“Can We Still Be Cool?”: Sarah Blakley-Cartwright, in Conversation With Anna Khachiyan
“There’s a sort of cultural corrective against the rosy, idealized, consecrated experience of motherhood,” remarks the author Sarah Blakley-Cartwright, whose own mom, the legendary Ronee Blakley, graced the cover of Interview in 1977. “I almost feel like writing a book about the pleasures of motherhood would be more subversive.” Blakley-Cartwright’s new novel, Alice Sadie Celine, takes a dramatic and unconventional stab at the subject. Set over multiple decades, the novel follows two best friends, free-spirited Alice and pragmatic Sadie, into a situation more emotionally tumultuous than either of them could have foreseen when Sadie’s mother, Celine, finds herself helplessly captivated by Alice. When Celine pursues an affair with her daughter’s best friend, the novel takes its arresting shape as a psychodrama about the tangles of motherhood, womanhood and friendship. “I liked your book because I’m very partial to bourgeois psychodrama where not much happens in terms of plot and everything occurs on the level of psychology,” said the writer and Red Scare podcaster Anna Khachiyan when she got on a call with Blakley-Cartwright earlier this month. The pair, both first-time moms who met at a baby’s birthday party in New York, went deep on many of their shared preoccupations: motherhood, competition, jealousy, and the eroticism of friendship (as posited by Susan Sontag). Along the way, they touched on MILFs and nepo babies, too.—EMILY SANDSTROM
SARAH BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: Where are you, Anna?
ANNA KHACHIYAN: I’m in Chinatown. What about you?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: I am up in the Catskills. There was a big snowfall yesterday. It’s very conducive to writing.
KHACHIYAN: How does it feel being done with the novel?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: It felt really good to finish it, and then you sit for eight months and suddenly it all bubbles up. You have to prepare all these launch events and think about what you’re going to say and revisit the book. That was somewhat painful because no writer really loves to go back in and see all the metaphors that they wish they could change. Actually, one of my moderators at the events teased me because I was editing as I read.
KHACHIYAN: That’s what everybody says. It seems rewarding yet brutal to be a fiction writer because you have to confront your humiliation eventually. In the book, about Alice, one of the protagonists, you wrote that while she’s not particularly vain or ambitious, she has something that a lot of artists don’t possess, which is that she believed that she deserved to be in the room. And I think what separates real artists from the wannabes is not having an original vision or a good work ethic, per se. It’s what people call showing up, which is a nice way of saying, being willing to risk embarrassment or humiliation. I think that’s the main ingredient for any kind of artistic success.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: That’s really true. You kind of volunteer yourself, pour your guts out, let them laugh.
KHACHIYAN: You brought it to my attention that your mother [Ronee Blakley] was on the cover of Interview in the ’70s, and now it’s come full circle. How does that make you feel?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: There’s something quite beautiful about it. Of course, I’m proud. I have a 13-month-old baby girl and maybe she’ll be in Interview one day. Actually, my mom was on the cover, so that’s a bit of a step-up from me.
KHACHIYAN: Your daughter, does she count as a COVID baby?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: I haven’t actually felt the effects of COVID very much. You have a COVID baby. When was Lenny born?
KHACHIYAN: He’s almost three, so he was born in 2021. Didn’t you and I meet in the context of being moms in New York?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: We met at a baby birthday party. There was a clown. We love being moms.
KHACHIYAN: What was it like growing up with a starlet mother?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: There may have been some moments in the ’70s when she was more of a household name, but she was never a star to the degree where it impeded on our lives. The paparazzi was not waiting outside the door and chasing our car. But she is a woman who some people know and who, if you do know her work, often people like it. She was known to be a very difficult person to work with and she kind of operates in the Sinead O’Connor manner of living. I think she said, “I don’t do anything in order to cause trouble, it just so happens that what I do naturally causes trouble.” My mom is fiercely independent. She had a big career and a big voice that she used, which probably cost her a lot in Hollywood. And she just wasn’t willing to compromise in a lot of the ways that women in Hollywood had to. She never had a romantic partner in my lifetime. She lives completely on her own terms. We lived in Mexico, rumbling across the border in her nine-seater van with a bed in the back. She had maternal instincts, but she was also desperate to live without constraints. Sometimes she would shut me out of her room for the day so that she could create. But then, when she got out of bed, her passion for me could be overwhelming. Her life is certainly a blueprint for living outside of anyone’s expectations.
KHACHIYAN: Do you think of yourself as a nepo baby?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: I did grow up in two very creative households. I think I’m a nepo baby insofar as I saw that a creative life was possible. But what is the definition of a nepo baby? Do they have to have benefited from their nepotism? [Because] I probably did to some degree, but not much as I would’ve liked.
KHACHIYAN: Well, it’s a loaded trick question because, what does it even mean?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: Not to get too into the weeds, but when that custody battle happened, I was always asked to narrativize both parents. I was always being called into the judge’s quarters and they’d be like, “Okay, you’re going to tell him about your relationship with each parent and what that was like.” Very early on, I had to editorialize my own life, so there’s the instinct to try to make sense of all of that and also to write about characters. There were all kinds of creative people laying around the living room. One of my mom’s best friends is Count Smokula, which is his fictional alter ego, who’s a 400-year-old Transylvanian vampire type who wears white face makeup. His powder was always all over our bathroom sink.
KHACHIYAN: Growing up in a household like that, you become disenchanted at a very young age. For me, that kind of self-awareness has always been a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it makes you a keen observer of human nature and social dynamics. On the other hand, it gives you a really complicated relationship to your own creativity and ambition, because you come out of the womb already knowing the rules of the game and not wanting to play.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: Maybe art-making is a way of not playing the game. Because to make art or to write fiction, you really have to step outside of a situation. I was always an observer as a kid. It’s a way of staying out of the frame.
KHACHIYAN: It reminds me of a documentary I saw about Alice Neel made by her son, Andrew Neel. Alice Neel was a great chronicler of maternity, but by all accounts, a pretty crappy mother herself. Her sons all came from different fathers and all, with the exception of the one who became the filmmaker, turned out to be these quiet, unassuming, conservative, professional types.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: That’s so funny that you brought up Alice Neel, because I thought about her a lot while I was writing this book. I saw her retrospective at the Met and the show is very full of deeply empathic representations of the people around her. And you’re astonished at her compassion. She’s one of the best painters of ambivalent and labored motherhood. The show is called “People Come First.” But then, you get to the footnote that she foisted her daughter off down in Cuba with the daughter’s father, and that the daughter had tried to reach her many times over the years and finally died of suicide without having spoken to her mother in 30 years. Not that we want to say that one led to the other. Men have done this throughout history, drop the kid off and never come back. But a question I had when I was writing this book, and one I think about in all my writing, is, even in a broad-minded society, are there expectations that we should have of mothers? That they show up, that they don’t do damage, that they do no harm? But of course, every mother does harm.
KHACHIYAN: You definitely see that in the character of Celine, who’s this very kind of male-brained and independent composite of Camille Paglia and Susan Sontag and other great feminist theorists throughout history. And whose greatest fear is being ordinary, which of course comes at the cost of her relationship with her daughter.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: Yes, exactly. There’s one line in there that convention had “the ring of the exotic” for the daughter. When you grow up in such an unconventional way, you kind of long for a dose of normalcy. I think the novel is kind of trying on both for size.
KHACHIYAN: Because my father was a mathematician and my mother was an artist, I feel like the way I rebelled against my mom was becoming kind of a boring normie in my private life. And the way that I honor her is by monetizing her harsh and off-putting critical voice in my public life. Like Celine, my mom’s greatest fear was being ordinary. And in my own way, I’ve always strove to be ordinary because I always felt so alien and dysfunctional growing up. In that way, I can relate to Sadie. I’m curious if there’s a particular character in that book that you relate to.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: Well, the book was a great way to give voice to three different parts of myself. That’s why it has the title it does, Alice Sadie Celine. Very often I’d like to have an itinerary for life, like the daughter. And just as often I want to throw a bomb into any foregone plan, like the mother. So I think they all have these perceptible if dormant facets of my own character. People like to say they’re a certain way but maybe aren’t quite the person they claim to be.
KHACHIYAN: I think that comes across in the book. Sadie is sort of pragmatic and imperious, somewhat repressed, a control freak, but also a secret dreamer. Whereas Alice is a free spirit and effortless and natural. And I think my favorite one was Celine, because she’s all about breaking down barriers and dispensing with labels but is actually quite tyrannical.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: She’s kind of a female chauvinist.
KHACHIYAN: I liked your book because I’m very partial to bourgeois psychodrama where not much happens in terms of plot and everything occurs on the level of psychology. I’m curious if you’ve seen May December, the new film from Todd Haynes?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: No, but I can’t wait to see it.
KHACHIYAN: It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year, maybe in many years. And it has a lot in common with your book. I think the main thing is that we’re not only dealing with different female psychological types, but also with different stages in a woman’s life cycle.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: Yes. I’ve thought about that so much with my baby. You and I, we’re mothers, so we’re playing supporting roles now. It’s quite powerful. We have the future in our hands. I can’t be bothered anymore with prioritizing my every last need. It’s just not terribly interesting to me at this point whether I skydive or walk the Camino de Santiago or whatever people have on bucket lists.
KHACHIYAN: A lot of people seem to be under the impression that becoming a mother interferes with your ability to be an artist. Is there some truth to that?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: For me, not really. I’m not somebody who locks myself into a little cave of writing and bars the door. But I do find that I’ve divided loyalties. Am I going to be on my computer when I could be watching a burgeoning consciousness take shape before my eyes? I did worry that it would kind of sublimate my identity, which hasn’t been the case so far. But what I’m curious about with you is the matter of public perception. Can we still be cool? Are we cooler than ever now that we’re mothers? In a very progressive community, there’s expectations as well. There’s a sort of cultural corrective against the rosy, idealized, consecrated experience of motherhood. I almost feel like writing a book about the pleasures of motherhood would be more subversive.
KHACHIYAN: Well, on that note, what’s your least favorite part about being a mother? I feel like the most interesting aspects of being a mother, both good and bad, are seldom talked about. Because they deal with complicated, socially unacceptable emotions that no one really wants to admit to themselves, let alone advertise to others, unless you frame it in this socially acceptable mental health language. I’m thinking specifically here of postpartum, which seems less of a diagnosis of a chemical or hormonal imbalance than a catch-all for a broader existential crisis.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: Yes, absolutely. There are so many different expectations. I was so afraid anytime anything resembling indifference set in during the pregnancy. My hope as a mother is to find authenticity in all of this. To get around the messaging, the prototypical ideas of motherhood as variously defined, and to undo some of that. You have this level of physical intimacy that you don’t have with anyone else in your life. It’s a very embodied attachment. I co-sleep with Swan, which means that I basically wear her as a scarf all night, and sometimes you have to detach. Even the material conditions of parenting can be difficult, like buckling her into the car seat or collapsing the stroller. I still don’t know how to do that properly.
KHACHIYAN: Me neither. I can think of a few things that are probably not that great or fun about being a mom, like being forced to interact with other parents or being sick all the time. But for me, the big one is the constant low-grade stress, because I’ve never been a stressed or anxious person. It’s a big adjustment. And as a bohemian layabout, I like to do things at my own pace and avoid committing to a schedule, which motherhood makes all but impossible. But on the bright side, I think you’re continually impressed with yourself and how much of a pro you become at running a tight ship or taking care of business. Did you have that experience?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: I’m still terrible at scheduling. We show up when we show up. But I did have to become practical in some ways, like with pregnancy. There’s this idea that motherhood is imbued with what has survived of religious feeling. The beyond used to be above our heads, but now it’s in the womb. Some part of me was impressed with that.
KHACHIYAN: Another thing that I’m really glad that you brought up in the book was the sensual aspect of the mother-child bond. As you put it, “Only a priggish moralist would deny that mothering was tantalizing, even erotic.” I think you were talking about being mothered versus being a mother, but can’t you make the case that it goes both ways?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: Yeah, definitely. It’s so intimate and it’s with a stranger, so that can be a bit disconcerting.
KHACHIYAN: It’s funny but not at all surprising that porn search terms like “MILF” and “mommy milkers” are so prevalent when childlessness is at an all-time high.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: The sexualization of mothers is interesting. I felt that it was very un-sexy to be a mother. You’re not a maiden anymore. I hated that. I hated that everybody knew that I was “unchaste.” My mother never had a partner. And my father had lots of girlfriends. Every two years there was a different girlfriend who kind of stuck around in my life. So I think that was actually kind of a seed of the book. What is a mother? What is a lover? And what is a friend? And what happens when a mother is a lover is a friend? I think he preferred, maybe subconsciously, to be with a woman whose body hadn’t been through that trauma.
KHACHIYAN: It seems like a small price to pay to be a guardian of the future.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: It’s a good trade.
KHACHIYAN: Did you get along with all your dad’s girlfriends?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: There was one mean Croatian prima ballerina. But we did get to go to the Seattle Ballet to see her be the Sugar Plum Fairy.
KHACHIYAN: I wanted to ask you about another thing that people really don’t like talking about, which is female jealousy and competition. I like the way that you handled it in the book. You treat it as a fact of life that can help you mature as a person and even bring you closer to others.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: There’s this idea that women stick together and live in like-minded harmony and accord. When, in fact, very often women participate in a patriarchal apparatus.
KHACHIYAN: I have to say, after having a kid, I did notice that that network of other moms was truly a sisterhood. You could talk to anyone and they would be super kind and giving with their time and energy and advice. You never use those terms like jealousy or competition by name, though they’re the persistent undercurrent and the dynamic between the three women. Was that intentional?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: I don’t know if competition was top of mind, but the way that we sort of take each other down. The way that we are not willing to allow other women to live for themselves is something that I really wanted to explore.
KHACHIYAN: How do you mean?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: Well, the boundaries that we set around other women’s freedom. I really struggled with the daughter’s reaction to the affair. Because when I asked myself [how I would feel] if my mother had an affair with my best friend, I would be staggered, dumbfounded, appalled. I would never speak to either of them again.
KHACHIYAN: I would be a huge bitch.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: It would be unforgivable. But then I wanted to explore that and be like, “ Why would I have such a visceral reaction?” Wouldn’t the more enlightened approach be to ask, “Is it costing me anything to allow them to have that?” But at the same time, it’s really not cool. But why? The daughter wants her mother to be a mother and not a friend. The mother treats her daughter as a friend but weirdly, in a way, recognizes motherhood as a profound experience and embarks on this affair to close the gap between herself and her daughter, to get closer. The daughter’s trying to widen that gap. The affair does both.
KHACHIYAN: Well, that’s why I really loved your very even-handed and sophisticated exploration of those dynamics. Because I’ve always seen jealousy as a productive emotion. If you’re jealous of someone, that means that you can relate to them on some level, because it wouldn’t occur to you otherwise. And it’s not exactly that they have something that you don’t. It’s that you sense you have it too but haven’t fully mastered or integrated it. Feelings of jealousy present an opportunity to identify something lacking within yourself and either make up for it or realize that it’s all in your head. But unfortunately, very few people use it this way. And the end of the book is kind of a happy ending.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: It wasn’t original. Initially, it was very dutiful, very plodding. I really had to think about what story I wanted to tell, who I am as a person, what I actually believe. And I did want to see these women get over the mountain and come down the other side and to be able to sit beside each other even after all of the jealousies and backstabbing and betrayals.
KHACHIYAN: I think that’s the redeeming part about the ending, that they sort of learn to live with each other and with themselves, but not without a lot of turmoil and drama, which is frankly how it happens in real life.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: Come for the drama. Stay for sitting down at the table.
KHACHIYAN: I have one last question. Susan Sontag said that friendship is erotic if not necessarily sexual. And I think with erotic desire, there’s often some sort of lack at play. Do you think we choose our friends in part based on some perceived lack within ourselves? Is that the true meaning of opposites attract?
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: That sums up so much of that friendship because for Alice, things come easily. She’s floaty and easy, and that’s very sexy. But for Sadie and Celine, things are really hard. They’re both so locked into themselves. I wanted to write a sexy book, and I think Alice is a big part of that, because ease is sexy. And if I look at my friends, there’s definitely things about them that I admire and hope rub off on me.
KHACHIYAN: I think the same is probably true of romantic partners.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: If you invite somebody into your life, I think by definition you’re trying to add something.
KHACHIYAN: Well, that’s all I’ve got.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: Thank you so much.
KHACHIYAN: The book is amazing. I’m going to recommend it to everyone.
BLAKLEY-CARTWRIGHT: Thank you for reading it with such care.