We spoke to Ilana Masad, author of All My Moth­er’s Lovers, on May 6th as part of our JBC Authors at the Table seriesyou can watch the thir­ty minute chat here. Check out below some ques­tions we did­n’t have time for and keep the con­ver­sa­tion going. See the whole line­up for JBC Authors at the Table.

Your descrip­tions of the fam­i­ly’s grief after Iris’s death seems very real and detailed. Did you do research on bereavement?

I didn’t, no. There wasn’t real­ly much need to, as I’ve expe­ri­enced enough loss and bereave­ment myself — and start­ed expe­ri­enc­ing that from a young age — to be unfor­tu­nate­ly more than famil­iar enough with the way it feels. I’ve also loved enough peo­ple going through their own grief process­es to know that there are so many ways in which humans expe­ri­ence and express bereave­ment. Grief is prob­a­bly one of the things I’m most con­fi­dent writ­ing about, hon­est­ly, because of how inti­mate­ly I’ve lived with its var­i­ous facets.

We learn ear­ly on that Iris has done some ques­tion­able things, both to her daugh­ter and to her hus­band, and yet we have enough sym­pa­thy for her and curios­i­ty about her to con­tin­ue read­ing. Was this a dif­fi­cult bal­ance to achieve?

Absolute­ly, and I know that there are peo­ple who are turned off by the very premise of the book pre­cise­ly because of this, because of Iris’s ques­tion­able” actions. But that’s actu­al­ly a won­der­ful way of putting it: ques­tion­able. My hope is that as long as there is some­thing to ques­tion, as long as there are ques­tions to be asked and answers to be sought, there can be nar­ra­tive ten­sion, and as a result, time to cap­ture a reader’s atten­tion and con­vince them that Iris is worth get­ting to know, that her answers are worth seek­ing, regard­less of whether or not they’re palatable.

Gen­der rolesdo you think that Mag­gie’s reac­tion, or the read­er’s reac­tion, might have been dif­fer­ent if her father rather than her moth­er had had these affairs?

100%. Don’t you? After all, we’re used to see­ing nar­ra­tives of fathers with secret lives, fam­i­lies, affairs. There’s a whole strain of lit­er­ary fic­tion that seems to be built on the trope of the cheat­ing hus­band. Then again, I think that if Mag­gie found out that her par­tic­u­lar father had been hav­ing these affairs she would have been just as shocked and dis­mayed as she is about her moth­er, because Iris and Peter’s gen­der roles with­in their fam­i­ly are already non­nor­ma­tive — Iris was the one who spent a lot of time away from home for her job while Peter was the work-from-home par­ent who cleaned and cooked and took care of the kids most often.

Are there lay­ers of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and race that reflect on the fact that as a dias­poric com­mu­ni­ty Jew­ish peo­ple aren’t a racial monolith?

No, not in the book — this is absolute­ly true, of course, and Jew­ish peo­ple are def­i­nite­ly not a racial mono­lith. In the Unit­ed States, white Jews are the most vis­i­ble and also the ones that Mag­gie would be most famil­iar with, and I was think­ing, in writ­ing Mag­gie, of the par­tic­u­lar holes in her self-edu­ca­tion as well as her some­times uncom­fort­able self-aware­ness or lack there­of when it comes to her own white­ness. She’s also not entire­ly famil­iar with var­i­ous aspects of her his­to­ry: as a Jew­ish woman, as a queer woman, as a white woman. She’s learn­ing — which can be painful and awk­ward and uncom­fort­able to look at some­times, but which I think is a very real expe­ri­ence for folks who iden­ti­fy with any of those identities.

How did Mag­gie and Lucia’s rela­tion­ship change over the course of your writ­ing the nov­el as you rewrote and edited?

In essence it was always the same — that is, I knew where it was and who they were and where they were at. But my edi­tor at Dut­ton want­ed me to bring their rela­tion­ship more to the fore, bring it more onto the page, and I’m hap­py she did, because it meant I got to have more of Lucia and of their inter­ac­tions in the book.

What kind of over­laps, if any, do you see between queer­ness and non-tra­di­tion­al rela­tion­ship con­fig­u­ra­tions (i.e. polyamory, open rela­tion­ships, etc) and how, if at all, are these over­laps com­pli­cat­ed by cur­rent cul­tur­al mod­els of sexuality?

This is a big ques­tion, and one that I’m not sure if I’m qual­i­fied to answer in a gen­er­al way! I lived in New York City for a few years before mov­ing to Nebras­ka for my PhD, and before that I attend­ed Sarah Lawrence Col­lege, and both my col­lege and NYC were places where, for what­ev­er rea­son, I hap­pened to know a lot of queer peo­ple who were non­monog­a­mous in one way or anoth­er. I also know straight peo­ple who are non­monog­a­mous. I also know lots of queer and straight peo­ple who are monog­a­mous and hap­py with that rela­tion­ship model.

I think that queer peo­ple, sim­ply because of the nature in which we’ve had to his­tor­i­cal­ly build and choose fam­i­lies in some­times cre­ative ways, might be more open — in a very broad sense — to prac­tic­ing rela­tion­ship mod­els and fam­i­ly mod­els that veer away from the nor­ma­tive because we’ve already been told we’re non­nor­ma­tive for ages and ages in most main­stream patri­ar­chal social struc­tures. But I also think that the nor­ma­tive rela­tion­ship mod­el — by which I mean, one cis man, one cis woman, until death do them part — has always been some­what false. Peo­ple have always had affairs, after all, which seems to prove that there’s always been some­thing wrong with how we’ve forced peo­ple into nar­row def­i­n­i­tions of rela­tion­ships. This doesn’t mean that monogamy is wrong or that non­monogamy is right, nor that either mod­el is some­how inher­ent­ly more queer than the oth­er, but rather, I think, that human beings are fick­le crea­tures whose desires are com­plex and who can­not all fit into one sin­gle box or struc­ture, much as our insti­tu­tions wish we could.

Ilana Masad is a fic­tion writer, essay­ist, and book crit­ic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Ange­les Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, The Paris Review, NPR, Buz­zFeed, Cat­a­pult, Sto­ryQuar­ter­ly, McSweeney’s Inter­net Ten­den­cy, as well as sev­er­al oth­ers. All My Moth­er’s Lovers is Masad’s debut novel.