Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

Kim McLarin, author of "Jump at the Sun"

I began writing Jump at the Sun in early spring 2001. Or wait -- maybe it was late spring 2001. Or maybe it was the fall. The truth is, I don't remember. I don't remember much about that time. The whole thing, frankly, is a hazy blur.

It's a blur because my daughter was two years old and my son was six months and we had just moved from New York to Boston so my husband could take a new job. I was alone in a new city (actually worse, a new suburb) with small children and no friends and no job and no family and I was starting, seriously, to question the whole thing. Boston. (Still questioning that one). Wifedom. Motherhood.

I had just finished up a nonfiction project -- co-writing the memoir for a daughter of Malcolm X -- and the days loomed before me, full of diaper-changing and swing-pushing and toddler talk. I began to wonder how in the world my mother had managed. After all, I had only two children and a husband, while she was divorced and had to raise five. I had a college degree and a previous life as a professional; she had been forced to drop out of college and had landed a steady but inflexible job at the United States Post office. I wondered how she'd managed, and then I remembered how she'd managed, and for the first time I understood why. I was in my mid-thirties by then, far, far past that adolescent stage when we consider our parents complete and utter idiots and ourselves the only wise and perceptive creatures who have ever walked the earth. So I like to think I'd come to some intellectual understanding of why my mother did the things she did. But I didn't really get it. I didn't get it in my gut until my own children came along. And that's when I sat down to write.

The result is a novel of motherhood. It is also a novel of race, of love and sacrifice, of contemporary life and the continuing legacy of slavery, of the costs and responsibilities of living the dream for which our parents and forefathers fought, and of several other things, but primarily it is a novel of motherhood. And, as I've said elsewhere, it is not a sentimental one.

My protagonist Grace Jefferson is an educated and accomplished modern woman, a child of the Civil Rights dream. But after a series of rattling transitions, Grace finds herself in a new house in a new city and in a new career for which she feels dangerously unsuited -- stay-at-home motherhood. Caught between the only two models of mothering she has known -- a sharecropping grandmother who abandoned her children to save herself and a mother who sacrificed all to save her kid -- Grace struggles fiercely to embrace her new role. This struggle is not always pretty: isolated, alone, suffocating, she begins to catches herself in small acts of abandonment -- speeding up on neighborhood walks, closing doors with the children on one side and her on the other -- that she fears may foretell a future she is powerless to prevent.

Where did all this come from? It would be nice to say: from my head, I made it all up from scratch. Or to say, as some writers do, "The characters just came to me in a dream and began dictating the story. I was simply the vehicle through which they told their tale." My mouth always falls open when I hear a writer say something like this. I have never had this experience -- never. Writing for me is like pulling teeth, like plucking hairs, like plucking the hairs of your legs instead of shaving them, one, painful hair at a time. John Gregory Dunne said writing is like manual labor of the mind, like laying pipe. I identify with that.

So this story came, word by word, pipe by pipe, from my own experience as a mother and from observation of the experiences of those around. That is not to say this is thinly veiled autobiography, because it is not. All my work begins in my own experience, but it only begins there. It grows, or sometimes is pulled, twisted, shoved, into a different, more expansive, completely fictional world. It has to, because reality is limiting. The world, as I tell my writing students, makes no darn sense most of the time. But fiction needs to make sense of the world; that's why we read it. Art creates meaning out of chaos and illuminates what it means to be human. Or at least it should try.

It took me nearly five years to complete Jump at the Sun. I think. At any rate, it took far, far longer than either of my previous books. Partly that was because I was busy mothering, and mothering and writing are, in many ways, mutually incompatible. But it also took so long because this is a bigger book than my previous novels. There is a scope in here, a reaching back to examine the past and a coming forward to illuminate what we take from history.

It's a big book and I'm proud of it and grateful that it finally saw the light of day. Now that my children are older the fog has slowly begun to lift. I'm hard at work on another novel, one that has nothing to do with motherhood. At least, I don't think it does.

Visit Kim McLarin's website here.


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