by Terry Hong
While Pamela Erens might not yet be a household-name author, she’s hardly a stranger to literary recognition. Her 2007 debut, The Understory—about a solitary, unemployed lawyer who’s about to lose his home—was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Six years later, the adulation grew with the 2013 publication of The Virgins—a triangulated love story about two stand-out teens at an elite New England private school whose pairing is narrated by a rejected, obsessed third student. Erens made all the important best-of and editor’s choice awards (including the double holy grails, The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker), and garnered a finalist nod for the John Gardner Book Award for best fiction.
That success garnered Erens resounding attention from Reader’s Digest—that venerable publication found in every waiting room fondly familiar to most Bloomers—which named her one of “23 Contemporary Writers You Should Have Read by Now.” That was 2014; now in 2016 with her latest, Eleven Hours, hitting shelves last May, Erens is due a future headline touting, ‘contemporary writers we’re all reading right now.’
Lauded, starred, acclaimed, Eleven Hours is set in a Manhattan hospital where two women are each pregnant—one obviously, the other not yet visibly. The patient, Lore, arrives without partner, friends, any obvious support. Her attending nurse, Franckline, who will be her closest ally for the next 11 hours, is also pregnant, although still insecure about the not-yet-baby within. As they wait and work, both women find themselves remembering, regretting, and reconsidering the respective pasts that brought them each to this point—pregnant, nervous, uncertain. Beautiful and brutal, Eleven Hours is a revelatory meditation on relationships.
In each of her three novels, Erens writes beyond her own gender and race – as a middle-aged gay man, a Korean American teen, a Caribbean American immigrant. In light of the recent (and growing) global reactions to Lionel Shriver’s controversial keynote at the Brisbane writers’ festival – “I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad” – Erens proves (three times already) the importance of taking literary risks, and how to do so with considerable success.
Terry Hong: Although we’re officially calling you a Bloomer, you actually published your first book at 14, written when you were 10. Is Fight for Freedom: A Slave Girl’s Escape still in print? What’s ‘the understory’ about your precocious history?
Pamela Erens: My mom submitted my book. I wrote all the time when I was 9 and 10 years old. My previous novel was about a girl who had lost her parents in the Great Depression and was raising her little brother. After I wrote Fight for Freedom, it sat around the house for a couple of years and then my mother somehow got it into her head that she should see if someplace might be interested in it.
Fight for Freedom isn’t in print anymore because its publisher, Shameless Hussy Press, no longer exists. Shameless Hussy was a feminist press in California that was founded by a poet named Alta. They were the first publishers of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Anyway, Alta had a daughter who was roughly my age who oversaw a line within the press of books by children for children. A great idea. And a great name for a press!
TH: At 44ish, as a bonafide Bloomer, you published The Understory. Why did three decades pass before publishing again?
PE: The answer, really and truly, is I wasn’t especially good for a long time. I was a good 10-year-old writer, compared to other 10-year-olds. I was not a good 20- or 25- or 30-year-old writer. Whatever had been precocious in me didn’t develop into what’s necessary to write adult fiction. I could always make sentences. I was a “good writer” in school, in the sense of teachers liking my papers and thinking they were articulate. But it took forever for me to figure out how to create short stories or, especially, novels that had life in them.
TH: I’m not sure I should believe you about the “wasn’t especially good,” but clearly during that time, you developed into a different sort of writer from teenager-hood into your 40s. Now in your 50s, in what ways are you a different writer?
PE: When I was a kid writer, I wrote like the books I read: action, drama, clashes. As a teenager, I became someone who was mostly interested in what went on in people’s heads. I was very introverted, very psychological-minded, very interested in feelings. And I didn’t know how to make all that come out on the page. How do you describe the insides of people’s heads? It took me a long time to learn what comes naturally to some other writers—that you have to find the objective correlative. You have to create dramatic situations that convey or trigger the internal states you’re interested in. For a long time, I thought I could just put feelings on the page and it would be interesting.
When I was in my mid-20s, I started taking classes at The Writers Studio in New York City. That was a very good education in craft. The teaching wasn’t about classic elements such as plot, time, suspense; it focused on the very close analysis of style and stance in the works we read. I began to see craft as this thing sort of outside of oneself, a costume one could put on that could achieve certain effects. The goal became to find the right costumes, page by page, for what you wanted to do. And that got me a little closer to being able to write successfully.
As for my 50s, there’s always a lag time between the topics that interest me and my finding a form for them in fiction. I had children in my early-mid 30s, and found childbirth a really dramatic experience (pregnancy, too). By the time I was 50, childbirth had sat around long enough as a topic that I figured out how to write about it. I’m very interested now in the topic of children, how they develop, and in the topic of parenting. I don’t know if I’ll end up writing about the latter or not, but it’s a great and huge subject.
TH: What inspired The Understory?
PE: I don’t so much now, but for years I kept little books filled with tiny slips of observations and story ideas. One day I had this idea about someone searching for a twin. Like, a real twin—this person thinks there is someone out there who really is his perfect spiritual duplicate. And then this idea got married with an image I had of a man looking into lit windows in New York City on a cold winter night. He’s outside and there’s all this life inside. In the case of this book, there wasn’t some grand idea. It was these two idiosyncratic things that started something.
I’ll say, though, that at the time I had decided I WILL WRITE A NOVEL. It didn’t matter all that much what novel, I just wanted to prove that I could write one. I’d published a small amount of material—a couple of poems, a couple of short stories. (I’d always published a lot of nonfiction—magazine journalism—but that’s a different story.) I had this idea that I “couldn’t” write a novel because it was too large and complicated, and so I had this urge to prove myself wrong.
I sat down and made a very spare outline, and then I started. And, of course, as you know, when you start writing about anything that holds your interest, a lot else that means something to you eventually makes its way in, so the book ended up being about desire, solitude, intellect, social systems that support or don’t support the intellect.
TH: Did you specifically know you’d be writing from the male perspective? Why and how did you choose a gay middle-aged man to be your first major protagonist?
PE: I did know that I’d write from the male POV. I very often did at that time. One thing I had taken away from my Writers Studio experience was that it was very helpful to pick a narrator different from myself. If you choose a narrator that is a thinly veiled version of yourself, you have no emotional distance, and all your hang-ups and blind spots also become the hang-ups and blind spots of the narrator. You can’t see your material very clearly if you’re handling it through a personal stand-in. I always felt very freed up when I “spoke” in a male voice. It just seemed to come more easily.
But the interesting thing is, after I choose these “different” narrators/protagonists, they don’t end up feeling all that different from me. They feel like these people I can completely relate to, or that have big chunks of myself in them, or … I don’t know how to express it, but I feel like we’re all sort of the same inside. We’re not exactly the same, but we’re all drawing from the same small bag of primary shit—joy, rage, fear, desire, etc. So it’s never quite made sense to me that a gay middle-aged guy should be “different” from me. The frequency with which the question gets worried makes me concerned that a lot of writers restrict themselves from writing about people who seem too “other” to them.
TH: Since we’re talking “other,” let’s look at The Virgins. The ethnicity/cultural background of your lovers in Virgins is obviously an important part of your narrative arc. Having written outside your gender in Understory, did you ever have any lasting concerns about the sort of reactions you might get for writing beyond your own ethnic background?
PE: Yes, I often worry about this. I felt it was really important that the two characters other than the narrator in The Virgins be members of obviously non-WASP groups. But, of course, I was afraid that my rendition of the Korean American character could be flat or stupid. I was close to several kids of Korean background in high school and college, so I felt I did gather something about the culture and some of the issues that those kids dealt with, issues they had spoken to me about. And I did research on Korea and mid-century immigration and so forth. But it’s always a leap.
With Eleven Hours, I was even more worried, because Franckline, the Haiti-born nurse, is in a helper position, and there was that risk of this becoming a narrative about how the wonderful dark-skinned helper person enables the white character to have some emotional or spiritual breakthrough. Franckline became Haitian in a very simple manner. When I had spent time in New York City hospitals, I noticed that a great many of the nurses seemed to be from the Caribbean. And the Caribbean country I knew most about was Haiti, because my town happens to have a large Haitian population. So I just gravitated naturally to making her Haitian.
In the beginning it was just this naturalistic decision: I’m going to make her a person of color because that seems to be the fact in New York hospitals. But what it did was open up all these other possibilities for the story: it brought out the contrast between more technologically-driven birth practices and more traditional birth practices; it introduced a story of immigration. I was worried people would say I had somehow fucked up, or worse, that I wasn’t even entitled to write that character, but I hugely disagree with the second assertion (which no one has made, by the way). Again, I did a lot of research, spoke to people from Haiti or with parents born there, etc. I think the author’s responsibility when writing about people of a different race or religion or background is to do the absolute best one can to be informed.
TH: Your latest, Eleven Hours, has put you squarely in the limelight. Your topic is about something women have been doing since human existence: giving birth. And yet by all accounts, you’ve turned the mundane into something spectacular. What’s ‘the understory’ of this latest story?
PE: I found childbirth fascinating. I was terrified of it and couldn’t quite get over the idea that women actually have to go through this thing. It’s such a demand! I am saying that making fun of myself, as a very protected woman who had confronted very little pain or hardship in her life. Like, what’s up with the fact that I have to go through all this pain?! This is terrible! So I prepared a lot for it, obsessed a lot over it, and I guess I paid a lot of attention to it while I was going through it. And when it was over, I couldn’t believe that people didn’t talk about it and write about it more. People talk about sex endlessly. We talk about food and eating endlessly. But not this. So the material was just sitting there in me feeling like it was something to be said.
But, as before, it needed to wait for a moment when an idea about form could arise. And that came about when I had pretty much finished The Virgins and I was reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers. If you know that novel, it opens with a man on his deathbed, and you go into his past (and even the past of his father), but you always return to that bed and the relatives around and the time slowly ticking toward the moment when he will die. And it occurred to me, simply, that this could be done with childbirth. You could have a whole novel taken up by one childbirth, just as Harding’s novel is essentially the novel of one guy dying. Of course it’s more than that, but that’s how he structured it. And the rest was just (just! ha!) figuring it out.
TH: This is your first novel with only female protagonists. Was that a clear choice, or did the story evolve into these two women’s voices? You mentioned earlier a bit about Franckline becoming Franckline, but was the female nurse always a part of the plot?
PE: Just as I wanted to write a novel because I wasn’t sure I could write a novel, I was determined to have women protagonists in this novel because I couldn’t or hadn’t been willing to do that before (Aviva in The Virgins was a protagonist but the narrator was male). I was also even more determined to write a novel in third person. First person always came more naturally. And since it was a story of childbirth, it naturally became a story with a woman at the center.
The nurse was not always part of the plot. In fact, Lore originally had a husband. But at some point, I realized that if she had a husband, then there was a very important intimate relationship I had to deal with, that was going to be affecting every piece of dialogue and every action in that labor room, and I didn’t want that. I felt that would be distracting. I didn’t want this to be the story of a marriage, I wanted it to be the story of a birth. So once I took out the husband (or any other intimate relationship for Lore) then whoever was in the professional helper role necessarily had to become more important. And that became very interesting to me—how would these two people, who are only going to know each other for less than a day, relate? What will they tell and not tell each other? How much will they really glean of the other?
TH: So what’s on the writing docket for you right now?
PE: Yup, a new novel. Too superstitious to say anything about it. I aim for it to be different in some formal and stylistic ways than the previous ones. I want to keep things interesting for myself!