator.
I first met Lara when we both read as part of a debut authors’ panel at HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers in August of 2017. Lara’s first memoir, Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, was to be released the following spring. This achingly moving story of trying to navigate the complicated, sometimes heartbreaking, layers of dysfunction in her childhood home was chosen as a 2018 finalist for both the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards and American Book Fest’s Best Book Awards. I recently talked with Lara about her two memoirs and her journey to bring them into the world. I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about her amazing work.
Melanie Brooks: This week, your second memoir, Mama, Mama, Only Mama, launches onto the scene. What has the pre-publication preparation (say that 3 times fast!) been like for you this time around? Is there particular insight that you gained from the publication of your first memoir that has influenced the way you are approaching the process now?
Lara Lillibridge: Patience! The first time around I’d stress out or lose hope every time I had a delay. This time around, I knew that delays are inevitable and that release dates are really just target dates at the beginning. I worked with the same editor for both books, so I was way more relaxed. I knew what sort of edits she’d likely make, and I trusted her judgement on all aspects of the book. I also knew what to expect in terms of publicity and to manage my expectations.
MB: In Girlish you courageously tackle many complex and often painful issues that defined your childhood and adolescence. For memoirists, this kind of personal exposure can be a pretty vulnerable place to live. Do you feel the same kind of vulnerability as you send Mama, Mama, Only Mama off to readers?
LL: I guess it’s different. Girlish I was awake nights with terror. I lost a bunch of weight from the stress of it. Only Mama is a different kind of fear, but not as terrifying, for several reasons. First, it’s lighter by design. Second, I was in a happier place in my life, and third, I know that I’ll live through whatever happens. The unknown is terrifying, but after going through it once and living, it is definitely easier the second time around. But with Only Mama I worry about how my kids will view it if they ever read it, that people will judge me for admitting to being such a flighty person, that I might seem like a bad mother. And of course with Girlish I worried about the risk of writing in 3rd person—if I had the chops to pull it off. With Only Mama I worry that it’s not literary and that readers of Girlish will be disappointed.
MB: Humor is a prominent feature in both of your memoirs, and I found myself laughing out loud so many times when I was reading them. Is the use of humor a conscious decision for you? Do you think there’s a so-called “right” balance of levity and seriousness when it comes to writing memoir?
LL: It’s weird—with Girlish I wasn’t trying to be intentionally funny—any funny moments are a result of my personality, and I think I am a naturally funny person. I did, however, look at the overall balance of the book and added in lighter chapters to keep it from being too dark.
Mama, Mama, Only Mama was the opposite. When I started the blog, I wanted it to be humorous, so I sort of trained my eye to look for funny moments or how a story could be told in an amusing way. I put the book together during the wait between when Girlish was signed and when it came out, and writing it was a much needed respite from the heaviness of Girlish.
One of my first beta readers, also a single mother, commented that it was too light and fluffy, and didn’t have any substance. I chewed on that for a long while, and realized that she was right. The first draft was funny, but it wasn’t honest. After Girlish came out, I realized I couldn’t be completely bare in book one and flippant in book two—it was a betrayal of the readers. So then I went back and wrote in some of the darkness of those years. I called my word doc of this revision “Only Mama—More Honest and Beautiful.” I think I made it around 35% darker, but also, I hope, more meaningful.
MB: You have made some distinctive choices in terms of the style and structure of each of your memoirs. Though Girlish is about you and your family, you’ve diverged from the traditional first person approach and refer to yourself as “Girl” throughout the story. Mama, Mama, Only Mama weaves lists of advice, posts from your “mommy blog,” and actual useable recipes into the overall narrative in a really effective and creative way. Did the writing take these forms initially or did you land on these narrative choices later in the process?
LL: With Girlish the change from first to third POV happened somewhere around the second draft. I wasn’t able to find the distance I needed in first person. For me, I discovered in grad school that “weirding it up” always helped my writing—when I give myself permission to write any way I want and throw out the rules, I come up with my best work.
In Mama, Mama, Only Mama the structure was sort of given to me—I was at HippoCamp, and an editor from Skyhorse Publishing did a presentation about thinking outside the book. She was specifically seeking books that taught you things, or that incorporated photography or visual elements. I decided then and there to include survival of the fittest type recipes in Only Mama. What’s funny is that this was before Skyhorse signed Girlish, so although I wrote it with them in mind, I didn’t have any idea at that time if they’d actually want it. Luckily, they did, and they were the perfect publisher for it. I love how they made the recipes look as if they are printed on a different paper, and how the blogs are formatted as if you are reading them on your phone. My beloved editor also found all the images used in the book. I wanted it to feel as if you are reading my diary, with torn out recipes and blogs tucked between the pages, and Skyhorse took my vision and ran with it.
MB: One question that many memoirists grapple with (myself included) is what’s okay and what’s not okay when it comes to writing about our children. I know that this has been an ongoing challenge for you, particularly in the second memoir that journeys through the ups and downs of single-motherhood. You write at the end of Mama, Mama, Only Mama, “This fall, I have agonized over the ethics of writing about my kids as they become more adult-like…” Can you talk more about that struggle? What would you say to other memoirists facing the same concerns?
LL: When I started my blog in 2013 I knew the Internet lives forever, and that someday my kids might eventually find and read everything I wrote about them. I tried my hardest never to take the cheap laugh of making fun of my kid—something I see parents do all the time. I think other parents understand that under the laughter is deep love for these little creatures, but the little creatures themselves may not see the humor in it until they are grown. As Mama, Mama, Only Mama went through its final revisions, my kids were very much involved in it. They’d suggest recipes or stories to include in the book. They knew I was writing about our family, and my oldest occasionally read my blogs online. I found myself telling my kids, “don’t worry, I won’t write about this,” on more than one occasion. That was when I made the decision to stop writing about them for now. I didn’t want them to grow up looking over their shoulder, afraid that I would share their most embarrassing moments on the internet. I want them to trust me with their secrets.
At this point I have asked them not to read either of my memoirs, as I wrote them for adults. There’s a lot of content in both books that isn’t appropriate for children. I did offer my eldest the chance to read the chapters that he appeared in before I submitted the final version to my editor, but at the time he decided not to—he said that he trusted me and didn’t want me to change things based on his opinion when the book was written for adults. Now that both my kids are older I worry that they may regret that I have two memoirs out there, but we have spoken extensively on why I think the books are important—how books can reach out across the country and maybe, if they’re done well, help someone else feel less alone.
MB: You’ve published two books in two years. Is there another one on the horizon? How do you keep the creative momentum going?
LL: Publishing memoir is terrifying and anxiety ridden for me. The way I cope is by working on something completely different while I’m in the pre-publication stage. I started writing Only Mama while I was pitching Girlish. Once that was solid, I started writing Dragon Brothers, a middle grade novel written for my kids. Every night I’d read that day’s chapter and they’d tell me when the character’s voices were off, and if they fell asleep while I was reading I knew the action had lagged. Now I’m pitching Dragon Brothers and working on a couple of new projects. Writing is my happy thing, and I’m lucky to be able to devote a lot of time to it.
MB: Thank you so much for letting us peer into your process, Lara! I’m so excited for you as Only Mama settles into the hands of readers, and I’m looking forward to hearing more news of the latest book you are writing!