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How to love your daughter, according to this author

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The opening paragraph of the new novel "How To Love Your Daughter" is enough to break your heart. Here is the author, Hila Blum, reading those four sentences.

HILA BLUM: (Reading) The first time I saw my granddaughters, I was standing across the street, didn't dare go any closer. The windows in the suburban neighborhoods of Groningen hang large and low. I was embarrassed by how effortlessly I'd gotten what I'd come for, frightened by how easily they could be gobbled up by my gaze. But I too was exposed. The slightest turn of their heads, and they would have seen me.

KELLY: They would have seen me. Well, Hila Blum joins me now from Israel. Welcome.

BLUM: Thank you so much.

KELLY: This question of why this grandmother - this is your narrator, Yoella - why she has never met her granddaughters - it's the central mystery that unfolds in your novel. And I want to start there. Without giving anything away, just introduce us to Yoella and to her daughter.

BLUM: OK. So Yoella is a woman in her late 50s. She's a widow for several years. And she's trying to cope with this forced separation from her daughter. And in fact, just a short while before this scene takes place, she learns the truth about Leah's whereabouts, and so she travels to Holland. And she wants to see it in her own eyes, but she doesn't knock on the door. She goes back home.

KELLY: And Leah is the daughter. How old is she, and what's her story?

BLUM: So, of course, well, her age ranges throughout the story. But at this opening scene, she's about 28 years old, and she has two little daughters. And from this point on, in Holland, in front of her house, the story will move back and forth in time to tell us about the lives of Yoella and Leah and about their small family and how they have arrived at this point and of a relationship that started and was prolonged as a very tender and caring relationship.

KELLY: Well, that's the thing. You show us that they are very, very close when Leah is young, when she's a little girl.

BLUM: Right. So, you know, when I set out to write the novel, my daughter was still pretty young. She was about 7 or 8. And as a relatively new parent, I guess I was overwhelmed by what seemed like really an infinite number of daily decisions that parenting demanded. Some were really tiny. Some were enormous - but always decisions, decisions. And I was struck by the impossibility of predicting the accumulating long-term effect of all that. And I was thinking about how parents, you know, driven by emotions that they recognize to be love and by intentions that they perceive to be good and reasons that they perceive to be right - they can still sometimes arrive at doing a very wrong thing. And I was concerned by the potential of seemingly benign intentions to lead to miserable outcomes.

And, you know, there are aspects about parenting we often overtly address, including, of course, the juggling and how to get it all done. And we often point to lack of time and lack of attention as a challenge in modern parenting. And, you know, we know how to pretty accurately recognize these absences, but there are so many other things. And there is such an abundance of blind spots out there for us. And this is what was going through my head and what was concerning me. And writing was a vessel for my fears and for my concerns.

KELLY: That opening scene, where you have the mother, Yoella, standing at her daughter's window looking in - you can just feel the longing...

BLUM: Right.

KELLY: ...And the pain. And I wondered, did you originally start there? Did that come to you at the beginning of the writing?

BLUM: Not at all.

KELLY: Or did you have to...

BLUM: Not at all.

KELLY: ...Work through it? OK, tell me.

BLUM: I think I could point to two moments in the very long period that I was writing this novel. It was several years in which - you know, the first one or two years, I was just looking for a story that could fit the sentiment about how I might find myself at a certain point in time looking backwards and seeing that something had turned out very wrong and not being able to trace it and, you know, point out to where it started. And there was this moment through the writing that I scrolled up to the top of the document and I typed, "How To Love Your Daughter." And I think that was somewhere - like, my subconscious was working in the background all the time, you know, trying to figure out what exactly I was doing. And then it finally presented me with it. And I think that very shortly after that, I realized that it was going to this sort of separation, which is not complete because they do talk to each other every so often. But then, of course, Leah does not let her mother know the truth about her whereabouts.

KELLY: Yeah.

BLUM: And then I realized where it was going, and I wrote the opening scene, which finally took its place in the opening. Then I had to somehow fill the gap between everything that I already knew about the two and this outcome. And it's weird in a sense because I was making it up, of course. I could write anything I wanted.

KELLY: Right.

BLUM: But it still felt like I was searching, you know, something that would fit into some psychological and emotional truth that would seem coherent to me. And then I would write a paragraph or a scene and say, no, no, no, that's not what happened. It has to something else.

KELLY: That doesn't feel true, right?

BLUM: Yeah, it doesn't feel true. And then it was like I had to discover it to decipher it and not to invent it in a way.

KELLY: So I have two sons and sometimes asked about that mother-son relationship, how it differs from a mother-daughter relationship. And I always think, I have no idea. I don't have a daughter. How would I know? But I'll put that to you. How different a book would this be if the title were "How To Love Your Son"?

BLUM: I love this question, and I'll take up on your answer. I would have no idea. I only have one daughter.

KELLY: Yeah.

BLUM: But she does have two brothers from her dad. So I did have some experience, but I would not consider myself an expert on that. But I would tell you that I think that, of course, for a mother and daughter, there's so much resemblance in the central experiences that we go through. And then you can read into those experiences and maybe read into them too much and try to fix up your experience through your daughters. And that makes everything so much more complicated, whereas in a mother and son, of course, there are complications. There always are. But...

KELLY: But you're moving through the world in different ways than...

BLUM: Exactly.

KELLY: ...Having a daughter.

BLUM: Exactly.

KELLY: That makes sense. Is your daughter old enough to read this yet?

BLUM: Oh, yes. And she's read it, of course.

KELLY: Oh.

BLUM: She's almost 19 now. Yeah (laughter).

KELLY: What's that conversation been like with her, if I may ask?

BLUM: The funny thing is that she read it in one sitting, really. She entered in the room with the pages that I gave her, and she sat there for three hours. And the first thing that she said to me once she got out of there was, gosh, Mommy, how did you even come up with this plot? What was going on through your head? And it made me so happy, I mean, this reaction because it was really, literally like a sigh of relief that I felt because I saw how overwhelmed she was by the mere possibility that the book presented.

KELLY: The possibility of being estranged from her mother.

BLUM: Exactly. And, of course, I told her...

KELLY: Yeah.

BLUM: ...Right afterwards that she can completely and utterly forget about trying to take after Leah in any way in her solutions because, unlike Yoella, I would definitely be coming to knock on her doors. So that needs to be erased. And then, of course, we talked about it at length. But I think she was so surprised, you know, that I would even go there in my mind.

KELLY: Then you got to say to her, it's fiction. I'm making it all up.

BLUM: Of course. She knows it's fiction. But then I was always telling her it's fiction that is never going to resemble reality. So we would need to find other ways, you know - if we encounter any problem, this is not how are we going to solve it in the long run. So...

KELLY: And you'll be right there in the room and not staring through the windows.

BLUM: Exactly. I would definitely be the kind of mom that knocks on the door. I'm sorry, but that's the truth.

KELLY: (Laughter) Hila Blum. Her novel is "How To Love Your Daughter." It was first published in Hebrew and now in the U.S. with a translation from Daniella Zamir. Hila Blum, thank you.

BLUM: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENAHAN STREET BAND'S "MIDNIGHT MORNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.