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Motherhood and the Birth of a Book: A Q&A with Courtney Zoffness

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In her spirited, lyrical debut essay collection, Spilt Milk, Courtney Zoffness (a 2013 Emerging Writer Fellow at The Center for Fiction), looks at surrogacy, racial bias, and other urgent contemporary issues through the lens of her motherhood. Why not be a surrogate mother? Is it bad that her small, white son worships the police officers at the precinct next door? Zoffness discusses the book’s origins, her process, and raising compassionate children, with writer, editor, and friend, Julia Lichtblau.

Click here to order Spilt Milk (released March 2, 2021) and be sure to join us on Tuesday, May 11 for a virtual event with Zoffness and author Gina Frangello.

Julia Lichtblau: I remember the day a few years ago—that you sent me an email: “I just realized I have an essay collection.” I feel like that was the “pregnancy” announcement for Spilt Milk. At the time, you had a few finished pieces, others in draft form, and some only an idea. Collections need a concept, but often, the author only “discovers” what he or she is exploring after all or most of the pieces are finished. Can you talk about your thematic discovery process?

Courtney Zoffness: We all have our preoccupations, and one of mine is motherhood. This was true even before I became a mother. Some of my earliest short stories, composed in grad school, explore this theme. Because there are several ideas that interconnect these pieces, I tried on a few lenses to see which ones seemed most apt. It was ultimately clear to me that motherhood was the only one that made sense. In real life, not just on the pages, I began to see everyone as someone’s child, began to contemplate how everyone comes from someone. It’s obvious, but still strikes me as profound.

Can you talk about how you chose the title?

Spilt Milk comes from the idiom “There’s no use crying over spilt milk,” which urges us to look forward, not back. It’s a centuries-old expression, something parents may say to children, but I also see it used widely in the media. After quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt to protest police brutality to people of color, I read an op-ed by an outraged reader saying, “Slavery was centuries ago. Stop crying. Get up, get over it.” Slavery as spilt milk essentially. That flavor of backlash to the BLM protests became ubiquitous this past summer. I’m trying to challenge the notion that we shouldn’t meditate on past upsets. There’s no expiration date on the impact of certain experiences.

Though I’d read many of these essays at various stages, I was surprised at the importance of Judaism when they all came together. Four of the ten essays touch on Judaism. In “Holy Body,” which also examines surrogate motherhood and generosity (and is written in the second person), you say: “Your relationship to Judaism is addled, inconsistent,” which sounds tongue in cheek. Yet I took away from these essays that being Jewish to you is not just a quirk of heritage but a personal responsibility.

I don’t think I meant that sentence tongue in cheek! I was raised with a sense of personal responsibility to protect the faith, but have mixed feelings about organized religion writ large and about a higher power. It feels inconsistent to me to have a religious identity while being solidly agnostic. Still, Judaism is an important feature of my life. After I became a mother, I had to make explicit choices about how I wanted to raise my children and what I wanted to pass on.

“Boy in Blue” about your little son’s classic fascination with the police is funny, poignant, and troubling. You have said that, until quite late in the process of producing the book, you were grappling with the best way to express its connection to this moment, BLM, racial justice. Can you go into that?

A primary theme in “Boy in Blue” is white privilege. The stakes are very high—and should be—for exploring this subject. I tried to be a responsible narrator of how privilege manifests in my life and my children’s lives. I live next door to a NYC precinct station which inspired my then-four-year-old’s fascination with law enforcement, though his interest has sustained—he’s now six. My son’s questions raise so many more questions. Who’s a bad guy? What did they do? Why do so many people in handcuffs have dark skin? Can I have pepper spray? The essay digs deeply into trying to parent an impressionable child who’s developing quickly, and how my experiences inform the choices I’m making as his mom in real time.

You won one of the world’s most prestigious short story prizes for “Peanuts Aren’t Nuts.” Yet your first book is nonfiction. Did the need to speak out during the Trumpocalypse win out over world-building?

I think motherhood won out more than anything! Nearly all of these essays were written after I had my first son. I felt an urgency to capture what I was observing and thinking about and didn’t realize I was writing a book until a friend invited me to give a reading and I spotted thematic commonalities in the work. (That’s when I sent you the pregnancy announcement for Spilt Milk!) I was, and still am, writing fiction, too.

You don’t think you were motivated by the noise, the sense of we must do something now? So many of these essays have to do with justice, compassion, and equity, even the very personal ones.

We talked earlier about personal responsibility, and I feel a personal responsibility to raise compassionate children. You’re right that in this loud, disturbing—I can’t even call it a moment anymore—this loud and alarming life—so many of us are figuring out how to enact change in whatever small ways we can as writers, as teachers. Cultivating fair-minded human beings feels like a supreme charge. I am hyper-attuned to what kind of role we can play as parents. I suppose a truer answer to your question is that I was compelled by both circumstances: motherhood and the political climate.

There’s a natural instinct to tell tales of one’s children. But writing about one’s own mother can be fraught. We love our mothers, and we have deep conflicts with them. We feel protective but need to assert our truth. I’m thinking of “Ultra Sound,” the essay about finally hearing the music your mother made as a young folk-rock singer, a talent she had buried. There’s so much empathy in that piece. Her male guitarist-partner used her. Her response became: “Art is something you do in secret.” It’s heartbreaking. Are there any particular writers or writings about mothers and daughters that influenced you as you tried to articulate her predicament?

This is a beautiful question. We are all imperfect children and parents, and in thorny relationships especially, it’s hard to have clarity. One memoir that comes immediately to mind is Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. Kira’s parents adored young her. They were also addicts. I admire that she treats their deep flaws with so much love and compassion. She can also write the hell out of a sentence.

Other contemporary writers whose work I adore: Mary Gaitskill, Jennifer Egan, and Justin Torres. Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston showed me early on that one can tell a story in beautiful prose.

I know you have a fiction project underway—a collection? A novel? Can you talk about it?

Let’s just say, I’m working on fiction, and I’m not sure yet what shape it’s going to take!

You were an Emerging Writer Fellow in 2013. What did you work on that year? How has that experience influenced you?

When I got that Fellowship, I had a one-and-a-half-year-old, and I was pregnant with my second child. I was waiting in line at Trader Joe’s with my son in a stroller when I got the email that I’d won. It’s so hard to be productive in those years. I thought this is a sign I have to keep at it.

Ultimately the most beneficial part of the fellowship was community. I befriended two women who became writing partners, Jane Rose Porter and Onnesha Roychoudhuri. We formed a writing group and have stayed great friends. I think it’s essential in one’s literary life to have trusted, reliable readers with whom you can trade work on a dime. And the more you get to know someone’s work, the more helpful you can be.

Courtney Zoffness writes fiction and nonfiction. She won the Sunday Times Short Story Award, a Center for Fiction Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Arts & Letters Creative Nonfiction Prize, and residencies from MacDowell. Her writing has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Southern Review, the New York Times, Longreads, and elsewhere. Spilt Milk (McSweeney’s 2021), her debut memoir-in-essays, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, was named a Most Anticipated Book of 2021 by LitHub and The Millions, and was listed as a Best New Book of 2021 by Refinery29. Courtney directs the Creative Writing Program at Drew University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Julia Lichtblau’s essays, criticism, and fiction have appeared in American Fiction, the American Scholar, Commonweal, the Common, Blackbird, Narrative, the Florida Review, Superstition Review, the Drum, and elsewhere. She was book review editor of the Common for seven years, taught writing about business and the economy at Drew University, and was a reporter and editor in New York and Paris for BusinessWeek and Dow Jones for 15 years. She has an MFA in Fiction from Bennington College and is working on a novel set in Washington, DC and Côte d’Ivoire.