Q&A with Susan Fish, author or Renaissance: A Novel

Q&A with Susan Fish, author or Renaissance: A Novel

Why is your book called Renaissance?  

In the 1500s, Italy was the birthplace of the Renaissance in the arts and culture after a long period of dark ages. Florence was the epicenter of this movement. When you visit Florence, the Renaissance is literally all around you. Secondly, the novel follows both Liz and the garden she tends as both experience a kind of rebirth after a time of severe pruning and lightning strike. Finally, Renaissance means birth and it struck me that a book about motherhood is very connected to the idea of birth and rebirth.    

Is this a religious book? Is it a Catholic book?  

I am a person of Christian faith but not Catholic. I don’t have a history with the Virgin Mary, other than a class in practical theology where I learned to pray the Rosary. My main character is also a person of Christian faith who is not herself Catholic. But she lives with nuns in Italy, a country that is steeped in Catholicism, and she finds herself drawn both to images of Mary and to Catholic liturgy. At the same time, I don’t think the reader of this kind of book needs to be religious or Catholic any more than the reader of The Godfather needs to be part of or even know the mafia – that book is about family, and this book is about motherhood, and its limits. I don’t think this is an in-house book written for people of faith.  


You wrote a novel about a widow and people asked you about your late husband who was still very much alive. How much of this book is autobiographical?  

I wrote my novel about widowhood in anticipatory grief about the death of my grandmother. People asked me how I understood widowhood so well having never been through it. There, Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking was helpful when she said that each person’s experience of grief is unique to them and each loss has unique dimensions to it. I didn’t have to get it right. I just needed to get it emotionally right.   


In the case of this book— Renaissance-- I wrote it as some of my children first left home, but by the time the book came out all my kids had left home. I was not in the common category of mild empty nest syndrome (there are actual quizzes!) but in the far less usual category of significant grief. But by the time the pandemic came and went and my kids came and went and came and went, I had exercised lots of letting go muscles, and my experience of having them leave—don’t tell them this—was also the less common one of delight. My husband and I were quite thrilled to be on our own.  


That isn’t to say I haven’t gone through griefs connected with parenthood. One of my great fears is that this novel actually does reflect the lives of my children without me knowing it—because how awful for them! (Although how prescient of me if so!) My parenting was complicated by utterly different challenges.  


There are a few points of commonality between me and my main character. Like Liz, I was introduced to Florence via the wonderful movie A Room With A View. Florence was the destination of my choice the first time I travelled—not alone—to Europe, and I did opt to stay at a convent then owned by the Sisters of Stability and Charity and did visit the nearby San Miniato Church. I bought violet soap at the fabulous Farmacia Santa Maria Novella. Beyond that, Liz’s experiences are her own. Unlike her, I am not a fan of babies, for instance. I also never visited the very real Pinocchio Park, to my great regret.  


Did you work on an olive farm in Italy?  

I once was writing a book in which agates were a central metaphor. It was set in Quebec and probably will never see the light of day. When my family was traveling through Quebec, I heard about an agate mine and we drove on long gravel roads and up a mountainside where we had to whack at clay with pickaxes to uncover baseballs of rock that would be cut open to determine whether they were agates. Quickly—embarrassingly quickly—I realized I liked metaphorical agate mining much more than actual agate mining. I took on the job of ferrying children up and down the mountain to the washrooms while my husband doggedly dug in the muck.   

I have to admit the same is true for olive oil. When we first visited Florence, we did bring a liter of maple syrup and exchanged it for a glorious liter of first-press olive oil, but that exchange took place between us and the owner of a cooking school when we were part of an afternoon cooking class where we learned to make ravioli and other kinds of pasta. The convent where we stayed did have a grove of olive trees but we had nothing to do with their care, nor did we see anyone care for them. As we walked near the convent we did see small fires of olive branches on the day we called Burn Your Trees day, but that’s all I know about pruning olive trees.   


What is a “good enough mother”?  

When my first child was born, I remember very clearly thinking that children would do better with parents who didn’t need sleep—something I did need. We can all fall into the myth of the perfect parent, especially when faced with very small people whose needs seem endless.   


Pediatrician Donald Winnicott coined the term “good-enough mother” to dispel the need for perfection while still acknowledging the need to meet an infant and child’s basic needs. I first came across the term in a therapist’s office at a time in my parenting life when I was wondering whether I needed to be better than I was. When the therapist used the term, my shoulders went down about six inches with relief. The term isn’t an excuse for negligence or abuse, ever, but it’s an acceptance of humanity. I love how Liz encounters the term with the help of her midwife and how she returns to it again and again, that it’s a term that frees her up to reject the compulsion toward perfection. I wanted her to experience this with Mary who is often seen as perfect, to consider the ways in which Mary was a good enough mother in her very humanity.  

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