Amanda Uhle spoke with Courtney Zoffness about her forthcoming book of essays, Spilt Milk, which has already earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. It’s also received high praise from Lisa Taddeo who calls Spilt Milk “a magical gift,” and Mary Gaitskill, who says it’s “gentle, playful and laced with subtle wit… a welcome balm in an insane an un-gentle time.” Actor Jesse Eisenberg calls it “a perfect book.”
AMANDA UHLE: The opening essay of Spilt Milk takes a close, vulnerable look at anxiety as you have experienced it over the years. For nearly everyone I know who’s published a book, that process itself is anxiety-inducing, but you have been utterly serene. How are you feeling about this beautiful book making its way into the world?
COURTNEY ZOFFNESS: I’m pleased that I seem serene to you. I suspect my husband would offer a different assessment! Releasing a book is nerve-wracking, but debuting during a global pandemic is arguably moreso. Months ago, when fellow writers were lamenting their 2020 publishing experiences, I did feel panicked. This was less over how my book would be received and more that it wouldn’t be received at all. (How could I compete with everything and everyone on the internet?) As early reviews from authors and critics have been favorable, I’ve moved into this place of relief — and glee! There’s a superabundance of fear and loneliness right now. I’m so grateful for the chance to connect with others in this intimate way.
AU: You’re a fiction writer as well as an essayist. In Spilt Milk it’s evident that you are deeply dedicated to characters, to story, the hallmarks of great fiction. Many essayists are chasing ideas and meaning and truth so fervently that they neglect to develop their narratives this way. How did you apply your fiction writing habits to the very fully realized characters in Spilt Milk who are, by and large, your family members?
CZ: I think of myself as a fiction writer who happened to write a book of nonfiction first. I have graduate degrees in fiction and spent years working exclusively in the genre — until this nonfiction project took hold. Since I’m drawn to stories more than I am to ideas, even if the stories contain ideas, narrative is my de facto literary mode. To that end, I appreciate that you used the word “characters” to describe the people in these pages. I did my best to ensure everyone, from my children to my parents to myself, were depicted with dimensionality, but it’s an unrealizable goal to translate anyone in their entirety. Each of us is more than the sum of these descriptions.
AU: I adore what you do in this book to recognize the complexities of simultaneously being a mother and having a mother. Do you feel like a mother? Or a daughter? Tell me about how you examine this tension in the essays.
CZ: It may sound strange since I’m a mother twice-over, but I still marvel over human beings’ ability to make new humans. I am awed that I grew inside my mother’s body and that my walking, talking, independent-minded sons grew inside of mine. I think the experience of birthing and rearing a child invites one to think about the continuum of motherhood—certainly in one’s known family, but not only. The book also looks at the history of the Jewish faith, at the questionable behavior of matriarchs, and the trauma inherited by a people systematically extinguished.
AU: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
CZ: I hope readers will spend time meditating on complicated questions around biology and spirituality and race and power and narrative. I hope the material resonates with imperfect parents and children of imperfect parents and anyone who contemplates empathy and how to cultivate it.