Everything Novel: Author of Red Clocks Leni Zumas Talks Craft

This month of DeadDarlings, Novel Incubator alum and author Rachel Barenbaum interviewed Leni Zumas about her new novel, Red Clocks (Little, Brown, 2018). Leni Zumas is also the author of Farewell Navigator: Stories (Open City, 2008) and the novel The Listeners (Tin House, 2012), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Leni lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is an associate professor in the MFA and BFA programs at Portland State University.

Leni's new novel, Red Clocks renders a near future that isn’t hard to imagine evolving out of today’s political climate, landing us in an America in which federal decree has made abortion illegal. In-vitro fertilization is banned. Every Child Needs Two is a law that prevents single women from adopting and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty and property to every embryo. And it doesn’t stop there. Desperate to maintain trading ties, Canada becomes an accomplice by erecting a ‘Pink Wall’ along its southern border, arresting and extraditing women trying to enter the country to have an abortion. Zumas expertly breathes life into her vision by submerging us into the lives of five seemingly disparate women.

Here are the highlights of their conversation, you can read the full interview with Leni and other insights on novel writing on DeadDarlings.

Most of our readers are writers—and we want to know: Leni, are you an outliner or a pantser?

Definitely a pantser, but when I reach the middle of a project, I end up outlining a bit. With Red Clocks, I wrote and wrote and wrote—in fragments, without any order or plan—until I had a substantial pile of pages. Then I went through the pile and generated a “descriptive” outline, essentially telling myself what I’d written so far. That outline helped me figure out where I wanted the book to go.

What was the biggest editorial change you made while editing Red Clocks?

A crucial piece of advice I got from my editor, Lee Boudreaux, was to put more pressure on the characters. In an early draft, the Daughter manages to cross the Canadian border undetected, and gets an abortion in Vancouver. Lee asked me why I was letting the situation resolve itself so easily. Why not make more use of this northern border “wall”? She was right, of course; so I placed more obstacles in the Daughter’s path.

You’ve brought five women to life in Red Clocks. Gin, the Mender, is my favorite. Who inspired the Mender? What do you hope she gives to the book and/or makes the reader consider?

Very cool that she’s your favorite! I love the Mender too. In some ways she was the most challenging character to write, as she’s an expert on things I don’t know much about: using wild-crafted plants as medicine, raising goats and chickens, living off the grid in a remote forest cabin. I loved doing research into edible and poisonous plant life, learning what kinds of combinations can treat various ailments. I hope the Mender is a convincing example, for readers, that a woman can be happy living alone. This sounds so basic and obvious, but when I think about most of the fiction I’ve read—whether it’s from the 19th century or the 21st—the female characters almost always have some kind of romantic entanglement or want to have a romantic entanglement. Maybe lots of the male characters do as well, but there’s far more literary evidence of men being fine without romantic partners (see, for instance, any nautical, war, or adventure story!) whereas women, historically, have been given narrative arcs that end in marriage or death.

Red Clocks envisions intense situations in which characters are desperate and thwarted by the law, their conscience and even their own bodies. And yet, there was no push for revolution, no overwhelming violence. Instead, you chose a quieter, sharp discontent. Why?

While writing this book I was thinking about how distant the average person is, or senses themselves to be, from political decisions made in Washington, DC. A lot happens when we’re not paying attention, when we feel helpless or resigned or apathetic. I wanted to keep most of the legislative operations offstage and let the reader experience that gap between law-making and law-breaking (or law-abiding). The novel’s arc bends toward grassroots political awakening—at least, I hope so!—even if that awakening might be a quiet one, depending on which character we’re talking about. I feel like Ro might have some revolutionary behavior ahead of her. She might be ready to get louder.

Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?

I’ve been on a kick of reading memoirs, and I highly recommend the following: Genevieve Hudson’s A Little in Love with Everyone, Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries, and Erin O. White’s Given Up For You (all published in 2018); and Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter (forthcoming in early 2019).

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Dead Darlings is devoted to celebrating the novel, from the process of creation through revision, promotion and publication. The authors, alumni from GrubStreet Boston’s Novel Incubator, have gathered to provide support for all novelists: aspiring, developing or successful. Writing is best when it has the support of a community, when novelists share their experiences.

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