In Leni Zumas’s new novel, Red Clocks (Little, Brown), abortion is once again illegal in America, in vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. Even as motherhood is increasingly regulated by the government, five women struggle against these restrictions, questioning and complicating culturally imposed definitions of womanhood, identity, and freedom. Red Clocks is at once a timely and timeless story of female resistance, of very different women who all discover their bodies as sites of resistance, each upsetting modern and historic myths of motherhood. Ploughshares hailed Red Clocks as “a reckoning, a warning, and nothing short of a miracle,” and Maggie Nelson described Zumas’s writing as “funny, mordant, baroque, political, poetic, alarming, and inspiring—not to mention a way forward for fiction now.”
Thea Prieto: I was often struck by the many moving parts in Red Clocks. The narrative revolves between five characters’ points of view, but there are also a number of different language registers in rotation—translated and untranslated Faroese, Eivør’s 19th century narrative, Gin’s unique language inflections, to name a few. For me, Red Clocks contains many hearts, within its characters, but also within the fields of anatomy, marine biology, Faroese cuisine, in the history of witch trials, and modern-day court procedures. I would be very interested to hear where Red Clocks and its research began for you, how your novel originated and grew.
Leni Zumas: The novel started out as an essay project, in which I was documenting my feelings and observations about trying (and failing) to get pregnant. The scope was personal at first, but soon widened to include research into historic beliefs about pregnancy: for instance, according to an old French superstition, if an expectant couple ground up the uterus and entrails of a hare and drank them in wine, the woman would give birth to a boy. If they crushed the liver and testicles of a shoat and drank them in wine, she’d give birth to a girl. I’m an erratic researcher: I might keep going down a single rabbit hole, if it’s a good hole, without feeling the need to be comprehensive.
One of the pleasures of writing this book was changing up the language and syntax and rhythm, depending on which character I was following. In Gin’s sections I used odd diction and sentence patterns I found in books on animal trials, botany, witch hunting. The Biographer sections were places to put bits of historical fact and political context. In the Polar Explorer sections, the surprising (to me) details of Faroese cookery—like boiling a plucked puffin in milk—don’t do narrative work per se, but rather serve as a tonal or textural counterpoint to the forward propulsion of the present-day storylines.
TP: Those tonal counterpoints where some of my favorite parts of Red Clocks—in my mind, they texturize the character relationships as well as Eivør. As your five main characters slowly ticked closer to one another, with the title of your book in mind, I imagined your characters as gears in a clock, separate but connected, slowly revolving into each other’s lives, revolving together. And as your characters’ lives overlapped, I noticed how the differences between each woman linked them further. For example, Eivør and Susan are interesting opposites in similar terms of “shrinking life to a checked box.” When creating your characters, did you have foil identities in mind?
LZ: I love the image of clock gears! When I started writing, I saw the main characters (there were only three, at first) as an unstable triangle: connected, but at odd angles to one another. The Biographer was the first one I imagined, followed soon by the Wife and the Mender—except that I hadn’t attached those roles to them yet. My drafting process involves a lot of stumbling, a lot of not knowing. I never have a clear idea of what a character’s trajectory will be. But I did know, pretty much from the beginning, that the characters would be foils for one another. I wanted their entanglements, frictions, divergences, and intimacies to generate the narrative scaffolding. Figuring out when and how to jump from one perspective to another wasn’t just a matter of pacing or plot, but of echo and recursion: how does one woman’s experience call to another’s? How do particular images, objects, and phrases move through the book, accumulating new resonance as they repeat? Virginia Woolf was a master of recursion, as was W. G. Sebald—I’ve learned a lot about structure from both of them.
TP: That recursion and resonance—I felt it powerfully in Red Clocks, particularly in regards to whales. Although whales are granted their own exclusive existence and corporality in your writing, whales also become, through the Daughter’s point of view, an objective correlative for the worth society places on womanhood. Mattie imagines whales as houses in the ocean, like “a womb for a person,” and she later imagines whales generating clean energy, as though whales might be treasured instead of killed if they served some function for humanity. It broke my heart, this hope derived from the falsehood that whales, wombs, and women have to be used to be treasured.
LZ: I share your heartbreak, Thea. When I hear about politicians wanting to ban abortion entirely, even in cases of rape or incest (Republicans in the Ohio legislature are a recent example), I think of how their argument depends on a view of women as incubators or greenhouses, defined by their bodies, valuable only as bodies. A woman’s innate importance as a human is somehow trumped by her importance as a producer of future humans. One of the many things I hate about capitalism is how it yokes productiveness to worth. Capitalism says, “We should let in only the immigrants with bankable skills,” rather than “We should let in everyone we possibly can, regardless of ability or future earning potential.” Mattie thinks she can save the whales by making their bodies productive. But why can’t we value creatures (cetacean, human, or otherwise) in and of themselves, regardless of the profit they generate?
TP: I think it’s the same reason that in our culture, and in the oppressive setting of your novel, womanhood is often conflated with motherhood. It leads Red Clocks to define motherhood by more than the birthing or adopting of children—motherhood is also defined by writing biographies, teaching students, translating languages, by eating, ingesting flesh. Even as the red-clock metaphor evokes the blood that joins women and generations, Red Clocks also conveys a larger moving system, including political systems, ecosystems, the kinds that whales support before and after death, the natural world’s lifespan, ice cycles. In other words, Red Clocks describes an encompassing and connective womanhood that exists within and beyond the results of what it immediately produces. There are desires and hopes in the pages of your novel, for women to be remembered, to be credited, to seek happiness that isn’t defined by an accomplished duty. Are there any other hopes or actions I haven’t mentioned that are integral to Red Clocks?
LZ: You’re so right about the persistent conflation of womanhood and motherhood, which is not only false (plenty of women aren’t mothers) but also dangerous. If a woman must have children in order to be happy, then so much else in her life—career, creative ambition, friendship, sex, solitude—is going to be sacrificed. And she might make fear-based decisions she wouldn’t otherwise make: to give up this job opportunity, to stay in that abusive relationship. In Red Clocks I wanted to explore a few of the many, many paths women take. It’s not a full picture by any means—no novel can be—but I hope the book points toward a huge, messy, complex delineation of female experience, one that doesn’t always include traditional parenting, or any parenting at all. “Motherhood” as a concept, as a mythology, can be a restrictive and punishing force in women’s lives: we inherit a narrow set of ideas about what it means to mother or not to mother, then our experiences don’t match up with the stories we’ve been told; and we feel guilty, alienated, isolated, ashamed. My “we” is too vast and vague here, I realize; I obviously don’t speak for everyone; but I do believe that centering or essentializing “mother” in any definition of female identity leads to suffering.
Leni Zumas is the author of Red Clocks (Little, Brown, 2018); the story collection Farewell Navigator (Open City, 2008); and the novel The Listeners (Tin House, 2012), 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.