I was absolutely blown away by the thrilling mother-turned-spy novel, A Woman of Intelligence. I got to sit down with the author, Karin Tanabe, and hear her takes on motherhood, feminism, her writing process and journey creating this novel. Check out the interview below and read my full book review about A Woman of Intelligence here.
Tell me about yourself and how you knew you wanted to become a writer.
My Dad was an editor in the Washington Post-world before I was born. It was almost like, “how could I not become a writer?”. I took a writing workshop when I was 9 or 10. I was a kid with a lot of feelings and had to get that down. When I was older my Dad sat me down and said, “being a writer is awful, you’re underpaid and overworked. You should go into luxury goods”. But the calling was too strong – I couldn’t let it go. My ambitions were playwright, poet and novelist so I probably picked the most practical of the three.
I saw that you changed the original plot of this book when you were pitching it – what inspired this pivot in the story?
My most successful book was written about a historical reimagining of a true person, The Gilded Years. I thought I wanted to do that again, I really enjoyed that process. I found a story about female coders during World War II and I looked into that and thought, “that’s really cool” so I went to my editor and pitched the idea to all the publishers at St. Martins and in the middle of it I said, “I can’t write this”. I said that all I could write about right now is motherhood rage. I had just had two toddlers back to back and this was all I could write about – I didn’t want to write about the good parts, I wanted to write about the bad parts. And I said, hey, let’s make her an assassin too…because that was my level of rage. My editor talked me down from cold blooded killer to spy. Then we talked about when it was worst for women and in recent times for me I thought about the 1950s. I thought that they tasted a pinch of freedom after World War II and how it was all taken away.
That’s a perfect transition to my next question about your experience – how much did you relate to Katharina’s experience while you were writing her story?
For me Katharina was a vessel for my experience. So much of what she experienced, I experienced. I certainly didn’t feel as a woman set up for what I was about to experience. I remember taking birthing classes that were so hunky-dory and reading these books about “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”. They did nothing to prepare me – I had a horrendous labor, my kid was literally given to the wrong mother in the hospital and she was the baby who wouldn’t smile for two years. I was not prepared for it. I was certainly not prepared for the severe loss of identity as a woman. It’s something I’m still working through day by day.
How did you end up finding yourself after your loss of your identity?
I was like, “we are going to reinvent oneself”. I saw these confident and chic women walking around when I was in Paris and thought, “well, some of these women must have kids”. I really leaned into my work and I upped the child care even though I couldn’t afford it and tried not to feel bad about it. I remember walking with my daughter around Georgetown and we saw this little boy sitting on the sidewalk crying and she asked, “why is he crying?” and I said, “oh something must have happened to make him sad”. Then she said, “Maybe his mom went to New York for work” and I sat with her and went off about the importance of a woman’s work, how someone needs to pay for school for her, I kept going and going. I said this is the woman I want to be and my children will be happier if I am happier. I realized I would never get the woman I was back and that it was okay to mourn that but that I could become someone else and that I might even like her better.
I’m assuming you’re not a spy by any means but do you think some parts of the book are a memoir since this sounds like it was based on your experience and is similar to Katharina?
I think her experience with motherhood and loss of identity is similar. When it comes to motherhood, I have read so much about postpartum depression and so little about identity loss. I added that in because I thought so many people would relate to it. And everything bad that her kids do, my daughter did. My first reader said that what Gerrit did wasn’t believable like peeing in the radiator and spitting in faces and I said, “but my daughter did all of that”. I wanted to lean into the difficulties I had and not sugarcoat it.
Do you think Katharina is a feminist?
I think Katharina is a feminist as much as the fifties would allow her to be a feminist, especially in her upper-class circumstances. In another era, Katharina would have not gotten married or had kids but I think she felt the constraints of the fifties. When she found the opportunity of a great guy who’s very well off who promises that she can keep her career she felt like she had to say yes. Then the rug gets pulled out from under her and she realizes that he’s not as much of an ally as she thought and she needs to find a lifeline before she drowns. I wanted it to be about a woman who saves herself and is a mistress of her own identity. I think that’s so important, I wanted her to navigate the water, which was very choppy, by herself.
Do you want there to be a sequel?
I would love for there to be a sequel. I’ve never written a more personal book. I left all of it there and I could very easily imagine a sequel.
I know that this book is different because it’s so personal to you but what is your writing process typically like or what was it like for this book?
I wrote a bunch of it and edited all of it during the pandemic with my two toddlers at home. I was pretty much the sole caretaker during this time because my husband was working a 9-5 job so while he was on Zoom all day, I took care of the kids. I woke up at 4 o’clock in the morning for six months straight to take care of the kids and write this book. I think a lot of energy came into this book like, “Why am I the one who has to wake up at 4 in the morning when my husband gets to work in the daylight hours? Why is it that the kids are always calling for me?” so that certainly went into it. This book was definitely the one that got the most derailed by my emotions. I thought it was going to be a spy book with a hint of motherhood and it really moved into 50/50 territory because I had so much to say. In some ways it was like most of my books where I always write dialogue first – I’m better at it, I love it. The first word of this book was “Mother” and I knew I wanted that to stay and luckily my editor felt the same way.
What book are you reading right now?
I’ve had Klara and the Sun on the top of my list by Kazuo Ishiguro. That’s what I want to read the most right now. The book I’ve read in recent memory while I was writing was My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. I can’t believe I had never read it, I absolutely loved it. I want to catch up on the rest of her books too.
What advice would you give to upcoming writers?
You really have to find the love to write because it’s a slog. I was days away from finishing my first draft, it was my seventh and it was still horrible. It’s just so hard to create 100,000 words from a blank page. The rest of that after it for me is fun; you get to start working with an editor, manipulating words that already exist. But that first draft is so hard and so solitary. You have to be able to do that. One of the publishers at the first press where I started was, “the hardest part about writing a book is writing a book” and it’s just true. You have to prepare yourself for that and be disciplined. You have to be able to write badly – that’s the best advice I could give anyone. Don’t worry if it’s, “the snail is slippery” because you can change it later on. You just need something to go from. Write ugly, write often and don’t read the critics too much once you get published.
My last question is, do you think you’re a feminist?
I absolutely think I’m a feminist. I was actually president of my chapter of NOW (National Organization for Women) in high school. It was something I felt very early on but I think as a kid I started to see how differently society treated boys and girls and I thought it was absolutely absurd because I thought I was a very smart girl. I knew I was a smart, complicated person and the world wanted to tell me otherwise. I felt the need very early to try and change that. I grew up in DC and I went to protests very early. When I became a writer, that was something I certainly continued to do. When I went to an anti-Trump rally, I had my baby strapped to my chest which was a hot topic. I’m trying to raise my daughter as a feminist too, hence my speech to her in the park that I mentioned earlier. I try to write about women that are complicated, angry and honest and I wish I saw more of that growing up. I hope that we’re doing better for young women today than they did for us.
Is there anything else you’d like to leave with our readers about A Woman of Intelligence or what you’re writing next?
For A Woman of Intelligence, I hope that, people with kids or without kids, see that it’s a story of female reinvention. That’s what it is for me at the end of the day. I wrote an author note on Goodreads and it talks about an article from years ago in the Huffington post called “The Mother Stays in the Picture” and it’s about how when a mother has kids, they stop taking pictures of themselves and how it’s all about those kids. At any phase of your life, don’t ever let your energy, light, intelligence, originality get dimmed. I could see myself when I had kids, and it could be any circumstance, if you start losing yourself there is a new you waiting to be discovered.