It is bold work to invite us into the world of children who are eligible for special education—and their long suffering parents. Maxine Rosaler does this in her novel, Queen for a Day, through her main character, Mimi Slavitt and her young son, Danny. We, the audience, are alongside Mimi as she attempts to accept and comprehend her autistic son’s world. In the process, Mimi — and so we the readers — are introduced to the other mothers and their children, whom she encounters along the path, and the social system that provides aid.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2015-2016, 6.7 million students between the ages of three and 21 received special education services. Among the 13 percent of all public school students receiving special education services, 34 percent had specific learning disabilities. When we consider these statistics, Rosaler’s novel is all the more important as a window into the personal journey—one that is lonely and filled with exasperation — for both mother and child. The unending demands that Mimi endures and her fierce love for her son are described poignantly and with humor. Rosaler, who has published fiction and nonfiction in literary magazines such as The Southern Review, Glimmer Train, Witness and Fifth Wednesday, gives us insight in this interview, into a world where a better life for one’s children is an ongoing battle.
Susan Shapiro Barash: You begin your novel by detailing life with Jake, Mimi’s husband, and Danny, their three-year-old son. How did you balance the flawed marriage of Jake and Mimi with Danny’s story?
Maxine Rosaler: Trouble of every sort falls on the good, the bad, the mean, the nice, the stupid, the smart, the vain, the humble, and couples with great marriages and couples who out-and-out despise each other, and couples like Jake and Mimi, who love each other in spite of the fact that they also sometimes hate each other. When trouble comes, the only way to deal with it is as the person you happen to be, and that’s how it goes with Mimi and Jake. Beyond that, while Mimi and Jake are often at odds with each other, they are both doing everything they can for their son, and the decision as to what role each of them will play in their efforts to save Danny seems to fall into place naturally for them.
SSB: The reader identifies with Mimi’s struggles with Danny from the very beginning, and travels with her as she “wakes up” to Danny’s needs and issues. Tell us about the confessional aspect of storytelling and why you chose to write the book this way.
MR: I often use myself as a character in my stories—I did this long before I wrote any of the stories that make up Queen for a Day. Certainly, my novel is very much based on my life and the character of Mimi is very much like me, and Danny is very much like my son Benjy. Jake, to a much lesser degree, is like my husband Phil. When writing about oneself, a writer gets to pick and choose what she does and doesn’t want to reveal. Having this kind of control can make what appears to be “confessional” writing really not confessional at all.
That said, I like writing about how I experience myself and how other people perceive me, or how I think it would interesting and funny to portray how I see myself and how other people see me. Since everything I write is governed by the discipline of self-restraint necessary to any art form, I don’t really think of myself as a confessional writer. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to tell the truth about what I feel and what I experience. Telling the truth is central to everything I write.
As far as how true to my own life the stories in Queen for a Day are, my son’s autism led me down many difficult roads and when I felt I had achieved the kind of distance necessary to transform those experiences into fiction, the first person narrative served me well in some cases. But sometimes, in order to achieve the kind of distance necessary to write about those real-life experiences effectively and turn them into fiction, I wrote about myself in the third person, and sometimes from the perspective of other people, some of whom regarded Mimi as an irritant, and something of a fool. I would say, overall, I have created a pretty accurate reflection of what I thought would be interesting and relevant to reveal about my experience.
SSB: The novel is devised through chapters where Mimi is present, and new mothers and their children float in. This technique is reminiscent of Olive Kitteridge. What made you choose this structure?
MR: I have always loved writing short stories, so the short story form was the form I chose to use to write this book, one of the goals of which turned out to be to portray what the lives of the mothers of autistic children are really like. I had originally approached this subject as a memoir. I kept on plodding away, writing the memoir, which I originally called “A Real Boy,” and not having any fun with it—which told me something, which I chose to ignore–because I always have fun when I know I am writing well. After I finished the memoir—I had divided it into three separate books—I felt depleted and disgusted with myself and with most of what I had written. Nevertheless, I still wanted to write about this experience–I had to write about it! For one thing, I felt I had something important to say, for another, I needed to do something to redeem what had been such a nightmare for me.
I decided that fiction would be the best way to approach this material since it would allow me to get to the truth of what I wanted to say a lot more effectively–and a lot less painfully–since it would give me more freedom to distance myself from the material. I also realized that I didn’t want to limit myself to writing just about myself and my son. So I mapped out a series of interrelated stories in which Mimi, her husband Jake and her son Danny would make appearances throughout, and a few other characters would make occasional appearances, to create a cohesive narrative—a “novel in stories,” as this form is known. One of my goals was to cover as many aspects of my experience, and the experiences of other mothers I had known, as I could.
SSB: The other mothers, like Mimi, are searching for ways to help their children. Their experiences are equally complicated and heart wrenching. Did you do research to create such characters?
MR: The major characters in Queen for a Day were all originally based on women I knew or women I interviewed. Then I went on to invent backgrounds and situations for them (I invented all the minor characters, as the stories developed). Some of the situations were also based on my own experiences; some were not. But eventually all the stories turned into my own creations, although, again, people I knew, and experiences I had served as the original source of inspiration for all the stories. I have almost always used real life as a source of inspiration for my stories. Sometimes it is just a gesture, or a person I see on the subway, or someone sitting on the sidewalk weeping, or a woman with a huge birthmark on her face, walking down the street.
SSB: One feels very sympathetic to Danny, Mimi’s son, throughout the book. His remarks and yearnings are unforgettable. Do you imagine some readers will become frustrated for him?
MR: Since this is an alternative universe that is too painful for me to contemplate, it is one thing I always try to avoid thinking about my son, on whom Danny is based. I’m afraid even to put that thought into words. Danny himself is not frustrated, I think, though it is hard to know because he does not express his emotions. He lives in a world that is very different from the one inhabited by most people, and his expectations for himself are not the same as what other people, like his parents, expect of him, which in certain respects is probably just as well.
SSB: The ability for the reader to laugh while reading Queen for a Day is very effective. We also sense the despair of the mothers. What was your mood while you wrote the book?
MR: My mood varied, as it always does in my life and when I am writing. Sometimes I wept as I wrote, because, after all, my real son and my real-life worries about him are at the heart of all these stories. My book is also about the cruelty of the world—or as an old boyfriend of mine once put it in a poem he wrote about me–“the world’s pointed anger” (the complete phrase was “safe from the world’s pointed anger”–and Mimi is never safe from that). But as always happens when I write, I found myself moving into the comforting territory of irony, and humor, with occasional trips to the land of the absurd, which is my favorite place to be. Without humor, without a sense of the absurd or the ridiculousness of everything I don’t know how I could survive.
The only way I could see my way clear to writing about themes as serious as those addressed in Queen for a Day — motherhood, loneliness, despair, denial, disability, love, hate, grief — without spiraling into a state of despair myself, and without imagining any reader wanting to throw my book out the window, was to employ a lot of irony. There was a balance I had to achieve and that is something that seemed to come naturally to me. At least I hope it did. I hope it works.
Without humor, the stories I have to tell would be just too sad and would fail to entertain the reader. Because I think the goal of all works of art, in one way or another, is to entertain. We all need a little relief—comic and otherwise.
SSB: In writing this novel, was your intention to start a conversation around the experience of raising children with special needs?
MR: It wasn’t until I got the call from Joe Olshan, telling me that he was going to publish my novel that I realized how important it was to me to let people know what raising a handicapped child really entails – to demythologize it, as it were. For some reason, I have never thought of myself as a “mother of a child with special needs.” I still don’t, except for one brief moment, during a conversation I recently had with the mother friend of mine. I had a flash of what that felt like — and I couldn’t bear it! I can’t even quite digest the fact that I am actually a mother. It’s something I joke about with my daughter sometimes. She tells me she can’t believe I’m a mother either!
Right after I knew that this book was going to be read by other people, I was suddenly struck with the feeling that I had a mission. My reaction came as a surprise to me. I had been writing fiction for thirty-five years and I had literary ambitions, for sure, yet my only thought when I got the call from Joe was that maybe my book could do something for the mothers. My first instinct was to dedicate the book to them—but of course I had to dedicate it to my son. It made me happy to think that in telling my story, and the stories of my characters, I had told some aspect of their stories as well. And I think there is comfort in that. Misery loves company – that’s it in a nutshell!
SSB: One of your characters, Teresa, shows us the system can be unfriendly and unsupportive of the very children who need help. Can you tell us about the evolution of Teresa?
MR: The system can be cruel, vindictive and indifferent. Teresa Thompson was based on an advocate it had been my great misfortune to hire to represent me in my lawsuits against the board of education. “The Story of Annie Sullivan,” where this character appears, was very difficult for me to get right, because to me, the real “Teresa Thompson” was the incarnation of evil, and one-dimensional characters don’t work in fiction — or anywhere else, except maybe in comic books and cartoons. I had to create a whole other side to her. I decided I would make her into a devoted mother of a child with a disability. But I wanted that disability to be something other than autism. I managed to find a woman with a child with Cerebral Palsy who was generous enough to let me interview her so that I could add dimension to this character who was giving me so much trouble. And then, as happens when I write (if I am lucky), my mind took me in different directions and the real Teresa Thompson became the fictional Teresa Thompson and I managed to make her into a more sympathetic character—at least as far as her feelings for her son were concerned. And I suppose the person on whom Teresa is based has her sympathetic side – I hear that Hitler really loved his dog.
SSB: The women in your novel may dream of escape, but it is not within their grasp. How does Mimi, individually, come to grips with this?
MR: Mimi never dreams of escape. She isn’t built that way: she is too driven to ever dream of escape, too obsessed with her mission to save her son to ever veer away from it—even in her imagination.
However, she does support her friend Amy’s dream of escape, in the title story, “Queen for a Day.” She is also sympathetic to her friend Karen’s dream of escape (in “This Time Next Year”). And she is sympathetic to Aviva Brodner’s denial that there is anything wrong with her son, which is a form of escape, in “Two Mothers.” But this is never her dream. This is something she would never allow to enter her mind. Her empathy for her friends Karen and Amy’s dreams to abandon their children is the closest she ever comes to dreaming of escape. Perhaps her hopes for their freedom is a kind of projection on her part. I really can’t say for sure, but I doubt it.
SSB: There was actually a television show Queen for a Day. For the rest of us, can you describe the show and tell us how it relates to your novel?
MR: The idea of bringing that old TV show into my novel evolved from Mimi’s over-the-top feelings of love and sympathy for her friend Amy. Amy was the only mother Mimi knew whose suffering reminded her of her own; really, Mimi knew that her friend suffered a lot more than she did, and this was one of the reasons she depended on Amy so much, even though Amy was often unavailable to her. Mimi had a desperate need to know she wasn’t completely alone in feeling the way she felt. In an odd sort of way, Mimi was obsessed with taking care of Amy. She worried about her constantly. And she was always giving her advice, not realizing until much later how much Amy hated the way Mimi was always delivering quick-fix solutions to her problems.
I got the idea of bringing the TV show up when Amy was telling Mimi how desperately she wanted to get away from the life that was destroying her. As I wrote in the story, that game show of the 1950s was the first thing that popped into Mimi’s head as a solution for her friend to get away: to win a free vacation!
The show had long-suffering women humiliate themselves by competing with each other for the sympathy (pity, really) of a studio audience, each contestant trying to prove that her life was the most pathetic. How revolting! And how ironic — the idea of Mimi and Amy, who remembered the show from their childhoods, realizing that they would have qualified as contestants on that show. The irony of this led me to choose “Queen for a Day” for the title of my novel. Aside from the irony of it, I liked the fact that it reflected the fact that this is a book about other mothers, not just Mimi Slavitt.
I would like to add that the last thing most mothers of handicapped children want, and the last thing that most handicapped people want is pity.
Queen for a Day is now available for purchase.
ABOUT MAXINE ROSALER
Maxine Rosaler started writing fiction over 35 years ago and 35 years later her first book of fiction, Queen for a Day, is now being published. Short stories and nonfiction pieces of hers have appeared in literary quarterlies such as The Southern Review, Glimmer Train, Witness, Fifth Wednesday, Green Mountains Review and The Baltimore Review. In 1992 she was awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts Fiction Fellowship. Her stories have been cited in editions of Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays. She is the mother of Benjamin, now 26, and Samantha, 29, and she is married to Phillip Margulies, who is also a fiction writer. She lives in Washington Heights, NY. Queen for a Day was inspired by her life as Benjy’s mother.