Ayelet Waldman will forever be associated with her controversial 2005 essay "Truly, Madly, Guiltily," in which she claimed to loving her husband more than her children. Daytime talk shows ripped into Ms. Waldman, claiming she was a bad mother. She made a much-publicized appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to defend herself.
Ms. Waldman will speak at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Literary Evenings series. Ms. Waldman, a former federal public defender and mother of four, is author of 11 works of fiction, including "Red Hook Road," the Mommy-Track mystery series and "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits," which was made into a film starring Natalie Portman.
Ms. Waldman is a prolific writer of fiction. "Love & Treasure," her newest, is due in April. It is a historical novel that begins with the discovery of the Hungarian gold train, a 42-car cargo train that carried the valuables of Hungarian Jews to Berlin during World War II. Allied soldiers intercepted the train, but none of the items were returned to their rightful owners, most of whom perished in the ovens at Auschwitz.
Ms. Waldman already knew a lot about the Holocaust but never knew about the gold train.
"I was looking for a way to write about the Holocaust. It's the topic that every Jewish writer writes around or near or against. It was looming pretty intensely at that point in my life, and I came across this one incident that I hadn't heard about at all. I started imagining these cargo cars full of shabbat candlesticks and couldn't get it out of my mind," she said on the phone from her home in Berkeley, Calif.
For the book, she traveled and spent time researching in Budapest, Hungary, and Salzburg. Austria. She also visited the Dachau concentration camp. She spent weeks going through microfilm of Hungarian newspapers. When her research assistant would speed past the newspaper ads, Ms. Waldman would make her backtrack and translate them.
"I'd make her read me the ads for corsets. What were they wearing? What did they have for breakfast? What kind of stockings did they wear? All those details make for accurate texture in a book," she said.
One character in the book is a Jewish-American soldier, Jack Wiseman, who is among those who discover the train. Ms. Waldman explains that writing the character of Jack allowed her to inhabit the same mental and historical space of her father, who, during World War II, recruited Canadians to fight for the establishment of Israel. "I wanted to inhabit that space, his world," she said.
In addition to fiction, Ms. Waldman has written essays about motherhood, many of which are collected in "Bad Mother." Her essays touch on issues such as abortion and the contradictory distinction between a "good" and "bad" mother. Her writing is honest and funny; she writes what is often thought but never spoken aloud.
Ms. Waldman thinks a lot about balancing work and family.
"There is only the specific unbalance you can tolerate at any given time. It's being able to tolerate that and recognize that children and your career slip in and out of equilibrium all the time," she said.
She credits her husband, Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" and University of Pittsburgh graduate, for being such an involved father and helpful spouse.
"He believes in being an equal partner, but he also personally gains something profound from doing the work of parenting," she said.
Her advice for new parents: "There is little you can do that will break your baby, short of leaving it in the pool unattended. Stop worrying. Every mistake is not the catastrophe the way it feels it is," she said.
She cautions mothers about losing themselves to the task of parenthood.
"Carving out a space for professional endeavor is really important. It's important to have an outlet outside of your children. And if you don't, it's not good for you and it's not good for them."
Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at The University of Pittsburgh. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.