Center Ring is the story of five female friends: Norah Merrit, obstetrician, Camille, a photojournalist, Leila, stay-at-home mom, Ellie, a publicist, and Kate, a designer with a newborn. The novel is told in alternating points of view between five friends. Center Ring takes you into the world of modern women who are doing their best to balance everything that life throws their way. Center Ring is also a book that understands female friendship. When the novel begins the women are meeting at a restaurant for their ritualistic girls’ night out—something that gets harder to manage every time, given everyone’s life balancing challenges. Now, I will warn readers, keeping the characters straight was a little difficult at first. All that I can say is, hang in there, because once Waggoner starts world building, all you will want to do is to get comfortable and settle in for the long haul.
Maribel Garcia: Nicole, the women in your novel are multi-dimensional, nuanced and very believable characters. How did you come up with the female characters? Are any of them based on real-life experiences? Most importantly, do you get pestered by your own girlfriends who might ask which character might have been based on them?
Nicole Waggoner: What a great question! Yes, I do get asked all the time if my characters are based on myself or my friends. Actually, I am both none of them and all of them. They have characteristics that I have and don’t have.
They’re composites of me and of all the strong women I am blessed to know. For example, Cami and Ellie are assertive and don’t shy away from confrontation – whereas I would crawl through fire to avoid it! The Leila character is hands-down the most like me and my approach to life, parenting, etc., with some creative license of course. The men in their lives are also composites of the good, the bad, and the ugly, from a lifetime of conversations with girlfriends about relationships seeds.
MG: Good realistic friendship literature portrays friendships between women as a natural ebb and flow. Sometimes you’re tight, sometimes you are not. In Center Ring, I really appreciated the way that you portrayed the level of intimacy between women. For example, there is a scene in the novel when Norah, the obstetrician with no children who is having marital problems, is eager to reveal some shocking news, but she is disappointed that the first to arrive at the restaurant was Leila, the stay-at-home mother with a great husband. As much as Norah adores Leila, Norah was really hoping that Cami or Ellie, two single and very career-minded women would beat Leila to the restaurant so they could have a “private” moment. She loves Leila unconditionally, but she needs blatant honesty at the moment and Leila is too much of a nurturer to provide that. I really appreciated this kind of realistic portrayal in female friendships—let’s face it, we need different things from each other. When it comes to a group of friends like your characters do you think that all friendships are created equal or not?
NW: Another great question! I think that you’ve summed it up perfectly. We all need different things from each other at different times and because of that, we weave webs of connections to each other based on common experiences and on our stages of life. It was important to me to keep their relationships (romantic, professional, and friendship) realistic, and that included depicting their “blanket” bond to each other as well as their individual connections.
MG: Historically, Center Ring will fall under a category of women’s fiction that explores the issues that women face in the 21st Century where women are trying to manage it all. The women in Center Ring all value their education and careers, but two of them, Kate and Leila, who are at home with their children, are missing their old careers and really trying to understand where they are identity wise. Speaking of women and work-life balance, while women have made a lot of progress (breaking ceilings and blazing trails) we are still subscribing to what many would call a falsehood: having it all. In your opinion, can women have it all? Or is it time to change the conversation? If so, what would that look like?
NW: I think it’s definitely time to change the conversation. I set out to write about the juggling act that is modern female life and literally wrote that the “Supermom” is this generation’s version of June Cleaver, vacuuming in heels and pearls. BOTH ARE FICTIONAL. No one is doing it all at the same time, but we all do a heck of a lot of “it” really well. I would love to see the conversation shift focus from perfectionism to an acknowledgement of the amazing energy and the mammoth efforts we all make in the many roles we play.
MG: Let’s talk about parenting. I can remember so vividly the stress of literally timing the amount of minutes my infant spent in the baby swing. The literature about parenting at the time made it seem like too much “idle” swing time would either automatically lower their IQ or cause their little legs to atrophy. My children are now teenagers and I have learned to trust my instincts about what “quality” time can look like for children. Let them hang out in the swing while you do laundry, you’re still around, right? My point, and I do have one, I really appreciate Kate’s character. Her struggles with her newborn are a reminder of how crazy we can get about parenting. There is that scene in the baby class when she is feeling like everyone is judging her. As if motherhood wasn’t enough, we have to worry about what strangers think? When writing about modern parenthood, what was the most important thing that you wanted to convey via your characters?
NW: I played a unique role in my core group of friends (mostly professional women) as the first to have a child. I had no local friends with children, and no family to step in to lend a hand. My husband was able to be home for the first few days, but by Day 5, my son and I were solo. I had never known any fatigue like post-delivery and round-the-clock feedings. I was also toting a donut for my bruised tailbone and bathing in lanolin for split nipples. I just wanted to do it “right” no matter how much it hurt.
Before he was born, I knew I didn’t know anything about parenting or babies…so I read everything. You would have thought I was prepping for a written exam! The one thing I knew I wouldn’t do was use a pacifier or do ‘sleep training.’ Then, about three weeks in, a teacher friend and mother of three visited and asked me how I was really doing. There was this quality of compassion in her question that can only come from the empathy of someone who has ‘been there’ and it felt like a breath of fresh air. I told her I was too tired to lie and that I was so in love with my baby, and so terrified I was letting him down at every turn. I joked that I knew breaking down on my pacifier decision on Day 9 was just the tip of the iceberg on my level of cluelessness. If I couldn’t meet his basic needs effectively how could I possibly teach him to be a good person … or how to do long division? After all, every shopper at Target seemed willing to offer an opinion about what I was doing wrong and they had survived motherhood, so clearly they knew they were smarter than me.
Her answer still sticks with me to this day and I have passed it on a million times: NO ONE KNOWS WHAT IS BEST FOR YOUR BABY BUT YOU. You have to learn to trust yourself. Get informed and then do what is right for your family. Happy moms are the best moms! I realized then that I had been angst-ing over the obvious things and not taking into account what the three of us really needed. So I stopped weighing wet diapers. I learned his true hunger cues and some ways to pacify him, other than snacking sessions. I realized how important being able to plan our days was to me. I learned how to schedule his naps without tears. For me, what was good for mom proved good for baby. We returned to the outside world and I began to truly enjoy motherhood, versus being afraid of the unpredictable. PLEASE KNOW, THAT THIS IS NOT AN ENDORSEMENT FOR ANY PARENTING PHILOSOPHY OTHER THAN EMBRACING: THAT NO ONE KNOWS WHAT’S BETTER FOR YOUR FAMILY THAN YOU DO .
MG: Kate, the mother of a newborn, is not only juggling the emotional and physical demands of motherhood, but struggling with anorexia. Sometimes women’s fiction stops addressing these issues even though they continue to play a large part of women’s lives. Why was this an important issue for you?
NW: I chose anorexia because it is often a private struggle, and it mirrors the inner demons we all face. I often talk about the “highlight reel” of social media, etc., versus the “backstage” realities of life. I think there is beauty and community in both, and understanding both brings us closer. Kate’s external beauty acts as a shield of sorts, to hide how scarred she is on the inside. But those scars, and her daily commitment to triumph regardless, define her.
MG: If there is a principle that your novel puts forth is that the secret to maintaining friendship is to show up. How do you keep up with your girlfriends and still find the time to write? Is writing a full-time job or do you work elsewhere?
NW: True friends show up. Do you mind if I borrow that? Yes, you have to be present (physically and/or emotionally) to maintain a relationship. Writing is my full-time job, but I am also a part-time instructor in Literary Criticism. I do all of that while my kids (who just turned 9 and 5) are at school. They know they come first – ALWAYS – and I do my very best to never miss any of their events. I also schedule leisure time. My husband and I date … be it with Netflix on the couch, or getting a babysitter for an evening, or those golden instances when Grandma offers to do it for free. Also in the leisure compartment, I make time for my friends, local or long distance.
As homage to your previous question about doing it all, you should know that I am perpetually behind on laundry and e-mail. Sometimes, I’m afraid to open the basket and inbox. I also make a royal mess trying to keep with Twitter and with fitness regimens.
MG: Friendship dynamics change with age. When you are younger you have your neighbor or classmates, not to mention predictable routines that allow time for them. As we get older, however, friendships change. The women in your novel find themselves in different points of their life. While one is looking for love, others are already settled into their marriages and struggling with motherhood. In real life, many of us simply fall out of touch and grow apart as we change and grow in different ways. What’s your theory about friends? In for a season or lifetime?
NW: The joke about what prompted the novel is that I moved to Oklahoma and missed my old girlfriends so much that I had to make up five imaginary friends! I have a tight circle here in my new home now, but I still really try maintain strong bonds with my faraway friends. It hasn’t been easy, and not all are as strong as they could be, but I have learned that the amount of effort contributed from both sides dictates how close we stay.
My best friend, Holly, and I have weathered long distance BFF-hood really well. We text constantly and can give you the 30 second skinny on each other’s backstage and highlight reels at a moment’s notice. In Center Ring, Leila states that ‘you make time for the things you care about.’ Regardless of your history, not everyone ‘shows up.’ Some relationships that were so effortless for months go dormant, but then you pick up where you left off. I think there’s a huge need for ‘seasonal’ friendships during the various stages of life, and that they either bloom into more or wither, leaving only fond memories, as your needs change.
MG: You had women on two ends of the spectrum. Norah, Cami, and Ellie are tied to their job—which means that so is their happiness, security, safety, and identity. And the other women, who have found their life-partners and started their families feel like they do not have an identity, since their self-worth and level of personal satisfaction still seems to be tied to their former occupations. It’s also nice to have a contrast in what women want. On the one hand, you have someone like Norah, whose fertility struggles have been an obstacle to starting a family and on the other someone like Kate—feeling overwhelmed by the needs of her newborn son and struggling with the loss of her professional identity. These scenarios are a reminder , not only that the grass always seems greener on the other side, but that women cannot have it all at once. By the way, where are we on that subject and where do you stand on it? You are either stuck in the daily grind of a career or in a thankless role (mother/wife) and wonder if there’s more to life.
NW: The struggle is real. I have felt the way each of my characters have felt over the years, sometimes even in the span of five minutes! Like my characters, I have always been a very driven person in my career and I place high value on my identity. Like most moms I know, there are times when I feel like I work for my family (maid, chauffeur, master planner, etc.) rather than with them. It can be a very thankless job, but to me, it’s the most important one.
Feeling valued is a big part of our lives and we tend to seek out situations where we feel appreciated. After becoming a mom, I didn’t realize that making time for my friends really helped me maintain a sense of identity. It wasn’t easy by any means, but again, showing up is the first step. As of now, there is always something left undone on both sides of the coin (writing/family life), and as hard as I try not to, I do require some sleep. It turns out I’m working on doing my very best rather than struggling to do it all!
MG: Well Nicole, it has been a pleasure. Ultimately, life isn’t meant to be lived alone. It’s better when you can count on a group of girlfriends, finding community in them. Together, it’s one big beautiful circus. We are looking forward to the next installment.
NW: The pleasure has been all mine, Maribel – your questions were so engaging and insightful! Thank you for having me – and as a bonus for your readers, they can subscribe to updates on my website www.nicolewaggonerauthor.com for access to the first chapters of Volume 2, The Act.
I solve the Volume 1 cliffhanger on the first page!