Our September Book Club pick is The Husbands, by Chandler Baker. This smart sophomore novel has been referred to as a feminist twist on the Stepford Wives. The story revolves around a woman balancing career and family and the Dynasty Ranch development, where husbands take on the lion’s share of domestic chores while women act as the breadwinner. We spoke to Chandler, a mom of a toddler, about why this book concept is so relevant in the pandemic era, how she’s planning on modeling equitable gender roles to her own son, as well as the upcoming screenplay—set to star Kristen Wiig!
Can you please tell us about yourself?
I live in Austin, Texas with my husband and our 6-year-old daughter and 20-month-old son. I moved here in 2008 for law school and have been here (almost) ever since. We love that Austin has great food, great music, and great outdoor attractions. There’s a lot to do! Which doesn’t mean we always manage to get out and do it… But a lot of people don’t know that the area we live in, near the Pennybacker Bridge in Northwest Austin, has beautiful hills. Our neighborhood is on the lake and there are ten children under ten on our cul-de-sac. It really reminds me of my own childhood growing up, a “simpler time.” Wow, that made me sound old.
We loved the concept for The Husbands! How did you come up with it?
I was seven months pregnant with my second child and starting to freak out about the recalibration of domestic chores that comes with a new baby. Meanwhile, I was struggling to land on an idea for my next novel and struggling even more to figure out when and how I was actually going to write the thing with my due date (the baby, not the book) fast approaching. Around that time, I had a long conversation with two of my best friends about the book, Fair Playby Eve Rodsky and our efforts to implement its advice in our own homes. We talked (and talked and talked) about it and I thought, Oh, yes! This! The idea for The Husbands materialized that same week.
Why is this concept of turning the tables so relevant right now?
When I was promoting my last book, Whisper Network, I had a lot of opportunities to talk to women about their work life. So many women would tell me that they believed corporate culture wouldn’t truly change for women until there were more women at the top of the corporate ladder. In the same breath, they would often tell me that the problem wasn’t always that they were being passed up for promotions or not offered more responsibilities at work. Instead they were basically self-selecting out. They were putting themselves on the “mommy track,” as it were, or pursuing less demanding career paths because they were so overloaded at home they felt like they couldn’t possibly juggle more responsibility at work. I get it! I mean, if you have to choose between career and family, well, guess what? The career has to go. There was a point after the birth of my daughter that I considered asking for a reduction in pay. Anything to reduce the guilt I felt for failing a little bit both at home and at work. The pandemic has shown how fragile that balance for women has always been and we’ve seen women feeling forced over and over to choose family over work at a much higher rate than men. I worry about the long-term ramifications for women, especially in terms of the pay gap.
Why is it so important that we start talking about these issues – even in our “fun” reading?
Like many of my friends, I get a lot of joy and catharsis by venting about my current struggles. That can be anything from learning the tricks to diapering my new baby boy to strategizing the best timing to announce a pregnancy at work. It can be harder and harder to connect with our girlfriends, especially given the pandemic, so I want women to feel seen and as though other people “get it.” In doing that, I think it also lends readers some vocabulary for how to speak more clearly about issues, both systemic and personal, that may already be brewing around the division of domestic labor. And, hey, I like books that are big, fun, plotty, with juicy twists, but that serve as conversation starters. That’s really always the goal.
Who is your favorite character that you created and why?
Nora is so near and dear to my heart, probably the most personal character I’ve ever written. My hope was for Nora to be an everywoman, but I knew to achieve that, I would need to make her concerns very specific. Nora is a lawyer, at a critical turning point in her career, as well as pregnant with her second child (both of which I have some personal experience with!) She loves her husband. She loves her daughter. In fact, she believes that the Venn diagram of the things that drive her crazy and the things she loves most in the world is a perfect circle. Her husband, Hayden, is great. He’s loving, supportive, and progressive and yet she feels he falls short in taking initiative. She’s the executive manager of their lives when what she needs most is less responsibility. So, she’s in a constant battle to decide whether she should speak up (while hating to “nag”) or put her head down and do what needs doing. She can’t even decide if she deserves to feel put upon. Her internal monologue is so fraught. When she first got married, she thought if there was something that would threaten her marriage, it’d be something big like an affair or a health crisis, but her problems are so entirely mundane—who can’t relate to that?
Your first book was a NYTimes Bestseller and a Reese Witherspoon Book Pick. What was it like to receive so much attention over your debut novel?
It was such a dream. I had published a number of young adult novels prior to that book, so I knew that this kind of fanfare was. not. normal! Because I had that frame of reference, I think I’ve been able to appreciate all the fun gold star moments that have come since. The biggest thing for me is that I truly believe my books are great book club fodder. I’ve loved seeing firsthand how women have chosen Whisper Network and The Husbands and actually talked about the books for more than ten whole minutes because everyone has so much personal experience to add. So the fact that receiving some of these large celebrity book club picks like Reese Witherspoon’s and Good Morning America’s has helped my books reach more book clubs is huge for me.
What are you planning to teach your own son about gender roles – and how?
My son is only 20 months, so I can’t say we’re experts! My plan is not to just give him the same number of chores, but the same type. I think men tend to get more what I call “at your leisure” chores, such as mowing the lawn, taking care of the cars, taking out the trash. But we need men to be involved in the daily grind more, to take on those tasks that have to take place every single day or else the show can’t go on. For both my kids, I already talk about my work a lot and my daughter knows my job is very important to me. I wish I had it all figured out! I think our best hope is to try to chip away at as many of those gender norms as we can.
Who are some female writers you’re loving, or books you’ve read recently that you recommend?
So many! I get so confused when people struggle to list female authors because my wish list is always brimming with them. I love Sally Hepworth, Zakiya Dalila Harris, Jean Banff Korelitz, Angie Kim, Kimberly McCreight. I could go on…
If there are moms out there with a great idea for a novel, what is your advice to them?
I set 15-minute timers for myself. If you can find 15 minutes where you don’t have to look at your phone, your email or anything else, take it! You might be able to build up to getting to 200 words in those 15 minutes. If you got roughly 4 of those a day (and many, many days I only manage one or two), you’ll have a novel draft in less than 6 months. I always remind myself that even if my progress is small, I’ll be so glad I started now rather than later. I think that’s true on a macro level. I always wanted to write. And I’m sad I didn’t’ start back when I originally wanted to. But I’m here now. So I’m going!
How do you encourage your own child to enjoy reading?
I just really try to focus on what she’s showing me is capturing her imagination, not what I think she’ll like from my childhood. Yes, I have recommendations, but there are things she finds that I would never pick. Right now she wants to read every book about Siamese cats. So…okay…Siamese cats it is!
What are you working on next?
I’m working on the screenplay for The Husbands, which is set to star Kristen Wiig as Nora. I also just finished a draft of what will hopefully be my next book.
We always like to support local businesses. In your Austin area where are your favorite places to:
Go to dinner with your family – Maudie’s
Go on date night – Sway
Go for girls night – Aba
Workout – In my neighborhood or doing @Isaacboots workouts on Instagram
Get your hair done – Level 12 Salon
Have fun as a family – The Austin Zoo
Go shopping for your kids and yourself – The Domain or Music Lane on South Congress