Ayesha Rascoe talks with author Anne Heltzel about her gothic horror novel, “Just Like Mother,” where a young woman reunites with her cousin after escaping a cult.
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
The pressure to have children can be intense, especially for women. But what if motherhood literally becomes a cult? That’s the premise behind a chilling new book, “Just Like Mother,” by author Anne Heltzel. In the book, cousins Maeve and Andrea escape from the Mother Collective as children. When they reunite, their lives intertwine in a way that quickly becomes, well, bloody. Anne Heltzel joins us now. Welcome.
ANNE HELTZEL: Hello, Ayesha. Thank you very much for having me.
RASCOE: Can you tell me a bit about the relationship between Maeve and Andrea?
HELTZEL: Maeve who I wanted to portray as having a very tenuous sort of understanding of her own personal identity and a lot of loneliness. You know, when we meet her, she is quite isolated at the beginning of the novel. She doesn’t really have any close friends and no real family to speak of. And Andrea has become, for her, this romanticized embodiment of everything she really wants – like the closeness and intimacy she had with this one person as they grew together in the cult of motherhood.
RASCOE: So I read that the idea for this book came from a time in your life when you were learning to be single and happy. There’s a character in the book at one point who says, in quotes, “let’s face it – there’s nothing sadder than a woman in her late thirties or early forties who is all alone. God.” End of quote. Did people say things like that to you in real life? Like, is this book a response to that kind of mentality? Which is very real and not just found in horror novels.
HELTZEL: I mean, I’ve definitely gotten a lot of comments from very well-meaning people just saying, well, you know, maybe you don’t want a life partner, like trying to excuse why I don’t would not have to indicate this. It was really – it was shocking.
RASCOE: And there’s often this confusion between, like, femininity and motherhood that can make it difficult for women who don’t conform to that image. Is that part of what you wanted to do – give a voice to these women who don’t want to be mothers, who want to chart a different path for themselves?
HELTZEL: Absolutely. I mean, what I wanted – what I really hoped to do was convey several different perspectives – the ambivalence, the regret, you know, and really highlight that need for questioning. And I think personally I’m not anti-motherhood at all. But to me, the scary part of how society grooms us to be mothers is that we don’t necessarily ask why we want this thing when we want it or why we want it at all or for what purpose. or why this thing is so valued in our culture.
RASCOE: Tell us a bit about that cult, like, because there’s a literal cult in the book. This is where Maeve and Andrea grew up. It’s called the Mother Collective. Like, how did you come up with the idea for this?
HELTZEL: That’s a great question because I didn’t – it didn’t start out as a cult book at all. It just clicked. It was like a later draft, and I started to think more deeply about Maeve as a character, who she was, why she felt the way she did. Having the cult as a backdrop lent itself to a lot of really creepy scenes. And originally it started with just – with Maeve having kind of a really messed up past. But then as I kept writing it – I don’t know – it just clicked that it wouldn’t necessarily be Maeve’s experience with the traditional family unit as we know it, it could be the experience of Maeve with the very people – that is, all of us women – who are delaying this system. One day I – you know, I wrote a scene, and there were a lot of mothers in it. And I thought, yes, it works. It is the cult of motherhood.
RASCOE: You know, we’re living in a world right now – like, you know, reading this book, obviously it’s a time where the United States is focusing on the possibility that Roe v. Wade can be canceled. We talk a lot about the autonomy that a woman should have over her body. How did that influence this book?
HELTZEL: It did a lot of things. You know, the funny thing is, the first time I sold that book was over two years ago. And I remember talking to my agent and saying, do you think this will still be relevant in two years (laughs)? I mean, how naive is this question? Like, I’m appalled and just really sad and shocked that this is as timely as it is and continues to be so timely. I was raised Catholic. I went to a Catholic university for college. And I have friends from back then, and we, you know, have had these conversations historically where we say we’re not going to let these things come between us, and we’ll respect each other. It gets harder, I would say, as you get older and the problems get closer to you. And I was thinking about all of that when I wrote Maeve and Andrea’s friendship and kind of considered the implications there.
RASCOE: I mean the last pages of the book. They get very bloody. Can you tell me about the writing of these pages and what it was like? Because it takes a turn.
HELTZEL: Yes. And I’m glad you mentioned it because it’s my favorite part of the book.
RASCOE: Okay (laughs).
HELTZEL: The book completely changes its tone at one point, and it was me who gave myself permission to spread my wings in the horror genre and really have fun with it. And there’s so much freedom in the horror genre, which is why it appeals to me. It’s a great vehicle for processing emotions and anxieties, but it’s also a lot of fun. And you can really go in there and do just about anything as long as you have some rules. You know, I love it, and I think that’s kind of the most important thing. I know a lot of people may be thinking, what happened to this book here? But I do not know. That was, for me, the most fun part to write, so I think it’s worth something.
RASCOE: Anne Heltzel – her new book, ‘Just Like Mother’, is out now. Thank you very much for joining us.
HELTZEL: Thank you.
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