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Drunk on Ink Q & A with Ilana Masad and ‘All My Mother’s Lovers’, a novel

Drunk on Ink is a blast interview series by Soniah Kamal author of  the novel Unmarriageable, a parallel retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and set in contemporary Pakistan

Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli-American writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, NPR, StoryQuartlerly, Tin House’s Open Bar, 7×7, Catapult, Buzzfeed, and many more. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, an interview podcast featuring fiction writers. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she has received her Masters in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she is currently a doctoral student. She is the author of the novel All My Mother’s Lovers.

About All My Mother’s Lovers

All My Mother’s Lovers has always eluded twenty-seven-year-old Maggie Krause—despite being brought up by married parents, models of domestic bliss—until, that is, Lucia came into her life. But when Maggie’s mom, Iris, dies in a car crash, Maggie returns home only to discover a withdrawn dad, an angry brother, and, along with Iris’s will, five sealed envelopes, each addressed to a mysterious man she’s never heard of. In an effort to run from her own grief and discover the truth about Iris—who made no secret of her discomfort with her daughter’s sexuality—Maggie embarks on a road trip, determined to hand-deliver the letters and find out what these men meant to her mother. Maggie quickly discovers Iris’s second, hidden life, which shatters everything Maggie thought she knew about her parents’ perfect relationship. What is she supposed to tell her father and brother? And how can she deal with her own relationship when her whole world is in freefall? Told over the course of a funeral and shiva, and written with enormous wit and warmth, All My Mother’s Lovers is a unique meditation on the universality and particularity of family ties and grief, and a tender and biting portrait of sex, gender, and identity, challenging us to question the nature of fulfilling relationships.

SONIAH KAMAL: First author/book you read/fell in love with? Why?

ILANA MASAD: The first book I actually read by myself was Harry Potter, but for obvious reasons, it feels really weird to talk about that now. It hurts when authors turn on you, doesn’t it? A unique kind of heartbreak.

So, another early read of mine and a book I fell deeply in love with was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I’m not entirely sure why at the time except that I loved that Harriet was a writer (though I had no inkling of wanting to be a writer at the time) and a tomboy, and I loved that she was sort of unreasonable and had Big Feelings, and I loved her little attic room and her relationship with Ole Golly, and I loved how gritty the book was despite being about a sheltered child living in a brownstone her family owned. (Imagine owning a whole NYC brownstone?! I simply cannot.) She was faced with realities outside her comfort zone in the book – Ole Golly introduces her to her mother who is ailing and lives in a tiny and messy house, Sport has a single dad who is a writer and a starving artist, Janey’s trying to be a scientist when her parents want her to get dancing lessons… Fitzhugh makes Harriet contend with all sorts of realities outside her own, makes her curious about them in a voyeuristic way at first but then allows Harriet and readers alike to build empathy and understanding around these people who—at first—Harriet feels so separate from. Over the course of the book we see those people she spies on change, their lives becoming more and more real to us. And Harriet herself is emotionally insecure and scared and lonely in all sorts of ways once her only real parental figure leaves. I mean we get a non-stigmatizing view of therapy in the 1950s! It’s bonkers ahead of its time.

Obviously, I’d never have articulated all of this as a kid—back then I just liked the smell of the really old book I had, that had once been my aunt’s, and I loved Harriet and her friends and the things she did and the man with all the cats. (I desperately wanted a cat for much of my childhood.)

To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?

To unwind—water or wine. To wake up? Coffee.

A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading? Why?

I don’t know that I believe in any kind of universal mandatory reading. Mostly, I just want people to have access to books so they can find the ones that they love, and that we didn’t pooh-pooh the other methods of storytelling that we all indulge in. Stories are so important, and while for me books are the most amazing vehicle for them, I also don’t feel like I can or should ever force anyone to feel the way I do about books.

Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

I didn’t read many classics until my late teens. Maybe The Iliad and The Odyssey because I still haven’t read them and it would have been nice to have already read them.

Favorite quote from your book 

This is such a hard question! Hmm. I think it still might be the first line, because it’s been with me the longest:

“Maggie is in the midst of a second lazy orgasm when her brother, Ariel, calls to tell her their mother has died.”

Favorite book to film? And why?

Matilda. When I first saw it, I had no idea it was even based on a book. I just loved this kid who was a huge reader getting powers. When I eventually read the book, I just really didn’t like it that much. It may be sacrilege to say, but Roald Dahl’s books never really did much to me. They felt uncomfortable and itchy to be inside of.

Favorite Indie Book Store/s?

A favorite: McNally Jackson in New York City. I went to some of my first ~literary events~ there when I first moved to NYC after college, and I love it.

The one think you wish you’d known about the writing life?

I don’t know that there’s anything I wish I’d known, actually. I think if I knew more about it beforehand rather than figuring out what it was going to be like along the way, I wouldn’t have done it. Or I still would have but would have been angry at myself forever for making a conscious choice to put myself through what I have.

Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

In terms of publishing and marketing, I have no idea since I’ve only published one book. In terms of publishing other things, and in terms of writer—absolutely not. I wish it got easier. I’m sure there are people for whom it does, but for me, every time I sit down to write fiction I kind of feel like I have no idea what I’m doing and I can’t possibly get this done.

Dog, Cat, Or?

I love and have respect for all sorts of animals, but in terms of my own pets, I have three cats and I love them to ridiculous degrees. They are: Margaret Catwood aka Meg.Jane Pawsten, aka Jane, who loves Meg more than she loves most things. And, the most recent addition, Abigail, aka Abbi, who had a name and a home before joining us and was already three and a half when we got her and so we didn’t change her name.

Ideal vacation?

Somewhere warm where it gets cool at night, where I don’t have to do anything except take walks and read.

Favorite book cover?

There are so many that are so beautiful! A recent one that I love and that I just wish could hang on my wall because I find it so soothing somehow is the original (UK) cover of Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days.

Favorite song?

I don’t think I have one!

Favorite painting/ work of art?

Similarly, I don’t think I have one, unfortunately. There’s one painting I saw in a museum that has never left my mind, of a brown girl wearing a blue dress with a white shift underneath and brown hair (I think it was down to just after her shoulders or so) and—if my memory is correct, and it might not be—the name “Marie” in an awkward sort of all-caps painted near the bottom, and I remember that not being the artist’s name, but I’ve also no idea who the artist is. The reason that painting stuck with me was because there was a book I loved that took place in New Orleans where the main character was this spoiled white girl whose father—in the ways that fathers do in such books—had become destitute or was taken prisoner of war or something like that, and she was sent to stay with an aunt she’d never met. The aunt was gone when she arrived in New Orleans because the aunt’s own mother was sick and she’d gone to Baton Rouge to take care of her. Anyway, the girl was meant to work in the bakery her aunt owned. The girl’s uncle, who had died some years before, had taken in an orphan named Marie many years before and raised her like his own and she worked in the shop and was hoping to one day own it herself. Marie was bilingual and a really good baker and she loved the shop. She also kind of whipped the spoiled white girl into shape. She was always the character I liked more in the book, and her story was always more interesting to me, and I had always wished I could work in the bakery with her and smell all the amazing loaves she lovingly sold and known the people in the neighborhood whose stories were somehow always known to Marie. When I saw that painting, wherever and whenever it was, I was just shocked. It was like Marie from the book had come to life. Down to the clothing, which was described very similarly in the book. She looked like the Marie I’d had in my head. It was the strangest experience. I’ve always wondered, since then, whether there was any chance that whoever wrote the book might have seen that painting (it was an American Girl book, which didn’t have an author on the cover, and it was probably awful and I’ve never gone back to re-read it as an adult because the memory would be ruined by my far more critical adult eyes and everything I know about the whole weird franchise). Probably not, but hey, who knows! It just felt magical, seeing a character who’d lived in my head and looked a very particular way spring to life in this painting.

Any Lit Festival anecdote you want a share? A great meeting with a fan? An epiphany?

Not really – my book came out after the pandemic started so I’ve never been to a lit festival of any kind in person with it! Maybe the only epiphany I’ve had would be about how odd it is being on this side of things, because most often I’m a reader just like readers who go to author events.

 What is your favorite Austen novel, and film adaptation? Why?

So, to my shame (because I love Austen), I’ve yet to read Persuasion so I don’t have the full picture. But my favorite Austen is still Pride and Prejudice, because I think it’s so funny and so acerbic. My favorite adaptation is most definitely Clueless

Recommend a Small Press and/or Literary Journal?

I love Unnamed Press and 7.13 Books and 5 Accomplices and the Feminist Press. As for lit journals, there really are so many to choose from that I’m not sure I can. The Account, The Offing, and 7×7 are all wonderful, but there are truly so many good ones!

Last impulse book buy and why?

What a great question. I haven’t had a lot of chances to impulse buy recently (since I tend to do that a lot more often in stores than online), but a couple impulse buys recently include a poetry book I didn’t know a friend of mine had published, Mammal Room by Kristen Evans  and a book by Michel Faber that Carmen Maria Machado recommended on Twitter (actually, I accidentally bought the wrong one, the second in the series, because that’s what I’m like with impulse buys online—not sufficiently attentive!)

Soniah Kamal is an award winning novelist, essayist and public speaker.  Soniah’s novel Unmarriageable is a Financial Times Readers’ Best Book of 2019, a People’s Magazine Pick, a Library Reads Pick, an NPR Code Switch Summer Read Pick, a 2019 Book All Georgians Should Read, a 2020 Georgia Author of the Year for Literary Fiction nominee and more. Her novel An Isolated Incident was shortlisted for the Townsend Prize for Fiction and the KLF French Fiction Prize. Soniah’s TEDx talk is about second chances and she has delivered numerous keynotes addreses. ‘We are the Ink’, her address at a U.S. Citizenship Oath Ceremony, talks about immigrants and the real American Dreams, her keynote at the Jane Austen Festival is about universality across time and cultures and she’s given keynotes at Writers Conferences. Soniah’s work has appeared in critically acclaimed anthologies and publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Georgia Review, The Bitter Southerner, Catapult, The Normal School, Apartment Therapy and more.  www.soniahkamal.com
She’s on twitter and instagram @soniahkamal

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Veena Rao: Purple Lotus, a novel

Tara Coyt: Real Talk About LGBTQIAP, non fiction

Maureen Joyce Connelly: Little Lovely Things, a novel

Molly Greeley: The Heiress, historical fiction novel

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Mike Chen: Here and Now and Then, a novel

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson A Rather Haunted Life, biography

Colleen Oakley: Before I Go, a novel

Emily Midorikawa: A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, biography

Shabnam Samuel: A Fractured Life, memoir

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Kristen Miller ZohnThe Currency of Taste- Gibbons Georgian Silver, coffee table book

Vanessa HuaA River of Stars, novel

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Sara MarchantThe Driveway has Two Sides, memoir

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Rachel May, An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery

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