Photo: Stuart Lawler
In ‘Asking for a Friend,’ the Bond of an Intense Female Friendship is Tested by Motherhood
In a Q&A about her new novel, Toronto writer Kerry Clare talks about her bond with her oldest friends, reproductive rights and why she didn't love the baby phase / BY Kim Honey / September 21st, 2023
Motherhood can be a thankless, energy-sucking task that feels like an endless slog and it can be a joyful communing of two spirits who fall in love at first sight. Kerry Clare’s new novel, Asking for a Friend, mines the liminal space between those two extremes, framed by an intense female friendship. Prim Jess meets Clara, a worldly free spirit, in a university residence kitchen, late at night, after Jess discovers she is pregnant.
She can’t even say the word abortion, but she’s got one booked, and Jess and Clara bond over late-night ginger tea as Clara recounts her past experience with an accidental pregnancy and its termination. It’s the beginning of a friendship that is so fierce and so intimate that Jess moves into Clara’s single dorm room and shares her bed.
Toronto writer Kerry Clare, 44, editor of the 2014 anthology about motherhood called The M Word and author of two previous novels, traces the two women’s lives as their friendship waxes and wanes. They take two very divergent routes to motherhood, and although the friendship is tested many times, they always find their way back to each other.
In a Q&A about Asking for a Friend, the mother of two talks about how she didn’t love the baby phase, her lifelong girlfriends, the abortion she had at 23 and its impact on her life and writing career.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Kim Honey: Do you have a Clara or Jess in your life?
KC: I’ve had friends like this and I’ve been a friend like this. This book is a tribute to what friendship has meant to me. I blended elements of the people who have been such huge parts of my life and made them into both these characters.
KH: Did you grow up in Toronto, where the book is set?
KC: I grew up in Peterborough. Ont., and came to Toronto for university when I was 19.
KH: How long have you known your oldest friend?
KC: My oldest friends are from high school. I found the transition to university difficult, because I’d lost my people, but then I made more really great friends. So, I have friends from university and friends since I was 14 years old.
KH: How often do you see your high school friends?
KC: We have our WhatsApp chat, so we talk every single day. It’s like passing notes in high school, except we just do it on our phone. I wanted to show that in the book; our twenties were such tumultuous, exciting, always-changing times, as we made different choices about where our lives are going. There were times where we were not close and it was sad, and I wondered if we would make it. But thankfully we have managed to come back together.
KH: How old are your daughters?
KC: They are 14 and 10. I wrote my first book one summer while the baby napped and my other daughter watched [a DVD of the 1982 movie] Annie every day, sitting on the couch beside me. So, my books have definitely been born out of my domestic scene.
KH: You captured the pureed food and spit-up phase, but you’re actually in the teen phase?
KC: Yes, which I like a lot better. I am more like Jess. I really was unhappy having babies. I think I remember it so well because I wrote a lot about it and I spent a lot of time processing it. I’m enjoying having big kids so much, but I was interested in women who absolutely loved having babies and what it would be like to see your friend get absolutely lost in motherhood. I would be afraid I was losing my friend forever and want to pull them back from the brink. Having Clara’s experience of motherhood be so different from Jess’s makes Jess think did I do it wrong? Am I not a good mother because I’m not swept away the way that Clara is? I’m fascinated by the way we can go through life in so many different ways.
KH: Is the book equally about friendship or motherhood?
KC: I was interested in how motherhood can really mess with dynamics of friendship. There is this divide between women who have children and women who don’t, but even between friends who have children, the choices we make in motherhood – and how we build our families – can make it very fraught. So, it’s about friendship first, but motherhood woven in just makes everything complicated.
KH: There’s an element of criticism, right? I used to feel, as a working mom, that I wasn’t measuring up to stay-at-home moms.
KC: Everybody feels like they’re not enough, so that really pits women against each other. One thing I really like about Clara’s character is that she doesn’t sit around worrying about how her body looks. Clara really loves herself. Maybe it’s even a fantasy, because I hope that if I can write this story, maybe it could come true. I think it’s important to show that, so it is kind of aspirational.
KH: There’s a question I want to ask that Jess asks rhetorically at the beginning of the book: “How do you live a coherent narrative out of that kind of chaos?”
KC: I think you don’t, but maybe part of the reason I like writing novels is that I can write a coherent narrative myself. I think, in real life, it is not possible, and that’s what novels are for, to give us some semblance of control and order in a very chaotic universe.
KH: You started writing Asking For a Friend in 2015, a year after The M Word came out, a collection of essays about motherhood. Was that the spark?
KC: The M Word has essays by women who don’t have children and women who do have children, in all kinds of different ways. And I thought, what if I could just put all these stories together? Rather than having the fractious debate, there could be some kind of chorus where everyone’s saying different things, but it makes a kind of harmony. I’ve been trying to do that with all my books. This [novel] comes out of the same spirit of The M Word, trying to reconcile women’s different experiences. I’m still working on it. I haven’t solved it yet.
KH: You’ve said a lot changed with the book in the seven years since you started writing, but the first sentence always stayed the same: “Every time Jess was pregnant, Clara was the first to know.” Why was it important to keep that line?
KC: For me, getting pregnant has always had fascinating consequences. It’s one of the most interesting things that’s ever happened to me. I think that’s why women are so interesting to write about, because they can have the same experience, but it can go just so many different ways – issues of reproduction, of pregnancy loss, of abortion. It’s so fresh to me. I’m not sick of it yet. So that was the beginning of the story, and it always was.
KH: You’ve written about abortion several times, including your own at 23, and the impact of Roe v. Wade being overturned on the 20th anniversary of that abortion. Why are reproductive rights so important to you?
KC: The freedom I had to end my pregnancy when I was 23 is the point on which my whole life turns. So many significant things happened after that: I met my husband nine months later; I ended up in England. I probably wouldn’t think about it so much except that reproductive rights are so under threat. When I had an abortion in 2002, I took my access for granted and thought it would always be that way. I talk about it a lot because it’s important to normalize it. I think having abortion be taboo means the people who dominate the conversations are people who don’t understand it and want to restrict freedoms. So, I have to talk about it, and maybe I’ll shut up if it ever becomes less pressing. But I also think it’s fascinating when a woman decides to control her own destiny. That’s not a common story in the history of humankind.
KH: In your Asking for a Friend book club kit, it says one of your favourite lines is: “That night she would fall asleep in her clothes, waking up in the morning with that delicious kind of ache and regret that affirms that, while your life might be ridiculous, at least you’re actually alive.” Does that capture the novel’s essence?
KC: It’s definitely what the book is about. It just sums up what being young is to me. I love writing about women who mess up and get up again.
KH: There’s also a Spotify playlist, a reading list and Clara’s brownie recipe in the kit.
KC: Clara bakes a lot. She’s very domestic and I like baking, too, so I wanted to have a recipe. I remember my mom would get Homemakers magazine and so, in the book, Clara has torn [a recipe] out of Homemakers. Unfortunately, I could not find a brownie recipe from Homemakers [which folded in 2011], so I adapted a Smitten Kitchen recipe and made it Clara’s.
KH: Did you test it?
KC: Oh, yes, they’re so good. I do not give out bad recipes. That would be a bad book club kit, right?