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“We are all more than one thing.”
Leni Zumas’ imaginative Red Clocks follows the intertwining stories of five women struggling to express their own worth.
Why do you refer to your female protagonists by titles that highlight their relationships to others (the Biographer, Daughter, Wife, Mender and Explorer), rather than by their names?
I was thinking a lot about the narratives women inherit about motherhood, marriage, professional ambition, purpose in life—and how these narratives are not a great for many of us. So I imagined five very different female characters and gave them different labels to highlight some of the roles women perform. There’s a wife, a daughter, a teacher, a healer, a polar explorer. Some are mothers, some aren’t. All of them face longstanding questions about women’s bodies—who decides what your body is used for? Who decides what you can and cannot do with it? What happens if you end up not taking the motherhood path, or you choose not to have a romantic partner—what label is assigned to you then? By interlacing their stories, I was hoping to suggest how insufficient any one label ends up being. We are all more than one thing.
Across the five women, one desires to be a mother more than anything, one wishes she could be away from her children, one seeks abortion, one gives a child up for adoption and one probably never wanted a child at all. How has your life and your journey to motherhood informed the characterization of all these women?
Red Clocks is rooted in my experience of trying to have a baby on my own, via artificial insemination. I bought strangers’ sperm on the internet and fielded warnings from friends and family about how hard it would be to raise a child alone. I thought I would get pregnant easily, but I didn’t. I started to question why I wanted so badly to have a baby in the first place. Several years later, I had a son with my partner. Even as a mother I feel a kinship with women who aren’t, either by choice or circumstance, and I remain ambivalent about the ways in which the mother role is framed as an imperative (moral, emotional, social, existential) at the expense of other roles and identities. This ambivalence, I think, is part of the reason I gave the five characters such different relationships to motherhood.
This book has obvious parallels to The Handmaid’s Tale. Are there other books that you’ve found influential?
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on literary representations of female artists, and Atwood’s Surfacing was one of the primary texts I analyzed, alongside Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo and Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters. Surfacing is about a book illustrator who struggles toward an epiphany about her place in (or outside of) society, including the question of whether to become a mother. It’s not as dramatic or famous as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s the Atwood novel that sticks in my mind.
You used transcripts of the Salem witch trials to inform the Mender’s trial, but you ended up editing much of that out. What remains of that research in the text?
Here are a few lines from the original draft of Red Clocks. The prosecutor’s question came from the trial of Mary Black on April 22, 1692, as recorded in The Salem Witchcraft Papers:
Prosecutor: “Do you prick sticks?”
Gin Percival: “What?”
Prosecutor: “Is there any object you prick on a regular basis with safety pins?”
Gin Percival: “I pin my neck-cloth.”
Prosecutor: “What about wood? Sticks?”
Gin Percival: “No is my answer.”
Prosecutor: “I’ll remind you that you are under oath, Ms. Percival.”
Gin Percival: “Only my neck-cloth.”
At some point my editor, Lee Boudreaux, and I decided that the borrowed language wasn’t working, but the transcripts pushed me to think about the connections (both explicit and buried) between the 17th century’s blaming of individual women for collective misfortune and the 21st century’s anxiety about women who live beyond the reach of social norms. I wanted to tie my characters to another pocket of history where the fear of powerful women resulted in tragedy. The Salem trials gave me the idea, for instance, to have the town blame the Mender for the arrival of an invasive seaweed called Dead Man’s Fingers.
The eating of bodies—such as stranded ships resorting to cannibalism, and even the Wife eating earth after declaring separation from her husband—is a recurring theme. Why?
I think I was exploring (consciously and unconsciously) modes of interbeing. The Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh coined this term to describe the state of mutual dependence we all live in. We may imagine ourselves as separate entities, discrete selves, but is this really accurate? Cloud becomes rain becomes tree becomes paper; there is a cloud in this piece of paper. The cloud and paper inter-are. When Susan, the Wife, crouches down to taste dirt, she’s vaguely aware that the dirt consists of feathers, bones, skin—traces of other bodies being absorbed into her own.
And the act of eating itself—so fraught for so many of us! Anxiety over body size, body desirability, unchecked appetite—these fears inhere in the moment of swallowing. For a long time now, women have been told that controlling our calories is key to controlling our lives. We learn to aim corrective and punitive energies inward, upon ourselves. Rather than criticize a culture that equates a woman’s worth with her appearance, we should criticize our own appearance. Rather than change the system, we should change our waistline.
You’ve woven a great supporting cast of peripheral men into the story. Bryan, Pete, Cotter, etc, help to drive the story forward through their usually antagonistic relationships to the women. They are each as individual as all the women, though they seem to be threaded together similarly. What measures did you take to imagine these characters as distinct as they are?
About halfway through my first draft, I noticed that I was centering the female characters and leaving the men, as you say, on the periphery. This configuration felt true and necessary to the book. The Wife’s husband, Didier, is loosely based on an ex-boyfriend of mine, but otherwise the male characters were built from shards and snippets. Pete Xiao materialized when I heard a guy at a Portland tea shop say, “Dance, puppet, dance!” Bryan, the Wife’s fling interest, is a prototype of Tall White Man Who Moves With Impunity Through the World. And I started to envision Cotter based on a line I loved from the 1692 trial of Nehemiah Abbot, Jr.: “He was a hilly faced man and stood shaded by reason of his own hair.”
Whales play a huge supporting role, from the beached whales in Oregon to the naming of whale fetuses in Japan to the grindadráp (a Faroese tradition of whale hunting). Why?
Cetaceans tend to get used as symbols: of innocence, of wisdom, of human greed. Even as the whales in Red Clocks carry some of that symbolism, I hope there’s also a distortion or disruption of the sentimental grandeur so often associated with them. The Daughter is studying Moby-Dick in English class, but the teacher has no idea what to say about it. The Daughter mumbles lines of Melville to a beached whale as it bleeds and suffocates, in counterpoint to the Polar Explorer’s love for the grindadráp, a ritual whale slaughter in the Faroe Islands.
Did you base Eivør on a real-life explorer? What kind of research did you do to shape her arc?
Eivør Mínervudottír (not based on an actual person) came out of my enthrallment with polar climes and nautical peril. I love stories about shipwrecks, especially when ice and snow are involved! To imagine Eivør’s experience, I read 19th-century sailors’ diaries, lighthouse keepers’ logs and reports on lost Arctic expeditions. I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Shackleton miniseries for the fifth time. This research was one of my favorite things about writing Red Clocks.
What are you working on next?
I’ve got a new novel underway—it’s in that scary/joyous early stage where the mess could go anywhere—and I’m working on essays, including a piece about why I hate holiday photo cards. That one is likely to anger some of my relatives.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Red Clocks.
Photo credit Elijah Hoffman.