Leni Zumas’s new novel, Red Clocks (to be published under Little, Brown’s Lee Boudreaux Books imprint in January), is set in a future when abortion is banned in all 50 American states, and the Every Child Needs Two Act is about to make it illegal for unmarried people to adopt. Zumas started working on the book in 2010, but she is unsurprised that its central premise seems even closer at hand now. On the day we speak, the House of Representatives has passed a bill banning almost all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
“This has been building for years and years,” Zumas says. “In 2010, I started noticing mentions of something called the Personhood Amendment [declaring that life begins at conception], and in 2013 something called the Sanctity of Human Life Act. It was around that same time that I was trying to get pregnant myself, using some advanced reproductive technology, and I would read these things online saying, ‘This is unnatural; no woman should be allowed to use science to help her have children.’ I thought that was actually a pretty good reason to use science! So writing this book was a personal journey combined with a growing political awareness.”
Zumas’s quest had a happy ending: her son Nicholas is about to turn five, and she lives with him and his father, Luca Dipierro, in Oregon, where she is an associate professor in Portland State University’s creative writing M.F.A. program. She put her high-tech fertility experiences to use in Red Clocks in the story of Ro, a 42-year-old high-school teacher who is trying to get pregnant while working on a biography of a (fictional) 19th-century female explorer.
Zumas acknowledges, smiling wryly, that “the details of Ro’s inseminations are ripped from the headlines of my own life, but Eivør Minervudottir emerged from my obsession with polar exploration.” She adds: “One of the most pleasurable things for me about writing the book was imagining Eivør’s story and her importance for Ro, who is interested in unveiling buried histories. I had this idea of being in conversation with women in the past, because I think a lot about my debt to other writers and artists and activists who have made possible the opportunities we have today.”
Among those foremothers is Margaret Atwood—though not for the book you might expect. “I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale since high school,” Zumas explains. “It’s in my DNA, but it wasn’t a conscious model for this book. Atwood’s willingness to do sci-fi/fantasy dystopian work and insist on not bring pushed aside into genre fiction is important to me, because it asks us to think about genre boundaries and what they really mean.”
Another Red Clocks character steeped in female traditions is a woman known as “the mender,” a healer living in the woods who is accused of agreeing to provide an abortion. “I thought of the mender as a young crone,” Zumas says. “She isn’t old, but she has chosen to step outside normative behaviors for a woman. It was important for me to locate her in that lineage of women who for various reasons refuse to take part in the smooth workings of society. In the first draft of the novel I actually used a lot of language from the Salem witchcraft trials; much of that ended up coming out as I revised, but it was important for me to read through the transcripts and see the ways in which the game was rigged against women who did not do as they were told.”
The climactic trial in Red Clocks helped Zumas find a tone and pace rather different from the short stories in her collection Farewell Navigator and the fragmented narration of her first novel, The Listeners. “One of the hardest things for me as a writer is plot—what Virginia Woolf calls ‘the appalling business of getting from lunch to dinner,’ ” she says. “Poets can simply saturate and compress; they don’t have to worry about those ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch’ moments in a novel. When I was starting off with Red Clocks, I thought, ‘What could give me that scaffolding?’ I was actually picturing a dinosaur with a skeleton and a spine running across on which I could just hang my interest in the characters or the language or the image. The idea of a trial was appealing because it has a recognizable structure.”
“Fiction is a complicated process,” Zumas says. “Thank God for revision, because that’s when you realize, ‘Oh, wait: the color blue is doing something in this scene that I didn’t think of before, but now I could make it do this other thing.’ So you go back and reverse-engineer the other parts of the book to accommodate the color blue, and I love revisions for that reason.”
In Lee Boudreaux, Zumas found a goad and an inspiration for her revisions. “Lee is a brilliant editor, and I don’t use that word lightly,” she says. “She could see what the book was trying to do or already doing and then push it harder in that direction. I’m so grateful to her; I’ve never had an editing experience like this. She would say, ‘Okay, Leni, you’ve given yourself this character or this opportunity or this scene, but then you walk away from it before it really has a chance to get dangerous. Why are you doing that?’ Not in a melodramatic way, but just urging me to dig deeper into the predicaments I had already created.”
“Having the additional resources of a big house like Little, Brown was wonderful,” Zumas notes. “Between the time I sold the book and the time of publication there was a lot more room for revision.” She praises Joanna Yas, who edited Farewell Navigator at Open City Books, and Nanci McCloskey, who did the same for The Listeners at Tin House: “They both made good suggestions, but the time frames were shorter; there just wasn’t the time or space to say, ‘What if I completely rewrite this?’ That said, I also think that some of the most amazing fiction, and nonfiction, and poetry today is being published by small presses, and I am glad for all three experiences.”
Zumas is also glad to have received tenure at Portland State, which has given her security after some hardscrabble years in New York City, patching together a living from adjunct teaching gigs while writing fiction and playing drums in a punk-rock band. “I love working at PSU, though to be completely honest, if I were independently wealthy I would just want to write,” she says. “I’m an introvert, and teaching is a very social activity—in a good way, but it exhausts me. I loved Brooklyn, and I miss playing drums; I still have my drum set in the basement, and our son sometimes bangs on it. But I don’t miss the life of being in a band: I go to bed too early for that now.”