MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
On this Mother's Day, here's a bit of wisdom - having a child is usually just a long patience. Those words are spoken by a character in a new novel tiled "Eleven Hours." That character is a nurse in a hospital maternity ward. And that long patience she's talking about is the patience a woman needs when she's in labor, the patience to ride through hours of pain and worry. The novelist Pamela Erens joins me now. Welcome to the program.
PAMELA ERENS: Thank you.
BLOCK: And your novel takes place through the course of one woman's labor. How did you decide to focus on those intense hours?
ERENS: You know, I usually like to restrict myself quite a lot when I write fiction because writing fiction is so overwhelming to me. Making it 11 hours was making it as compressed as I could and giving myself some parameters.
BLOCK: Well, and it does, of course, have a perfect arc, right? I mean, there's a beginning and a middle and an end. I mean, there's a through line right there.
ERENS: Right, there's definitely an outcome when you have childbirth.
BLOCK: ...No question about that. No question about that. The story that you tell is told from two perspectives. One is the nurse that I mentioned, Franckline, who's originally from Haiti. She's working in New York. And she is pregnant herself, but she hasn't told her husband. And she says that she gets a lot of the difficult cases in the hospital. Tell us a bit about Franckline.
ERENS: Well, she was born in Haiti. And when she was a teenager, she had a child. She did not have a partner, and that was frowned upon by her family. And she lost that child after three days. It was born, but it was sickly. And she was quite traumatized by this and traumatized by the rejection of her family. And she runs away, and eventually she makes her way into America, where she trains as a nurse.
BLOCK: When you were thinking about what kind of nurse Franckline should be, what would guide her or what style she would have, what were you thinking?
ERENS: Well, she necessarily had to be a helper type because my other character, Lore, is so desperately in need of help. And I felt that if Franckline didn't step into that role for her, there really wouldn't be a story. There wouldn't be an intense relationship between the two. So she naturally had to evolve into that person who could support this very difficult, actually, patient, a patient that's not making it easy to help her.
BLOCK: And that's Lore, the woman...
BLOCK: ...Who's giving birth. She's 31. She's on her own. She doesn't have a husband or a partner for any family with her. And she does have a detailed birth plan pages and pages long of how she wants this to go.
ERENS: Yes. Lore's birth plan is a little bit of an inside joke. I was a little bit that person who came in with the incredibly detailed birth plan because I had a great many fears about having a child. And so I made up this incredibly detailed plan. So - but in terms of the character, Lore is someone who's been traumatized to some extent by some things that have happened to her. And I suppose I envision this as her way of trying to have control over what she can have control over.
BLOCK: I don't want to give away the outcome of what happens at the end, but did you wrestle with what the arc of the story would be and what would happen at the end? Were there different endings that you tried out along the way?
ERENS: I basically knew where it was going. I knew how it was going to end. That said, I'm not even sure I know exactly what's going to happen after the last page, but I knew what would be those last pages.
BLOCK: So you wanted to leave it ambiguous?
ERENS: Because I think when you have a new child, the future is ambiguous. You don't know what's going to happen to that child. The healthiest, most robust child - anything could happen six months from now or a year from now. And children have their own totally unforeseeable personalities and lives that they grow into. And I just felt that was true to the experience of a new birth.
BLOCK: I wonder if for you as a writer, if that's a satisfying place to be at the end, of not knowing what happens to a character, or if there's some part of you that really does want things to be tidy and wrapped up.
ERENS: Oh, I think I very much like to leave things open-ended. I think all my books tend to end with a bit of a question mark. And that seems to be where I feel most comfortable. There's a famous Grace Paley story where she says - I'm probably going to misquote it, but she says something like every character deserves an open destiny. And I feel that. I feel like it's more generous to give your characters different possibilities after the last page.
BLOCK: Pamela Erens. Her novel is titled "Eleven Hours." Pamela, thanks so much, and happy Mother's Day.
ERENS: Thank you, you too.
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