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'Impossible Pursuits' on film: A Q&A with Ayelet Waldman

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OTHERWOMAN

Like the protagonist of her 2006 novel, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Ayelet Waldman is a Jewish redhead who attended Harvard Law School and is madly in love with her husband. But the obvious similarities end there. The novel's plot: Thirtysomething Emilia has an affair with Jack, a Manhattan lawyer with a 3-year-old son, which eventually causes him to leave his wife. Emilia and Jack marry, and Emilia gives birth to a baby girl. When she loses her newborn to SIDS, she is paralyzed by grief but tries to soldier on in her role as step-mother to a precocious know-it-all still smarting from his parents' divorce. Step-parenting is hard enough, but when Emilia tries to do the job on top of unspeakable grief, she nearly destroys her marriage in the process.

Waldman doesn't live in Manhattan, but in Berkeley, California. The object of her own marital adoration is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. She is perhaps best known for having pronounced in a New York Times column that she loves her husband more than her four children. Mothers everywhere were outraged, and her book--a complex examination of modern motherhood--can be viewed, in part, as a response to that uproar.

When the book was first published, Publisher's Weekly called it an "honest, brutal, bitterly funny slice of life." The film version--with Don Roos as director and screenwriter, Natalie Portman in the role of Emilia and Charlie Tahan as William--premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009. Aptly titled The Other Woman, the film was released Jan. 1 on Video on Demand and will open in theaters on Feb. 4.

KH: Love and Other Impossible Pursuits is a strikingly authentic portrait of step-parenting (I can say this having been both a step-child and step-parent). I assume you've never been a step-parent yourself. How did you do your "research" for the novel so that you'd be able to draw such a fine-grained, emotionally accurate picture?

AW: My father had four children and a long-gone wife when he married my
mother. I grew up in a house with four really (and I mean really) unhappy step-kids. My mother was only 23 when she got married, and the kids were 13, 11, 9, and 7. The family had absolutely no money, and lived paycheck to paycheck in Jerusalem in the 1960s. My mother was, as you might imagine, in a fairly constant state of stress, and when we Waldman women are stressed, we do a lot of yelling. The kids were in a fairly constant state of misery, and when us Waldman kids are miserable, we do things like burn down apartment buildings. OK, that's an exaggeration. But not by much.

My own husband was divorced when we met, but without kids. I don't know what I would have done if he'd had them. I got the message very early on that the worst mistake a woman can make is marrying a man with children. But I was (and am) so crazy in love with him, I probably would have thrown caution to the wind. And then, perhaps, I'd have lived to regret it.

I have a close friend who began her marriage as the Other Woman. I watched her life with a kind of cannibalistic eye, and she very generously allowed me to steal details like, for example, the scene in the classroom where the mother tears up the drawing of the "family" that includes the step-mother and the dead baby. I wish I could say I made that up, but I didn't. That actually happened. In all honesty, I'm pretty sure my friend regrets giving me carte blanche to steal that scene and others. It's one thing to imagine your story being out there, it's something else entirely to watch it spool out in the pages of a book, or on screen. (Though who wouldn't want to be played by Natalie Portman!)

On the other hand, I hope she also feels a sense of vindication. Being a step-mother is the most thankless job in the world. Think about it. You're expected to love a person who sees you (rightly or wrongly) as the impediment to their happiness. Most children of divorce (not all, but most) want their parents back together. They want the family they think they used to have (not, generally, the one they actually did have). You are the embodiment of the idea that that will
never happen. So they hate you. Even if you're lucky enough not to be despised, then you're still the safest person in the equation to piss off. Pissing off daddy or mommy can be scary. The kids have already seen their parents lose one another's love, who's to say that won't happen to them? But the step-mother? Now that's a safe object of loathing!

KH: Your portrayal of the step-mother/step-son relationship is so very
real, right down to Emilia's small acts of sabotage. Then there are the consciously hurtful things William says to his step-mother. It makes me wonder the most basic of questions: do you think the step-parent/step-child relationship is wired for failure?

AW: Wired for failure? I don't know. I think, for reasons I stated above, that it's very hard. I certainly don't think it's inevitable that we don't love children who don't carry our own DNA. If that were true we wouldn't have millions of successful adoptions to consider. I do think that it's harder to love a child when you come into that child's life after the unrequited passion of infancy and early childhood has passed. I've sometimes thought that it's only by recalling that desperate devotion my kids once felt for me that I can maintain my own desperate devotion in the face of their adolescent sneering. So if you never experience that period of unmitigated adoration, both on your part and on theirs, then it's harder to get through the difficult periods.

But still, I don't think I'm willing to say that it's wired for failure. Perhaps I'll say only this: I have seen it work marvelously on a few remarkable occasions, and I've seen it fail spectacularly on many more.

KH: How closely does the film hew to the novel?

AW: The last cut of the movie that I saw, which was at the Toronto Film
Festival, was very true to the book, especially in terms of Natalie Portman's fearless performance. She was absolutely Emilia -- at once unlikeable and lovable. I don't know what the current cut is like, but I imagine it's not that different.

Don Roos wrote a wonderful screenplay that kept my story pretty well intact, and made it funnier.

KH: I can't imagine it getting any funnier than the book. What amazed me as a reader is that you managed to take a topic so unambiguously not funny -- the death of a baby -- and weave humor not into the topic (which you write about with all the tragedy one can
possibly imagine) but around it. Did you set out to write it that way?

AW: Isn't that the only way to write about it? Otherwise it's just self- indulgent grief porn. I'm sure there are people who survive tragedy without humor, but I've never met any of them. Nor would I be particularly interested in writing about them if I did meet them

KH: I love the pivotal scene in the car, when William, confused and angry on the day his mother is to remarry, insists on seeing Emilia. I'm assuming the film ends much as the book does, with Emilia recognizing the love she feels for her five-year-old step-son, and the two of them becoming true pals. Did your friend have a similarly happy outcome with her own step-child?

AW: My friend was never like Emilia. She never hated her step-son. She was always, honestly, a paragon of maternal virtue. I took the situation from her life, but not the emotions. Those were more my mother's. And in a word, No. There was no happy ending. My mother never reached any kind of detente with three of my four siblings. She does have a decent relationship with one of them, but with only one.

KH: That's very sad, and it makes me wonder if the ending of the novel is an expression of hopefulness on your part, on behalf of your step-siblings.

AW: Wishful thinking, maybe?

You can reach Katie Hafner at katieh@gmail.com