On Women's Time: A Conversation with Heidi Reimer

Heidi Reimer’s writing is centered on the lives of women “bent on breaking free of what they’re given to create what they yearn for.”

Heidi Reimer’s writing is centred on the lives of women “bent on breaking free of what they’re given to create what they yearn for.”

Drawn to this positioning of desire and agency as essential to life-making, I jumped at the chance to interview Heidi about her debut novel, The Mother Act. The novel revolves around two women with a unique creative symbiosis: Sadie wrote a hit play about the time she abandoned her baby to save her own creative life; Jude is the daughter she left behind, being raised alongside her father’s Shakespeare troupe and living in her estranged mother’s shadow.

Motherhood is a particularly prevalent theme in my work. It’s omnipresent in the TV shows I’ve been writing for (Workin’ Moms for Netflix, The Way Home for Hallmark), and in my real life, where I stick to bearing witness, with awe and admiration, as my closest friends have kids of their own. Being a queer artist, I’m unsure if I will eventually choose to be a parent, and I wonder just how much choice I actually have. Still, I often think about what kind of nurturer I would be, and what kind of life I would cultivate, if I believed more in my ability to provide stability. Like Heidi, I’ve grappled with the precarity of a writer’s life and how to balance creative drive with the practicality of loving and living with others.

We had a delightful phone conversation about taking big leaps and trusting your gut, which began with a mutual reassurance that this will be fun—“this” being my first interview, exploring her first novel.

Masooma Hussain: This will be written, so we can condense for clarity. I don't know about you, but I love circuitous thinking.

Heidi Reimer: Yes, I’ve been feeling relieved that there's less pressure on an interview that's not recorded and going to be conveyed in that exact form. I was just looking up The Way Home, because it rang a bell, and I have watched a few episodes! My husband actually auditioned for a role in season two, so we checked it out.

Masooma Hussain: Oh my goodness.

Heidi Reimer: What a fascinating show to be writing for. And Workin’ Moms as well!

MH: Yeah! It’s funny that I found myself in a motherhood niche. I got a lot out of reading your novel and thinking about the creative practice of being a daughter writing for a mother in an interesting way. It all feeds into it.

HR: Exactly. There’s a lot of juicy subject matter here.

MH: When did you first hear the call to become a writer? And when did you hear the call to become a mother?

HR: The first one has a cheesy answer: I was eight years old. I knew from the time I was a child, I really did. I loved reading. I loved novels, they were the best thing in the world as far as I was concerned. I wanted to immerse myself in that even more. What could be better than immersing as a reader, but immersing as a writer? Of course, I didn't really have an inkling about how hard that would be. And it wasn’t really hard when I was a kid, when I wrote a lot just for pleasure. It was always what I wanted to do, and always what I was pursuing, but it ended up being not a straightforward line to get there.

The call to be a mother is an interesting one, too, because it's something I gave a lot of thought to over the years. When I was a kid, I wanted to have a bunch of kids. I was raised in a fringy conservative Christian environment where a woman's calling was to be a mother. So of course I was going to be a mother, but I was going to focus on my life. As a teenager, I would say, “I want to be a writer, and a wife and mother when I grow up.” Those were my two focuses.

Then I started questioning the mother part, as I began to understand exactly what was involved and how difficult it could be to reconcile with a creative path. For most of my 20s I thought maybe not, maybe mothering is not something I'm going to do. My path to becoming a mother was a little bit unusual. I thought hard about it and I ended up adopting and then being pregnant at the same time.

MH: It’s beautiful that you got to choose motherhood twice, in that way!

HR: Adoption is a choice that you have to put a lot of intention into. I went from being pretty ambivalent, and even certain that I didn't want to be a mother (although never as certain as Sadie) to embracing it in a really intentional way, not really knowing what I was getting into.

MH: You’ve likened mothers to mythological figures of sacrifice, like society puts them on a pedestal while simultaneously undervaluing them. We see more depictions of this tension now—you mentioned Workin’ Moms earlier for example—but when you started writing this novel, were there existing models for “messy motherhood” that captured the rage and the beauty and everything wrapped up into it? Or did you have to create that for yourself?

HR: I was looking for models; they’re so important. One of the reasons that I struggled a lot with how to even see myself as—or in the role of—a mother, was that I didn't have models of the kind of mother that I could see myself being. Or a person that was still me, but was also a mother.

Rachel Cusk’s memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother, I had that book.

There was a magazine called Brain, Child that really appealed to me because what I found so offensive and was unable to put myself into was this idea of motherhood becoming all-encompassing. Everything that you were, every thought you had, everything you did, was focused around these other beings. The title gestures to this idea of: I have a child and I still have a brain that is interested in things apart from sustaining the life of this other human being, who is also very important to me, but maybe not necessarily my entire fulfilment. That's what I found hard, I couldn't see myself being fulfilled solely through that.

I have a child and I still have a brain that is interested in things apart from sustaining the life of this other human being, who is also very important to me, but maybe not necessarily my entire fulfilment.

The idea for the book came to me in 2010. I really think that back then, there was not the same degree of honesty about things, especially the reality of women's lived experience. Even things like menopause are being talked about in ways that, ten or 15 years ago, they were not. These aspects of women's lives, including motherhood, that we’ve historically had a veneer over. “Let’s put that quietly in the corner and everything’s fine. We don't need to look, we need to keep up appearances!”

Some of the things that Sadie says and writes in this book are things that I put into my private notebooks that I wasn’t finding being said. Maybe I just wasn't looking in the right places, but I did feel very alone.

MH: It seems like quite a communally isolating experience. In the novel, Sadie and Jude have a limited understanding of the sacrifices required of motherhood until they cross the threshold and assume the role themselves. How do you think embodiment factors into one’s ability to generate empathy, whether that’s through lived experience or theatrical performance?

HR: Yes, in the book Sadie plays her own mother, Jude plays Sadie, and Sadie finally, in the end, plays Jude, and it does become a pathway to greater understanding. It doesn’t necessarily have to work this way, but theatre can really expand our empathy, as can reading and writing. To write from the perspective of a character, especially if you are in their head or voice or point of view (or similarly portraying them on stage or screen) I don't know that you can do it with judgment of the person or thinking of them as a villain. Does any human being think they're the villain in their own story? Even the baddest of bad guys have justifications for what they do, or what has brought them to where they are.

One of the reasons I love multiple points of view in fiction is that there's not just one definitive word on what's happening—this is this person's story, and their take on it, the end. Instead let's flip it over to the other perspectives—now what does it look like?

Jude says one of the reasons that Damian doesn't come down hard taking sides between her and Sadie is that he's an actor and he has empathy for both of them. He can put himself in each of their shoes and understand that well, if I were that person, with their life experience and feelings and temperament, maybe I would behave the same way too. As an actor or writer, you have to be able to work backwards to get to that place where you can understand the motivations.

MH: Your husband is an actor, like Damian, and this novel is set in the world of theatre. How has your proximity to his work influenced your own art?

HR: The first time I ever saw him, he was onstage as Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Our life together was wrapped up in his work as an actor from the very beginning. When I had the idea for this story, I was struggling to continue being a creative person doing the work I wanted while juggling the intense demands of early motherhood. I wanted a way to grapple with my questions on the page, but I didn’t think it’d be as interesting to write about a writer. I know people write about writers, but the theatre piece came to me pretty immediately. In part because I was fascinated by that world, but also because I had seen, up close, my husband's creative process and the psychological and practical aspects of the life.

I had this front row seat that gave me access in a way that I wouldn't have had otherwise, to hanging around theatres and other actors, after shows and after rehearsals, griping about the director, worrying about how it’s going. It’s a very captivating world that I’ve been around a lot, and I thought that exploring that on the page using this conceit of the opening night of a show felt vivid to me in a way that could be really exciting to write.

MH: Using the opening night as an anchor, the story then unfolds over six acts that jump around in time, each one like a portal into a pivotal moment in Sadie and Jude’s lives. What drew you to structure the narrative in this nonlinear way?

HR: That was a big puzzle to figure out, but it did come to me this way right from the beginning. I didn’t have all the acts right. I had this conceit of arriving at the theatre, then we would check in on that night at the show, and we know what everything is driving towards after the show. Through the course of each of these acts, we see more and more of their life together and their relationship and what’s brought them to this night. What tripped me up in the writing of it is that I had some of the wrong points in their life.

It took me a while to realize Sadie’s acts are about her meeting Damian, and her choosing to become a mother, and her choosing to leave Damian and their daughter. I had Sadie as a teenager, and we do find out about that time, but I had the lens pointed to the wrong thing at first. Once I felt reasonably certain I was telling the right points of the story, there was a kind of beautiful synergy between them. One would lead into the other, sometimes in ways that I hadn’t planted on purpose.

We get Sadie in Jude’s section, way in the future, offering Jude a role in this film she’s written and it’s called “Strawberry Girl.” That’s the last line. Then we turn the page and it’s years and years earlier, and this section is called “Strawberry Girl,” and we see the first time Sadie was trying to make this film.

I didn’t really sit down and say this will unfold in this fashion, it was one of those beautiful synchronicities that I think can happen when you are endeavouring to trust the creative process a little bit and follow some intuitive nudges. Sometimes that gets you into a hole, but sometimes things come together really beautifully in a way that you might not have been able to logic out. I was happy with how it landed, finally, once I got it.

MH: Love leaving room for discovery. To me, this ties back to what you were saying earlier about writing and empathy, like it’s about finding grace in that gap of understanding.

HR: Grace in the gap.

MH: Yeah, having the curiosity to let something reveal itself to you, to wanna know. In writing, I feel like you really just have to let it take you places and tell you what it's trying to tell you, and let it unfold in that way.

HR: I think that there is a really big element of that for me, and a big element of trust. Trusting that the story knows more than you do and it's going to reveal itself to you, if you are patient enough and listening and showing up for it. But that said, I do like to have a little bit of a framework and not be all blank page and intuition.

In writing, I feel like you really just have to let it take you places and tell you what it's trying to tell you, and let it unfold in that way.

MH: I bet. There needs to be a healthy balance there.

I’m glad you brought up "Strawberry Girl," because I’ve been thinking about the novel’s timeline in relation to this theory coined by Julia Kristeva as “Women’s Time.” She suggests there are three ways we (broadly, inclusively-speaking) experience time. Cyclical time, which is felt in nature’s rhythms and menstruating bodies. Linear time, which is industrialized for profit and tends to alienate those who don’t sync up. Then there’s monumental time, which operates outside of linear time, it’s more of a space where a shared mindset can be accessed and understood through symbolism in art and culture, like the feminist tradition that Sadie sees herself as a part of.

“Strawberry Girl” is a great example of the way art weaves in and out of these periods of time and brings things around full circle. It ultimately got made in the way that it was supposed to, despite the sacrifices that Sadie made along the way.

HR: Yes. Oh, I love your reading of that. And those sacrifices, to her, felt like she made a huge mistake. She wrecked it. She wrecked it.

I love what you're saying about cyclical time and I have certainly experienced it and things like labour and delivery. The babies come on a timeline that isn’t always—well, we do try to manage it. We manage it, but there’s all of those pieces that women can really talk to. And you’re right, time weaves in and out in this book.

MH: That creative time as well, being sacred to artists and something that's often not available to parents who are preoccupied with the needs of somebody outside of themselves. I recently read Motherhood by Sheila Heti, and she writes about needing an infinity of time to work. How she framed it was, “Meaning I need to access infinity in time. Infinity is not a duration of time, it’s a quality of time. And I can reach it in moments like this one.”

Do you have advice for carving out time and space when you are living a creative life that runs concurrently to an everything-else life? How do you find those moments of infinity for yourself?

HR: For me, it began with taking it seriously myself and insisting on creating that time. Not finding it necessarily, but making it and taking it. The other word for that could be selfishness. Because it really is true, especially if you’re used to living by other people’s timelines and schedules, which is most of us, there’s usually very little in your life that wants you to do this. It’s an inconvenience for everyone, and maybe sometimes it feels easier for you, too, if you just didn’t and instead tend to the things that need to be tended to.

When you’re writing novels and maybe writing for years and years before you have anything to show for it, or anything in the outside world that cares about it, or is asking for it, or is expecting anything of you, you have to be the person who is planting that flag in the sand and saying this is important. Prioritize it, even though there are no external reasons or measures. It’s really hard to do, and I think it is especially hard for people who are socialized as female, and for mothers too, because it's selfish! And because it can feel like it is not serving the collective good.

You have to be the person who is planting that flag in the sand and saying this is important.

It’s like, “Okay, I’m going to disappear, even if it’s into the little closet, and be unavailable for 15 or 20 minutes, or two hours, and I’m just gonna plumb the depths of my subconscious and play with fictitious people.” But I think you have to give that act importance, and then help teach the people around you that it has importance. If you're waiting to get it from somebody else, you might have a really supportive partner or friend, but it still has to be you at the page making it happen, showing up physically and mentally.

My youngest daughter talks about this memory of when she would have been four or five. She says, “In the morning, we’d come downstairs, and Mommy would be on the porch and she would be writing.” She always knew to come out to the porch and Mommy would be there, writing. She wouldn't bug me, but she knew that's where she would find me, and for her it was like a sense of comfort and consistency in the fact that her mother was doing her writing. That means a lot to me because my mother always locked herself away from us and she was unavailable, but for my daughter this was a positive. I thought that was lovely.

MH: I think that’s lovely, too. It’s positive and generative and a constant for her, not a selfish activity.

HR: Yeah.

MH: When you say to give something the importance yourself and then teach others around you, I think that’s such an important lesson, not just for creative work, but for creating a life in general.

I think of Jude and her self-consciousness, which I identified with. I was an extremely sensitive kid and overthought a lot and felt things very deeply. Personally speaking, and maybe for Jude, I can’t point to when I began to think that I was the problem, but it always kind of felt that way. In seeing Jude own her agency and be able to heal things with her mother, there’s this really important thread from looking for external validation that what you’re doing is right, or how you’re doing it is right, to ultimately realizing you have to be able to give that to yourself.

HR: I think it's an important part of the journey of self-actualization, especially for some. I was that kid too. I was quiet. I hated being called shy, it felt like a judgment and a criticism. “Oh, she’s shy.” I always felt desperate to be able to convey on the outside that I had interesting things going on inside, I just couldn't really get them out! My personality, especially when I was younger, is more like Jude’s, so I just pushed her further. With Sadie, I had to be more intentional, like, “Okay, wait a minute, she wouldn’t think this.” She would just say it without thinking! Whereas it was more natural to hear Jude’s internal self-consciousness.

MH: Sadie is, to some extent, always “on,” performing to mask authenticity in her day-to-day life, whereas being onstage/screen allows Jude to tap into something authentic in herself. Could you speak more to the role of performance in their lives and their art, and how it helps facilitate their identity?

HR: Jude adopts this idea of a character playing a character as a way to survive her life, even just day-to-day interactions, because she is very self-conscious and anxious. Having what feels like a character to play lets her hide in a way that is more safe.

My husband has said multiple times that many people have the impression that actors are outgoing, life-of-the-party, centre-of-attention kind of people. But a lot of them are quite reticent, and what you want is a character to inhabit, somebody else’s words to say so you don’t say the wrong ones. That actor type is part of what I was playing with as I got to know Jude better. But I think when she’s onstage, she then feels liberated. She can do things and say things that she might feel self-conscious about if she was doing so as herself, and that’s freeing.

I do think by the end of the book, she is coming more and more into comfort in her own skin and maybe being more integrated as a person. She’s still young, so she's still got a ways to go of course, but I think that's a little bit of her trajectory—seeing her, by the end, just owning herself a bit. Being more comfortable with visibility. Being seen for who she actually is, not for the character she's inhabiting.

MH: Right.

HR: There’s a line towards the end where Jude recognizes that maybe Sadie is super chatty, like always filling every half second of silence, because she's actually nervous herself. That which Jude has always seen as self-confidence, she wonders, “Maybe that's actually the way her insecurity is present. She doesn't actually have it all figured out and have it all together.” Which, I think as a person who is more reticent, you can really admire the ones who can just get up in front of a bunch of people and give a speech without even thinking about it, like it's a superpower that you could never have. For Jude, who has always felt deficient, to see that this is just a different manifestation of similar insecurities, I think that helps her to feel closer to her mother and understand her in a way.

MH: Absolutely. I feel like there’s a Jude and Sadie in me, both. Like those are the extremes of social anxiety and how to handle it. Is there a balance?

HR: Yeah. [laughing]

MH: It’s sweet that this dysfunctional trio is a little family of artists, and they all have their form they feel most comfortable within. For Damian, he comes from a long line of traditional Shakespearean dramatists. Sadie is much more into making her own reality and institutions, or lack thereof, in a guerilla feminist style. And Jude finds her comfort on camera as opposed to the harsh spotlight of performing live on stage. How do their artistic forms tap into the different ideals that each of these characters are struggling to voice in the novel?

HR: Each section is based around a production of some type, starting out with Shakespeare, fairly traditional canonical works. Then we gradually progress towards these works that are of the women's own creation. You have “Strawberry Girl,” which is Sadie’s story, and “Elan Vital,” the section toward the end, isn’t a production or a film but it's a magazine article which is Jude’s way of telling her story. The last one is about writing “The Mother Act” (it’s all very meta!), which is the one-woman show based on Sadie’s experience of early motherhood.

I didn't set out intentionally to start with Shakespeare and then leave Shakespeare behind and head into centring women’s stories and women's voices, but when I recognized that’s what was happening, I was like, “Oh, that's good. I like that.” The forms that are being explored become less traditional as the novel goes on, we could say as each of these two women finds more of their own agency and voice, and insists on their right to their own experience, their own story and their own choices.

MH: Gorgeous. I saw you mention online that you sometimes incorporate tarot into your exercises as a writing coach. Can you say more about that, or other ways you bring joy and discovery into the creative writing process?

HR: Discovery is a different way of looking at it, especially if for some people I feel like it’s “out there,” it can introduce them to tarot as a tool. If you’re stuck and asking yourself what happens, it’s like what does the card say about your novel? It’s often really fun, and uncannily accurate and gives you new things to think about, just another way of looking at it. The cards tell a story, they’re character archetypes, so they make for good material.

MH: It can be good to consult an external manifestation of, like, internal intuition.

HR: It can be helpful if you’re really stuck in your own head and in your own way, to figure something out.You’re like, “Okay I’m gonna ask this deck of cards … What should happen in my book?”

MH: A good a guide as any.

HR: It can help you get out of trouble.

About the authors

Masooma Hussain is an artist living in Tkaronto. They write for television (Workin’ Moms, The Way Home) and write essays in print and online (68to05, GUTS magazine, With/out Pretend). Masooma makes music as Gemini Holograms and occasionally writes about music and more at geminiholograms.substack.com.

Heidi Reimer is a novelist and writing coach. Her writing interrogates the lives of women, usually those bent on breaking free of what they’re given to create what they yearn for. Her front-row seat to the theatre world of her debut novel, The Mother Act, began two decades ago when she met and married an actor, and her immersion in motherhood began when she adopted a toddler and discovered she was pregnant on the same day. She has been published in Chatelaine, The New Quarterly, Literary Mama, and the anthologies The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood and Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers. Heidi is from Northern Ontario.