Leni Zumas’ new novel, Red Clocks (Little, Brown, 2018) was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, an Indie Next pick, and one of Esquire’s Most Anticipated Books of 2018. It is electric and brilliant. If you haven’t read it, get a copy. Now.
Her gorgeous prose renders a near future that isn’t hard to imagine evolving out of today’s political climate, landing us in an America in which federal decree has made abortion illegal. In-vitro fertilization is banned. Every Child Needs Two is a law that prevents single women from adopting and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty and property to every embryo. And it doesn’t stop there. Desperate to maintain trading ties, Canada becomes an accomplice by erecting a ‘Pink Wall’ along its southern border, arresting and extraditing women trying to enter the country to have an abortion. Zumas expertly breathes life into her vision by submerging us into the lives of five seemingly disparate women. One is a figure from the past. Four are adjusting to this new America. All of their lives unfold with twists leading to stunning, intimate connections that left me wanting the book to go on and on. To say we at Dead Darlings were thrilled when she agreed to this interview is an understatement.
Most of our readers are writers—and we want to know: Leni, are you an outliner or a pantser?
Definitely a pantser, but when I reach the middle of a project, I end up outlining a bit. With Red Clocks, I wrote and wrote and wrote—in fragments, without any order or plan—until I had a substantial pile of pages. Then I went through the pile and generated a “descriptive” outline, essentially telling myself what I’d written so far. That outline helped me figure out where I wanted the book to go.
How long did it take you to write this book? Did you start writing it before the rise of Trump? And then how long did it take to sell? Were publishers worried about the politics?
I started writing Red Clocks in 2010, several years before Trump came to power, but the threats to reproductive rights in Red Clocks are based directly on laws that have been suggested and promoted by current members of the Trump administration, including Mike Pence and Paul Ryan. When Little, Brown bought the book, in the spring of 2016, most people were assuming that Hillary Clinton or a mainstream Republican would be our next President. I was still revising the book when Trump got elected, and it was, to be honest, very difficult to work on the manuscript in those awful weeks after November 8, 2016. I wasn’t worried about the book’s politics—I was worried about all the damage Trump was going to inflict, and the fact that his vice president was a seasoned architect of misogynist legislation.
What was the biggest editorial change you made while editing Red Clocks?
A crucial piece of advice I got from my editor, Lee Boudreaux, was to put more pressure on the characters. In an early draft, the Daughter manages to cross the Canadian border undetected, and gets an abortion in Vancouver. Lee asked me why I was letting the situation resolve itself so easily. Why not make more use of this northern border “wall”? She was right, of course; so I placed more obstacles in the Daughter’s path.
Moving along to content: You’ve brought five women to life in Red Clocks. Gin, the Mender, is my favorite. Who inspired the Mender? What do you hope she gives to the book and/or makes the reader consider?
Very cool that she’s your favorite! I love the Mender too. In some ways she was the most challenging character to write, as she’s an expert on things I don’t know much about: using wild-crafted plants as medicine, raising goats and chickens, living off the grid in a remote forest cabin. I loved doing research into edible and poisonous plant life, learning what kinds of combinations can treat various ailments. I hope the Mender is a convincing example, for readers, that a woman can be happy living alone. This sounds so basic and obvious, but when I think about most of the fiction I’ve read—whether it’s from the 19th century or the 21st—the female characters almost always have some kind of romantic entanglement or want to have a romantic entanglement. Maybe lots of the male characters do as well, but there’s far more literary evidence of men being fine without romantic partners (see, for instance, any nautical, war, or adventure story!) whereas women, historically, have been given narrative arcs that end in marriage or death.
Ro is a character who seems as selfless as she is selfish. How did you come to understand that was what made her tick? Had she always been that complicated, or did she evolve?
Ro, the Biographer, was the first character I imagined for this book. She’s always been at the center of it, for me, and certainly she evolved in all sorts of ways. From the start, however, I knew I wanted her to have clashing desires. Her intense longing to have a child comes into direct conflict with her equally strong belief that every woman should be able to choose her own path, because when one of her favorite students gets pregnant, Ro wants the future baby for herself. She is deeply torn. I think that’s one of the most interesting things that fiction can do: plunge us into the experience of being at odds with oneself.
Red Clocks envisions intense situations in which characters are desperate and thwarted by the law, their conscience and even their own bodies. And yet, there was no push for revolution, no overwhelming violence. Instead, you chose a quieter, sharp discontent. Why?
While writing this book I was thinking about how distant the average person is, or senses themselves to be, from political decisions made in Washington, DC. A lot happens when we’re not paying attention, when we feel helpless or resigned or apathetic. I wanted to keep most of the legislative operations offstage and let the reader experience that gap between law-making and law-breaking (or law-abiding). The novel’s arc bends toward grassroots political awakening—at least, I hope so!—even if that awakening might be a quiet one, depending on which character we’re talking about. I feel like Ro might have some revolutionary behavior ahead of her. She might be ready to get louder.
Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?
I’ve been on a kick of reading memoirs, and I highly recommend the following: Genevieve Hudson’s A Little in Love with Everyone, Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries, and Erin O. White’s Given Up For You (all published in 2018); and Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter (forthcoming in early 2019).
About Leni Zumas: Leni is also the author of Farewell Navigator: Stories (Open City, 2008) and the novel The Listeners (Tin House, 2012), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Granta, The Cut, The Sunday Times (UK), Tin House, Lenny Letter, The Collagist, The Elephants, jubilat, Two Serious Ladies, & elsewhere. She has received grants and fellowships from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, the Regional Arts & Culture Council, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Leni lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is an associate professor in the MFA and BFA programs at Portland State University.