Interview by Nicole Graev Lipson
Aspiring authors are often advised to come up with a good “elevator pitch” for their book, a punchy one-sentence summary that will convince agents, editors—and presumably any stranger they might happen upon in an elevator—to want to read their words. But as I made my way through Kelly McMasters’ new memoir in essays, The Leaving Season, (W.W. Norton, 2023), savoring every page, I was reminded that the richest and truest literature often defies easy classification, illuminating what it means to be human with a nuance impossible to reduce to a single sound bite.
When The Leaving Season opens, McMasters is a recent college graduate grappling her way through young adulthood in turn-of-the-millennium New York City. We accompany her as she witnesses, first-hand, the burning towers on 9/11; as she meets the charismatic artist who would become her husband; and as they move to a remote farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, eager to build a life together as newlyweds. From the outside, their pastoral existence with their two young sons appears idyllic, but beneath the surface of their marriage are deepening ruptures that eventually become too painful for McMasters to ignore, and she must find the courage to walk away from the dream she’s clung to.
McMasters’ book could accurately be described as a divorce memoir. But it’s much more than this: a meditation on nostalgia, an homage to the natural world, a critique of the hierarchies of gender, an illumination of the complexities of motherhood, an exploration of the tension between art-making and caregiving, a love song to the places that shape our lives—and a reminder that every ending contains the seed of a new beginning.
McMasters is the author of the memoir Welcome to Shirley and co-editor, with Margot Kahn, of the anthologies This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home and Wanting: Women Writing About Desire. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, The American Scholar, and River Teeth, among other publications. I had the pleasure of talking with her by phone about setting as a narrative tool, finding strength in female communion, and how every divorce has its start as a love story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nicole Graev Lipson: The memoir-in-essays is my ultimate favorite genre because it marries my other two favorite genres, essay and memoir. When you began this book, did you know from the start that this was the form it would take?
Kelly McMasters: The very honest answer is no. I very much see myself as an essayist in terms of my natural rhythm in writing, and I started to write these essays as just that, individual essays. I began in earnest thinking about turning them into a book while working on This is the Place: Women Writing About Home, an anthology of essays I co-edited with Margot Khan. I wrote an essay for that book called “The Leaving Season”. It was the first thing I’d written in a very long time, and when I finished it, I realized I had a lot more to say. I thought to myself, “Okay, this is a thing. This is a book.”
NGL: The Leaving Season made me think a lot about the concept of place. You open the book in New York City, and then take us with you as you move, newly married, to a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania; then, as a newly separated mother, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and finally to suburban Long Island, vividly conjuring your relationship with each locale. I’m curious how you became interested in the idea of place, and why you felt drawn to explore it in both an anthology and a full-length memoir of your own?
KM: At the center of This is the Place was the idea of home as a four letter word—the complication of what so many of us are programmed to think home should be and what happens when it isn’t. When I started co-editing that collection, the home that I thought I was going to be building for myself and for my children had just imploded. And yet there was something so elemental about those years in the country, in that natural landscape, that I did feel home there for the first time in many ways. That’s when I first understood that this was the pain of leaving: I knew I had to leave, and I really did not want to leave a lot of what I had to say goodbye to.
Nabokov’s Speak, Memory was a really seminal book for me. When you’re excised from a place that you no longer have access to, it can become glamorized and romanticized. The home that I thought was going to be my home forever—with the piece of wood against the doorway with notches for every inch that our children grew—is gone. I can’t see it anymore. The only access I had was when I could sit down to the page and imagine it and access it that way.
NGL: When I was an MFA student, a beloved teacher of mine used to complain about all the location-less student writing she had to read, where the action takes place in a vacuum rather than a particular physical space. Your writing is extremely rooted in location and a beautiful example of the magic that can happen when place is given the attention it deserves. I’m curious how you think about setting as a writer?
KM: Thank you so much for noticing that. I also had a professor in grad school whom I’m still very close with, Sam Freedman, who would suggest during the process of revision to imagine your work on a stage. Is your play happening in a black box with no setting? And if it does have a setting, what can your audience see? Is one small room? Is it the entire country?
Since before I was able to give it that name or really understand what I was doing, setting has been primary to me. When I recall childhood memories, the first thing that comes to mind is the place and its sensory details. When I sit down and think about a story, the first thing I feel around in the dark for is the setting. Setting is kind of like my compass.
“When I sit down and think about a story, the first thing I feel around in the dark for is the setting. Setting is kind of like my compass.” — Kelly McMasters
NGL: As I’m sure you know, the word “essay” comes from the French word essayer, meaning to attempt or try. Was there a central question you were trying to answer as you worked through the essays in this book?
KM: I think the trick of the memoir-in-essays is that each essay has its own questions. But in determining which essays stayed and which got the boot, I had to sit down and arrange them all on the floor with my color-coded index cards and figure out not just chronology, but the overall arc. I do think the main question—and it’s still an open question because I don’t think that I’ve solved it—is how to leave something you love. We leave things every day, and it’s not complicated. But leaving the big stuff? There wouldn’t even be a question of staying if it wasn’t complicated.
So many people, once they find out that I’m divorced, pull me into a corner to ask, “How did you know it was the right thing?” And I think this question is universal: How did you know that was the right school to choose? How did you know that was the right house to buy? The truth is you never truly know, and so I think the bigger question is: How do we exist as humans without knowing?
A few weekends ago, I went away with my kids to a friend’s little beach condo in Ocean City, Maryland, which I’d never been to. And the whole time I was really grumpy because we left late and missed the sunset, and I was like, “The whole point was the sunset!” And then my anxiety woke me up at 5:00 the next morning and I looked outside and saw the horizon just starting to pinken as the sun rose. I ran out to the beach and watched that five minutes of perfection, and afterwards I just felt dumbstruck that this happens every day. It will happen whether I make the right decision or the wrong decision, whether I’m alive tomorrow or not, whether you finish the book or you don’t. I think this is at the heart of why I draw so much comfort from the landscape, especially in the country. It reminds me that we can let go a little bit because we’re actually not at all in control.
NGL: I haven’t personally read many memoirs about separation or divorce, and I was happy to have this beautiful window into what this experience was like for one person. You write, “The pain of divorce is really the pain of grief. You grieve for the death of the fantasy you believed, you hoped for, the one you so desperately wanted to be true.” There’s something so universal about the feeling you describe here, whether you’re somebody who has been through a divorce or not. Was it a goal of yours to explore, not just the ending of one woman’s marriage, but endings in a larger sense?
KM: It was. I was hoping to create a new catalog of the experience of leaving. And the reason I wanted the active verb of “leaving” in the title is that it will never end. When people say, “Oh, you’re divorced,” I think they want some kind of finality to it, and it just doesn’t exist. What I really hoped to encapsulate is that long arc of leaving. I will be leaving my marriage for my entire life because it’s not really him I’m leaving, but who I thought I could be. I’m grieving a version of myself that I believed in.
“I was hoping to create a new catalog of the experience of leaving.” –Kelly McMasters
NGL: The Leaving Season begins when you’re in your post-college years, continues through your years of marriage, and ends when you’re a newly divorced mother of two elementary school-aged children. Was hard for you to capture your earlier feelings about your ex-husband without them being colored by your later feelings? How did you handle this shift as a memoirist?
KM: This book is a divorce book, but every divorce begins as a love story. I remember turning in the manuscript and waiting for my editor’s call. When we spoke, she said to me, “It’s going well. You’re maybe 70% there.” I was like, “What? I thought I was totally done!” But what she said was, “You need to remember why you married him and let us feel that.”
And so I returned to rebuilding certain scenes—when my husband and I first met, or the first time he painted me—and doing so allowed me to bring more compassion to the page in the later chapters. If I hadn’t loved him—if he wasn’t his own, in many ways magical, creature—leaving would’ve been very easy. There wouldn’t have been a book to write because there would be no conflict. In the end, I wanted to honor the truth in that.
NGL: In your essay “The Stone Boat,” you recall discovering that your ex-husband had painted, and then shared on social media, a nude portrait of your two sons—a decision that ultimately led to a Child Protective Services investigation. Your rage and sadness in the aftermath of this discovery are palpable. But I think what makes this piece doubly powerful is how, even as you judge your ex-husband, you interrogate the ethics of weaving your children into your writing. You ask, “Am I not simply painting my own portrait as I write these words? Am I not unearthing this horrible moment in our personal history?” There’s so much humility in this self-reflection, and I think this is a question so many parents who are memoirists grapple with. Have you developed a personal philosophy of how to write ethically about one’s children? Because I haven’t! I struggle with this over and over.
KM: I wish I had a short “Yes, this is how I do it,” answer to this. But it changes all the time, even within each essay and then even line to line. I do feel strongly that my first duty is always to protect my children, as a mother and as a writer. But I was really relieved a few weeks ago, when I went to see Maggie Smith read. Somebody asked her how she squares writing about her children, and she said, “I spend so much more time parenting than I do writing.” I think what she was getting at is that in order to tell our truths as mothers who write—or writers who mother, whichever way you identify—it’s really hard to extricate one from the other. It’s not like I sit down at my desk and think, ‘Okay, I’m a writer now. Lock the mother out of the room.’ Not everything I write is about my family, but it’s where my life is centered right now. It’s the filter that everything processes through.
What’s most important to me is to remember that they’re their own characters. They’re not part of me. This is a hard mindset to break because they once were part of me. But my whole goal as a parent personally is to make sure that I don’t pretend that they still are, and I think the same goes on the page. In certain revisions, I would circle things that felt off, and I noticed that my discomfort would grow when I started treading into territory where I inhabited something other than observation about my children, assuming, Oh, they must have been thinking or feeling this. It’s very important to me to always leave space for their own experience and their own memories.
NGL: I wouldn’t call The Leaving Season an overtly feminist anthem, and yet it absolutely illuminates the challenges of being female in a patriarchal world. I’m thinking in particular of your essay “The Cow,” where you describe becoming a sort of adoptive mother to a baby cow at a local barn, owned and run by men. Your relationship to this cow becomes a way of reckoning with being a woman in the deeply masculine guns-and-hunting atmosphere of a rural farm community. What did this hyper-masculine space teach you, if anything, about your own womanhood, especially in the context of a heterosexual marriage?
KM: There are many instances in the book where I think I know something, and then I’m shown a parallel image that helps me understand my feelings a different way. With “The Cow”—and this is why I love nonfiction—the barn literally did name this cow “Kelly,” so she’s essentially me in cow form. I wanted that experience of raising her so much—of becoming a cow mama and fulfilling this dream—and it was only through understanding how people do or don’t value their livestock that I then was able to look at the barn, at this social experiment, and realize ‘Oh hey, wait a minute, this translates.’ Whereas before, I’d thought, “Well, I’m just misunderstood,’ I realized, ‘No, I’m the one that’s misunderstanding. Everyone else is pretty clear on how they feel!’ But I couldn’t see this until I had the right prism to refract it.
NGL: On the flip side, your book definitely illuminates the power of women coming together in community. It’s when you begin to make connections with other women in your rural neighborhood, or welcome other women for conversation in the local bookstore you eventually open, that you begin to see the fractures in your marriage more clearly and gather the strength to leave it. It occurred to me that both the anthologies you’ve co-edited, This Is the Place: Women Writing about Home and Wanting: Women Writing About Desire, are their own sort of havens for female communion and community. Could you tell me about the place of female comradeship in your personal and creative life?
KM: The experience of co-editing This Is the Place was transformative. At the time, I was so isolated. It was just me and my sons, in our first year of living on Long Island. Reading through the pile of pages on my desk, I really did feel that I had this chorus of women talking to me about the complications of home in their own lives. It’s so vulnerable to send someone a draft, and it was amazing to talk these essays through and then see each writer wrestle them into something more beautiful. Being part of that process was its own communion and the only thing that then gave me the strength and courage to come to the page myself.
I knew when I found this Joy Harjo line that I needed to include it in the book: “With our pack of memories/ Slung slack on our backs/ We venture into the circle….” It reminds me of the power of women when we’re together telling our stories, sharing our secrets, being vulnerable and protecting each other. This is something that has sustained me over and over and over again in so many ways. It’s always been women who have saved me.