Modern families are the perfect backdrop for comedy and tragedy.
Sydney’s Jessica Dettmann takes the former path with her heartwarming yet biting How To Be Second Best, our January Book Of The Month.
Described by publishers as “Marian Keyes meets Allison Pearson with a dash of Caitlin Moran” it shows how there can be hope even in the worst of circumstances. Over to the author herself …
Give us your elevator pitch for your novel How to Be Second Best.
Going from one child to two is never all that easy for a family, but when Emma’s husband simultaneously fathers a third child three doors up the street, things get very tricky, very fast.
No longer is it enough for Emma to be the best wife and mother — now she’s trying to be the best ex-wife, and the best part-time parent to her ex’s love child, and that’s before she even thinks about adding a new bloke to the mix.
The book looks at the roles we play, how we compete, and what happens when we dare to strive for second-best.
What was the inspiration for How to Be Second Best — was it based on your own experiences of motherhood?
Partly. My husband does not, to the best of my knowledge, have another partner and child. A lot of the minutia in the book is straight out of my life though — the visceral horror of taking small children into a swimming pool change room is something you can’t make up.
The women in this book all have very different work-life balance issues. Can you see any way for women to ‘have it all’? To quote the comedian Steven Wright, ‘you could have it all, but where would you put it?’ I don’t think anyone wants it all — they might want a whole career, but they’d probably be content with half of the housework, shopping and mental load of running a family.
You’ve worked as a book editor — has that helped in the transition into becoming an author?
It showed me authors are normal real people who have written books. They’re not strange, rare creatures, they’ve just worked hard, deleted Instagram from their phones long enough to get the words onto paper, and been lucky enough to find a publisher. That helped me overcome the fear and deep sense of inferiority that studying literature at university instils in you. It also meant I could create a character who was an editor without doing any research. Some would call this lazy. I would agree but ask them to say that more quietly please.
Your book takes a humorous look at the competitiveness of suburban life. Is there any escaping it?
There are two ways: 1: Move to a place without any other people. 2. Embrace it and win at everything. Otherwise, you have to deal with it. My husband and I try very hard not to model competitiveness to our kids. I think we’re the best at it of anyone we know.
Emma hates taking her kids to swimming lessons. What’s your least favourite thing about parenting?
Every time you get a handle on parenting your kids, they change. It’s like turning up to work every day to discover the job description has been changed without your knowledge, its not written down anywhere and once you finally figure out what needs doing it changes again. And there’s no union.
In How to Be Second Best, Emma’s father advises her to ‘Try doing your second-best’ — do you think this would make a good New year’s resolution?
It would be, if you could be bothered making New Years resolutions. I’m inclined to think they just set you up for failure. I prefer to look back at what I managed to do the previous year, write it down, backdate it to last January, tick things off and feel smug.
What books have influenced you as a writer?
The works of Kate Atkinson and Barbara Trapido, Marian Keyes, Caitlin Moran and David Sedaris, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
I hope readers with children are left with a sense that they’re doing okay (unless they’re really dreadful, in which case they might up their game to a basic level of decency). Readers without children might heave a sigh of relief and buy their own parents a nice bottle of wine to say thank you/sorry.
And finally, what’s your tip to surviving the school holidays?
Enrol your kids in school in another country as well as this one, so they never get holidays. Obviously this is expensive and impractical, but I think it could work. And they might pick up another language. Failing that, a combination of threats, bribes, TV, rice crackers and tzatziki, the library, family, friends, noise cancelling headphones and ice cream. I encourage them to work on a thousand piece puzzle but then I remember they’re not middle aged. When it’s hot, we play Poor Man’s Marco Polo: we don’t have a pool so a parent stands with their eyes shut holding the hose and trying to wet the kids. Our neighbours watch us in bemusement from their pool.
Jessica Dettmann’s How to Be Second Best, published by Harper Collins Australia, is out now in all good bookstores.
WIN MARY POPPINS LIBRARIES
The hotly-awaited new Disney movie Mary Poppins Returns, starring Emily Blunt, is released Down Under on New Year’s Day — 54 years after the original Julie Andrews film.
Before the much-loved nanny hit the silver screen, she came to life in the stories by the Australian author PL Travers.
To celebrate her return, with our pals at HarperCollins Australia we’re giving away three complete Mary Poppins libraries, including a deluxe edition illustrated by Lauren Child, worth 14 dollars.
Just go to bit.ly/winmarypoppinsbooks — and tell us in 25 words or less why you love Mary Poppins.