Meg Elison, author of “The Book of the Unnamed Midwife”
About five months ago, I joined the marketing team at a startup company called Ripple, that’s making a huge splash in the financial services industry. I’m so lucky to work with such amazing colleagues — one of whom is Meg Elison, our social media goddess and an up-and-coming author!
I recently read her debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, and it’s so crazy good that it’s the only book I’ve completed so far this year to receive a 5-star rating.
The novel has been re-released today by publisher 47North, so to celebrate, I asked Meg a few questions over much-deserved cocktails. As an avid reader and aspiring author myself, I just had to know how Meg became the legend that she is now.
Book Club Babe (BCB): Did you study creative writing at all in school? If so, how effective was it in launching your career?
Meg Elison (ME): I didn’t study creative writing formally. I majored in English at UC Berkeley and I got a lot of my early experience by writing for newspapers, both in high school and college. I had very good teachers teach me critical reading, and later how to analyze and imitate style.
I would read books and essays and have reactions to them, typically very strong feelings one way or the other. I seem incapable of apathy. My best teachers were the ones who made me walk backwards and tell them why I hated something, and how to form an argument against what I had read. Learning to do that with both form and content is the most important bit, I think. Creative writing classes might have done it sooner, but I don’t think they would have done it better.
BCB: Who are your literary role models?
ME: I have many, but for a lot of different reasons. I’ve always looked up to Stephen King, because of his work ethic and his productivity. Margaret Atwood is a hero to me because she’s the one who helped me see how few books there are in my genre that treat women like people. Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde both make me jealous enough to cry with their prose; I am always trying to measure up to one of them. Sherman Alexie is an incredible inspiration to writers who are trying to write about poverty, so is John Scalzi. Amy Tan taught me to look at a line of women and see that any woman’s story starts long before she’s born. I could go on for pages and pages about this. Even the writers I hate have taught me valuable things.
BCB: What inspired you to write The Book of the Unnamed Midwife?
ME: I love the post-apocalypse genre. I got a lot of lectures about the END OF DAYS from a succession of creepy churches as a kid, and it went from my nightmares to my waking thoughts. I would try to figure out how it would work, how cities could crumble and a one-world government could possibly function. Once I moved past dubious prophecy, I started to read other apocalypses. I read good ones and bad ones and made my way through hundreds of books.
After a while, and after reading Atwood’s anomalous The Handmaid’s Tale, I realized that almost none of them had any real women in them. Women in these stories did not get pregnant, or need tampons, and many meekly submitted to a state of affairs that returned them to chattel status. I loved the women on “The Walking Dead.” They dealt with difficult birth on the show, but they all still waxed their eyebrows and shaved their armpits. Once I became aware of the gap, it obsessed me. I started thinking not only about gender in the apocalypse, but an apocalypse of gender. The idea came to me at a time when the War on Women was hot on TV, and it all fused into a feminist lightning bolt of rage. That was it.
Book One in “The Road to Nowhere” series (Image: Amazon)
BCB: Describe the writing process: Any particular writing habits? How long did it take from draft to final? When did you start pitching? Any unexpected obstacles along the way?
ME: Midwife happened uncharacteristically quickly. I wrote 13,000 words on the first day, and that’s a record I haven’t broken since. After that, it was a sprint all the way through. It was written in a few months and pitched in less than a year. I expected pitching to be difficult, but I encountered absolute silence. It was beyond discouraging. When I got an offer from my very small first publisher, I leaped on it. At the time, I had to ask myself some pretty hard questions about whether I was settling, but it was the right thing. I got my work out there, and I have no regrets.
BCB: Your lead is an unabashed feminist who has no qualms discussing controversial topics, like casual sex and abortion. Was it difficult getting published because of this, and did you have to tone anything down in the rewrites?
ME: My first publishers were remarkably relaxed about the content of the book, and welcomed the frankness of it. My new publishers (I’m grateful to say) have been as well. I don’t know that 100% of the reading public is ready for my protagonist, but the publishing world certainly is. I know I was.
BCB: In the movie adaptation, who would you cast as the midwife and why?
ME: I love this question! My first choice is Kristen Stewart, who I think is capable of much more than she’s been given and has a good, hard edge to her work on gritty characters. My next would be Jena Malone, who really shocked me with the depth of her portrayal of Johanna Mason in “The Hunger Games.” She had a feral bloodlust and the look of a survivor to her, whether Johanna was flirting or stealing morphine, that I just adored.
BCB: Any hints on what to expect in the sequel?
ME: So, the sequel, The Book of Etta, picks up in the frame tale of Midwife. It’s the same town, a hundred years later. There’s been some cultural drift, and some of it would make the Midwife pretty unhappy, but that’s what cultures do. They drift and shift to stay alive. Etta is another very tough main character and has a struggle ahead. It’s the same kind of adventure, that same pace, with some new ideas in the mix. I’m excited for people to read it next year!
Book Two in “The Road to Nowhere” series (Image: Amazon)
BCB: We work in marketing, so how does marketing affect your work?
ME: I don’t think about marketing at all when I write. I think that’s a terrible idea. I don’t care what’s trendy or what I think will sell, I want to write my story and let what will happen just happen. However, working in marketing has given me a lot of insight into the work of promoting a book once it’s done. I’ve gotten sharper about pitching, both the book and myself as a speaker or a guest at an event. I’ve gotten more succinct and distilled in my professional correspondence, which I think is very hard for many writers to do. I’ve been able to look at pitching angles objectively, without getting all tangled up in what it means for my artistic identity. Yeah, I’m an artist and I’m sensitive and shit. But also I’d like to make a living. Marketing makes books turn into pizza and rent checks and gas. It keeps me pragmatic.
BCB: What’s the best advice you can give to aspiring authors?
ME: The best advice I can give that I haven’t heard a million times is that all writers should hate-read. I read for pleasure and to keep myself in touch with the market, but I also hate-read like a motherfucker. Wanting to be like Chuck Palahniuk gives me a style to imitate and a leader to follow, but nothing more. Knowing exactly where Stephenie Meyer makes her worst mistakes, or why I cannot get through a whole book by Don DeLillo provides me with lessons I will never forget; concrete directives that tell me I’m headed in the wrong direction. That stuff is priceless.
BCB: What’s your favorite book of all time, and what are you currently reading?
ME: The killer question! I could have a different answer every day of the week. Today, let’s say my favorite book of all time is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. And I’m currently reading The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemison, and I just finished Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. They’re both very, very good.
BCB: What are you working on now, and how can people learn more about you?
ME: I’m working on the third book in the Road to Nowhere series, as well as two other unrelated novels. This has been a very productive year for me. I’ve also published a handful of short stories and essays recently. The best place to track me down is on Twitter (@megelison), but I also have a Facebook author page and my own website. I’ve got events coming up around the launch of my book, so come see me in meat space!