For Parents Who Write (and Vice Versa)


M. M. De Voe (right) watching Joanna Smith Rakoff read (by Darius Suziedelis)

M.M. De Voe (right) watching Joanna Hershon

After a lively conversation with Pen Parentis co-founder M.M. De Voe at the most recent Tribeca Meet & Greet, I asked her if she’d re-enact it over email. But first, a little background: Launched in 2008 and sponsored by Fractured Atlas, a 501c3 non-profit arts service organization, Pen Parentis is an “open literary arts project” based on the idea that parents who are also writers could benefit from a community. The group hosts monthly salons where writer-parents give readings and hobnob, and longterm goals include contests, panel discussions, support groups, childcare grants, and a writing center with programming for kids. More than 600 people are on the mailing list.

De Voe is a grant- and award-winning published author—there are links to some of her work on her site,—and before creating Pen Parentis with writer Arlaina Tibensky, she was an actress and has been on the management of two Manhattan theater companies. (She still does voiceover work, if you’re looking.) She currently lives in the Financial District. And her friends call her M. or Milda.

TC: Not to be antagonistic or anything, but why do parents who write need their own group?
MMDV: No offense taken…. But the answer is inherent in the question. When I introduce the concept to authors with kids I get responses like this one (from today’s email): “Your organization sounds outstanding. Parenthood adds a new, more complex meaning to one’s work, but also makes finding time to write more difficult, which is why you will see that all my emails, just like all my creative work, is done well past midnight, when the children are asleep. Thank you for creating such an important community.” In short? Because authors who are parents hold down two mutually exclusive 24/7 jobs, and succeeding at both of them simultaneously requires support and understanding, it helps to hear the success stories of others to keep us motivated.


TC: On the other hand, combining these two things—parenthood and writing—might lead one to expect that you all write exclusively about your kids.
MMDV: Tragically misguided conclusion. (Laughter.) Actually, that’s one of the misconceptions Pen Parentis faces most often. Also it’s one of the reasons many “serious” writers keep their kids out of their bios. But it’s worth facing down the prejudice that parents are by nature boring: People with kids write about some edgy stuff. Authors we’ve featured at the salon have written about demonic possession, being a gay rock star, and finding passionate love in the digital age, to list but a few. And yes, some have written about their kids. Actually, those kids will probably end up writing their own memoirs in a few years. (More laughter.)


TC: The bulk of Pen Parentis’s efforts go toward the salon?
MMDV: For the past year, we’ve hosted the salon. It is now up and running, though a considerable effort is still made towards making it known that it is open to the general public. Our current focus is on promoting our new Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship for New Parents.

M.M.DeVoe, Ellen Umansky, and Yona Zeldis McDonough

M.M.DeVoe, Ellen Umansky, and Yona Zeldis McDonough

TC: And is it all fiction writers? How do you find/choose authors?
MMDV: The salon features primarily fiction writers, because we all need a good story. Also because the big bookstores are happy to host readings of memoir and nonfiction, but do less for authors of fiction. That said, we do have Max Watman coming to read in April—he writes primarily nonfiction, great voice-driven creative nonfiction—so we’re not entirely bound to one genre. Our approach toward choosing authors is to try to have one established author who might bring in new faces, paired with an emergent author whose work we particularly admire. We seek to show a breadth of subjects and genres, and try to make a fun evening for the audience. Something surprising, like the husband and wife we had in October, both of whom write horror, is always nice. Many times the authors approach us—sometimes through an agent or publicist, but often they stumble across our Facebook page, or website, or they hear about a colleague’s great experience reading and email us. Other times, we discover a great book and have to ferret out whether the author is a parent before we invite them—like Jennifer Egan who is reading in September. Her book, The Keep, was fantastic. You should read it. Or come in September to see what she’s writing now.


TC: Are people without kids welcome to attend? Will they feel like they have to lie and say they have kids? Because the readings sound like more fun than the ones at Barnes & Noble. (Then again, maybe I just like a bar….)
MMDV: If B&N is a sales meeting, this is a date, with content—after all, the Libertine Library is basically an elegant private bar. As to whether people feel they have to lie…. Well, that’s something to take up with your therapist. We are not procreation-missionaries. We’re artists. The event is about the art and how it got made. And it’s happy hour.


TC: So kidless folks are welcome?
MMDV: Yes! Absolutely!


TC: Last question! What’s a typical Pen Parentis salon like?
MMDV: People start showing up around 6 p.m. to grab their favorite seats. They get drinks, some order food, they excange business cards or just chat. It is a warm, intimate group. Then around 6:20 or so, the first reader starts. They read for about twenty minutes, we take a break to refresh drinks. Some people buy books (Borders vends them for signings) and then the second reader reads. There is a short Q&A moderated by our artistic director and me, we then break for a last round of drinks, book signings, and private discussions. The event ends at eight, but I’ve seen people linger for an hour, and many take their new friends downstairs for dinner at the Libertine or other nearby restaurants. It’s really a fun night.


The next Pen Parentis salon is Tuesday, Feb. 9, 6 p.m.–8 p.m. The featured authors will be Rachel Sherman (her stories have appeared in McSweeney’s and Open City, and she is the author of The First Hurt and, her debut novel, Living Room), Mark Shulman (author of more than 100 children’s books, as well as a young-adult novel, Scrawl, to be published this fall), and Meg Mullins (author of The Rug Merchant). The Libertine Library at Gild Hall Hotel is at 15 Gold St. (bet. Maiden Lane and Platt St.); enter through the lobby of the hotel and go up the stairs. For more information, see

Photo credits, from top: Darius Suziedelis, Aubrey Bretillot



  1. well– as beautiful a woman and writer as joanna smith rakoff is, and as honored i am to be mistaken for her, i should probably point out that this first photo is actually of me, joanna hershon!

  2. If you don’t, who will? (Sorry about that… I fixed it!)