Oh, do I have a treat for you today. One of my favorite authors is joining us for a Q&A session!
Meg Elison is a multiple award-winning novelist, essayist, and badass woman. Some of my favorite works of hers are Hysteria (for obvious reasons, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time) and The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (affiliate link). Find her on on Twitter and Instagram (her feed is gorgeous and worth following), and at her website.
It was amazing chatting with Meg. I found myself nodding along to so many of her answers, as she has a way of putting to words things I think but don't know how to say.
I'm going to hand it over to Meg. Enjoy!
Q: Who are you? If you're meeting people for the first time, how do you introduce yourself? What can people tell by just being in the room with you?
I always say I'm a writer, and I always tell people to call me Meg. I'm Ms. Elison to nobody. Being in the room with me, people know I'm very fat and very fashionable. I'm highly social and shockingly verbal. I talk fast, make jokes, and I love getting people to tell me their stories.
Q: We already know you're a fantastic writer. What else do you enjoy doing?
I love dancing! I take dance breaks when I'm writing. I also sing-- catch me at karaoke at almost any convention. I love museums; I would totally run away to the Met like those kids in that book. I'm a mean cook and I make drinks that'll knock you on your ass. I go to a lot of literary events, when there isn't a plague on. I love readings and poetry and panel talks. I get to four or five every month.
Q: What comes to you first when you begin a writing project? Is it a specific character? A world? A mood?
I think of a new story like a tent. What I have first are the poles that hold it up: the big points, the turn, usually the ending. The expanse of fabric between them can come slowly, as long as I get those posts set first. I focus on events first, and from there character is very intuitive. I arrive in a moment and I look around to see what kind of folks are there. Then it's drape and stretch until we can't see the stars anymore.
Q: Your award-winning novel and series, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (The Road to Nowhere), is not a zombie story, but it did explore some of the same themes as The Walking Dead. Was this a conscious influence? What other work has influenced the kinds of writing you do?
I was influenced by The Walking Dead, for sure. We were at the height of the zombie craze when I started working, and I remember watching 28 Days Later over and over, as well. I don't find zombies compelling, but I find the struggle of people to survive in their own ruins very compelling indeed. I also couldn't get over how the actresses in these perilous places had perfect eyebrows and somehow shaved their legs. That seemed awfully telling to me.
Q: You write science fiction as well as feminist / cultural criticism essays. To some people, these might seem far apart, but I've come to see how connected they can be. How did you come to this orientation in your writing?
I started off as a journalist, which is a fine place for a writer to begin. You have to get in the middle of things and ask questions to be good at it; you have to be a talented observer and a transparent eyeball. That background disposed me to writing essays in opinion and arts, of course. The columns are longer and you get to spread out a bit. All writers have opinions about the world they inhabit and the art they consume. Some of us can keep quiet about it, but I rarely can.
Q: We've both written about artificial wombs becoming commercially available. What do you think the barriers would be to us achieving this sort of reproductive evolution as a society? What about the benefits and drawbacks?
The barriers to this kind of technology are fascinating and a total self-own. Gynecology and obstetrics are primitive medical sciences and research into the kinds of bodies that can get pregnant has always been low priority-- we didn't even have a full model of the clitoris until 2005. It's left off many medical diagrams of the vulva. We are decades or centuries away from being able to develop the artificial womb, because we don't know shit about the one we started with. The benefits could be amazing, allowing people without a uterus or with a disorder or who simply do not want to carry a pregnancy to do it with an adaptive aid. It could also help us decouple the idea of 'woman' and 'pregnancy,' not to mention taking a big bite of the gender binary as we go. If people regardless of gender can gestate a baby in a closet, if we stop defining childbearing as a gendered trait, how might we see ourselves? Would people seeking hysterectomy or oophorectomy have an easier time? Would birth control become less contentious, or abortion? The possibilities are endless. But we're gonna be on Mars before we have an artificial womb. Just look at how we treat those two things in research and the answer is clear.
Q: I've been focusing on designer babies and nursery wombs for 3 years, and I truly think some version of these will exist in the next hundred years. What other directions do you see human reproduction going?
I've been thinking that we're going to see more outsourcing of pregnancy and birth to the global underclass. This used to be something only the very wealthy did, but as agencies and private actors reach out into countries where surrogacy can be achieved at a fraction of the cost, it's becoming more accessible to the American middle class. Imagine if rich people never had to have their own babies. Many people have an intrinsic drive and won't be dissuaded from carrying their own, but many will opt to miss out on the risks, the permanent changes to the body, and of course the setback in career trajectory. Historically, feminized labor trickles down every time white women with money gain a little more power. This is the ultimate feminized labor, and I'm betting it goes the same way.
Q: As I observe the world, I've come to think dystopia is in the eye of the oppressed. Do you see any dystopian elements in today's society, and what do you think we can do about them, knowing there's a large group of people benefiting from maintaining the status quo?
Hell yeah we're already living in a dystopia. In several, in fact. Disabled people lose reproductive autonomy all the time and it's all sanctioned in our courts. People in two dozen states have no meaningful access to abortion care. Crisis pregnancy centers exist-- that's a whole Dick novel right there. People have been sterilized against their will and sometimes without even their knowledge by our state and other states, mostly for reasons of racism and eugenics. This stuff has all happened in our lifetimes, all happening right now. What can we do? We have to fight all the time. Every day. We have to fight to vote and keep the vote. We have to march in the street when nothing else gets us heard. We have to cough up money and volunteer time to escort people at Planned Parenthood. We have to stand up for the rights of trans and queer people, in person and in policy. We have to call our reps and demand they do better, vote them out and choke off their donors when they don't do better. We have to write books that make people think about this shit, and see it in the here and now. Look at how the repopularization of The Handmaid's Tale has opened the way for us to talk about all this. It opened up doors for women of color to point out that everything depicted in that story is old news to them; it radicalized white women to look at the churches and structures built on their backs and think about standing up. Art is part of the fight, too.
Q: Tell us about your favorite thing you've ever written.
This is hard-- I'm not the kind of writer who hates and cringes over their catalog. I like most of my work, and I'm very proud of most of it. For ease of access, I'll say it's this Shimmer story I wrote about a heaven for writers. It's elegiac and indulgent and makes RPF of some of my favorite writers. Come for history's first novelist (a woman) and stay for the polyamorous queers of English literature.
Q: How about your favorite thing you've ever read?
This is also hard, bordering on impossible. I read "The Fifth Sacred Thing" at exactly the right moment in my life. It showed me who I wanted to be: where I should live, what fight I should be fighting, what kind of people I wanted to surround myself. It's also radically nonviolent in a way that I want to believe can be real. I still hold this book close to my core, even as I become disillusioned in every way.
Q: What are you working on right now that really excites you?
I am working on a horror novel about evil dentists, and I am incredibly into it. I've been thumbing my own memories of dental horror and asking for people to tell me theirs. It's a deep well of bloody water.
Q. How did you get into writing and what was your first piece?
I won an Arbor Day poetry contest in fourth grade. I got published and my poem was read aloud to the student body. I felt like King Kong on cocaine and I have been chasing that feeling ever since.
Q. How do you see your own character arc and growth as a writer?
This one I'm saving for my memoir-- it's a whopper.
Q: Vampires or werewolves?
Vampires all the way. I like the aesthetic and an adherence to blood having its way with us all more than I like inconvenient dogs.
Q. Do you have any advice for writers on staying motivated at all parts of the process, from drafting to editing to querying and publication?
The thing that has always motivated me is reading the mediocre say-nothing horseshit that gets published all the time. The thing that cranks my motor is looking at stuff that got a deal, that made money, and knowing that I can do better. Spite keeps a writer alive.
Q. How would you fare in a zombie apocalypse?
I'm a planner and I tend to see the writing on the wall before it goes up in ink. I know how to get to an island not too far away, and I'm a good shot. I won't die in the first wave. However, if my survival ever depends on running a mile in less than ten minutes or climbing a rope, I'm zombie snacks.
You can probably see why I thoroughly enjoyed this interview. In addition to being enamored by her writing, I've really enjoyed getting to know Meg as a person.
How about you? Would you be zombie meat? Would you use an artificial womb? How do you beat the disillusionment that beats us over the head on the daily? Who would you like to hear from next? Tell us below and don't forget to join the club for extras and exclusives!
For the last few week's I've done a deep dive into the reproductive evolution, both real and speculative, that brings about the world of The Other Women. This week, I'm going to share with you a deleted scene that may or may not make it into the prequel, but which for now is just sitting on my computer waiting to see the light of day. Until today, that is! Take a read. Let me know what you think in the comments. Join the exclusive reading club to get more things like this. Enjoy!
“Can I ask you a question?” whispers Ruma.
She stands with Evie in the dark nursery, looking into the womb through a small window at the tiny being that in just a few short months will become Evie’s son.
She's here to learn, as much as she is to visit with her friend. Ruma has seen plenty of incubating babies, but she watches this one with a new perspective. She peeks in on him almost daily, reviewing the information she’s compiled from the archive about the interaction that would be occurring between a baby’s body and its mother’s. Though it will be decades before she needs to put this knowledge into practice, it's her responsibility to know all there is to know about pregnancy and childbirth. By the time the Daughters are ready, they need to be prepared.
Evie raises her eyebrow and watches Ruma out of her periphery. “Sure,” she says.
“Why did you choose to have a boy?”
Evie is quiet for a moment. Ruma has heard the overly-simplified answer to this question multiple times, in mixed company – Her partner really wanted a boy, and Evie decided she’d let him have his way, just this once. Chuckle. But Evie considers her every action to the smallest detail. A man's caprice can’t be the only reason a women’s rights advocate would choose to have a male child. Ruma wants to know the deeper reason.
“It’s a complicated answer,” Evie says.
“I think, after everything, you owe me more than ‘It’s complicated,’” says Ruma, masking her annoyance only thinly.
Evie takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Okay, well, first, because, like it or not, men still hold a lot of power. By having a boy, who will grow up to be a man, I hope to help shift that dynamic in our favor.”
“And you think one man will be able to make that much of a difference?”
“I’m not the only one,” Evie murmurs, lips barely moving. Ruma turns to look at her, but Evie’s eyes remain fixed on her developing baby. It never occurred to Ruma other Mothers would make this same decision.
Just when Ruma thinks the conversation is over, Evie speaks again. “I couldn’t bear to have a girl who would have to go through safeguarding, and…” she shakes her head, sighing once more. “We're just not ready yet. I just couldn’t take any chances.”
Ruma nods slowly. At last, she understands. Evie can’t stomach the safeguarding procedure, but skipping it before the Garden Society is ready could jeopardize all their efforts. Better to have a boy, then, and raise him to be the advocate we need.
“I should get home,” Ruma says after a few more minutes. “We’ll see you two at the rehearsal tomorrow?” For a moment, as she's watched the floating creature inside the womb, she forgot her nerves, but remembering tomorrow's dinner brings them rushing back. Only two more days until she and Josiah will be married.
Evie nods. “Of course,” she says, smiling and reaching out for a hug.
Ruma hesitates. Can she do this?
“What is it?” asks Evie.
Ruma’s long, black waves fall out of her face as she looks up at the ceiling. She swallows and wills her mouth to move as she looks back up at her closest friend. “I’ve never lied to him before,” she says.
Evie pulls the taller woman close, and this time Ruma lets her. She pats the back of the taller woman’s head. “Don't worry,” she says into Ruma's hair. “Josiah will never know.”
From "test-tube babies" to mechanical wombs, how will we know when medical technology has gone too far?
This question came up while researching for my novel, The Other Women. Generally, ideas for my writing come to me as "What-if" questions. I'll notice something out in the world, and I'll wonder about it. And if my wondering takes me far enough, I'll know I've got a story. For this particular book, the idea of mechanical wombs, or what I call nursery wombs in the book came up as the central idea. Here's an example of my thought-ramblings as I unraveled the idea:
What if there were a way to keep tabs on a developing baby?
It would have to be an implant of some sort. I wouldn't want that kind of implant.
But, wait. What if it were possible to grow babies in artificial wombs, so you could watch life as it unfolds and be certain the process is going along flawlessly? Surely that's going to be a thing at some point.
And what if they were so commonplace that you could have one right in your nursery at home? You could insert a cartridge with the perfect combination of your and your partner's DNA, and you could watch the miracle of life unfolding together.
Man, that would alleviate a lot of complications - maternal death would be zero. Birth would be predictable. Everything would be monitor-able.
So... what if these nursery wombs became the only way people ever had children? What if the government mandated it?
And so began my journey - or, I should say, Lucinda's journey. And Ruma's, and Evie's, and all the other characters in the book. Torn between wanting to know what was going on inside my own body at every moment and wanting the ability to carry my own children, I created a world where that same tension existed in a different form.
I began researching the advancements that have been made in reproductive technology, and then extending them beyond today on what I assumed (based on nothing whatsoever) would be a logical time frame. (Make sure you're a VIP so you can get this projected timeline delivered right to your inbox tomorrow!) And then, even as I researched and wrote the book, breakthroughs kept happening to support my premise: nursery wombs will be a thing. Probably sooner than we think. But where will be the line of propriety, of ethical use?
What will be the nature-technology balance, especially if this kind of thing comes to be seen as superior to, or safer than, the way we do things nowadays?
I promised last week I'd come back around to the question of why we would want or need mechanical wombs to begin with. I'm sure you can think of a reason or two, but I'll outline some here:
After they've been used successfully and proven safe, why wouldn't society want more of them? And in places where medicine is socialized, why wouldn't the government want things to be safer and more predictable? First, maybe there will be incentives for using the nursery wombs. But later, when most of the population is already using them, what would be the harm in mandating them? Who wouldn't want their child, their partner, or themselves to be safe and free of natural childbirth and all it entails?
I could see it happening. How about you?
I've been wrestling with the question of human evolution for a while now. It's a thought exercise that came up while I was researching and writing my novel, The Other Women.
Natural evolution is an inconceivably slow process. It takes basically forever for nature to work out what traits will work best on a given organism in a given environment. I was going to insert some really interesting factoids here about how long it took things like prehensile tails and marsupial pouches to evolve, but the truth is that this stuff happens so slowly and incrementally, there's really no clear answer to those questions. Just think how many iterations nature went through before we humanoids developed the ability to walk fully upright as we do. Gradually that happened, over millions and millions of years.
But technology has changed all that.
Technological advancements have already allowed humans to survive and thrive in areas where they would otherwise perish - if they even managed to get there at all - and many of us wouldn't be here if not for medical advancements made in the last hundred years.
Things that would sound like science fiction to our grandparents are commonplace today. For example, a third of U.S adults report that they or someone they know has used fertility treatments, according to the Pew Research Center. More than 250 million courses of antibiotics are prescribed annually. Six-hundred-fifty thousand patients take chemotherapy each year, according to the CDC.
This is just a short sampling of the ways medical technology has created and sustained life where, before, there would have been none. All this is possible today, and there is no end to the potential for innovation in coming years. Which makes me wonder: Where is the line? What is the limit? How will we know when enough is enough?
I read an article in the Times a few months back that I found at once fascinating and altogether unsurprising: Scientists Grow Mouse Embryos in a Mechanical Womb. Science did that. Scientists took embryos out of a mama mouse, put them into mechanical wombs, and grew them for a week or so with no incident. It's a pretty low-level process compared with growing a whole human baby in one of those things, but I can almost guarantee you that's on the horizon.
Why would we want to grow a human baby in an artificial womb? Lots of reasons, which I'll get to in the Newsletter (where I'll share some of the reproductive technology research I put together before writing the The Other Women) and in next week's post. What's important for this conversation is the likelihood that, eventually, it will happen. And when it does, after a while, it might feel just as commonplace as in vitro does today.
A hundred years ago, cancer was a death sentence. If a person was unable to conceive a child naturally, they were destined for other avenues of parenthood, or not. An infection that's easily treatable with today's medications had a pretty good chance of killing you. While some of us are naturally inclined (*raises hand*), I don't think there are many of us who would prefer these outcomes. We use technology to help us survive, and while we do evolve socially, technology does much of the physical adaptation for us.
Advancements in science, technology, and medicine have progressed our society at light speed over the last century compared with other time periods in history. But does that mean we've given our evolution over to technology? How has technology changed the meaning of the term "evolution"? How might it continue changing in the coming decades? I'd love to know your thoughts; just comment below!