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.
Readings at Elliott Bay Books, Seattle, Tues, May 31, at 6pm / Powell’s Cedar Hills, Portland, Weds, June 1, 7pm
“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