In the central pages of The Leaving Season, Kelly McMasters decides to leave her marriage. Together with her husband, a painter, she had moved from New York City to rural Pennsylvania to enjoy a slower pace of life, start a family, and later open a bookshop. The decision to leave upends it all. In this rupture, McMasters finds a fraught but hopeful new beginning.
The Leaving Season is a sharp and lyrical exploration of marriage, divorce, and motherhood. In connected essays, McMasters shares a resonant tale of resilience and grace, brimming with unflinching, evocative prose.
The Leaving Season is McMasters’s second memoir. In 2008 she published Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town. She’s also the co-editor of the anthologies Wanting: Women Writing about Desire and This Is the Place: Women Writing about Home.
I spoke with McMasters over Zoom about the connections between landscape, violence, and identity, the reclamation of art and agency, the ethics of writing about a former partner, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Leaving Season took you ten years to write, and you published several of the essays independently first. Was this always a book in your mind?
Not at all. I only began seeing it as a book about five years ago. Most of the essays that were published changed dramatically in this final draft. I pushed against making marriage the arc. And it took two or three revisions to get it to a place where the plot is the marriage, but the emotional arc is not. I was then able to build the narrative and see what essays still needed to be written.
That moment in the bookshop, where my friend comes in and says, “You can leave,” was such a before and after. And that is the exact middle of the book. My ex and I had never been business partners before then, and the bookshop was a mirror that let me see the inequities in our home space, and also see what I wanted, what I didn’t want any longer, and what was possible. Some people say it’s a divorce book. But I think it’s a love story. It starts as a love story between two people, and ultimately it’s a love story with myself.
You share some difficult things in this story, but throughout you remain kind toward your ex and your marriage. In one scene, you write about hearing his footsteps as you lie in bed, and longing for him but pretending to sleep, then feeling guilty. I recognized that dread as a daughter rather than a wife—I’m estranged from my father. I think this notion of seeking connection with someone pathologically unable to give you the love you need and wrestling with whether it’s your fault will resonate with many readers.
It means so much to me that you saw kindness on the pages. I worked so hard on that, and it took many drafts. Kindness, and also gratitude: of course I wish it didn’t have to happen the way it did, but I would not have become the mother that I am or have the family that I’ve created without being on my own. I tried to do everything right. And it was only when I stopped trying that I became the most whole that I’ve ever been. And I do hope that resonates.
It means a lot to me to imagine you reading that as a daughter. Because at some point, I hope that my children will read this book. It is important to me that they know this was my experience. That does not mean it is the only experience. It certainly would not be their father’s experience. And that doesn’t invalidate my experience. And I certainly hope it leaves plenty of space for theirs. In the same way that, while my marriage and my divorce are mine, a reader might recognize shades of them but it leaves plenty of space for their own experience.
A sense of foreboding lurks through your pages. You write about fires, about ghosts and haunting, about crying for three days after your engagement, and the introduction of your ex-husband as an artist foreshadows darkness. Throughout, you paint red flags with subtlety, but also with the wisdom of someone who’s on the other side. Was this foreshadowing deliberate or organic to the process of writing personal nonfiction?
I don’t think I made any of the connections as they happened. I did later, through the writing of it—that’s how I process. Imagining my story as a complete narrative helped to connect the dots too. Revision felt like Hansel and Gretel walking through the woods: oh my gosh, there’s a breadcrumb, how did I not see that? When “She Bit His Hand to the Bone” was initially published, I saw it as a loving tribute—we were still in the first years of our relationship. But when I read that essay later, I thought, somebody needs to help this girl! With distance, in time and from the relationship, I was able to see certain patterns of image and emotion and polish them intentionally.
In your powerful essay about 9/11, where you witness the towers being hit, you write: “It feels like my brain takes a while to understand that I am, in fact, in danger.” Then you stand next to the man who will become your husband as you watch the towers fall.
For a long time, I couldn’t talk about 9/11. When I started talking about it, I was surprised in the same way I was once I began talking about divorce. In both instances, there is a clear before and after. A lot of people have told me that the decisions they made in the year after 9/11 followed them for the rest of their life. For me, that was changing professions, and holding on to the body that stood next to me while the towers fell—that dictated the next ten years of my life.
I still get so emotional when I see images of 9/11. I went back and forth about whether to include this essay—I worried about hurting people. But it’s a bedrock issue. Whenever I thought about how to explain my life’s arc, I kept coming back to that day.
You’ve said you see yourself as a landscape writer. Place is a driving theme in this book: the Twin Towers, the symbolic dichotomy between the Brooklyn art studio and the Pennsylvania farmhouse, the barn bar as a metaphor of masculinity, the bookshop as a nexus of hope and change, the suburbs as a liminal space.
I first imagined The Leaving Season as a landscape book in three parts: the city, the country, and the Arctic. At the time, I felt conflicted about ending up in the suburbs and didn’t want to write about it. I went to Svalbard, which is near the Arctic Circle, and wrote an essay about icebergs and divorce, and wanted to continue to report out that section. But my editor said, “I think the third landscape is the suburbs.” And it felt like a complete arc.
Nature and landscape are where I find the most fertile ground for narrative. Landscape helps me process self and identity. In the city, I am this independent writer; in the country, I am the artist’s wife; in the suburbs, I am the single mom. And really, I’m all of those, but I changed depending on where I was.
Kirkus called your writing style “anthropological” for its measured distance in storytelling. I would also describe it as “painterly.” You sketch characters and landscapes with layers of precise, evocative details like brushstrokes. This painterly approach is also deliberate: you include short lyrical essays labeled “Still Life.” At one point, you write your husband’s portrait as he paints yours. You liken a candlelit corner to a Vermeer and use pigment names to convey color. In “The Stone Boat,” you directly compare writer and artist, but throughout there’s a sense of the two mirroring each other.
It was important for me to inhabit the body of the painter. In our relationship, he was the artist with a capital A. I was the mom, the teacher, the wife. He used to say “You’re a writer,” which I loved, but it didn’t hold the same weight as “I’m an artist.” I really love art, in the same way that I love poetry and photography. And I felt like a door was closed to me, because I rejected the artist. This book was about reclaiming my relationship with art.
Each “Still Life” essay captures this moment in time that will always exist even as everything else changes. Memory works for me as these sort of snapshots. I am a terrible artist in terms of drawing, but I learned so much from my ex in terms of seeing. The approach you describe as painterly is about that relationship between seeing and being seen.
I included something on the page only when I could be in my body viewing it. I’m comfortable as a narrator when I’m observing. I wound up cutting the parts where I would explain too much or assume someone else’s intention. I’m not saying that what results is fact. But it is my truth.
“There’s a father at the easel. There’s a mother at the sink.” You repeat this line in the book. You are this independent, educated woman who never thought she wanted marriage, yet a traditional dynamic fell into place when your husband became ill and you stepped into the domestic role of caregiver. Then he held steady in his artistic pursuits, as you continually adapted to his needs and wants. This story of leaving also seems a reclamation of your agency as a woman. Would you agree?
I think you’re right. Wanting precedes the leaving. And both of those things are really fucking subversive in surprising ways. I don’t think I understood that until I stood on the other side of it. In these commitments that women make—in our marriages, our jobs—our agency shrinks. And it’s not that we can’t, but we’ve stopped believing that we can. I didn’t realize that I had the agency to say, “I’m done.” And it was only in recognizing that, that I was able to leave.
I thought by marrying an artist, somebody unconventional, I was assuring myself an unconventional life. I loved him. I loved his work. So when I was put in that position of caretaker, I genuinely enjoyed it and felt like I could help him get better. There’s nothing I did against my will. Only through the bookshop, when I was able to see that mirror of [our inequities], did I ask, “Where have my boundaries gone?”
An undercurrent of violence, both physical and psychological, runs through your story. Your husband patches a hole in the wall, you track his rage on a calendar, there’s an incident with a gun which you describe as a rupture. This subtle fear is palpable throughout. Leaving itself engenders a rupture, a sort of necessary violence to the family unit. How do the scales shift with this departure?
The term “broken home” [remains] a gut punch. But what I did was make my home whole and safe. And I believe we are all the better for it.
In the “Ghost in the Hills” essay, I tried to work through the concept of heterotopia and [the normalization of violence], and I realized this is contextual. In the country, where what stands in for beauty is the splayed carcass of a bobcat, watching myself recognize that beauty was almost as unnerving as seeing violence normalized around me. Each place has its own types of violence that are not acceptable in other places. In one of the “Still Life” pieces, one male neighbor shoots at a female neighbor across the hill, and I write “That’s how love goes in the country.” If that happened in New York City, we would be swarmed with cops. In the suburbs, the violence is uniformity. The toned arms of the PTA moms, right? In each place, it’s what becomes normalized, what you stop noticing. And that’s why landscape matters, because you are the same person, no matter where you are, but you adapt in the same way that I adapted in my marriage.
The bookshop reminded me of who I used to be in the city. When you collide with a version of yourself that you don’t recognize—which is another kind of violence—you are awakened. I was able to see that I was not the wife, the partner, that I wanted to be anymore. I never thought I would own a gun or that I would delight in lighting caterpillars on fire. These small violences were not recognizable to who I believed myself to be.
In writing memoir, we often record the terrible behavior of others because it was defining for us as the protagonist of our own story. In the context of divorce, that means writing about a former partner. But the way we set a person on paper may haunt them—or us. I am curious about the ethics of writing about another person’s worst moments.
I don’t know that my ex would consider these his worst moments. Maybe that’s why I felt that I could write about them—because they were mine. They were my worst moments. Some of them involved him, and we were both participants.
This book went through a legal read and everything is fact-checked, everything is true, but of course that doesn’t affect emotions. Together we created these children, and this marriage which had beautiful moments, but also terrible moments. I hope that in the book I take ownership for my parts. And I hope my ex as an artist understands that this is just like painting my version of our story. I worked through this conflict in therapy, and my therapist said, “Well, what if he painted you as this harpy shrew on the canvas?” He can paint anything he wants right now, and put it on a wall and exhibit it. That’s his right as an artist.
I think the ethics of what I owe him are outweighed by the ethics of what I owe other people going through a similar situation, who might gain strength from seeing that they’re not alone as I believed I was, that they should not be ashamed as I was, that they might have agency a little bit sooner than I did.
The Leaving Season
by Kelly McMasters
W. W. Norton & Company
Published May 9th, 2023
Jenny Bartoy is a French-American writer and freelance developmental editor based in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Room, Permafrost Magazine, Literary Mama, and the anthologies Sharp Notions: Essays from the Stitching Life and Labor of Love: A Literary Mama Anthology, among other publications. She is the Managing Editor for Literary Mama and the editor of Broken Free: Essays About Cutting Ties, an anthology about familial estrangement seeking representation.