SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The novel "Red Clocks" imagines a time in which something called the Personhood Amendment has made abortion and in vitro fertilization a crime in the United States, and Canada returns women who slip across the border to seek one. It's a novel set in an alternate reality of an Oregon town near the border that invites inevitable comparison with Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale." Is it also a parable for our times?
"Red Clocks" is by Leni Zumas. Her fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines and has been acclaimed for her exquisite wordplay. She's also an associate professor of English at Portland State University and joins us from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thanks so much for being with us.
LENI ZUMAS: Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: You must have begun this novel more than a year ago - before the last inauguration. So what put the story in your mind?
ZUMAS: Yeah. I started writing it around 2010. It started from some personal anxiety and anguish of my own. I was dealing with infertility and really wanted to get pregnant and wasn't able to. And I had a lot of questions about why I wanted to become a mother, what it meant to be a mother, what it meant to be fertile or infertile.
And when I was starting to pursue in vitro fertilization and doing some research about it, I started to come upon something called the Personhood Amendment and various fetal-personhood movements in the United States - people who wanted to make it a crime to do anything to a single-celled zygote. And so that was something that really fueled my curiosity and, frankly, my anger. And so it started out personal, and it really expanded to be about the political future of our country.
SIMON: You've intertwined the stories of four or five women here, and I'll just mention a few - Roberta, or Ro, a teacher who wants a child on her own, her best student, Mattie, who becomes known in the narrative as the daughter. She's 16 and pregnant, decides to run for the border, previously unheralded polar explorer named - I can't pronounce her name.
ZUMAS: I say it as Eivor Minervudottir, but I don't speak Faroese, so I'm probably butchering it.
SIMON: (Laughter) Well, somebody in our audience, undoubtedly, will let us know that - if you've butchered it. I want to read something that is written in her voice.
(Reading) We woke to the floes rafting up around the ship - massive blue-white shelves, thrust vertically by wind and tide, jumped roaring out of the water and smashed at the keel. To my knowledge, I may now add the sound ice makes when it destroys a ship - booming gun cracks, then a smaller yelping.
I looked up this explorer because I found those passages so compelling.
ZUMAS: I'm glad.
SIMON: Imagine my amazement I meant to find out it's all your fiction - isn't it?
ZUMAS: I happen to be a person who's long been obsessed with polar exploration and maritime adventure, and so that's what I imported when I was imagining this woman from the Faroe Islands who gets aboard these ships by pretending she's a boy and teaches herself polar hydrology.
SIMON: I have to share with you - there was a phrase that startled me a little. At one point, the 16-year-old - the daughter - who becomes pregnant refers to what I'll refer to the entity inside of her as the clump.
SIMON: I'll ask - because it is your character - does she do that to distance herself, or what?
ZUMAS: That's a good question. I think that she does want to distance herself, but she doesn't know what she's doing. You know, she hasn't quite turned 16. And she herself is adopted, which makes her decision to seek an abortion more complicated.
SIMON: Can you see how even some people who believe in abortion rights just might find a phrase like the clump to be a euphemism that aggravates them?
ZUMAS: Yes, I can. And I hope that that aggravation starts a conversation, you know, or contributes to a conversation that's obviously already happening.
SIMON: As you may know, there are couples that go through IVF, and they see something flickering on that screen and begin to feel very deeply about it. It suddenly - if you will, it's not a clump to them. It becomes something with living properties.
ZUMAS: I think that's where the complexity lies in this conversation - that, you know, I remember when I got the call that I was pregnant after many, many tries. And certainly, I wasn't using the word clump to myself. But that doesn't mean that a 15-and-a-half-year-old 1/2-year-old doesn't get to use that word for herself.
SIMON: How do you feel about comparisons to "The Handmaid's Tale"? Oh, wait. As soon as I hear myself utter that question, I'm thinking, what's wrong with that? How could that possibly hurt?
SIMON: But go ahead, please.
ZUMAS: I've admired Margaret Atwood for a really long time, and I love her work. And I think our books are very different in the sense that in "The Handmaid's Tale," she's created such a spectacular and drastic world that does draw on elements of historical fact but which is really so separate from our own world, whereas I think that the world of "Red Clocks" could, frankly, happen next week.
SIMON: Leni Zumas - her novel "Red Clocks." Thanks so much for being with us.
ZUMAS: Thank you, Scott. It was a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIA KENT'S "TRANSPORTATION")
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