“Nobody else tells the story of what it’s like to be a woman artist. There is thinking here that’s been missing for-fucking-ever.” —Sally Eckhoff, painter and author of F* Art, Let’s Dance
What does a great artist who is also a mother look like? What does it mean to create, not in “a room of one’s own,” but in a domestic space? In The Baby on the Fire Escape, award-winning biographer Julie Phillips traverses the shifting terrain where motherhood and creativity converge.
With fierce empathy, Phillips evokes the intimate and varied struggles of brilliant artists and writers of the twentieth century. Ursula K. Le Guin found productive stability in family life, and Audre Lorde’s queer, polyamorous union allowed her to raise children on her own terms. Susan Sontag became a mother at nineteen, Angela Carter at forty-three. These mothers had one child, or five, or seven. They worked in a studio, in the kitchen, in the car, on the bed, at a desk with a baby carrier beside them. They faced judgment for pursuing their creative work—Doris Lessing was said to have abandoned her children, and Alice Neel’s in-laws falsely claimed that she once, to finish a painting, left her baby on the fire escape of her New York apartment.
As Phillips threads together vivid portraits of these pathbreaking women, she argues that creative motherhood is a question of keeping the baby on that apocryphal fire escape: work and care held in a constantly renegotiated, provisional, productive tension. A meditation on maternal identity and artistic greatness, The Baby on the Fire Escape illuminates some of the most pressing conflicts in contemporary life.
Thank you to Leeuwarden City of Literature for inviting me to write a short essay for the project Uitgesteld Geluk (‘Paradise Postponed’), to be read out loud by Marjolein Ley on Thursday, 11 August, in Friesland, in a beautiful Dutch translation by Elske Schotanus. More info here
Click here to watch the launch event with A Room of One’s Own Books, in conversation with Chris Kraus.
“Phillips [sums] up complicated lives succinctly and evocatively…a tremendous book.”
—Lucy Sussex, The Sydney Review of Books
“I devoured the book over the course of 36 hours, as alerts about trigger laws blew up my phone, toppling states’ abortion rights one by one….Phillips insists that the creative mother needs a sense of self,…that the time she spends with her art warrants time away from her child, that she has a right to create.”
—Sophie Brickman, The Guardian
“Phillips’s book is astute on the long careers, and the full lives, of her creative women….By the time the mother of the baby on the fire escape has become the guardian of an empty nest, she has ventured out, fought monsters, faced fears, and become a new version of herself. If we looked differently, Phillips suggests, wouldn’t hers be a ‘hero-tale,’ her quest as bloody and noble as any knight’s?”
—Joanna Scutts, The New Republic
“When a new child arrives, it’s as if two strangers have moved into your house. The first is the child. The second is yourself as a mother…The women Phillips documents all felt cleaved in two.”
—Hillary Kelly, The Atlantic
“Inspiring [and] illuminating…Although “The Baby on the Fire Escape” examines the particular challenges of gifted artists as they tried to balance the demands of creative work with the demands of motherhood, the book actually addresses a problem faced by all mothers: how to nurture both the child’s development and one’s own.”
—Heller McAlpin, The Wall Street Journal
“Riveting…[a] tremendous group biography….Phillips’ book is not just a cultural history; it is a testament to endurance and devotion. The entwined work of mothering and creativity is a volatile but illuminating gift. Would that everyone could see it that way.”
—Lauren LeBlanc, The Los Angeles Times
“Phillips’s powerfully researched, thoughtful, sensitive examinations will be of interest to literary scholars as well as to general readers grappling with their own oscillating creative and pragmatic selves.”
—Emily Bowles, Library Journal (starred review)
“Phillips explores the conflicting demands of being a mother and creating art in this astute look at how trailblazing artists stayed true to their craft.…[Her] sharp observations and candor add force to [this] memorable examination of game-changing artists.”
“Wonderful.… Investigating motherhood as lived by an inspiring group of twentieth-century writers and artists, The Baby on the Fire Escape refutes all received ideas about creativity and absolute solitude. Julie Phillips examines the lives and work of artists from Gwendolyn Brooks to Louise Bourgeois, from Shirley Jackson to Susan Sontag, who refused to choose between intellectual rigor and motherhood, and finds it’s the courage to claim their own centrality that defines them as artists.”
—Chris Kraus, author of After Kathy Acker and I Love Dick
“I devoured every word of The Baby on the Fire Escape, grateful for its penetrating insights about the idiosyncratic arrangements, logistical and psychological, devised by women artists who become mothers. Phillips’s compassionate, clearheaded, and lively book forwards our long, vexed cultural conversation about maternity and art. It made me resee my own life as a writer and parent.”
—Pamela Erens, author of Eleven Hours and Middlemarch and the Imperfect Life
“Before I met Ursula K. Le Guin, I had no personal models for how a woman with children might also be a writer. What I did have was the children. Here, with her customary clarity, with empathy, nuance, and acuity, Julie Phillips questions some of our most admired artists about the ways in which the creativity required by motherhood and the creativity required by art have thwarted and supported them.”
—Karen Joy Fowler, author of Booth and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves