Interview with Meg Elison, author of Book of the Unnamed Midwife

We are thrilled to interview the fabulous sci-fi author Meg Elison, whose award-winning book, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, was the Litsy Feminist Book Club selection for December. Her dystopian world brings the reader into a world without law, order, and for the most part– women.


“I wrote my first book thinking there was time to create fiction that could serve as a warning. I write my third wondering if it will survive some future purge to stand as proof of a world that once was.”
 -Meg Elison

What books, movies, or other texts do you see your series in communication with?

            This list is long, and it includes things that influenced my work and the chain that continues forward in time. I was heavily influenced by two books: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and P.D. James’ Children of Men. I read every book I could find in the post-apocalyptic genre in a language I can read and in nearly every single one, it is the story of a man. The exceptions to this rule were precious to me. There were books that I loved (The Stand and The Road) where male authors had written female characters, but they barely scratched the surface of how different the end of the world would be for a woman. The former does a little of the legwork; discussing IUDs and inherited antibodies, but stops short of really understanding a woman’s position, despite a pregnant protagonist. The latter simply does away with the only woman in the story as soon as the magical boy is born so that father and son may carry on.

I came to understand through this course of reading that the apocalypse is always asymmetrical. It isn’t the same for men as for women, for oppressed people as for the people who hold the majority of the world’s resources. But most of the story wasn’t being told. I sunk myself into works like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower to figure out how to address that asymmetry.

After my book came out, the conversation continues with works like Mad Max: Fury Road, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, and Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium. I see my work in communication with every story about women and queer people when the road runs out and every man (ha) is for himself.

This book was published a few years ago, and dystopia seems to be even more relevant than ever. How do you see your writing in the current political and cultural climate?

            It’s been harder to write the third book in this series than it was to write the first. I had the germ of the idea for “Midwife” in 2012, when Mitt Romney was running for president. It’s so tame by today’s standards that it’s funny now to look back on, but that was the beginning of what we were calling the War on Women. Romney is a classic patriarchal enforcer, and he had gaffes galore when it came to his perception of his “binders” full of women. However, Romney wasn’t my primary concern: 2012 was also a battleground year for abortion rights as many states made it impossible for women to exercise their reproductive rights or obtain safe, affordable, dependable birth control.

book of midwife
The Road to Nowhere, Book 1 (Re-released October 11, 2016)

I was enraged then; I wrote “Midwife” in a white-hot rage that refused to leave me, even when my tale was told. The rage that I feel now is another species of rage entirely; something unlike anything I’ve ever felt. I wrote “Midwife” when I was a white-hot knife, but now I’ve gone supernova. There’s a dangerous racist misogynist demagogue in the White House. I have to confront that, every single day. I have to watch a century of progress bought with women’s blood slide backward until I fear we will be left with nothing; not choice, not the vote, NOTHING. I have to fret about what bathroom people are allowed to use and if our marriages will remain legal and whether I will have to hide Muslim friends in the crawlspaces of my house. I have to live under the threat of nuclear war on top of all that.

The apocalypse I dealt with as a metaphor in 2012 has crossed the border, through nightmare country and into my everyday waking concerns. I wrote my first book thinking there was time to create fiction that could serve as a warning. I write my third wondering if it will survive some future purge to stand as proof of a world that once was.

How did your writing process change from the diary entries to the narrative formats? Which was easier to write or what helped inform your use of the diary?

           I originally planned to write the entire book as a diary. I have a special fascination with epistolary works; I love how they both limit the readers’ perspective while also giving them deep and nearly unfettered access to a character’s inner life. Halfway into the work, I knew that there were sections that could be better told through a somewhat wider lens. I wanted to follow some other characters a little closer, and a diary is no good for that (hell is other people’s writing.) Neither form was really easier; I think of styles of writing like tools in a toolbox. I try to use the right tool for each job.

My diary writing for “Midwife” was informed first by my own practice: I am an avid diarist. I also love reading diaries! I read most of the history of piracy through the diaries of Zheng He and Alexandre Exquemelin and gained an understanding of a time in history that I’d never have gotten from official histories.  I love the intimacy of the art form. Diaries are kept for two reasons: because the writer intends for them to be read, or hopes that they never will be. Both modes of journaling are delicious to discover.

The midwife encounters many circumstances in which she has to disrupt sexual or physical abuse. What do you think of the idea of trigger warnings for a book?

book of etta.jpg
The Road to Nowhere, Book 2 (released February 21, 2017)

I absolutely believe “Midwife” and The Book of Etta both deserve a trigger or content warning. That’s not a common practice in publishing yet, so I’ve tried to communicate clearly via social media and direct outreach whenever possible that my work contains frank and graphic descriptions of sexual assault. When I speak to students who are assigned to read my work, I tell them flat-out. I’ve had readers reach out to me to tell me that they powered through their own trauma while reading my books, or that they set them aside while pregnant because they were unable to go on. I respect my readers enough to know that many of them read reviews to look for information that will help them be gentle with themselves, and I’m grateful for that. If you enjoyed my book enough to recommend it to another person, I definitely think it bears mentioning. A book is not threatened by an informed reader.

The midwife packs for her apocalyptic journey different than most: depo-provera and needles, the patch, the ring, tampons, along with a map, flashlights, and batteries. You write “Women have to pack more in the apocalypse.” How did you start to think about the world of women after civilization ends?

           I thought about myself! Like most Californians, I have a disaster bag in case of earthquake or wildfire, and I remember rotating out supplies in mine and my husband’s and realizing how different they are. I need twice as much underwear as he does. I have to pack tampons, birth control, and a handful of other things he would never have to consider. From there, I thought about how many more single mothers there are than single fathers, and how they’d have to evacuate and pack for their children in order to get them to safety. People joke that women over-pack or carry big purses, but there are legitimate reasons for both of those habits.

I’m seeing more and more political discourse on the subject of contraception as a central issue for women, and I think it’s about time that we say that. A woman cannot plan a career unless she can decide whether to get pregnant, when, and by whom. She cannot control her life in any substantive way without the ability to control her reproduction. The lives that women lived before safe and effective birth control were not their own; they existed as baby-bearing chattel in many cases and lived to the ripe old age of dead in childbirth. Most of us were born in the latter half of the twentieth century; almost every woman we know is one some form of birth control. Losing civilization means losing hot showers and chocolate and gasoline and the internet, and all of that is terrifying. Losing birth control means relinquishing any semblance of equality with men. That is a fear that shakes me to my core.

We have to ask, are you a prepper at all? How has either recent events or writing this book made you think about disasters?

           I’m not a prepper, but I definitely came to understand the prepper mindset better while writing this book. I did a lot of research on what it takes to keep a village alive without running water or power. I had to read up on the shelf life of different medications, and examine what medicinal plants I could find and harvest myself. I learned how easy it is to infect people with cholera, and how quickly a person can die without antibiotics and basic sanitation. My research helped me re-design my go-bag, but I won’t be building a bunker anytime soon. In the event of a disaster on the scale of the one in “Midwife,” I’m a goner and I know it.

Some of the most stunning parts of the diary are the midwife’s “talks” to amp up her male self: “Bitch, I am a man. Females. Talk too much. Quit crying…” She wraps herself in a traditional, “tough” male persona, but the overall discussions of gender are so sophisticated and nuanced in the text. How do you see gender identity fitting into the reproductive and societal themes of the novel?

           “Midwife” was fun and challenging to write in those sections because I got to spend time deconstructing how a ciswoman talks herself into the space of appearing like a man. The main character is working with a postmodern concept of gender, but also operating under continual terror of being read as female. She compensates and overcompensates, searching herself and her experience for the most unquestionable markers of masculinity she can embody. However, as the apocalypse unfolds along unforgiving gender lines, the ideas of masculinity and femininity are distressed for the players and the reader alike. What is a woman? If the survival of the species is deeply imperiled and you haven’t seen a woman in a year, what does it mean to find one? What does she owe you, or owe mankind as a whole? Responses to this vary from brutal to adaptive within the text. I wanted to express the ways in which people respond to the notion of gender in my own experience, but put it through the looking glass. I wanted to make the surrealism and rage of being a woman or queer real for everyone who reads it; to take inchoate dangers and unspoken threats and make them into clear and present threats. I wanted to say it in every possible way, from pep talks to the man in the mirror to listening to two women read a bodice-ripper out loud at the end of the world. It’s a complicated conversation, and it includes all of these modes of expression.

What gives you hope these days?

            I have lots of hope. I get my fix from the usual places: small turnings in the tide like Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama or Danica Roem’s victory in Virginia. I get a lot of hope from fan mail. A woman in her eighties wrote me to tell me my book helped her understand why her granddaughter prefers they/them pronouns. I like catching people being kind, and I see it every time I look for it. I always find hope in books, and I have always read science fiction because of how it makes me feel about the future. Even when the books are bleak, I am hopeful because we are still allowed to write them, still allowed to get them for free from the library.

What are the three best books you’ve read this year?

            It’s been a great year for books and it’s tough to whittle this down! First, Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women. It is an astonishing collection of stories that wounded and delighted me. It’s not marketed as science fiction/fantasy because she’s a literary author, but much of it belongs firmly in genre. It’s unflinchingly visceral and there are few searing images in it that I’ll never forget. She’s an incredible talent.

Next: Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues. If you are a fan of comics and at all concerned with the plight of what Gail Simone called “women in refrigerators,” this book is for you. It had me howling from the first page. Valente doesn’t own characters like Jean Grey or Harley Quinn, but you’ll know when she’s ringing their bell. I laughed reading this and sobbed minutes later. Cat Valente is one of the finest living writers in the English language and I thank the gods every day I am nothing like her as an artist. The comparison would kill me.

Third: Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. This was one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read, but it’s also that rare horror novel that’s beautifully written. LaValle combines some elements of mythology and classic horror (a child is stolen and replaced with something that is not a child) and tech spooks (you receive a disturbing photo of your baby on your phone, but when you try to figure out who took it and where or show it to anyone, it disappears.) LaValle is a master and I’ll buy anything with his name on it.

“Even when the books are bleak, I am hopeful because we are still allowed to write them, still allowed to get them for free from the library.”
-Meg Elison

Meg Elison is the Philip K Dick Award Winning author of the Book of the Unnamed Midwife , whose sequel, The Book of Etta came out in 2017. The third book in the trilogy,  The Book of Flora, will be released in 2018 (and we can’t wait). In the meantime, check out this fabulous bit of satire she penned in McSweeney’s and pick up a copy of Nov/Dec 2017 issue of Fantasy and Sci Fiction which features her short story “Big Girl.” She tweets @megelison and lives in Oakland, California. 
Interview conducted by Rachel Mans McKenny

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