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Timely new horror novel 'Just Like Mother' follows the escape from a motherhood cult


The pressure to have kids can be intense, especially for women. But what happens if motherhood literally becomes a cult? That's the premise behind a frightening new book, "Just Like Mother," by author Anne Heltzel. In the book, cousins Maeve and Andrea escape from the Mother Collective as children. When they meet again, their lives intertwine in ways that quickly become, well, gory. Anne Heltzel joins us now. Welcome.

ANNE HELTZEL: Hi, Ayesha. Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: Can you tell me a bit about the relationship between Maeve and Andrea?

HELTZEL: Maeve I wanted to depict as sort of having a very tenuous grasp of her own personal identity and a lot of loneliness. You know, when we meet her, she is fairly isolated at the start of the novel. She doesn't have really any close friends and no real family to speak of. And Andrea has become, to her, this romanticised epitome of everything she really wants - like, the closeness and intimacy that she had with this one person as a child growing up in the cult of motherhood together.

RASCOE: So I did read that the idea of this book came up from a time in your life where you were learning to be single and happy. There is a character in the book at one point that says, quote, "let's face it - there's nothing sadder than a woman in her late 30s or early 40s who's all alone. God." End quote. Were people saying things to you like that in real life? Like, is this book a response to that sort of mindset? Which is very real and not only found in horror novels.

HELTZEL: I mean, I definitely got lots of comments from very well-meaning people just saying, well, you know, maybe you don't want a life partner, like, trying to excuse away why I wouldn't have one at that point. It really was - it was jarring.

RASCOE: And there is often this conflation of, like, womanhood with motherhood that can make it difficult for women who don't comply with that image. Is that part of what you wanted to do - was, like, to give voice to those women who don't want to be mothers, who want to chart a different path for themselves?

HELTZEL: Absolutely. I mean, what I wanted - what I really hoped to do was convey several different perspectives - ambivalence, regret, you know, and to really highlight that need for questioning. And I think I personally am not at all anti-motherhood. But for me, the frightening aspect of the way that society sort of sets us up to be mothers is that we're not necessarily asking why we want this thing when we do or why we want it at all or to what end or why this thing is so valued in our culture.

RASCOE: Tell us a bit about that cult, like, because there is a literal cult in the book. This is where Maeve and Andrea grew up. It's called the Mother Collective. Like, how did you come up with the idea for that?

HELTZEL: That's a great question because I didn't - this actually didn't start out as a cult book at all. It just sort of clicked. It was like a later draft, and I started just thinking about Maeve more deeply as a character, who she was, why she felt the way she did. Having the cult as a backdrop lent itself to a lot of really frightening scenes. And originally, it started out with just - with Maeve having sort of a really messed up past. But then, as I kept writing it - I don't know - it just clicked that it wouldn't necessarily be Maeve's experience with the traditional family unit as we know it, it could be Maeve's experience with the very people - i.e. all of us women - who are holding up this system. One day, I - you know, I wrote a scene, and there were many mothers in it. And I thought, yep, that works. It's the cult of motherhood.

RASCOE: You know, we are living in a world right now - like, you know, reading this book, obviously, this is a moment where the U.S. is focused on the possibility that Roe v. Wade could be overturned. There is a lot of discussion about the autonomy a woman should have over their body. How did that influence this book?

HELTZEL: It did quite a bit. You know, what's funny is that when I first sold this book, it was more than two years ago. And I remember talking with my agent and saying, do you think this will still be relevant in two years (laughter)? I mean, how naive is that question? Like, I am dismayed and just really just sad and shocked that it is as timely as it is and continues to be this timely. I was raised Catholic. I did go to a Catholic university for college. And I have friends from those days, and we, you know, have had these conversations historically where we say we won't let these things get in between us, and we'll respect one another. It becomes more difficult, I will say, as you get older and the issues hit closer to home. And I was thinking of all of that when I wrote Maeve and Andrea's friendship and sort of examined the implications there.

RASCOE: I want to talk about the last few pages of the book. They do get very gory. Can you tell me about writing those pages and what that was like? Because it does take a turn.

HELTZEL: It does. And I'm glad you mentioned that because that's my favorite part of the book.

RASCOE: OK (laughter).

HELTZEL: The book completely changes tonally at one point, and that was me giving myself the permission to just spread my wings in the horror genre and really have fun with it. And there's so much freedom in the horror genre, which is why it appeals to me. It's a terrific vehicle for processing emotion and anxieties, but it's also so much fun. And you can really get in there and do just about anything as long as you have rules established. You know, I love it, and I think that's kind of the most important thing. I know a lot of people may think, what the heck happened to this book here? But I don't know. It was, for me, the most fun part to write, so I think that's worth something.

RASCOE: Anne Heltzel - her new book, "Just Like Mother," is out now. Thank you so much for joining us.

HELTZEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.