Heather Wells Peterson

Interviewed by Janna Moretti

What inspired your story, Blender?

I’m living on a farm in Vermont with my father right now, and he’s been raising sheep for the past few years. Watching the ewes give birth and the ways in which their maternal instincts do or don’t kick in has been really enlightening for me. Even among sheep, some seem to have more of a knack for it than others—one ewe stepped on her lamb’s tiny leg without noticing she was there, while many of them immediately knew to lick the—sorry—fluids from the wool of their newborns (in order to clean it, but also for the nutrients).

Meanwhile, I’m at the age when my Facebook feed is full of baby bumps, positive pregnancy tests, and children of varying ages. It interests me, this pervasive assumption that childbearing is every womb’s default future, as well as the idea that women are somehow made to be mothers—ask any ten people with mothers what they were like growing up, and you’ll find at least eight who have some disturbing, sad, or frustrating mom stories to tell.

The narrative has always been that women have the physical and cultural mandate to stay, and men have the option to leave. No one’s excited about absentee fathers, but they’re often romanticized wistfully—they’re playing hard to get, they’re being men, it just isn’t in them to be paternal. And the men who do stay, particularly single fathers, are congratulated for any version of success on that front, as though they’ve managed to triumph against their own natures by doing anything above the bare minimum.

Long story short, Blender came out of this stew of thoughts. I think women are pressured to have children more than men are, and if they have them and realize that motherhood isn’t for them, they’re demonized. Of course, the decision (which, I know, is sometimes made for women) to have a child and not, say, put them up for adoption is a responsibility that I think shouldn’t be shirked or taken lightly, and June’s choice to leave her daughter with her mother, who isn’t the greatest nurturer either, is obviously not the noble or brave one, but I wanted to represent the complex feelings someone in June’s position might have—to untangle all of the resentment and guilt and love and genetic imperative that comes from such relationships and family histories as best I could.

Blender deals with motherhood and guilt. These themes have shown up in some of your other work.  Do you believe that guilt is intrinsic to motherhood? And if so, is the burden of guilt different for June and her mother?Is there something new about that guilt for younger women than previous generations of mothers?

I was just talking with my friend the other day about these camps of motherhood that seem to have formed on social media—I breastfeed, I stay at home, I work, I’m gluten-free, I don’t vaccinate, I’m homeschooling, I’m using gender-neutral pronouns, I’m dressing them in a burlap sack until they can choose their own clothes, I’m sleeping in bed with all of my children until they graduate high school, I feed my baby like I’m a mother bird. I can’t even imagine how exhausting it must be to be constantly surrounded by so much pressure and judgment and information, as well as this expectation that motherhood should now be public in a way that can be ranked and rated by virtual (or sometimes literal) strangers.

At the same time, I know that this is the culmination of phenomena that have existed in our culture basically forever. I recently read Marilyn Yalom’s History of the Breast, which begins with a long discussion of breastfeeding expectations throughout western history, making it clear that women have always had outside pressure to be perfect mothers, while the expectations and understanding of what maternal perfection is has constantly shifted depending on the goals or values of society at that time.

So I don’t know if guilt is intrinsic to motherhood in se, but I think it’s impossible to be a mother within our culture without guilt. The landscape of that guilt has changed, and I think June and Helen do experience it differently, though whether that’s generational or a result of their personalities is hard to parse. June has more options as a young woman now than Helen would have had at her age, certainly, which is another snag between mothers and daughters that interests me.

Could you tell me a bit about your process? Do you start with a line and let it flow or do you have a rough outline in mind before going to the page? Do you shoot for a specific length or allow it to happen organically? Do you write every day and do you attach superstitious significance to the habits you have that have produced a strong piece of fiction?

Oh man. Well. I used to start with a funny sort of premise, and write from there, something like “What if two teenagers were thinking of band names in a basement?” or “What if a woman moved to a new city and became convinced that the cable guy was hitting on her, but he really wasn’t?” or that kind of thing. I’ve found, though, that those are flimsy foundations for meaningful narrative. Now, there’s usually some kind of contradiction or conflict that has been niggling at me for a while, and eventually a character or setting is sort of born from that and I go from there.

I tend to write long, but not on purpose. It just happens that way.

I really try not to be superstitious. I try not to beat myself up if I don’t write when I planned to. I try not to think of a story I write (or read) as something I need to replicate. But of course I do all of those things and worse.

Who are your literary influences? Which ones do you love for what reasons?

I love Alice Munro for her deceptive simplicity and her Simpsons-like plotting. I love Edith Wharton and Henry James for their social commentary and the efficiency of their characterizations—one Wharton or James line can be more devastating or encompassing than an entire novel by someone else. Virginia Woolf can write a sentence like no one else. Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore for their perfect humor and the way they write women.

More recently, I’ve been obsessed with Jesmyn Ward, Taiye Selasi, Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Tiffany Briere, Ramona Ausubel, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Rebecca Makkai, Cate Marvin, Claudia Rankine, Celeste Ng.

I have trouble with “influence”—it might sound hokey, but I’m influenced by everything I read to some extent. It’s all in my brain sponge somewhere. And I don’t want to pretend I’m anywhere near as good as any of these people. But the first list is the writers who made me want to write. The second list is the writers who make me think about things I wouldn’t have otherwise thought about, at least not this deeply or strangely.

When you say Simpsons-like plotting, are you referring to the TV show?

Yes, I mean like the TV show. Basically what I mean is that the first act of every Simpsons show is about how the family ends up in the situation or conflict they’ll be dealing with the rest of the episode. As you get mired in this conflict with them, you can forget how the show began, but if you look back, you realize it started in a completely different place—you can never tell, from the beginning of the episode, what the majority of the show will concern itself with.

What are you working on now? 

I’ve got a novel my agent is submitting to publishers, and I’m working on the next one. I’ve also been trying out nonfiction/essay writing for the first time this year.