“My job is just to write what I need to write”: In Conversation with Adrienne Gruber | Book*hug Press

“My job is just to write what I need to write”: In Conversation with Adrienne Gruber

Today, we’re delighted to share a conversation with editor and writer Stacey May Fowles and Adrienne Gruber, author of Monsters, Martyrs, and Marionettes. Gruber’s new lyrical essay collection subverts the stereotypes and transcends the platitudes of family life to examine motherhood with blistering insight. In this wide-ranging interview, the two discuss the process of moving from writing poetry to creative nonfiction, the need to have authentic conversations about the realities of motherhood in literature, mental health, identity and sense of self, and much more.

SMF: Can you tell us a little bit about the process of moving from writing poetry to creative nonfiction? How do the forms differ for you as a writer, and what are the challenges inherent to that shift?

AG: I’m glad I came to poetry first because it gave me years of practice working with languagefine-tuning and tightening lines, choosing words carefully, learning how to be rhythmicso when I did start moving into prose, it felt like I could use the craft I had developed by writing poetry and translate that into my work in nonfiction.

The process itself was interesting, because I didn’t really start writing nonfiction seriously until around 2015, and it was really bad at first, just clumsy and ramblingI didn’t know how to pace anything or, really, how to tell a story. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I felt like a brand-new writer, but without the confidence I had in my early twenties. I was fully aware that the writing wasn’t good, but a part of me knew that I had to go through what every ‘new’ writer goes throughthat period of writing pages and pages of crap to get to the good stuff. But those garbage pages were the seeds of the essays that eventually became my first collection of non-fiction.

The challenge I find now is that I can’t seem to find my way back to poetry, and I’m not sure what the future holds for me as a poet. I have written a handful of poems in the last few years, and I don’t feel a serious connection to any of them. I tend to be the type of writer who’s always working on a book, and even though not much of the nonfiction I wrote for the first few years made it into Monsters, I always felt the drive of working on a full-length project. It was the same when I was actively writing poetry – I was always working on a full-length collection. So now, writing the odd poem doesn’t do much for me. I feel very disconnected from poetry. I don’t read it often these days, and when I do I think to myself how the fuck did the poet do that? It’s like a muscle that’s shrunk and is shrivelled up and I can’t even seem to flex it anymore. I don’t know if that means I’m just done with the genre or this is an extended hiatus. I’m trying to just allow myself to continue growing as a writer and, so long as I’m writing something, it’s okay that it isn’t in the genre I started out in. I think my identity as a ‘poet’ was firmly entrenched for a long time, and it has felt strange, but also freeing, to shuck that identity.

SMF: In this collection you get very candid about your body, your mental health, your identity and sense of self—subject areas you have been examining throughout your career. What does the process of looking inward and bringing that honesty to the page look like for you?

AG: I think I separate from myself a bit when I am writing. I find bodies fascinating and I struggle with my mental health so it seems that these are two areas that I will probably never stop writing about. I find it necessary to look inward, to be self-reflexive, in part because my emotional regulation depends on that process, but also because…what are we even doing if we aren’t looking to understand ourselves and our reactions to things? I think becoming a parent has meant that my survival in this role is dependant on looking inwards and figuring out why I’m triggered by my kids and what that means and says about me. To bring it to the page is just as necessary, as it keeps me from losing those nuggets of understanding. Also, there’s a certain level of catharsis involved. I gravitate toward writers who write beautifully about their livesI just don’t have the patience or the time for anything else. We are all pretty raw these days, given the collective trauma we’ve all experienced and continue to experience (pandemic, wars, genocides, the reversing of progress like anti-abortion laws, etc.), and if I’m not able to process some of that rawness in my writing, then I’m probably going to start being inappropriately candid with my kids and students just to get by.

SMF: This collection mines a lot of beauty from the seemingly mundane—especially in the realm of “being a mom,” the often overlooked (and fascinating) lives of children, the complexity of family. Can you tell us what’s compelling about this subject matter for you as a writer, and the unique challenges of taking it on?

AG: I suppose what’s compelling about it is the same thing that’s compelling about anything you look at closely. When you put a microscope up to anything it becomes interesting and fascinating, whether it is beautiful or ugly or disgusting or boring. Being a parent is essentially putting up a microscope to the basics of survivalfeeding a baby, caring for their body, cleaning up after them, figuring out how to care for yourself as the caregiver to keep that cycle going. Or the day-to-day grind of caring for young kids or aging parents or commuting. I find myself not able to care about much else these days, probably because this is the ocean I’ve been swimming in for the last decade and it just kind of takes over everything. I’m also an empath, and my children, like most children, are just constantly dysregulating all over the place. I’m in a profession that has me working with adolescents (I teach high school) who are churning with hormones and have underdeveloped frontal lobes, so much of my life is managing and helping to regulate emotions, whether it’s my own kids’ or my students’ or my own. I listened to an episode of a parenting podcast recently that was all about how we must act as our kids’ frontal lobes until theirs are fully developed, which doesn’t happen until around age twenty-five. This is a massive undertaking, and very emotionally consuming. It might all seem mundane to someone who isn’t looking closely or is considering it only in the context of how common place it is to be a parent, but the mundane is what makes up much of our lives.

It’s never felt like a challenge, writing about this type of subject matter. What can be challenging, is showing the world that this is worth reading about. But that doesn’t feel like my job. My job is just to write what I need to write, and make sure it is in the best shape possible before sending it out into the world.

SMF: Many of these essays focus on giving the reader the unvarnished truth of what it’s like to bring life into the world and sustain it—the good, the bad, the ugly from conception to caregiving. Why do you think it’s important to you to have authentic conversations about the realities of motherhood in literature? Why do you think they’re currently lacking?

AG: I think previous generations have been encouraged, even pressured, to stay quiet about many of the realities of motherhood. I see this playing out in my own extended family. My maternal grandmother had six daughters and the youngest two are twins. I suspect she would have been quite content to have two or three children, but she ended up with more than I believe she could emotionally manage…and fair enough! That’s a lot of children. She also lost a child shortly after he was born, and that grief was, as far as I can tell, never talked about, and never processed. In fact, when I’ve asked family members about this child, each one has a different story as to how long he lived and why he died. Nobody really knows the truth because my granny wouldn’t talk about him. There’s a legacy of secrecy and unprocessed trauma in my family, and I’m part of a generation who want to connect emotionally with each other and want to talk about trauma and tell our stories. My cousins, siblings, and I all have children of our own, and we are trying to parent with real emotional engagement, which involves reflecting on the many triggers that parenthood brings up for us. It also involves looking at our elders and cultivating an understanding of why they didn’t address struggles with their mental health, and how this impacted their ability to parent.

I think the authentic conversations around the realities of motherhood start with conversations about pregnancy and birth, about how women are treated before and after becoming mothers. I’m in a stage of motherhood where I am often in a rage, but so much of that anger has little to do with being personally wronged, and more to do with the systemic issues that women face around proper support in motherhood, especially post-pandemic. So many cracks were revealed during the pandemicit was obvious how much of our systems are built on the backs of the free emotional and physical labour of women, and here we are, four years after that first shut down and what has changed? The mental and physical load on mothers is insane. I think those authentic conversations around motherhood are lacking because if we had those conversations loudly enough, society would buckle. And our mothers and grandmothers didn’t talk about it because, honestly, they were too busy trying to survive it. I think mothers in my generation don’t want to just survive motherhood, we want to move away from these debilitating expectations, and mother our kids in a way that doesn’t involve complete self-sacrifice. At least, that’s what I want.

SMF: In one of the essays in this collection you write about a critic who essentially asks “who would want to read about this” when it comes to the visceral nature of pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Who do you think wants to read about it and why?

AG: I do? Is that too self-involved? I think anyone who has gone through a life-changing experience like pregnancy and birth is eager to read about how that experience has transformed others. And no two pregnancies and births are alike, even if they seem alike on paper. Even the three births of my daughters were dramatically different, though all three were home births with minimal interventions. I was a different person, in a different stage of my life with each of my pregnancies, and I experienced different emotional responses with each labour and birth. With my first, I was terrified. With my second, I was anxious about experiencing the fear and pain again, but the birth went so much faster that I gained a sense of empowerment. With my third, I didn’t have nearly as much anxiety leading up to the birth, but I was incredibly uncomfortable for the last two months of pregnancy, and when I went into labour the city was full of wildfire smoke and we were seven months into a global pandemic, so the external apocalyptic stressors meant I was in a pretty dark place emotionally by the time I went into labour. Then, because the baby was in an awkward position, it took hours to push her out and I was furious at how hard it was and how ineffective I felt my body was at giving birth after having already done it twice. So, each birth I’ve experienced, even though the environmental conditions were the same, ended up vastly different and I have completely unique emotional memories tied to each experience.

I think most people who have been through this experience want to read about it. But, as I mentioned in my last essay, I think most people want to read about all kinds of experiences, so long as the writing is compelling. So hopefully the essays in my book are compelling to readers and they feel a connection to the work.


Adrienne Gruber is an award-winning writer originally from Saskatoon. She is the author of five chapbooks, three books of poetry, including Q & ABuoyancy Control, and This is the Nightmare, and the creative nonfiction collection, Monsters, Martyrs, and Marionettes: Essays on Motherhood. She won the 2015 Antigonish Review’s Great Blue Heron poetry contest, SubTerrain’s 2017 Lush Triumphant poetry contest, placed third in Event’s 2020 creative non-fiction contest, and was the runner up in SubTerrain’s 2023 creative non-fiction contest. Both her poetry and non-fiction has been longlisted for the CBC Literary Awards. In 2012, Mimic was awarded the bp Nichol Chapbook Award. Adrienne lives with her partner and their three daughters on Nex̱wlélex̱m (Bowen Island), B.C., the traditional territory of the Coast Salish peoples.

Stacey May Fowles is the award-winning author of five books, and the editor of four anthologies. Her most recent collection, Good Mom on Paper: Writers on Creativity and Motherhood (co-edited with Jen Sookfong Lee,) was released with Book*hug Press in spring 2022, and her first children’s book, The Invitation, was released with Groundwood Books in spring 2023.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content