There is that special woman in the room. The one who can seemingly strike up an engaging conversation with anyone (even upon first meet) and hold their rapt attention for hours on end. She’s that woman you envy and wish the effortless charm she possesses could flow out of you at times as well. Well, Karen Rizzo is that very person. It’s not surprising that she’s the author of a number of short stories, essays, a memoir (based upon 20 years of list making) and now a debut novel, Famous Baby (Prospect Park Books), which was released over the Summer to glowing reviews.
Famous Baby is the story of Ruth Sternberg, the first “Mother of Mommy Blogging.” But this is also a story about Abbie, her Daughter, and Esther, her Mother. Three generations of fractured relationships that somehow find a way of coming together. Rizzo has a way of making this tale of “over-sharing” in today’s day and age both poignant & humorous. It’s a complex tale, but highly entertaining & you won’t want to put it down until you finish the ride.
We were happy to sit down with Karen over a coffee to talk about her book, her life and what can make the relationship between Mothers and Daughters so complex at times.
Your novel “Famous Baby” has such a wonderful array of female characters. Ruth especially has a mix of humor and anxiety mixed with a strong will & determination. Do you see pieces of yourself in any of the main characters?
In all of them… I think every character you write has a little piece of you somehow. Ruth just loves her daughter in a crazy way, she just doesn’t know how to express it other than writing everything about her, that’s the way she expresses her love. I understand the idea of just loving this creature that grows up in front of you so much that it almost breaks your heart to look at them.
Abbie is a bit of a loner, and I certainly understand that because that was more me when I was in my teens and early 20’s.
I don’t know about Esther. I think Esther has pieces of my Mom but my Mom died much younger than Esther, she was only in her 60’s so it’s what I imagine she would of grown into if she had lived longer. If she had lived long enough to of seen a granddaughter perhaps.
Your Memoir, “Things to Bring, S#!t to Do… and Other Inventories of Anxiety,” was such a glimpse into your life through lists over the years. Was it hard to switch gears and move into something Fiction based?
Yes and No. No because I was so ready to write something make believe and Yes because then anything is possible. When you write from your own life, you really have to stick to the story but you can embellish a little bit. I’m of the school of thought that everyone embellishes their diaries. Like if you write about describing a day and it’s a non-fiction essay. Sometimes you’ll pull from another day other than the one you are writing about because you want to make that day more literary or interesting, you got to have layers to the day. So even though you’re writing about a specific day, you might be stuffing it with a couple other days in there too but it’s still the truth. I like having the guideline of real life but I also love being able to go wherever I wanted to go.
The concept of “Mommy Blogging” is such a part of today’s society; did you ever dabble in the blogosphere yourself?
A little bit. I was so torn about what to write that it was taking me so long, with a blog you are supposed to just lay it down, and I was going at it like I was polishing an essay for the New York Times. Then I would put up a post, in my very short-lived blog, and three weeks later I’d still want to edit it, really you have to be able to let it go. So I thought I’m not built for blogging.
What I love about “Famous Baby” is that your main character, Ruth, really feels like someone you would love to hate, yet there is this vulnerability about her, which makes her more likeable. Was that important for you in the context of the story, to keep her somewhat likeable?
It wasn’t my first priority, to make her ‘likeable’. I thought she was real. There are a bunch of women out there that I respect but I wouldn’t necessarily call them ‘likeable’. I’ve met women that are solid, strong and talented but not necessarily ‘likeable’. It’s interesting, a woman writes a woman character and that’s the first thing people jump on, her ‘likability’. There are a lot of male characters that aren’t ‘likeable’. But the truth of it is that I thought Ruth was likeable in the end. I understood her and the more I understood her the more I liked her.
Abbie and Esther both have a degree of independence yet at the same time a longing for the connection to their mother/daughter. Why do you think it is that there are so many women with stories about their mothers? A deep love yet at the same time, things that drive them completely insane!
Because we put so much on our daughters, as much as we’re not supposed to make them feel like they are an extension of us, they are. So we want to make their life easier, tell them what we’ve learned, have them not hurt so much and in that process we wind up being so neurotic and crazy, and there are different degrees of neurotic and crazy, that hopefully you find a fine balance. I could see how you could just go over the edge. Sometimes it’s a fine line, the division between mother and daughter, it can be very blurry.
Part of me feels like mothers hate seeing their daughters with insecurities from their past. It does seem that as parents, we’re so much more aware of these insecurities and aim to side step them. What is the best piece of advice you feel you’ve given your daughter as a growing adolescent?
Sometimes when she is second guessing herself, I just say to her “I think you know the answer but you’re not trusting it. If you stop and listen to yourself, get all the noise of what your friends, or your teacher, or I might want, I think you know what the answer is, and that’s the answer.”
What would be something that you would want your daughter to remember about your relationship as she enters into adulthood?
That she wasn’t afraid to tell me anything.
What would you like your son to remember about your relationship as he enters into adulthood?
The same thing, that he wasn’t afraid to tell me anything.
You always seem to have a great anecdote when describing a story from your past with your mother. What is the best piece of advice she gave you?
She didn’t give me a lot of advice. She really just let me be… she said once, you don’t need anybody. She was from a whole other generation though and she was just trying to say is that you don’t need to rely on anyone, you don’t need anyone to take care of you to give you the things that you want. I think you do need people but for the longest time I thought it meant that you really don’t need anyone, so I think that was why I was a loner. I realized that wasn’t necessarily true, but I think I understand it better, what she meant by it.
If you could change one thing about the “Cyber Age” we live in now, what would it be?
I would require everyone to have one hour of complete silence without interruption. I would require people to daydream for an entire hour a day, or maybe that’s too long, but ½ hour to stand on a line at the bank for ½ hour with no devices and no electronics. Everyone to be bored for ½ hour a day without being able to escape into a device.
Karen Rizzo has spent a number of years writing non-fiction, mostly about her family and friends. The recipient of a MAGGIE Award for Best Essay in a West Coast Magazine, her stories and essays have been appeared on NPR and in the Los Angeles Times, Living Fit, Salon, Beatrice, Fresh Yarn and VIVmag as well as the anthology Life’s A Stitch: The Best of Contemporary Women’s Humor. She’s the author of THINGS TO BRING, SH#!T TO DO… (Abrams/STC), a collection of essays (also featuring family and friends) based on twenty years of personal lists, and a Book Sense/IndieBound pick for Best of The Month. Famous Baby, published by Prospect Park Books, is Karen’s debut novel. Said friends and family are relieved she’s writing fiction. Karen lives with her husband, actor Jim Macdonald, and their two children in Highland Park, which is apparently Brooklyn’s sun-drenched Los Angeles counterpart. Who knew?
Photo by: Devin Sarno