This mother just adores a good murder

Between diaper changes and soccer games, author churns out mysteries

June 22, 2003|By Dana Klosner | Special to the Sun

Author Ayelet Waldman has struck a chord with the stay-at-home-mom set. Her bright, funny mysteries weave the woes and wonders of being an at-home mom with the thrills of crime solving.

In her Mommy-Track mystery series, Juliet Applebaum, like Waldman herself, is a Harvard Law School graduate and a former Los Angeles public defender who left her job to spend all of her time with her kids.

Clad in food-stained sweat shirts and carrying a diaper bag, Juliet solves the murders of such folks as the principal at the most-sought-after preschool in Hollywood and the personal trainer who was going to help her shed those pregnancy pounds. Between nursing and watching Elmo videos, she pieces together clues. Waldman writes about it all with a flair for the trials and thrills of mommy-dom.

Waldman, 38, started writing about six years ago when her daughter Sophie, now 8, was a toddler and she was pregnant with her son Ezekiel, now 5.

“I loved being home,” she said in a phone interview. “But there were times I was just bored out of my skull.

“I lost my compass,” she continued. “I didn’t know what to be. The problem is I’m ambitious to a fault.”

Waldman, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., with her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, was no stranger to the writing world. So, she thought she’d take a crack at it.

She started writing in secret, during her son’s nap time. Not even letting her husband know she was working on her first book. Afraid to write a “real” novel, she started with a mystery.

“I’d read tons and tons of mysteries in my life, including many awful ones,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘I can write a bad mystery, how hard can that be?’ “

Mining her public defender days for plot lines and background about the judicial system, writing became a perfect outlet for her thoughts on motherhood.

“After Zeke was born, I got depressed being home with two kids. I would look in the mirror and couldn’t believe it,” Waldman said. “I never imagined myself a woman home with kids. I wasn’t taking my writing seriously. I didn’t know what to say at a party when someone would ask what I did. I would talk to other women at the playground (about her ambivalent feelings on being a stay-at-home mom) and they would say how much they loved being home. So, writing became a way to express all these feelings without being the unpleasant, boring woman at the bus stop. Now I get tons of e-mails from women who say they feel the same way.”

A prolific writer

These days, she finally can call herself a writer. With three published novels, two more due out later this year, a completed manuscript and a new novel in the works, she feels she has arrived.

“The fact is now I’ve written more books than Michael,” Waldman said with a giggle. “But my work really can’t compare to his.”

Chabon, a Maryland native, won the Pulitzer in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. He recently completed the screenplay for Spiderman 2 and has begun work on a new novel that is as yet untitled. His work includes best-selling novels The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and The Wonderboys.

“Michael … takes my work so much more seriously than I do. He doesn’t have any of that Ayelet self-loathing,” she said with a laugh.

Although they live in California with their four children — Sophie, Ezekiel, Ida-Rose, 2, and Abraham, 2 months –they have close ties to Maryland. Chabon grew up in Columbia and graduated from Howard High School in 1980.

“Michael talks about Columbia all the time,” Waldman said.

Waldman’s confidence as a writer is growing. She has stretched her wings in her first nonmystery novel, Daughter’s Keeper, due out in September from Sourcebooks Landmark.

“It’s literary fiction,” Waldman said. “It’s not light-hearted. Juliet is meant to be read while breast-feeding. I worked really hard to make those entertaining and funny. This is very different.”

Daughter’s Keeper started out as an indictment on the war on drugs but instead focuses on the relationship between a mother and daughter.

“I wrote it because I started expecting more of myself,” Waldman said. “It happened in a strange way. I lost a baby late in pregnancy.”

TV under consideration

The prolific Waldman is currently working on her next novel, titled Bloom Girls, loosely based on her grandmother and her grandmother’s six sisters.

But Juliet Applebaum has not been put to rest. The fourth installment of the Mommy-Track mystery series, Death Gets a Time-Out, is due out next month. The series, published by Berkley Prime Crime, a division of Penguin Group (USA), includes the titles Nursery Crimes, The Big Nap and A Playdate With Death. Waldman says she has already completed a draft of the fifth book, Murder Plays House.

It also may not be long until you can watch Juliet Applebaum solve crimes on television. There is currently a pilot based on Nursery Crimes in development at CBS-TV, according to Sylvie Rabineau, Waldman’s co-agent.

“She’s a powerhouse,” Rabineau said. “Her writing has so much heart and truth to it.”

Maria Brandt, a fan from Berkeley, Calif., says: “Ayelet’s writing is humorous without being cloying. Her characters are real people that are fun to spend some time with. Her plots are clear and convincing. Her mysteries are a lighter read for darker times.”

Why does Waldman continue to be an at-home mom? “Even though it can be tough being a mom, I am at my happiest when there is complete chaos in the house,” she said, “when Zeke is practicing his Kung Fu moves and Sophie is dancing, and the baby is trying to get into something. I love the noise.”

In some ways you can compare writing and motherhood, she said.

“With my kids it’s amazing to watch them do something well and be confident,” she said. “With writing you get the sense of creating something and, for the few moments that you really think it’s good, it’s incredible.”

Waldman’s characters are mothers because she herself is obsessed with being a mother.

“I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t have children,” she said. “I am most grateful to them for leading me to this thing I’m doing that I love so much.”

“Everything I do is about being a mother,” she added. “It’s all I ever think about. Even when I’m writing.”


An excerpt from Death Gets a Time-Out by Ayelet Waldman (Berkley Publishing Group, $22.95) due out in July:

“I blame the children,” I said as I crammed myself into a cocktail dress that I’d last worn long before Isaac had made his appearance. If it weren’t for the fact that every woman I knew was suffering from the same ailment, I would have seriously considered having an MRI. What is it about childbearing that lowers a fog over the brains of normally intelligent women? Here we all are, competent professionals, used to managing companies, handling crises, hiring and firing people, and now we stumble through our days with yesterday’s underwear peeping out the leg of our slacks. Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe all the other moms juggle carpool, lunch boxes, doctors’ appointments, piano lessons, religious school, parent-teacher conferences, karate, diaper changes, soccer and babysitters with the same aplomb they brought to graduate school and appellate arguments. Maybe I’m the only one with drifts of unwashed laundry taking over the living room and toilet paper stuck to her shoe.”

Dana Klosner