Zibby Owens: I am so excited to be interviewing Adrienne Brodeur. I've been waiting so long to talk to her. Her book, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, is an amazing memoir. I just loved it. The film rights have already been sold to Chernin Entertainment with the director attached. It’s so good. Adrienne Brodeur was one of the cofounders, along with Francis Ford Coppola, of Zoetrope: All-Story, which was a national magazine award-winning publication. She also worked as a book editor and has had her own work published in The New York Times Modern Love column among many other publications. She is currently the executive director of Aspen Words, a literary arts nonprofit program of the Aspen Institute. She very recently moved from New York City to Cambridge and spends time there and on Cape Cod with her husband and children.
Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Adrienne Brodeur: Thank you for having me. I love this podcast.
Zibby: Thanks, Adrienne. Can you please tell listeners what your amazing memoir, Wild Game, is about? What inspired you to write it?
Adrienne: Wild Game tells the story of a particular moment in my life that changed everything and the repercussions from it. That moment took place on a hot July night in 1980 when I was just fourteen years old. I was asleep. My mother, Malabar, came into my bedroom. It was late. It was after midnight or something. She said, “Renny, wake up. Wake up, please.” Renny is my nickname. I remember so distinctly not wanting to be roused. Then she said, “Ben Souther kissed me.” With that, my eyes popped open. Ben Souther was my stepfather’s best friend. Ben Souther was married. My mother was married, of course. These four were couple friends. What I didn't know at that moment was that my mother was about to embark on this epic love affair that would last over a dozen years. What I did know, even in that moment, was that it was one of those life-altering happenings. I went to bed as my mother’s daughter. I woke up as her best friend and confidant and coconspirator. It would really never be the same.
Zibby: Wow. Even just hearing you say that, you can tell this is an amazing book. You're obviously a gifted storyteller, whatever story you were telling. The fact that you got this one to tell is fantastic, for us as reader at least. This happened years and years ago. Why now? Why did you write this book right now?
Adrienne: The truth of it is some part of me has been writing this story my whole life, mostly in my journal. At different points in my life, I tried to tackle it in different ways. There was some period in my life where I told this story entirely humorous as cocktail party patter or funny essays. I tried to write it as a romantic comedy at one point. Why now or why when I did start to write it, it was having children and starting a family of my own that made me realize I really needed to reckon with my past. I love my parents. I love my mother, but I did not want to parent or mother as I had been parented or mothered. That was probably the biggest impetus for writing it the way I've written it. Aside from the point that I think it’s worth noting that my daughter will be fourteen at the time of publication -- that was exactly the age I was when all this started in my own life. There's probably some unconscious timing and considerations that went on as well.
Zibby: Coming full circle. You can sort that out with your therapist at another time. [laughter] I'm just kidding. You wrote so beautifully about the morning when this all happened, or I should say in the middle of the night. You were talking about your brother Peter. I want to read this one quote. Your mother and Peter and you had formed this triangle after your parent’s divorce. You write, “Our fundamental family unit since the divorce had always been a triangle, that sturdy shape. Except on this morning, our geometry was changing. Before the end of the day, Peter’s side would be cut loose. And once untethered from him, my mother and I would shape-shift into a single straight line, the most direct conduit for her secret.” Ooh! [laughter] Tell me about your relationship with Peter and how having such a close relationship with your brother and all three of you together changed when suddenly you were taken into her confidence and he was left out.
Adrienne: I think we all know that secrets are corrosive. This was definitely a dividing line. It’s not that everything had been perfect before and suddenly all had changed. We were this tight little unit, the three of us. Especially since my parents had gotten divorced, it was my mom and my brother and me. We still saw my father frequently, but that felt like the family unit. Suddenly when I had this special access to my mother, that's the shape-shifting. That became the single line. Of course, what is the truth about any memoir is it’s usually just one story. It doesn't tell the whole story. The fact is my mother’s affair and the repercussions on my relationship with my brother, it’s a one-off around the affair. It was dynamic and it went on for years, but this was who my mother was. She often made us compete for her affection in some way or another. This is one example. There were many times she and my brother were closer. This constant shifting took place. As the result, my brother and I have had a very complicated and difficult relationship. We have a tough time trusting each other. We coexist, but we have not been terribly close as adults.
Zibby: Do you think your mom thought about these things? Now that you're a mom and you have an almost fourteen-year-old, what do you think she was thinking that night? Put yourself in her shoes. Do you think she would have ever imagined that it would have these effects on you and the effects on your relationship with Peter and the ongoing effects of her decision?
Adrienne: I absolutely do not think she thought about it. It sounds terrible to say, but I don't think she was a deeply reflective person. I think she had a need. She did what she needed to get that need satisfied at that moment. It would be hard for me to guess as to whether or not she regrets it. She certainly knows it caused a lot of strife along the way. I don't think she's a person who tends to reflect deeply on her actions or the results of them.
Zibby: Interesting. Do you feel like if you were to go back to that moment, are there any times you think it through and think, what if I had done this? What if I had handled it differently? Do you regret how you handled things? Do you feel like there were no other choices available to you?
Adrienne: It’s a good question. On some level, we all only get one childhood, so it seems perfectly normal to us. I was not aware of how unusual this was. It was my childhood. It wasn't that I thought everyone abetted their mother in having affairs, certainly. It was the one that I had. Honestly, it was kind of thrilling at the time. Of course with the hindsight of all these years and a lot of reflection on it, I would never want to repeat those actions and mire myself down in the level of deception which really caused a lot of self-loathing for me in my life. That said, you don't get to go back with your adult hat on. If magically time went back and I were that fourteen-year-old in that bed again, I'm sure I would've just careened down the same path. I'm not sure if I answered your question. [laughs]
Zibby: I was just curious. It’s hard to go back to any stage in our life about anything and say, would you have done it differently? If you would have, then you would have. You didn't. I feel like I spend time stewing over decisions I've made in the past and think, what if this? What if that? I was wondering if you were doing that too or not.
Adrienne: Absolutely, all the time. I don't know if this is just a defensive mechanism, but some part of me thinks -- I'm pretty happy where I am in my life right now. I have a lovely husband. I have two wonderful children. I have a career I enjoy. Some part of me thinks, would I have been in this place? Would this have been my path had not all those other things happened? Who knows?
Zibby: Who knows? Okay, I’ll stop the philosophical taking on reflection here. Do you have any sense as to -- maybe what you were saying before is just it, that your mother wasn't prone to self-reflection entirely. Do you think there was anything with how she was raised or the era in general or anything that contributed to the way she handled the whole affair and how she parented you throughout? Where do you think it came from?
Adrienne: That's a really interesting question. I spent a lot of time wondering how Malabar became Malabar. To go back to the philosophical, how do any of us become ourselves? I'd say it’s all of the above. It’s some part hereditary and some part nature, nurture, all of it. I will say that through writing this book and researching my mother’s life and talking to a lot of people about her, I became more empathetic, which might sound strange. She had a tremendously lonely childhood and suffered unimaginable losses before I ever met her or came into her life. She was the only child of parents who got married, divorced, married, divorced to each other. Her father lived in another country most of her life. He was a rare presence. Her mother was alcoholic. Picture a pretty lonely childhood. Then she finds out she has a secret other family. This predisposition towards infidelity did not seem to start with her generation. Then she meets and marries my father. Her first child dies.
A lot, a lot of tragedy. In some ways, I genuinely admire what a survivor she was. Some part of me thinks, and still this woman reached for love. We could argue that it’s not the best way of going about it, certainly. That was who she was. She had a lot of great characteristics. She was smart and charming and charismatic and an unbelievable chef. What she didn't have was any kind of proper parental guidance, which arguably I didn't have. She didn't necessarily know how to use her gifts and flaws wisely. One of the things that we emphasize in raising our children today are teaching them how to be self-aware. “You've got this gift, but you need to work on that,” that type of thing.
Zibby: Yet you have become the opposite of this with this as your model.
Adrienne: I hope so. In the back of your head, you always think, she thought she was a pretty terrific mom, I'm sure. Yes, I have chosen, really, to dig through my past and try to be as aware as I can possibly be. Yet I'm sure there are things that I'm unaware of in myself. We all are.
Zibby: True. I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt on the parenting.
Adrienne: Thank you. I have certain things that I'm sure I will never do. One of them is waking my daughter up in the middle of the night to involve her in my personal life. [laughter]
Zibby: That's off the table. That's good. That's good news. Tell me a little more about Malabar’s love of cooking. Cooking played such a big role in this book. You could smell and taste the food in the way you described it, particularly the -- I want to say ocean food, but that's not the right way to say it. You know, sea life, seaside meals, and the grittiness of some of the preparation. Talk to me a little more about that.
Adrienne: My mother was astonishingly game. She really had a zest for life. She was willing to crawl through muddy clam holes to get clams and all of that. We had great fun as children harvesting and collecting food with her. She also truly had a rare gift. She was one of those people who could -- we could be in a restaurant and we could taste some wonderful dish. We might think maybe there's some cardamom or something. She could not only identify that little wisp of a flavor, but she could recreate these sauces. She loved doing it. She loved entertaining. She was tremendously alive in the kitchen. Food has always been a huge part of my life. I'm forever shocked when people don't really care that much about it, or those people that can forget to eat meals. Never is there a moment when I'm not thinking of the next thing I'm going to eat. It was her gift. She enjoyed it.
Zibby: I've spent half this conversation planning my lunch. No, I'm kidding. I'm with you too. I wish I could not be thinking about food. I also think there's so much enjoyment people get from food. It’s a loss if people don't appreciate it.
Adrienne: You were talking about the grittiness. The title of the book, Wild Game, stems from this ruse which was a cookbook that she and her lover were -- and the partner, so my stepfather and his wife -- were going to create. It was created with it in mind to have more opportunities for them to get together as a foursome. It was a real cookbook that they were proposing. He then would arrive some wild game, something he had caught or killed. My mother would transform it. There were these epic, fabulous dinners with way too much booze and these test nights which were also a part of my whole childhood. We'd come home, never did I have the Swanson frozen dinner that I coveted. It was always some odd and curious and sophisticated dish that she was testing for either a cookbook she was writing or a food column that she had or something like that.
Zibby: That's a treat too.
Adrienne: Not necessarily when you're eleven.
Zibby: Yeah, I know, but you ate it. My kids would not eat any of that.
Adrienne: There was just no choice. It’s funny because I have a picky eater and a very adventurous eater. I constantly wonder how my son would've survived with my mother. There's nothing I didn't eat. There's nothing I didn't try, from rodents to innards to exotic other things. It was just the food that I was presented.
Zibby: Let's go back to writing this book. How long did it take for you to write it? You mentioned you were writing in your head most of your life, and in journals. When you actually were sitting down crafting it in this current iteration of this memoir, how long did this particular stage take? Where did you like to write? Paint a picture for me of where you like to sit and where you do it and how long.
Adrienne: If you don't count the lifetime of processing the material, it took about two years. I got a toehold during a three-week-long residency, which was an absolute gift to me. I remember leaving that residency thinking when and if I ever get another three weeks of solid writing time in my life, I’ll get more done. Of course with two children and a husband and a job I love, I couldn't imagine when that would ever happen again. I heard the advice that I should try to write a little bit every day. What I started to do was wake up early. I started by waking up a half an hour before my family at six thirty. Then I started waking up at six, and then five thirty, and then five. I won't go on because yes, it is insane.
I loved that sacred morning time before anyone could bother me, before my to-do list kicked in. I wrote and wrote in the mornings and had the pages stacked up quickly. I had a draft in probably less than a year. Then I gave that draft to my agent. I'd had lots of other people read it and help me along the way. I gave a pretty polished draft to my agent who had some wonderful ideas. We decided to try to put it together as a proposal. I did a lot of polishing of the first five chapters and then wrote in that line for rest. She submitted it as a proposal. I think it was October of 2017. It sold quickly. I revised it for about nine months after that and handed it in about exactly a year ago right now.
Zibby: How has your experience been since you released it? Has your family all read it? How did they respond to it? Let's start with that. How did your family respond to it?
Adrienne: How did my family respond to it? My immediate family is very, very small. My extended family is “modern” and huge. Each of my parents married twice after their divorce from one another. In my lifetime, I've had four stepparents and many stepsiblings. There have been a lot of reactions. Thus far, I’ll say that everyone's been incredibly supportive. My mother and Ben Souther was not exactly new news by the time people were hearing about the book. Most of them didn't know the level of my involvement. That was startling. It made me nervous to think what they would think about that. I had stepsiblings from my first stepfather, who was the one who was cuckolded. I had stepsiblings from my second stepfather. There was a lot going on. Of course in the end, it was my mother who I was most worried about. I've had this fraught relationship with her, obviously. We've also always been very close. I was worried. It was probably four years ago that I let her know that I was going to do this. I was really going to tackle this book at some point in time. I was going to write it straightforward in memoir. It wasn't going to be fiction. This was what I was going to do.
I will say that she was supportive. I'm sure she was anxious. I'm sure she didn't necessarily love the idea. She did not say, “Oh, good lord, not that. Don't do that.” Then during the actual writing of the book, she became very ill. She's developed severe dementia. I'm quite sure she's no longer able to read any kind of extended narrative. I know she holds the newspaper and looks at headlines and stuff. I don't imagine she could read a book. That said, during the process of writing it, I read much of it aloud to her. This might sound funny, but she seemed to take great pleasure in hearing about her back in the day when she was this powerful woman and fabulous in the kitchen and seductive with men because she's in an incredibly powerless stage of life right now. I will never know the end of that question. I will never know what my mother thinks of the book or if she would approve or not. I'm at peace with it.
Zibby: Well, at least -- that's going to come out wrong. I was going to say at least you could talk to her about it while she's still here despite dementia. People probably have different views on if you're writing a memoir about a parent, is it better to wait until they’ve passed away or if they should read it themselves? I don't know. It’s an interesting timing question.
Adrienne: The thing is, I don't know that we ever get a choice in that, best-laid plans and all of that.
Zibby: Right, exactly. What is next for you? You have, I'm sure, tons of promotion for the book. Are you thinking of writing another book? I know you have a full-time job at the Aspen Institute. Tell me about what life is looking like for you in the near future.
Adrienne: Life is looking quite chaotic for me. I mentioned I have newly moved from New York City to Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is all a beautiful thing. I'm in the throes of a lot of boxes and unpacking and getting my bearings in a new home. I also have this incredible book tour ahead of me, which I feel very lucky about but slightly overwhelmed by. I do have a job I just love as executive director of Aspen Words. It’s going to be busy. The future is going to be very, very busy. I hope, after that, to definitely have some quiet time. There's a [distorted audio] of the year will be quite something. I do hope to start on a next book. I am in the very beginning phases of conceiving of it. I don't really have a pitch or anything to tell you. I do know that it will be fiction. I will not be making a foray into another memoir anytime soon.
Zibby: Out of curiosity, when you know you're going into such a busy, crazy time, do you have any strategies for how you cope with all that stress? Is there anything you really do to help yourself manage? I'm always looking for suggestions.
Adrienne: Oh, my god. If you find one, please call me immediately. I wish I had some preternaturals then or could tell you that I run five miles and then meditate. No, I don't have time for any of it. I feel overwhelmed. I'm just plugging away and trying to regain a sense of equilibrium. You have it at different periods of your life in greater or lesser degrees. I recognize that certainly before I start traveling, I need to find my center again in a bigger way. I'm getting there.
Zibby: If I find the secret sauce, I will let you know too.
Adrienne: Please do.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?
Adrienne: I know that everyone works so very differently. I'm always loathed to give advice. Everyone gave me the advice of, “Write a sloppy copy.” I can't do that. I tend to write one chapter and get it mostly, mostly right. I'd say if there's one thing that really changed my writing life -- this is just for me -- it was to be in touch with the material every single day as opposed to, I’ll do a block in January. Then hopefully if I get free time in June, I’ll write again. By working on the material every day, even if it was just reading it or thinking about it, it lodged itself in my subconscious in a way that kept it going all the time. Almost every conversation or moment or book I read or something, it would all be cycled through this particular lens or paradigm or way I was thinking of it. I thought that was incredibly helpful. Even if it’s just fifteen minutes, if you're engaged with a project you love, you should stay in touch with it.
Zibby: That's great advice. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you so much for writing this amazing memoir that was so good. I have not stopped thinking about it, as I'm sure many people will feel as they read it as well. I wanted to say thank you as a reader and a fan.
Adrienne: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. It’s really been great.
Zibby: Of course. I hope to meet you in person sometime soon.
Adrienne: Terrific. Thanks.
Zibby: Thanks so much.