Keeping Track of Ayelet Waldman

Always on the go, the public defender turned novelist of the popular ‘Mommy’ mysteries is booked for appearance at Doheny Library.
By Elaine Lapriore
Waldman's first “Mommy-Track Mystery” introduced Juliet Applebaum, a public defender-turned-stay-at-home-mom.

Photo/Stephanie Rausser
The experience of interviewing Ayelet Waldman – author of novels, essays and the semi-autobiographical series of “Mommy-Track Mysteries” – reveals some of the characteristics that define her works: breezy, alternately serious and funny, a little chaotic.

Waldman has one hour to eat lunch, work and do this interview to promote her June 7 appearance at Doheny Library before picking up her kids, so she’s talking on her cell, answering questions both probing and chatty while looking for a place to grab a bite.

Driving around, she rejects a café because someone is playing a harmonica outside. “Sooo Berkeley,” she said of the town where she lives with her husband, writer Michael Chabon, and their four children (aged 11 to 3).

A former federal public defender in Los Angeles and Harvard Law grad, Waldman left her job to stay home with her first child. “I couldn’t hack being a stay-at-home mom exclusively with nothing else to occupy my mind,” she said.

In 1997, she started her first book, “Nursery Crimes,” which took three years to write and publish. “I’ve always read a lot, from when I was very young, so I decided to write something that seemed easy, a murder mystery, light and fluffy,” Waldman said.

The first “Mommy-Track Mystery” introduced Juliet Applebaum, a public defender-turned-stay-at-home-mom who, bored by play-dates and pre-school politics, dabbles in detective work. In subsequent installments, Juliet juggles an expanding family and private eye work while maintaining her sense of humor.

Since 2000, Waldman has written seven “Mommy Track” tales, two other novels, countless essays and a column for the online magazine Salon. “I’m bipolar, and the upside of being bipolar is that it makes you really productive,” she said.

The parts that seem autobiographical are: “They say to write what you know. I’d never written before [“Nursery Crimes”], not even a short story, so I wrote exactly what I knew.”

Her first literary novel, “Daughter’s Keeper” (2004), drew from real life as well, when Waldman and Chabon endured the loss of a baby at 17 weeks of pregnancy. “After a bad amnio, we made the decision to terminate the pregnancy and oh, the guilt,” she said.

“I started out wanting to write something about the war on drugs, something I knew a lot about from the public defender’s office, and it ended up being about a mother and a daughter. Go figure.”

Waldman’s candor has earned her fans but also friction. An anthology essay excerpted in The New York Times about putting her husband before her children led straight to an appearance on “Oprah” and instant notoriety.

“It felt terrifying,” she said. “The long-term fallout is that I’m now the go-to girl for bad mothering. Someone in Details magazine wants to make a crack about bad mothers? He mentions [murderer] Susan Smith and me. Nice, huh?” The essay’s conclusion – that Waldman wants her children to find in adulthood a romantic bond as strong as their parents’ – was largely forgotten.

Waldman’s most recent book, “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits” (2006), is the story of a woman who grieves over the death of her newborn while reluctantly stepmothering her soulmate husband’s precocious preschooler.

Her deepest book to date, it’s both amusing and tragic; the mother’s sorrow is truly compelling. “Parts of it, I cried while I was writing, I cried while I was editing, I cried when I was reading,” she said.

Literature is Waldman’s current trajectory after wrapping up the “Mommy Track” series with the August release of “Bye-Bye, Black Sheep.” Juliet’s seventh case concerns a serial killer who went undetected because the victims were black prostitutes. “It’s most likely the final ‘Mommy Track’ book, but I can always go back to Juliet when she’s in an elder hostel: The Granny-Track Mysteries,” she said, laughing.

Currently in progress is “Winter’s End,” a novel she describes as “Madame Bovary set in Silicon Valley.”

Living with Chabon is a purely supportive environment, not competitive, Waldman said. “We can edit each other’s work, we can say to each other, ‘I’m in a really hard place in this book, I need to go away for a week,’ and the other will understand.”

Then again, she appeared on national television not to discuss literature or even law but traveling with children. “I got off the set of the ‘Today’ show with the very delightful Katie Couric and thought, ‘I used to argue cases in front of the Ninth Circuit Court, one of the most important courts in the country, and now I’m on the ‘Today’ show talking about vacations.”

Just as the interview concludes, Waldman finds a parking space in front of her lunch destination.

“I don’t even know how I got here,” she said, pulling up to the chose café. “The beauty of being bipolar. Look at all I’ve done since we’ve been talking. And I bashed into a curb I don’t know how many times.“