Author Q&A: Jennifer Magnuson
Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson is the author of Peanut Butter and Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East.
What was your inspiration for writing Peanut Butter and Naan?
I didn’t originally set out to write a book. My initial motivation was for my friends and family to know what I was going through in India and share in some of my experiences. I kept a journal and sent out little stories to my friends. This helped me process being an expat for the first time, especially during particularly chaotic or lonely periods. Many people initially assumed we were living a version of Eat, Pray, Love and my experience couldn’t have been more different. Elizabeth Gilbert was alone, unmarried and without kids. I had plucked my five children from the suburbs of Nashville and was trying not to lose my mind while hiding anti-malaria medicine in their oatmeal. I had written about my houseboy accidentally seeing me naked (which apparently ruined him emotionally) and an agent read it and believed it could become a book. Which, eventually, it did.
What was the hardest part of the book to write?
The most difficult part to write was the scene where Revathy’s injury was revealed to us. I had already mapped out that chapter, but before I wrote it I looked through the pictures and video we had of her, and it was a bittersweet process.
What was the greatest challenge in bringing the book to market?
The greatest challenge was finding the marketing niche for the book. Was it a travel memoir? Humor? Parenting? Christian or spiritual? We quickly figured out it wasn’t going to be a good fit for a Christian imprint, because several acquisition teams said they loved the story, but would have had to remove most of the “saltier” parts in order to serve their Christian customer base. Ironically, I have had fantastic feedback from people who identify as Christians, as well as those who are solidly on the left and closer to the agnostic end of the spectrum.
What do you hope the reader will take away from Peanut Butter and Naan?
I hope the reader comes away the message that experiences are the greatest gifts we can give our children. I have taken a lot of flak for moving my kids around the world and the United States. I like to think that much of their adaptability and social tolerance stems from being exposed to so many different ways of living a life, as well as those moments where they have gotten outside of themselves and helped people with zero agenda aside from making a positive impact.
What book(s) had the greatest influence on you?
Stephen King’s The Stand is my favorite book of all time. I love that man’s twisted mind, and it was such an epic, richly developed story that deeply imprinted itself onto my teenage psyche.
How do you balance writing and motherhood?
I have five kids, so if I could give a fabulously wise and useful answer as to how I balance writing and motherhood that would be my next book. I fail often in my quest for balance, and I think that’s okay. I have written while breastfeeding, while watching Little League games (and subsequently missed out on seeing some great plays), while hiding in my room wearing earbuds to drown out the bickering, and while buzzed on coffee, after the last kid is tucked in to bed. In my fantasy life, I write at a Paris café, mildly buzzed on wine – and my children send polite texts indicating that they are doing well on their own, only noting that their grades are perfect and they have repainted the house.
What is your advice to mother writers?
My advice to mother writers (and I will say I wish we referred to our male counterparts as father writers, but such is life) is to use what you have and not be so hard on yourself. Beauty is often in the imperfections. If you only have five spare minutes, use it. One of my best sentences came from using the voice memo app on my iPhone. I was waiting in carpool line when it came to me, so I talked into my phone until the kids emerged.