I want to start by telling you that Blue Ticket has been on my mind since I closed the book, in part because I’m pregnant with my second child at the moment, and I was struck by how the narrator inhabits her pregnant body. I have been there – I am there – bleeding gums and all. And I remember when we were together a few months ago, you said that you knew you wanted to have a child at some stage, that it was more a question of when. I was amazed – my own desire to be a mother was unclear to me even after I gave birth to my son.
It’s difficult for me to talk about literature and motherhood without thinking of the conversation Sheila Heti, Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker have had on the topic. One part that has stayed with me is when Heti recalled a piece Manguso had written about becoming a mother, which had made Heti angry as someone who was not a mother – Heti called Manguso’s piece condescending. Zucker and Manguso, on the other hand, praised Heti’s writing on the subject, explaining that she had touched on something raw and true. Zucker said that, as a mother, she felt ‘seen’ by what Heti explored in her book. ‘Seen, and exposed.’ The three women tried to home in on what it was that distinguished Heti’s work, and they came to the conclusion that she was writing from a space of uncertainty, of possibility, rather than surety or knowledge.
This idea of uncertainty as a space for discovery has been on my mind – I wrote about motherhood in Burnt Sugar before becoming a mother myself, and I often wonder how my writing on the subject would be different if I attempted it again now. I’m not as sturdy as I once was: motherhood has meant a loss of an identity for me, and I’ve been clawing around for a new one. Is this new person too fragile to consider her own undoing? Or am I too bogged down in her, too entangled in this new image of myself? Can I face the necessary fictions that make motherhood bearable – on the page and in life? At the moment I feel very deep in the hole. There is no light yet, no perspective, so I can’t see the shape and texture of this landscape. I’m trying to think of another experience like this, and all I can come up with is the initial proximity of grief – although that isn’t the same at all. Maybe desire?
I do wonder to what extent writing about motherhood is actually writing about being mothered, as Heti suggested. I was mothered well, adequately, but maybe not in the way I needed – is writing about motherhood always writing into that gap? Was that something you thought about while writing Blue Ticket?
Thank you, Avni! The idea that a baby takes something away from you – and that it’s one of the most physically demanding things a body can do – it is strangely occult, especially to someone who hasn’t experienced it.
I hadn’t considered writing about mothering as a way of writing about being mothered, but it makes sense. Neither of our protagonists was mothered conventionally, and neither are conventionally maternal; they are both hard-edged but also skilled at surviving in their different ways, their different worlds, where they both feel like outsiders.
And I love this idea of uncertainty as a space for discovery. Truthfully, while I feel quite certain now that I want a child, my feelings on it have fluctuated. Maybe they always will. At the moment, I’m at once eager to be pregnant and capable of feeling pre-emptive mourning for my childless life. I have been in a kind of ‘pregnancy-adjacent’ state for the last two, three years. You know facts about ovulation, and you feel mildly jealous of pregnant women and you pee on sticks when you’re nauseous with both fear and hope. It’s close enough to touch but you might never get there, and sometimes I didn’t even want to get there. So I always saw Blue Ticket as being more about the space around motherhood – the lead-up, the desiring, the gap between what you want and what you get. When you want something, you see it through the lens of wanting, and that’s the lens I used as I wrote the novel: idealisation, fear, a sort of envy.
I found Heti’s own book, Motherhood, a real comfort actually, not just in how she debates her ambivalence but also in giving me permission to write as an outsider. Sometimes I justified this idea of ‘permission’ to write by thinking that I would probably be pregnant when the novel came out, but here we are and I am not pregnant. It feels slightly like a creative risk.
On a similar note, there’s something risky, and daring, about writing about a mother-daughter relationship as complicated as the one you create in Burnt Sugar. I’m wondering if you’ve found people assume it is non-fiction, drawn from your own experience? I can imagine everyone asking you: so what does your real mother think about this? Are we always going to be asked that question?
When you suggested that the book would have been different had you been a mother when you wrote it, my first instinct was to ask whether you thought that would have meant a softness, maybe even a sentimentality? And then I was annoyed at myself for automatically thinking that. But I do wonder whether becoming a parent, as with any cataclysmic event, opens or breaks something in you – a new sense of possibility – or whether this is just something I think as someone who doesn’t have children yet. Do you think any of this will affect the way you write your next book, practically or otherwise? Is that, too, an annoying question to ask?
If I’m honest, I didn’t find the question of autobiography to be offensive in the beginning – I think I was just so grateful that people wanted to know anything about my book at all. And I interpreted it in a completely different (and naive) way, where I was flattered that people thought the novel felt ‘real’! Only later did I see it was really a question about whether I possessed the artistry and imagination to write something that wasn’t directly lifted from my own life. How do you think about these questions, Sophie, and how do you answer them? Are there some questions that you refuse to answer?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Burnt Sugar was difficult for my mother in the beginning, not because the mother character resembles her, but because she thought people might think it was based on her. Which they do. All the time. My husband hasn’t said this is an issue for him, but I sometimes wonder if it is – if he has to field questions about whether he really is like the husband in the novel. This has never worried me too much, but I wonder if it will change with my children – if I will feel the need to censor what I write when it might affect them. What would I say if they asked me never to write in a way that might expose them? Could I refuse? How would that refusal wound them? Would they feel exploited, even if that were never the intention?
I suppose this is another type of permission, and brings me back to your question about how motherhood has and will change my writing process. I look back at the seven years, eight drafts, that it took to write this book and I am amazed at that expanse of time, the luxury of it. I think now, as I consider how to begin again (and to write something new after so long), that I’m nostalgic for that period. Not because it was more generative than where I am today. But because those years were when I learned how to write – with so much room to fumble. Is that room necessary? Am I just being self-indulgent?
(Isn’t it about every seven or eight years that Saturn creates upheaval in one’s chart? Since having children, I feel time is enmeshed with guilt in a way I have heard spoken about. I’m trying to pinpoint where this guilt is in my chart, but without any luck.)
I’m not sure exactly how the writing will happen now. Do I just show up and trust that it will? Do I set aside fixed hours or see how the day flows? Do I leave the door open, or closed? Do I ignore the sounds on the other side and hope they will be resolved without my involvement – and how do I block out the physical reaction that my son’s voice produces in my body? Do I find a place away from the house to write? So far, I have no answers, only questions.
A lot of writers have said that every book has to be written differently. Do you find this to be true? How did the two experiences differ for you?
I think because most of my work is so clearly speculative, the question of fiction read as autobiography particularly frustrates me – how far away do I have to write in order to escape the assumption that it’s a thinly veiled version of my own life? This is part of a general frustration about what people see ‘women’s writing’ as capable of, and the broader urge to categorise and therefore to limit writing. I’ve been asked deeply inappropriate questions about The Water Cure, sometimes in public, and somehow this is still socially acceptable, because people feel a kind of ownership towards the bodies of women. I know that with Blue Ticket I’m opening myself up to more invasive questioning, but somehow I don’t mind as much this time, because I can accept that it is a personal book for me, more personal than The Water Cure in many ways. There is a sort of purity to the desire that I explore through Calla in the novel, a single-mindedness, and maybe that purity is because it feels like it’s all mine.
I don’t think you’re being self-indulgent in asking about the necessity for room. I have found myself looking for cheering statistics about women writers who have children and while many of them were not cheering I have found a lot of encouragement in the way that Anne Enright talks about motherhood. She speaks about finding it creatively invigorating, having two babies in quick succession and managing to be prolific in her work at the same time. I have more room to write now than I ever have before, and yet I don’t feel much more productive than I did when I was fitting it in around a day job, learning to steal time by making notes on my phone while pressed into another commuter’s armpit.
Back then, writing was my secret and that was thrilling, whereas now it is out in the open. Perhaps the time restriction gave me an urgency that can’t be recreated. The process of writing Blue Ticket certainly felt very different than The Water Cure, but both had a kind of terror in them – the terror of not doing it, of not being able to do it – it was almost like a dare with myself. Maybe motherhood holds a similar energy: the fear of failure, of not being pregnant already. But then I’ve had to renounce a lot of that. I have tried to accept that I lack control over it.
Writing is something I do have control over, and especially in the last months that has felt essential – I started these emails to you pre-pandemic, and now I’m writing them somewhere in the middle. Initially I couldn’t concentrate, but I’ve since been reminded of the comfort it gives me, the purpose, the structure. And again, maybe that’s the sort of energy motherhood would give too. How have you found the last months; has writing been possible? How are you feeling creatively (and generally) compared to earlier in our correspondence?
I like what you say about Anne Enright. I will hold onto this, and repeat it to myself often, especially when my life feels like the opposite. I’ve been returning to Rachel Cusk’s recent interview with Heti in the Paris Review, where she describes how her childhood and detached relationship with her parents left her emotionally misshapen as an adult. Her children, two daughters, gave her form – that is, they gave her love, which to Cusk seems one and the same. This is how she is able to keep writing, she says. I was moved by that. Maybe a part of it is true for me too, though I always felt my parents’ devotion and love and still do to this day – but I wonder if one can have a tendency to formlessness, like a character trait or even a habit, which having children won’t fully allow. In the process of moulding them, you find they are actually moulding you.
This pregnancy is different from the last one; I don’t feel I have a way to map it as I expected. It’s harder on the body – I feel my age, the muscles and organs have been over-used. Maybe this is the worst part about pregnancy, the sheer sprawling physicality of it, when I usually think of myself as contained and cerebral. But the lockdown has been useful for me, I’ve been able to hide away, to grow in secret. It will seem like a magic show in the end – or some old-fashioned fantasy of a pregnancy – the mother disappears into confinement before anyone suspects a thing, and comes out smiling with a baby in her arms. If I’m honest, I don’t like pregnancy. There’s no part of it that feels beautiful or enjoyable. Perhaps only in retrospect, now that my first child is outside of me, do I have a strange urge to remember what he was like on the inside.
In general, the experience of lockdown (and perhaps of pregnancy) has reminded me of vipassana, the meditative practice where some senses get heightened as others are cut off. Writing still feels impossible for me, but I find myself making notes, scribbling in margins of books, daydreaming a lot. Maybe something is germinating. I wish the process was more transparent by now, but it remains murky. I’m desperate for some clarity.
Dubai is almost back to normal, but I’m still in hiding – I’m immunosuppressed and potentially high risk because of the pregnancy. The truth is they don’t really know, but you can scare a pregnant woman into anything. How does it feel to come out into the light?
That visceral quality is the thing that scares me most about pregnancy, I think – I did originally conceive (no pun intended, but I’m keeping it there) Blue Ticket as a body horror in the earliest draft, and I appreciate your honesty about the physical reality of it.
I find Rachel Cusk’s perspective comforting, and I think it fits well with Anne Enright’s – having children is not necessarily an experience that takes things away creatively, in fact it can be one that gives you something you might not have otherwise had. Motherhood can actually make writing more possible, in a way. I loved Rivka Galchen’s Little Labours, which is a series of fragments written during new motherhood; the sleeplessness and pure alien-ness of it pushes her towards a newer form. It has always seemed very reductive to me (of writing and children both), the idea that you have to choose.
I think I have much more patience with myself now about the germinating phase that you mention; I understand how it fits into the wider process, how all the time that seems wasted, my brain is still ticking away. I miss how being in the world can give me things though – how a tableau you pass in the street or at a restaurant, a long walk, or the right song coming on shuffle when you’re slightly drunk on a night bus, can help things fall into place. At school I had to memorise poems for my Welsh Literature class – I used to record myself reading them aloud and play them as I slept, hoping my unconscious would do the job for me. That’s often how I feel about writing. Actually, sometimes it worked!
As much as I miss it, coming back into the world does feel strange. I’ve barely done it yet as I’m still too afraid. I’ve seen friends maybe twice, which was euphoric in the moment but then afterwards a strange grief, a sense of being overwhelmed. Reality seems to be shifting and it’s hard to know what’s real or not, what’s safe or not.
But I did have a good moment yesterday: I went to the recently reopened local cafe where I used to write, and I bought a coffee and a pastry. My heart was almost hammering and I laughed nervously with the barista about the new normal of our cautious movements – how I swept forward briefly to tap my card on the machine, ducked back, two people doing a strange decorous dance in masks. Afterwards I took my breakfast to the forest and ate it shaded by trees.
I’ve been tracking the passing of the year through the things growing; how the elderflower came out early because it was so warm, how the pink and white flowers on the blackberry bushes are starting to give way to tiny unripe fruits, and the progressively lush greenery. I’ve been tracking it too through my sister-in-law’s pregnancy, due shortly after you. There is strange comfort in knowing that some things continue. When lockdown began, my first instinct was to suggest that we finally go for it ourselves, that I should just get pregnant, seeking that sense of forward momentum, and the sense of something hopeful and beautiful at the end. We didn’t, but I still think there are worse reasons to do it.
Images © Sharon Haridas and Sophie Davidson