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Q&A With Carola Dibbell

Bloom: Your debut novel, The Only Ones, has been described as a “heartbreaking spin on dystopia.” How did you decide to write about a speculative future? What elements of the dystopian genre did you want to emulate and which elements did you want to change or challenge?

Carola Dibbell: I started The Only Ones as an experiment. Some stories I’d recently written had become a little fantastical as I wrote them–in the first case, “[Real Piece of Work],” to solve a plotting problem. I liked working that way so much I wrote a story, “Surviving Death,” that had a dead narrator. Then I thought, could I take this one step further and write science fiction? Mistakenly imagining I needed to know something about science, I realized the only science I knew anything about was reproductive biology, due to my years of infertility treatments, and almost in the same moment realized not only that that could help me with the classic SF subject of cloning , but that, by standing the subject on its head, it would be a way to write about adoption.

The science fiction writer who gave me the most ideas about the form is Bruce Sterling. What I like about his approach is that he writes as a realist. He neither idealizes nor fears the future. His characters are recognizable human beings, not heroes or villains, and his futuristic gizmos always have glitches, like any new technology. In The Only Ones, I wanted to do that sort of thing partly to help its credibility, but also because that’s part of my vision of reality. Nothing’s perfect. Things are complicated. And that’s not a bad thing.

Bloom: I love the idea of complexity, that complications can have a positive momentum of their own and lead to a kind of emergent property or realization within a story. Did you find that sometimes your complex ideas took on a life of their own, something you didn’t expect?

CD: Well, it was more a matter of the characters taking a life of their own. Given my basically positive feelings about reproductive intervention, it was very important to me that the reproductive “donor,” narrator Inez Fardo, should not be a victim. I wanted her part in the initial experiment to be as a paid worker, but I also thought she might find the work interesting. For that to make sense, I developed her not only as a somewhat damaged person with an odd detachment from her own feelings, but also as a very open one much more intelligent than anyone has guessed. Many elements of the story came out of her character. The idea of her hardiness and the whole pandemic premise of the novel came out of my need to explain why someone would pay to clone this questionable character I had already conceived and loved. But sometimes as I worked with some plot elements I noticed an elephant in the room. I wasn’t saying something that needed to be said. For instance, this question of hardiness seemed rich somehow. When I poked at it I found some of my own feelings about my daughter–that I was afraid to find out if she was as hardy as I am. So that seemed like an interesting line of thought about mothers and daughters that I hadn’t thought of going in– sometimes our child is so precious to us that we won’t let her be as hardy as we are. I played around with that one a bit. One big surprise came in the climactic scene where Inez tells her daughter the truth of her biological identity. Until then I’d been seeing Inez and Rauden as pioneers, brave enough to risk the consequences of their experiment. Suddenly I saw how a child created by that experiment might feel.

Bloom: The new novel has been put in the company of novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and P.D. James’ The Children of Men. Were these authors influences, or did you find inspiration from other writers?

CD: I’m certainly honored by the comparison but not sure how to answer the question. I read Children of Men well after it came out and after I had conceived The Only Ones. As a reader, I prefer James’ mysteries, but I was impressed by the size of her vision of mass infertility. I remember thinking, “Oh, no, people will think I got the idea from her!” Little did I know post-pandemic dystopia was already becoming a subgenre.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s vision of forced surrogacy in a medieval-type dystopia, was almost a reverse inspiration. I first heard of it during the Mary Beth Whitehead controversy of the late 80s. Atwood was among a group of prominent writers who publically supported Whitehead, a “surrogate” in a custody battle for the child she’d contracted to bear for a childless couple. I’d felt Whitehead’s parental rights were legally protected, sympathized with the couple, but mainly found the ensuing public debate upsetting and sometimes bizarre.

I’d loved Doris Lessing’s foray into space-travel science fiction and thought it brave and smart for a literary novelist like Atwood to risk genre fantasy. But as an infertile woman, mother of an adopted daughter, and feminist, reading this tale by another feminist in which infertile people, who are evil, steal children from fertile ones, who are good–well, it was hard not to take it personally. I felt misunderstood and hurt. If we were to live in a world in which children might be born in ways unimaginable till very recently, or raised, like my daughter, by parents who had no genetic relationship to her, perhaps we needed a more nuanced story. So, yes, you could say that The Handmaid’s Tale was an influence.

The semi-literate narration of Russell Hoban’s wonderful post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker gave me a few ideas about Inez’s voice. And The Millstone, Margaret Drabble’s early gem of a novel about young British academic who becomes an unwed mother, had lurked for years in my mind as proof a great novel can be written about having a child. What an amazing tone that book has–funny, bittersweet, profound.

Bloom: You describe how “taking pop music seriously led naturally to taking genre fiction seriously.” Talk a bit about that process. How did your writing evolve from music criticism to fiction, and from fiction to speculative fiction?

CD: Let me be clear: I wrote fiction long before criticism, and the criticism I did write was something of an experiment in combining both. And also to be clear, I write almost no criticism of any kind any more. But until I started thinking and talking about pop–and this happened when I met my husband, the critic Robert Christgau–though I’d read a little science fiction, I’d looked down on mysteries. Now I began to gobble them up. I began to think of the form as a kind of music, with rhythmic conventions and hooks, but much potential for subtlety. I wondered why police procedurals said more about work itself than any literary novels I could think of. And I liked feeling, as I did at rock concerts, or listening to the radio, that I was part of an audience that I might not have known I had so much in common with. As I read more and more mysteries, spy novels, and what we were calling “science fiction,” I was frustrated that I couldn’t write that kind of fiction myself. As I said earlier, this novel began as an experiment–to see if I could do it. One reason I managed to this time is that some of the concepts have changed. Dystopian fiction is a little different than old school SF. But to tell the truth, I’m not positive I’ll be able to do it again.

Bloom: You’ve been a woman writing in the man’s world of rock music for many years. How did you break those barriers, and how did that affect your writing?

CD: Before I’d published a word of rock criticism, I was very aware that other women were doing it.  Ellen Willis was present at the creation, and by the early seventies Lisa Robinson, Lillian Roxon, and Jaan Uhelszki were major players. Even so, it’s a struggle for women in that world even today. Being one of a small group of women in the territory actually helped my modest profile. But lest I sound too modest, let me add that the fact that I was an interesting writer didn’t hurt. I always felt I had to prove myself. But that was good for me.

Bloom: What does it mean to “reconcile literary ambition with the awkward need to be myself?” What advice could you give to other emerging writers who are trying to strike a similar balance?

CD: I’m not sure I know how to give any advice about writing. For me writing tends to be a seat-of-my-pants kind of thing–I don’t know what I’m even trying to do until it works. But I will say, in my case–and this was before I wrote any rock criticism–it was after my first involvement in the women’s movement that I began to recognize my voice in what I’d written. My comrades and I were always struggling to find new things out about ourselves and each other and that had its effect. I remember looking at a story in early draft–“A Misunderstanding,” eventually published in the Paris Review–and recognizing where the tone went false, and fixing it. I’d always felt frustrated by books that made things simpler than I’d found them to be. Even writing English papers as a college student, you’re supposed to sound like you know what you’re talking about. But so often I didn’t–I didn’t even know what I meant. But I knew that. So I began to explore  language that expressed the groping way I thought, mixing uncertainty and mistakes with bursts of insight. I found that this was the way to just sound human. Early rock criticism too, was very big on human frailty–overstatements,  hangups, personal grudges, sounding stupid–plus it was vulgar and vernacular and funny, and that helped open me up as a writer. But all that was what I needed.  You might need something else.

Bloom: I was very moved by a comment you made in an interview with Two Dollar Radio about being a slow writer, that good work doesn’t always make it into print, and that “we’re working novelists even if we’re not published novelists.” Now that The Only Ones is published and getting great reviews, how does it feel to cross that threshold from working to published?

CD: Great to have readers, truly great. Strange to have a public profile. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to be private enough to put my head in the place it writes fiction from and start working again. But when I read things readers have said about The Only Ones–readers, not critics, just writing about what the book meant to them–I don’t have words for what that means to me. Fiction is about something that’s not real. But when it’s read, it is real.

Bloom: You’ve written short pieces of fiction as well; how does the experience of writing short stories measure up to writing a novel, especially one that required so much research?

CD: As a writer I understand long better than short. As a reader, too. It’s unusual for me to be as satisfied by reading a collection as a novel. Nevertheless, one of my ideas about what to do next is to pull together some kind of collection, maybe just fiction, maybe some combination of fiction and essays.

Bloom: Why do you think genre fiction gets a bad rap?

CD: The audience, I suppose. Maybe the idea is that literary novels will be read by people who’ve been to college, whereas anyone can read genre. Maybe it has to do with easiness and the idea that if something is easy, it can’t be good for you. I have a feeling there’s an easy answer to this question, but damned if I can come up with it. I do think these days genre is getting more respect, just as pop music is.

Bloom: Let’s talk about Girl Talk! You say in the preface that this story has broken your heart; I get the sense that that is not just because it hasn’t found a published home yet. What makes this story so important to tell?

CD: For me, Girl Talk ends up being about the women’s movement, but indirectly–it’s over by the fall of 1966. It’s about the kind of friendships I had during those years, and I find that an important story. But the heartbreak? That has to do with the fate of the novel itself, my hopes for it, how much I put into it, what a blow it was that it wasn’t recognized. I hate to keep nattering on about the benefits of adversity, but I think in its way that was good for me. Sort of gave me a different narrative than girl writes book, book gets published, her life means something. That’s pretty lightweight. So, if I were to give any advice to writers, maybe it would be: there are better narratives than that.

Bloom: What other projects are you working on now?

CD: I haven’t got my teeth into anything yet, and that leaves me feeling a little unmoored. But I will get there. I spoke of the idea of a collection, or maybe more than one. And of course there’s Girl Talk. Yet in the end I won’t be happy until I write another novel. I’m still feeling my way into a few candidates, but I’m superstitious. I don’t think I should talk about them now.

Bloom Post End

Click here to read an excerpt from Carola Dibbell’s Girl Talk.

Author photo credit: Nina Christgau/Courtesy of Two Dollar Radio

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