Jenny Jackson never expected to be a bestselling author. She had put aside her own writing dreams to become a book editor two decades ago. Now her debut novel, Pineapple Street, is a New York Times bestseller, a Good Morning America book club pick, and has already been optioned for television. The wildest part? She wrote it in four months, while holding down her job as vice president and executive editor at Knopf and raising a two year old and a five year old.
One of the things that’s so striking about your story is that you’ve said that writing a novel was something you thought was out of the question for you, given your career as an editor. How did adding motherhood on top of your existing job as an editor affect your perception of what was possible?
For some reason, having kids made me realize that my job was really solid. And I didn’t need to operate every single day like I was fighting for my career. Once I realized that I might have a little flexibility, then that sort of just gave me a longer leash to run. Writing the book came from a place of not feeling so afraid.
Can you tell me a little bit about how the writing actually happened alongside raising these two young children?
I think it’s really, really, really hard for families who have two parents who are going 110% all the time. My husband is a freelancer, and while I was writing the book, he picked up so much slack for me. I think it’s really rare among my female friends for people to have the true 50/50. I have better than the true 50/50, I have the 60/40, and I’m the 40. He does the stuff that women usually complain falls on their plates: he schedules their dentist appointments, he schedules playdates, he schedules summer camp. All that stuff that’s pretty invisible, but actually just keeps the wheels on. And that’s just a huge weight off my shoulders.
In terms of the daily nuts and bolts of it, I was just waking up disgustingly early—4:30 or 5:00 a.m.—and writing in my pajamas. I would just sit there and caffeinate. And I would get to that point of a caffeine high, where everything just feels so good and you feel so smart, and you’re just like, flying and words are pouring out. And then my children would sleepily emerge from the bedroom at like 6:45. And I would have had a good solid chunk of time, but I was not ready to stop. So I would turn on cartoons. And we got to the point where I would give one child the iPad and one child the television remote, so that I never even had to do any sort of referee work about who was watching what. And then I’d give them granola bars when they were hungry. So it was really just bare-minimum parenting until about 8:30 a.m.
Read More: Audra McDonald Balances Broadway and Motherhood.
At 8:30, my husband, who is not a morning person, would come to life. And we would assess the situation and be like: how rotten are their brains? How rotten are their teeth? Alright, let’s turn off all the devices, we’re going to try and eat some fruit and some yogurt. And so I’d parent for a bit and then get them off to school. And I would go for a run and think about the plot and think about the structure and mechanics, and then come home, brain dump onto the computer. And then shower, get changed, and do my real job during the day.
Then in the evenings, when I was done with my real job, I would join the kids eating dinner, and then put the kids in the bathtub. And while the kids were in the bath, I’d pour myself a huge glass of wine, and sit on the closed toilet lid with my laptop and write. And they would just be in the bath for an hour. And as long as the water stayed warmish, they were pretty much happy to stay in there. And I found that was also a great time for writing too. I did lots of writing with my children sitting really near me, while only very passively parenting.
The fact that you wrote this novel with an almost-two-year-old in the same room with you is astonishing to me.
He would occasionally ask to sit on my lap and type. And I mean, that is really the most annoying thing that toddlers do. They see us on our computers all the time, and so they’re like, ‘I want to do what you’re doing.’ They just want to type.
There are so many people who feel as if there are things that they’ve always wanted to do in their lives, and then they find themselves with an established career and two young kids. And they think, ‘well, now I’m never going to get to do that thing.’ Were you ever in that headspace?
I’ve always had the dream that if something went off the rails, I was going to escape, and I was going to move to a desert island, and I was just going to write. It was always a crazy backup plan, even though it’s a ridiculous backup plan.
When I had my daughter, I didn’t understand at the time that I was dealing with extreme postpartum anxiety. It was the constant fear of my child dying, and it was really dark and terrible, but I was too in it to understand that that’s what was going on. And instead, I just felt like I had to quit my job. I just really felt like I couldn’t be an editor, I couldn’t go to work, I couldn’t talk to people, I couldn’t leave my apartment. I was pretty messed up. And yet, for me, it was like: ‘Well, I’m just gonna have to leave New York, and I can move somewhere, and I can be a writer.’
Read More: How Parenting Changed Pete Buttigieg.
And so in a funny way, having children wasn’t going to interfere with my dream; it was just interfering with my functional job. And then I got things under control, and was able to get back into the swing of things at work. And then I had Sawyer, and felt totally fine afterwards, and didn’t experience that same thing again. So ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m gonna have to give up on my dreams now that I have kids’ was sort of backwards for me. Instead, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna have to give up on my career and pursue my dreams now that I have kids.’
I want to dig a little deeper into something you said earlier, about how becoming a mother actually made you feel like there were more possibilities available to you. Can you tell me a little bit more about about why you felt that way?
I think so much of it comes down to identity. And being a book editor has been a huge part of my identity for 20 years. In some ways, it’s unusual to have a job that can really feel like such a huge part of your identity. And I’ve been really proud to be a book editor, I’ve always felt like I had a cool job. But on the other hand, I don’t know if it’s all that healthy for your identity to be exclusively derived from your career. Because, say there’s a restructuring and you lose your job, or say you publish a book that becomes an enormous scandal. There are a lot of things that can go south for you. And so it’s probably not great long term to rest 100% of your identity on anything, whether it’s marriage, or motherhood or being a book editor. But being a mom meant all of a sudden, inevitably, half my identity became motherhood. So it’s very freeing to feel like, ‘Oh, hey, I don’t have all my eggs in that one basket anymore.’ And, and even if God forbid, things go off the rails, I’m a mother, and in the eyes of most people, that’s kind of plenty now.