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April 22, 2010

Malena Watrous and Deborah Johnson: A Daughter-in-Law and Mother-in-Law Discuss How Being Authors Helped Them Bond Immediately

Posted by Anonymous

Authors Malena Watrous and Deborah Johnson discuss how writing made them a bit apprehensive of one another before Malena married into the family, and each gained an invaluable resource and someone who understood what it's like to write. Below: Deborah, Malena and baby Max during a recent trip to the railroad.

Malena Watrous and Deborah Johnson.JPGMalena:
I hadn’t been dating Matt for long when I saw a book on his bookshelf that didn’t look like the others.  The pink cover featured two embracing lovers.  The title was in Russian. 
“What is this?” I asked, wondering if I’d discovered his fetish for bodice busters.
“A Russian translation of one of my mom’s novels,” he said. 
“Your mom’s a writer, too?” I said.  “That’s really cool.”
But secretly, this news made me a little anxious. I’d just finished the MFA program at Iowa, and after two years surrounded by competitive writers, I wanted to keep my work to myself for a while, to silence the chattering voices. I liked Matt very much from the beginning, and I wanted to meet his mom, but I worried that the fact that we were both writers might create tension. Still, I had no doubt that she had to be a remarkable woman, to have such a remarkable son, and I looked forward to meeting her.

Debi is vivacious and warm, and we soon discovered that we have a lot in common besides writing.  We both love to sew and knit and cook. I remember describing to Debi the first meal I made for Matt: chicken with goat cheese stuffed under the skin, roasted tomatoes air bt.JPGwith wild rice stuffing, and blood oranges filled with blood orange sorbet. “A lot of things stuffed into other things,” she reflected. I was embarrassed, not having realized the “symbolism” of this dinner. But in addition to being highly perceptive, Debi has a wonderful sense of humor. She laughed her infectious laugh, and any tension dissipated. 

Back then, Debi was finishing, THE AIR BETWEEN US, a novel set in the Civil Rights movement, while I was in the early stages of a novel based on my experiences living in Japan. Debi offered to read my early draft, but I was still suffering from post-Iowa stress syndrome, nervous to share my writing with anyone new, but especially someone whose opinion mattered so much.
Matt and I had been married for a year when Debi sold her novel, and sent us the manuscript right before we went on a trip to Mexico. I read it on the malena.JPGbeach, hooked from the first chapter.  It was warm and funny and perceptive, just like she is, with vivid characters and a great story.
I finally worked up the courage to give Debi my novel this past Christmas, right before she left for the airport to fly back to Mississippi—just a few months before it came out. I was terrified that she might not like the writing, or that she might judge me based on unflattering autobiographical details, and relieved when she text-messaged from the airport: “On page 40 and loving it.” 
Throughout the stressful publishing process, she was unfailingly supportive, offering invaluable insight and advice. I feel so lucky to have her in my life, and happy to share so much --- especially writing.
My son, Matt, was serious about Malena from the very beginning.  Just the way he talked about her—I knew something was up. He said we had a lot in common. “You both like to cook. You both like red lipstick.” Then he added, “And you’re both writers.” This part made me a little nervous. I was working on THE AIR BETWEEN US by the time I met Malena but I thought of myself as someone who worked and who wrote books in her spare time.  I didn’t think of myself as a “writer.”  And Malena was a “writer”; a gloriously well-educated and gifted writer. I’d read her short story“Mummy,” and so I knew this. She was also a wonderful human being, better even than what Matt had described. I was impressed. 
And the fact that I was impressed made me shy about showing her anything I’d written. Plus, we had so many other things in common that, for a long time, I could just hide out behind them. I had so much fun hanging out with her and doing things together that I didn’t want to ruin anything by showing her my work. Suppose she didn’t like it?   
That all changed the time Matt and Malena went to Mexico together. THE AIR BETWEEN US had sold to Harper by then and I was ecstatic. I sent a copy to Matt. He printed it off and took it to the beach where he and Malena read it. She was so wonderful and complimentary --- and her compliments were not just vague generalities. Her comments were specific and helpful.
When she gave me a copy of the ARC for IF YOU FOLLOW ME, I think I must have been the happiest mother-in-law on the planet.  Not only was it a beautifully crafted novel, but she had filled it with the wonderful images that make a book memorable: a record flying through the air; eyelashes brushing each other when two people kiss. I find myself going back to it again and again just to reread the magic captured in its words.
The fact that both our books were published by the same publisher is an added joy to me.  Another of the things we have in common. 
Deborah Johnson's THE AIR BETWEEN US and Malena Watrous' IF YOU FOLLOW ME are in stores now.