I met novelist Ruth Pennebaker online a couple years ago and then in real life at a writer’s conference. Ruth is one of those people who, on paper, seems like a giant contradiction. For instance, she’s a liberal Texan. She’s also a former lawyer who is one of the most generous, funny, and gracious people I know.
I found myself both laughing and nodding my head as I read her novel Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough. It’s a tale of three generations of women living under the same roof. Or as Ruth puts it, it’s a tale of hell. But hell can be a glorious spectator sport, one that readers like me enjoy watching from the sidelines.
One scene toward the end of the book made me laugh so hard that my dog got scared and jumped off the bed. I’m not sure if I will ever be able to say the word “pantyhose” without smirking, especially if Ruth is around.
Because a sense of irreverent wisdom permeates Ruth’s every spoken and written word, I decided to interview her about her thoughts on marriage, life and mother-daughter relationships. To get the full flavor of Ruth, try to read her answers with a Texas accent.
1. In your book, you write about some very sad relationships. In fact, most of the men are perceived as jerks. Even Ivy’s late husband turns out to be someone most women would not want to be married to. Why is that?
They are pretty bad, aren’t they? Well, except for Bruce; I think that guy has some real potential. And I think Ivy’s husband, John, was very much a man of his generation, who earned a steady living and came home and wanted to watch TV without talking too much. The strong, silent type used to be big, remember? That was before we all started clamoring for sensitive men.
I think many of the women in the book have relied on men for too much, have wanted to be “saved” by the men in their lives — and that’s an unhealthy kind of reliance. It means the women aren’t really taking themselves seriously enough. I think you need to have a certain amount of confidence in yourself before you can have a good relationship with another person, romantic or not.
2. I happen to know, however, that you have a strong marriage. What is your secret to marital success? Do you have wisdom to share?
I think both partners have to want to have a good marriage and to stick around and work things out during hard times. And I think they need a certain degree of luck in being married to someone they have good chemistry (sex, humor, similar ambitions, compatible world views) with. My husband and I were married young — in our early 20s; the younger you are when you get together, I think, the luckier you have to be. In many ways, we’ve grown up together and have changed in ways that are compatible. I have to credit luck and our own stubbornness for any success we’ve had. And that chemistry I mentioned.
3. Has your marriage ever gone through a rough patch. If so, what advice or encouragement do you have for others who are currently mired in one?
We’ve gone through a couple of rough patches and all I can say is that they were hell and I’m glad we made it through, battered, but intact. When you hit a really difficult time in a marriage, I think it either ends or you put it back together so that it’s better than it was before. But the two of you have to really want it. It has to be worth it to both of you.
And — to those who are in the middle of what I can only call a painful shit storm: You will laugh again. You will be better than before. You will be even more committed to your relationship if you go through a painful time together; you’re never going to forget what it cost you to work things out.
After all of this, my stock line is: I don’t think you’ve really been married if you haven’t wanted to strangle each other. I’m not entirely kidding.
4. You write about three generations of women living under the same roof. This is a struggle that is common and one that many of my readers are going through. What missteps do the characters make in your book that you hope readers won’t make in their own?
Each of the three women, Ivy, Joanie and Caroline, is struggling with different problems in her own life. Sometimes, when you’re overwhelmed by difficulties in your life, you simply don’t have the wherewithal to be empathic toward others; you’re used up emotionally. I think it takes all of them most of the book to really notice and appreciate one another.
With any relationship, I think you need to use your imagination about what’s going on in the other person’s life so you can be more understanding. Ivy, in her 70s, is lonely and disoriented, an elderly woman in a world that worships youth; she probably doesn’t recall how hard it is to be an adolescent like Caroline, and she’s never had the experience of her daughter, Joanie, in being divorced and re-entering the job market. Both Joanie and Caroline, in turn, are too wrapped up in their own dilemmas to think about what it must be like to be old, like Ivy, and feel as if they’re not essential to the rest of the world.
Be kind to people, since everybody you know is fighting a great battle. Either Plato or Aristotle is supposed to have said that. I think it’s true. There are lots of invisible heroics going on in the world — if we just knew what was going on under the surface of others’ lives.
5. If Caroline–the teenage character in your book–were your real life daughter, what advice would you give her about men and relationships?
I know this sounds trite — but I do think you have to value yourself before you can find another person who will value you. And I do think it’s important to find work you love that feeds something in you. My work, writing, has been incredibly important to my life and well-being. I can’t imagine not having it.
6. Why do you think mother-daughter relationships are so mired in difficulty?
Women take their relationships seriously. We make time for our friends, we worry about them, we prize those we’re close to. When I bring up a problem in a friendship, I can see my husband’s eyes roll (oh, no! She’s talking about her friends again!). But I don’t care; these friendships are like oxygen to me. And the mother-daughter relationship is exponentially more intense than most friendships.
I should add that my own daughter turns 29 today. It’s a wonderful thing for me to have this new friend in my life now that she’s grown.
Also, comment here about the nature of mother daughter relationships. Do you struggle in yours? Why? Or just comment about how you wish winter would end already.
* At the Yummy Mummy Club I wrote about ways to put the romance back in Valentine’s Day. You can also find ways to win a copy of PHEA.
* At Simple Mom I write about ways to teach your spouse to romance you. You can also win a copy of PHEA on this post.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.