, Leni Zumas’s fascinating second novel, follows four women, the Mender, the Mother, the Daughter, and the Biographer, as they move through the life stages of pregnancy, motherhood, and infertility. In their small seaside town, the Mother raises her kids and envies the Biographer's freedom. The Biographer researches the first female polar explorer and yearns for a child. The Daughter seeks an abortion, and the Mender surreptitiously cares for the town's women while carrying secrets of her own.
is a novel about reproductive freedoms, but its primary concern is not politics. Instead, Red Clocks
provides an exquisite portrait of the internal legislation that governs motherhood — not the laws enacted in Congressional offices, but the unique joys and recriminations that occur inside of every woman who yearns for or experiences pregnancy and motherhood. As the Mother, Mender, Daughter and Biographer show — in utterly compelling, distinct voices — there's no simple narrative governing the choice to carry, birth, abort, or adopt a child. Each choice is fraught, and intimately tied to a self-determination constantly under threat not just from lawmakers, but from our own flawed and evolving ideas of what a woman should be, or want. We’re excited to present Red Clocks
as Volume 71 of Indiespensable
I read in a prior interview that you started writing Red Clocks
in 2010, before your son was born. Did your approach to any of the characters or the plot change at all after you became a mom?
I think it must have in ways I'm not even necessarily conscious of. One of the things that shifted is that when I was writing before I got pregnant, and when I was dealing with infertility and a lot of uncertainty about becoming a mother, I think that made me focus more on the Biographer's trajectory and on her grappling with both desperately wanting something and also questioning why she wants it.
Once I became a mom and was working in much smaller chunks of time, just logistically, I think I was able to roam around more and give more attention to the other central characters and have a little more distance from Ro’s (the Biographer's) quest, if that makes sense. I wasn't so personally caught up in the fears that haunt her about whether or not she would have a child.
Indiespensable Volume 71
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Did the book start with her?
It did. It actually started as a strange little essay that I was writing, just for myself, about my experience with IVF and fertility stuff, as well as my experience earlier on, several years before I did become a mother, when I was trying to become a single mom right before I was with my husband.
That's also an experience that shaped writing the Biographer's quest. I was writing it as an essay, but that form didn't feel right, so I started trying to imagine, OK, what if I had a character who was going through this?
Someone in a community, counterposed against other women who have different relationships to this question.
One of the things I think is so beautiful about fiction is that you can introduce other points of view more flexibly and imagine, What if there's a character who is judgmental of the Biographer in trying to become a single mom? What if there's a character who was never interested in motherhood to begin with and has a different way that she rolls?
The Biographer was central at the beginning, but so were the Wife (Susan) and the Mender (Gin).
All of the characters are very well-defined, separate individuals, but they could also be facets of one woman — they personify the judgments that women make about themselves and that women imagine are being made about them by their communities.
I think for my entire writing life and into the future I will be writing about female friendships and female relationships. That's one of my core interests. That bond between women is so layered, so thorny, and can be really supportive and really competitive at the same time. I don't know if you're a fan of the Ferrante quartets
, but I think there's so much to talk about in them about how female friendship is constructed and framed. That's something that really interested me as I was writing Red Clocks
How do we come to want what we want? Does that desire just belong to us, or is it a product of history?
One of the things the book does is delve into the silent competitions between women and investigate how corrosive they are to the self.
I didn't want to give that any kind of resolution, because I think that’s something that I continue to have questions about or to be confused about in my own life, especially now that I'm in my 40s and my friendships are different from when I was in high school. I’m interested in the ways in which they're different — what are those silent judgments that we have of each other, and how can we move past them, but not in any kind of easy way?
I think if I had to identify one of my biggest difficulties in writing this book it was dealing with the Wife, Susan, who is really important to me. I kept being afraid: Is she too one-note? Is she too negative? I came to realize that some of those questions are also things that a lot of women learn to ask about themselves: Am I being too much this way? Am I a cliché because of this?
A specific example would be the kinds of foods that Susan secretly eats. On the one hand, even as I was writing that, I was like, this sounds like such a cliché, eating chocolate and cookies. But then, I was also like, if I made it, I don't know, edamame and pineapple or something to defamiliarize it, I would also be walking away from the banality and ordinariness of keeping chocolate bars in your drawer and wanting to rely on those. [Laughter
That's an example of a kind of quandary I had. I ended up choosing to not make anything too strange in terms of the sorts of choices she makes, because I wanted to look at that tedium.
Susan was so interesting. I'm a mom and I didn't want to identify with Susan, because there are so many ways in which she's not that likable, but I couldn't help but relate to her. The way you repeat her domestic chores — “Spray table. Wipe down table. Rinse cups and bowls.” — perfectly captures what it is to be a mom. It's an inherently wonderful but also very frustrating and monotonous role.
I'm glad to hear you say that. Because how does one look at some those really repetitive, boring elements of child care or homecare? [In writing this] I had to look at my own set of assumptions, especially from when I was a younger woman starting to identify as a feminist, which I still do and which is incredibly important to my identity. I had a lot of pretty black-and-white thinking, like every woman should work or nobody should stay home with the kids — not really thinking about the complexities of paid and unpaid labor and emotional labor and class and race when it comes to domestic work.
All of those things were swirling around in my mind when I was writing Susan, because I relate to her a lot too, and I also feel a lot of frustration with her. A friend of mine who read the book said something similar to you. She's like, I really did not want to connect to that character, but I did.
Inevitably, readers are going to link Red Clocks
with The Handmaid’s Tale
, though the two novels approach female sexuality and especially motherhood very differently. Do you see your story in any way as a response to The Handmaid’s Tale
, or in dialogue with it?
I would say ultimately, yes, it is in conversation with that book and with other books in the same vein, even though when I was writing it I wasn't thinking about The Handmaid's Tale
Obviously, The Handmaid's Tale
and Atwood herself are part of the literary culture that I grew up in. But even beyond my own personal details, motherhood and female sexuality are part of a larger conversation that we've all been having for a long time, before there were hashtags for it and things were getting media attention.
I feel like in experiencing motherhood, or in writing about motherhood, or in choosing not to become a mother, we all inherit these beliefs about it. Part of our own experience is negotiating and interacting with and maybe resisting or embracing some of those lessons that we've learned. I just don't think any of our work comes out of a vacuum.
I would also add that I was interested in writing something about feelings around not becoming a mother, or making that decision, because at least in my reading life I haven't encountered so much literature about that. Maybe that's just the limitation of what I've read or haven't read, but I felt like that's an important part of the conversation too.
It's really intriguing that we come to think of ourselves as these very separate beings, but we're really not. We rely on one another and on the natural world in ways that we're not usually conscious of.
The Biographer’s subject is a fascinating and completely fictional 19th-century polar explorer named Eivør Mínervudottír, and her brief, lyrical interchapters struck me as a kind of ongoing puzzle. I kept changing my mind: sometimes they seem to operate as metaphors for the four other women in the book (all of whom can definitely be described as trapped in ice), while at other times they seem more literal — Eivør’s just another woman operating in “the dark creases of history.” How did you settle on her as the Biographer’s subject, and how would you characterize her narrative function within the novel?
Well, I think it's actually pretty much exactly what you just described, both the literal and the figurative. I do imagine her as an actual person in the world with her own attractions and her own desires and movement. But placing certain passages of hers near passages of the other characters wasn’t an accident. I wanted her to act as kind of a prism, to refract different angles back onto the other characters. But my hope, at least, was that she wouldn't simply be metaphorical.
The biographer can't know a lot of the things that she writes about Eivør, so she's kind of creating her story. But she sees it as a way to rescue parts of our history that get covered over. That's the history of Western civilization. If you're a woman or a person of color, it's likely that your selfhood and your individual narrative have not been preserved or held up in any kind of heroic way, with a few exceptions.
But in terms of where Eivør came from, really it was just from my personal obsession with reading about polar exploration, the Arctic, and the Antarctic, and thinking about how masculine those spaces have been historically, both in terms of logistic reality — who is going on the scientific exploration missions — and in terms of some of the more figurative tropes that the Arctic calls up, the sort of vast blank spaces that must be explored, discovered, and filled by the expertise of men. There's a lot of interesting work on late 19th- and early 20th-century polar exploration, linking it with colonization and the idea that we have to take over every single part of the Earth, matter who's already living there or the effect that our presence is going to have.
This last week there was an article about a woman who skied alone across some expanse in Antarctica. She talks about urination and menstruation in subfreezing weather. Those were some of the things that I was really interested in imagining. Only a few snippets of that made it into Red Clocks
because I chose not to put in a lot of what I wrote about Eivør. I wanted her to operate in a pretty different narrative mode from the other characters and not to have a fully fleshed-out presence.
I think this happens a lot with fiction writers. We happen to be interested in something, and then we have to reverse engineer it to make that object of interest work in the narrative, rather than the other way around. Because I really didn't start out by saying, Oh, I want Ro to be writing the history of this woman.
It kind of came from the opposite direction.
I don't know if you've read Spinster
by Kate Bolick, but one of the things she argues is that true gender equality will only exist when a woman's decision to remain unmarried or childless is as unremarkable as a man's decision to do the same. I kept thinking about this idea during the Biographer portions of Red Clocks
, although the more I think about it, it applies to Susan as well. Ro’s ultimate desire in the novel —to be free to have a multiplicity of contradictory desires, unbound by gender but not apart from it — isn’t a lot to ask, but for American women it’s a radical act. Only Gin truly manages it, and she’s an outcast. I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.
I love this question, because I think it's amazing that in 2017 there is still this question of, Are you going to get married, are you going to have kids?
If you're an American woman, it depends on your upbringing, your class, what region of the country you're from. There are a lot of different factors, but the question of children and marriage remains central, whereas, as you said, for a man it's not a central question. It’s not a defining element in the way that it still seems to be for women. I think that my curiosity and confusion about that is one of the reasons I wrote this book.
I don't claim to have answers, but I've been thinking about it a great deal in terms of the national debates we're having around abortion rights, yet again, and sexual harassment, because both of those are linked at their core to this question of a woman's sovereignty over her own body. Like, do I get to decide if there's a single-celled zygote in my uterus; do I get to decide if it stays there? Or, if I’m applying for a job, do I get to decide whether the person interviewing me touches my breast?
It appears that a lot of people, men and some women, still don't think it’s a given that a woman can have that privacy. That her body — our bodies — are seen more like spaces for public debate than the loci of our private decisions. It's really strange and horrifying. The biographer's question — how much of her desire to become a mom is biological, and how much of it is culturally inherited, and how much of it is just her temperament — is a very real question for me, and for a lot of us, not just in relation to motherhood, but to the things we want in general. How do we come to want what we want? Does that desire just belong to us, or is it a product of history and socioeconomic factors?
I think for my entire writing life…I will be writing about female friendships and female relationships.
The novel seems to celebrate Gin the Mender’s lifestyle as a healthier choice for women. It’s more in tune with “nature,” defining nature less explicitly as plants and animals, though that’s certainly a major theme of the novel, and more as a metaphor for balance. Living in the woods, primarily outside of human society, gives Gin space for self-determination, and she seizes it unapologetically. She suffers for it. But she seizes it.
I saw a lot of the other characters in the book, particularly Susan, striving for a similar self-determination that seems to be in some sort of relationship to nature.
I don't know if I ever defined it exactly like that to myself, but it resonates, because one of the reasons that the historical witch figure is so interesting to me is that witches have been a site of anxiety. They are women who are often older, they're not reproducing, and they're kind of outside of the paradigm of women as fertile, attractive, nubile sorts of beings. They also, then, are feared and blamed for things, or given a fearful power.
In the case of Gin, she gets freedom and relief from removing herself from the social order. It doesn’t come without its cost, but not just for women — for anyone who doesn't behave as they're supposed to, or doesn't want to practice social niceties or conform to socially appropriate behavior. Where’s the space in the world for them, and how do they make their own space? I think that's just as valid of a choice, and yet there's a lot of fearfulness around it. Like the strange woman who lives by herself in the woods: Is she crazy? Is she dangerous?
But there's also kind of a self-sufficiency that Gin acquires from trying to live off the forest and from the barter economy that she has with her clients. And, with her story line with Mattie, the Daughter, I wanted her to be interested in Mattie and care about her without giving up her life for her.
It's in this context of nature as metaphor that I started to understand Susan's obsession with the black plastic bag she sees blowing across the road, which she confuses with a crawling, burnt animal. She realizes her mistake, but then continues to imagine the bag in this way. This image — “A little animal is struggling across the road….Already dead, still trying.” — articulates the intensity of her desire to escape her marriage and find Gin’s kind of self-determination or balance. This connection between nature and freedom is reiterated when Susan literally eats earth at the end of the novel.
It is, and it's also about decay, that kind of disintegration. Dirt is made up of bodies and hair and minerals and things that have decomposed. For Susan, this feeling like things are rotting or decaying suggests that maybe they can also be a means of transformation. Even a plastic bag, which is kind of like the detritus of consumer capitalism, can also be this burnt animal.
That ties into when Eivør's body disintegrates and becomes a part of the food chain, and the way Gin incorporates Temple’s hair and nails into her remedies.
There's this Buddhist idea of interbeing. I mean, it's not just Buddhist, but that's one articulation of it. All the ways that we're connected and mutually interdependent, even at a cellular level, really fascinate me.
I'm writing about these women who are connected in certain ways, even at the level of thought, but also alienated from each other. I also return to this very bodily or elemental way that they are connected to other creatures and to the Earth itself and to the water itself. I guess that sounds kind of New Agey, but to me, it's really intriguing that we come to think of ourselves as these very separate beings, but we're really not. We rely on one another and on the natural world in ways that we're usually unconscious of.
It’s funny you say that, because in my notes for this interview I wrote: “The novel clearly links women and nature, but it’s not New Agey!”
I didn't want to essentialize that as women are nature and men are cerebral or any of that bullshit. But I've also been thinking about when I got pregnant with my son through IVF. I made the mistake of reading the comments sections for articles about advanced reproductive technology in The New York Times
, and some of the most vicious, hateful comments said things like: This is not natural. What you're doing is against nature. We shouldn't be able to have this technology, etc.
I'm thinking, OK, so a baby should only be born if it happens “the natural way,” versus our attitude towards, say, cancer
. I've never heard anyone say, well, cancer cells arise naturally based on toxins in the body or heredity, so we should just let them do what they do. People are like, no, we need medication to eradicate this thing.
Who benefits from the natural argument? What are we trying to preserve with that argument?
In a previous Powell’s interview you noted, “I’m interested in the power of naming. It harkens back to spell casting and more ancient rituals of healing or cursing, that you have to say a person’s name and what happens when you’re not allowed to.” I’m curious about how this interest in naming plays into Red Clocks
, in which the characters go by both regular names like Susan and archetypal names like Wife. Plus, I’m guessing Roberta Louise Stephens is named after Robert Louis Stevenson
I remember I almost changed Ro’s name. I have this very wonderful, brilliant agent who thought the reason she's named Ro is because of Roe v. Wade.
Oh, that didn't occur to me.
It didn't occur to me, either, until I'd already chosen it. Even the Roberta Louise Stephens... part of that is because of Robert Louis Stevenson, because one of his relatives was a lighthouse builder. But originally I chose her name because I wanted to base the characters' names for this novel on Virginia Woolf's The Waves
. The characters in that are Rhoda, Louis, Neville, Bernard, Jinny, and Susan. Ro was Rhoda, Gin was from Jinny, there’s Susan, and then Neville became Newville, the name of the town in Red Clocks
. Percival is a seventh character who doesn't speak. That's where I got Gin’s last name.
Why The Waves
It's just one of my favorite books. And I felt like I wanted my book to speak to the oceanic element of that book. I highly recommend The Waves
. It’s a lot about voice and self and the separation of self, but also the ways in which voices together become a chorus or create harmonies. My book was also multi-narrative. I took a lot of inspiration from The Waves
I spoke with Leni Zumas on December 12, 2017.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the story collection Farewell Navigator
and the novel The Listeners
, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She is an associate professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Portland State University. Red Clocks
is her most recent novel.