Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The hours before childbirth. The lives of two different women. Pamela Erens talks about her extraordinary new novel ELEVEN HOURS.

Pamela Erens is a writer's writer--I don't know any writers who don't revere her work, but she's also acclaimed by readers who aren't writers, as well. She's the author of The Virgins, which was a a New York Times Book Review and Chicago Tribune Editors' Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013.She's also the author of The Understory, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.

Pamela is the recipient of 2015 fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the Wesleyan Writers Conference, and a 2014 fellowship from the Sewanee Writers' Conference.  Her short fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of literary, cultural, and mainstream publications, including The New York Times, Vogue, Elle, Salon, Virginia Quarterly Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, The Millions, Aeon, Chicago Review, Boston Review, New England Review, and the anthologies Visiting Hours and The House That Made Me.

Thank you so much for being here, Pamela!

To me, pregnancy and giving birth were the most profound states of my being. It changed everything.  And I think in Eleven Hours, you’ve captured absolutely everything about its nature. Did anything take you by surprise as you were writing? Some subliminal memory?

Not really! I guess I’ve permanently forgotten whatever I’ve forgotten about my own childbirth experiences. I think it’s useful for writers to have highly selective memories, actually. What sticks is what’s has a certain heat to it, a resonance. It becomes usable as material, even if in very altered form. The birth in Eleven Hours resembles the ones I went through only glancingly. I tried to draw on my memory of what contractions felt like—which was difficult, as pain is hard to reconstruct when it’s over. But other than that, Lore’s labor is a complete invention: something I felt could happen in just that way.

This novel is a slim one, yet it’s so crushingly powerful, I don’t see how you could have made it longer. I’m wondering if writing it was in any way like childbirth?

Well, I did try to make the book longer! I was worried about it being too short to be considered a novel, yet it obviously wasn’t a short story. I tormented myself by looking up definitions of the novel: “over 40,000 words” “over 60,000 words,” and so forth. Every time I added material, I thought: Great! But within days I would have cut something else. And now whatever word count it came to—I no longer even know—seems utterly irrelevant.

How writing this book was like childbirth: The process was unpredictable, and I had to stay flexible to respond to the changes. There was pain and frustration, but the end result was a happiness.

How writing this book was unlike childbirth: It took a whole lot longer!

What was it like writing this particular book? Did it feel different from your others? To me, it was so deeply intimate and personal, that it felt like every page was somehow alive.

Thank you! The main way it felt different from the others was that I wrote it in third person. I naturally gravitate to an “I” who tells a story and has a certain voice. So third person is harder for me, but I wanted that for several reasons, including the mobility to flow seamlessly between Lore’s and Franckline’s stories and, toward the end, to widen the lens even further.
I can’t say that Eleven Hours felt more intimate and personal in the writing than the others. Each of my novels feels both personal and impersonal to me. Personal because the material has often been intimacy and the body—topics that can make me as uncomfortable as anyone else—but impersonal because I get to funnel those concerns into made-up people and situations, which is wonderful protection.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The structure and material of my new novel, which I’m too superstitious to talk about yet. And a group of essays, circling around a connecting theme, that I’ve started to sketch out and work on. Also the 2016 presidential election. Yikes—who is not obsessed with the 2016 election and what will come after?

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Q: Why on earth would you want to set an entire novel during one labor and delivery?
A: Why not?

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