ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Sophie Mackintosh wrote her first novel, "The Water Cure," while she was also working a full-time office job. The book was a success, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018. So she left the day job to write her second novel, and it's out now, called "Blue Ticket." Like "The Water Cure," "Blue Ticket" explores themes of gender, power and family.
SOPHIE MACKINTOSH: In the world of the novel, on the day of the first period, teenage girls are assigned a blue ticket or a white ticket through a lottery system. And the blue ticket means you can't have children and a white ticket means that you can. And this one decision that they make very early on in their lives kind of dictates the rest of their life and follows them around.
SHAPIRO: So your protagonist, Calla, is a blue-ticket woman.
SHAPIRO: What was it about that narrative, the woman who is prohibited from parenthood who, nevertheless, desires parenthood and is willing to do anything to become a mother?
MACKINTOSH: Yes. So I had decided - for a long time, I decided I wasn't going to have children, and I was very firm on this. And then when I kind of reached my late 20s, I found myself experiencing something which I imagine a lot of women do, which is I suddenly kind of became broody.
SHAPIRO: Broody meaning you wanted a brood of your own.
MACKINTOSH: Yeah, exactly. And it was quite kind of alarming to suddenly feel this and to kind of change the narrative of myself in that way. And so it was interesting for me to think about, you know, someone who has been shut out from that life, but what would happen if they had that kind of itch and how they would go about it?
SHAPIRO: You describe this experience from Calla's perspective of feeling broody in a really vivid way. Will you read this section?
MACKINTOSH: Sure. (Reading) In its place came desire so alien that I could only assume they had been inside me for a long time, like splinters or shrapnel waiting to be pushed to the surface, desires I had never even encountered, like holding a soft thing with large eyes or humming a song without words. In the supermarket, I cradled a hemp bag of sugar six pounds in weight, then put it back immediately. I spent a lot of time thinking about the curling hands of infants, about hot milk. I thought about the idea of someone coming home to you every day, of the concept of need and being needed.
SHAPIRO: And is that a description of your own experience, holding a bag of sugar that weighs about as much as a baby just for the feeling of it?
MACKINTOSH: I don't think I've literally held a bag of sugar, but I've definitely done a lot of grabbing of my friend's babies and, you know, a lot of that kind of covetousness of looking at little shoes. I can't really pass by a baby shop without kind of going in - well, pre-lockdown days.
SHAPIRO: You're using the present tense, so you're still feeling this, it sounds like.
MACKINTOSH: Yeah, I think so. It's strange because you think - well, I kind of assumed, I guess, if I wrote the book, it would kind of resolve something for me. I was thinking of books like "Motherhood" by Sheila Heti where she sort of processes her own feelings, and her feeling is ambivalence and mine is not really ambivalent. It's a kind of desire. Yeah. But I still kind of have those feelings, maybe even more so since everything that's happened.
SHAPIRO: At one point, your protagonist, Calla, thinks (reading) I wondered if I was purely masochistic or just a moth blundering into a flame. I wondered if motherhood held such appeal for me because it was a masochism you couldn't ever let go of.
That's a very provocative way of thinking about the desire for motherhood.
MACKINTOSH: Yeah. I think having that kind of not having a child myself, having that outsider perspective and learning more about it through my friends, you know, there was a part of me that thought, well, why do I want to have a baby when they're kind of - it's physically difficult and it's emotionally difficult. And, you know, you're changing your life very dramatically. It seemed strange that I could want something so powerfully while kind of knowing academically that it would, you know, change my life in quite a large way.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. There's a nice passage where you write about this in the book. Calla is a chemist, and so she's accustomed to formulas where things go as they are supposed to. And this biological experience is anything but. Will you read this bit?
MACKINTOSH: (Reading) Sometimes my life felt like a faulty experiment. I followed all the instructions, and yet I did not turn out to be the person I should have been. That was the problem with biology, I suppose, that it was a more inexact field - the bad science I had started to think of it privately, spitefully, but only because it didn't go my way.
SHAPIRO: On her journey trying to escape and cross the border before she gives birth, Calla encounters other women, some of them pregnant, some of them not, some of them helpful, some of them more complicated than that. At some point, it almost felt to me like these adventure stories that we are so accustomed to reading about men, whether it's "Lord Of The Rings" or anything else, except you've got this kind of group of questing women. It felt very archetypal to me but in a different way than we're accustomed to.
MACKINTOSH: It was fun to play with that idea because I think when we think about pregnant women, we think about docility and staying at home, you know, waiting for the baby to arrive. And I thought, you know, what if actually they're driven by this incredibly powerful instinct and this instinct actually kind of makes them almost, like, bloodthirsty and rageful and they will do anything to survive? They have this extremely precious cargo, and the survival of them and the baby is tantamount, so they'll do whatever it takes. It was quite fun to kind of play with that idea. But it also makes sense to me.
SHAPIRO: What do you mean by that?
MACKINTOSH: This is the thing. This is the issue I guess of writing a book while not having a child myself is that my ideas of it, I think, are romanticized sometimes, that I look at pregnancy with a kind of rose-tinted glasses. And I have these ideas, like, perhaps you would be a survivalist and perhaps you would be ferocious without actually totally knowing for sure. And I'm sure there will be women reading this book who are pregnant or have had babies, you know, who will think I was definitely not ferocious through my pregnancy or I was, so...
SHAPIRO: You know, Calla so often questions the decision she made to leave her life behind and break with the society. Did you as the person bringing this character into existence ever question her choice? Did you ever think, why couldn't she have just been happy with her lot?
MACKINTOSH: I think sometimes - because her life isn't bad, and she's not kind of - you know, she's definitely in a regime which is not like ours but, like, Doctor A (ph) tells her at one point she can do almost anything. It's just this one thing that is kind of - I mean, she can't really do anything, but there is a lot open to her. And it was kind of interesting for me to think about in the context where there were a lot of things permitted, why does it have to be this thing? Like, why can't you just be happy?
SHAPIRO: You are Welsh bilingual, if I'm not mistaken. Is there anything about the Welsh language that shapes your English writing?
MACKINTOSH: This is kind of a cliche, but Welsh is very musical, and there's so much in the rhythm of the language. Like, when you kind of - you can say a really boring sentence, and it will, you know, sound totally beautiful. And in school, I studied a lot of Welsh poetry. So the sound of a sentence is really important to me. I come from a poetry background as well. So I think all those things can feed into each other. Like, the sound of the words and the feel of a sentence is kind of quite a big thing for me.
SHAPIRO: Will you give us a sample of maybe just, like, the first sentence of the book in English and then in Welsh?
MACKINTOSH: Yeah. It began with the allocating of luck, our bodies pinballs inside a machine. (Speaking Welsh).
SHAPIRO: Sophie Mackintosh - her new novel is "Blue Ticket."
Thank you so much for talking with us.
MACKINTOSH: Thank you so much for having me.
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