Published on September 28th, 2016 | by Meg Lemke0
THE HOURS (AND HOURS, AND HOURS…): An Interview with Pamela Erens
How long? How many hours (and hours, and hours…)? New mothers find ourselves urgently asking each other for numbers, after birth. We try to make sense of labor by quantifying (and comparing). But, labor is experienced in minutes, in seconds, infinitesimally—like a dream (or nightmare), like a storm, a force of nature with nothing so orderly that you could sum it up.
Two or fifty-two hours. Precipitate labor; labor over days. The length of time doesn’t always equal the size of the story.
Eleven Hours, Pamela Erens’ recently published novella (from Tin House), narrows in on the experiences, dual, of a mother in labor, Lore, and Franckline, the labor nurse helping her through it. Over the course of the book and the birth story, both of their histories are shared; memories of past pain and future hopes, all the life choices that brought them together to this room where a new life is coming into being.
“Childbirth, this uniquely female form of heroism, is rarely documented in our literature, and I’ve never seen it rendered with the extraordinary insight, urgency, and potency of Eleven Hours,” writes Karen Russell on this captivating book.
Eleven Hours was not what I expected it to be. I picked it up assuming satire, since it opens with a birth plan… and I suppose “making fun” is now where my mind goes with “plans” about motherhood of any kind—and given that my own typed and spell-checked bullet points were much disdained at the New York City hospital wherein my own daughter was born (29 hours!). (I found myself suspecting it was a model for the fictional big-city institution where Lore gives birth, but there are several contenders–a lot of babies are born, daily, in this town).
Not what you expected: Sounds like birth, right? I loved this book. You should read it. It’s small, easy to carry, hard to put down. (That’s another baby joke.)
MUTHA followers know that I’ve previously recommended Eleven Hours on our pages. So, I won’t type repetition at you now. Let’s get right into the conversation I was pleased to share with Pamela Erens, award-winning author, and a mother herself, about her process and inspirations. – Meg Lemke
MUTHA: How did you decide to tell this story?
PAMELA ERENS: I’d been interested in the subject of childbirth since my own pregnancies. When I was pregnant, I couldn’t quite believe I was going to have to go through this birth thing. Who thought up this brutal method for bringing children into this world? With whom could I file my complaint? I dealt with my fears and outrage by reading as much as I could about the process, and doing what I could to be physically ready. I took my childbirth class very seriously! Anyway, once it was all over (twice) I had strong feelings about what it had brought out of me–both the terror and the strength–and I knew I wanted to write about it somehow, someday.
MUTHA: There are many stereotypes about mothers, and in the first pages of the book, there is setting up of the two characters—Lore and Franckline—where they could easily devolve into an “idea” of a type of participant in birth culture in the U.S. But, they rapidly become very real as people through the details of your storytelling. What kind of work did you do to break past the surface?
PAMELA ERENS: I always do some musing and sketching-out about the characters in my books before I begin writing. But those characters are necessarily a bit rudimentary at the start. As I write more into the story, I begin to intuit things about their circumstances and their pasts, and they deepen. Lore started out with a husband. When I decided she should be alone, that made her more idiosyncratic—there had to be circumstances that brought her to this aloneness. When I decided that Franckline, the nurse assigned to Lore, was also pregnant, that gave her an individualized backstory and more specific responses to Lore and to her own working day.
MUTHA: Why and how did you take on the challenge of writing the internal mind of someone very much not like yourself in background? Franckline is a Caribbean immigrant. White authors writing stories about people of color have been criticized often for romanticizing, and the publishing industry more broadly for not supporting the “own voices” of writers of color. Were current critiques of this approach in your mind while you were writing? Did it inform your approach or the ways you’ve talked about the book?
PAMELA ERENS: I definitely had worries about writing from the point of view of a woman of color. We’ve all become more aware of how easy it is to misrepresent those of a different race or ethnicity, and of how, in the past, stories about other cultures by outsiders have been used to demean or control. But it made sense to have a nurse of color in the novel because, in my experience, a sizable percentage of nurses in New York City hospitals are women of color. And art, to me, is the arena of ultimate freedom. Writers should be free to enter any consciousness whatsoever, human, animal, mineral. That said, readers are well within their rights to point out anything distorted or offensive. I wanted to be careful. I did a lot of research into Haiti, I spoke to people both Haitian-born and of Haitian background, and I tried to question my portrait of Franckline at all times. (In the same way, I tried to question my portrait of Lore as working class. I don’t come from a working-class background.)
A friend, the writer Paula Whyman, said something to me that was very helpful. She’d read about 20 pages of the book. She said I needed to be careful about the Magical Negro issue. I had no idea what she was talking about. It had to be explained to me that “the Magical Negro” was a term Spike Lee had used to talk about movies in which the entire function of a black character is to enable a white character to have some spiritual or emotional breakthrough. I realized that was a serious risk in a narrative in which a black character is in a helper position (nurse) toward a white person (patient). So I tried to be attentive to that.
MUTHA: You use a limiting structure by following the hours of Lore’s labor—but from that “action,” move back in time to tell both women’s stories. Do you often use a limit of some kind in writing to inspire you, to shape the story you’ll tell?
PAMELA ERENS: Absolutely. Limits are key for me. I usually make the limit something to do with time. The Understory, which focuses on a character who is an amateur botanist, takes place over three changes of growing season, fall to summer. The Virgins takes place over one academic school year. Of course, eleven hours is a drastically shorter period of time, but any time frame is helpful. In the novel I’m trying to launch now, I want to shed some of those limits. I feel the need to be more expansive. But there will be some other formal decisions that will help.
MUTHA: I don’t want to give away the secrets in this novel; I admit I don’t normally worry about “spoilers” much in interviews (partly because I’m rarely first up!). But, the unfolding narrative here was for me so powerful I just can’t take that away from any other reader. With that caveat: By the end, does the book have a political or social change message regarding birth practices?
PAMELA ERENS: Not really. Generally speaking, I don’t think there are “better” or “worse” birth practices once you acknowledge that the good ones take great account of what a woman wants and the bad ones ignore or unnecessarily constrain her. Non-intervention is key sometimes. Intervention is key sometimes. I’m for a flexible attitude about the whole thing.
MUTHA: What books, art, other pieces of culture spoke to you, as you wrote this book?
PAMELA ERENS: I was steeped in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse as I wrote Eleven Hours—I wanted that voice and that fluidity and that empathy in my head. Also as mentioned I was reading about Haiti and its religion of Vodou, which is very interesting and which I hope brought something intangible to the novel. Anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown’s book Mama Lola, about a Vodou priestess in Brooklyn, was useful. I also remember getting a lot from Amy Wilentz’s The Rainy Season and Edwidge Danticat’s work, especially Brother, I’m Dying; Claire of the Sea Light; and her children’s book Behind the Mountains.
MUTHA: Who are you reading now that you love and would recommend?
PAMELA ERENS: I just finished two wonderful novels. The first, History, is by Elsa Morante, an Italian author whom Elena Ferrante has claimed as an influence. It’s a devastating book about ordinary Italians struggling to survive under the German occupation in World War II. It has one of the most delightful portraits of a small child that I know. The other, The Story of a Brief Marriage, was just published. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking portrait of two young people in a refugee camp toward the very end of the Sri Lankan civil war.
Now I’m in the middle of the fifth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’m a big Knausgaard fan.
MUTHA: Have any of the reviews of the book surprised you?
PAMELA ERENS: I’ve been a little surprised by readers who see Lore as mildly insane for writing her extensive birth plan. I wrote one very much like it! Granted, I am making a little fun of it in the novel, but at the same time I don’t feel as if obsessive preparation for something like a birth is such a bad thing. I’m also surprised when people say that Lore “feels she can control everything.” Kinda, but her birth plan also shows that she is quite aware of the possibility of things going wrong. In the plan she is trying to acknowledge and make space for the unforeseen and uncontrollable.
MUTHA: What are you finding most pressing right now in your life as a mother? What advice do you give to other mothers balancing parenting and creative projects?
PAMELA ERENS: I have two children, and my husband and I are at an interesting crossroads now. Our youngest just left for college. So right now is all about negotiating this transition to our kids’ independence from us. In some ways our kids are very grown up and in other ways they still need us (and they certainly need our financial support). It’s sometimes hard to figure out when to move in and offer help and when to hang back and let them figure stuff out.
I think the best advice for mothers balancing parenting and writing or other creative work is patience. And compartmentalizing. To the extent that you can forget about your kids when you’re working, and forget about your work when you’re with your kids, that’s helpful–at least it has been for me. But this is probably advice for anyone who does creative work, parent or no. If you don’t have kids, you still have to compartmentalize and, God knows, be patient.
MUTHA: Has anyone mentioned that there is never a time when rooms are open and empty for early labor in New York City hospitals? That was the one detail that I got stuck on! Most of us end up there in triage madness.
PAMELA ERENS: You are the first! But you are right. I had to finagle that detail. I spoke to labor nurses who said it was a stretch—not entirely implausible, but it would be very rare for someone to have a room and such attention from a nurse in early labor. I took some artistic license.