By Leslie Lindsay
ELEVEN HOURS is one of the most realistic and harrowing stories about labor and delivery I think you’re likely to encounter. But don’t read this book if you’re pregnant, it’s that realistic, and it’s that visceral, darkly somber, and candid.
Lore Tannenbaum arrives at the hospital alone, in labor, and with very specific instructions, ones she isn’t willing to budge on; the all elusive birth plan. Her nurse, Franckline, a Haitian refugee and also pregnant and on the cusp of showing (though her husband doesn’t yet know this), is compassionate, patient, and caring–it’s what we all want in a nurse. Together, these women go through the trials and tribulations of child birth, the unsaid stories, the ones that are, as they come to terms with desire, fear, crushing losses (physical and figuratively), and the tiny, imperceptible pieces of joy they find in the crevices of each contraction, each pain of birthing a new human.
Today, I welcome Pamela Erens, author of THE VIRGINS, which was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, and other prestigious organizations. She’s also the author of THE UNDERSTORY, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.
Leslie Lindsay: Pamela, thank you so much for joining us this morning. Wow. I just finished reading ELEVEN HOURS yesterday and well…I kind of feel like *I* just gave birth. The story is so visceral, so somber and yet life-giving that I think I need a day or two of ‘rooming-in’ with the after-effects. Did you have a similar response when you were working on ELEVEN HOURS?
Pamela Erens: I guess I’m good at compartmentalizing! Birth was something I’d been through twice and remembered well in some ways, but it no longer felt like this extremely immediate experience. It was more like “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Besides, the process of writing a book is always slow (for me, anyway) and involves a lot of trial and error, a lot of being more and then less connected to what I’m trying to do over a period of many, many months . . . so, no, I have to admit that the intensity was a (hoped-for) end product, not something I constantly experienced while writing!
L.L.: When I first heard of ELEVEN HOURS, I was under the impression the women were both in labor, two very different women experiencing a universal life-giving moment; that is not the case. Exactly. Though there may be some subtle subtext that suggests this. The story centers around Lore mostly, but in between we hear of Franckline’s backstory, creating a sort of balance to the memories a partnership of the business of bringing new life into the world as only a woman can do. Can you speak to that, please?
Pamela Erens: Franckline was not part of my original conception of the novel. Lore initially had a husband, and her life and background were very different than they ended up being. At some point early on I realized that if Lore had a partner then the relationship between them would have to become central, and that felt like a distraction. I wanted the process of childbirth to be central, without competition. So Lore had to be alone, and once she was alone, whoever was helping her had to become a much more significant character. And that character became Franckline.
L.L.: When we write, we’re working at such a subliminal/subconscious level. Was there anything about writing ELEVEN HOURS that surprised you?
Pamela Erens: Maybe it was the moment when I realized that Franckline ought to be pregnant, too. I was worried all along about Franckline being a robust enough character. She’s in a helper position. Characters in helper positions can easily get too subordinated and flattened out. And more importantly, Franckline is not the one going through the birth. So she’s necessarily secondary, but I wanted to make her as little “second” to Lore as I could manage. When I realized she might be pregnant also, her story opened up to me and I felt she achieved more of her own weight as a character.
L.L.: I found ELEVEN HOURS to be literary and visceral. Disturbing and sad. Compelling, but empty. It reads as if you’re in a dream, under water, swaying in the amniotic fluid of life. I’m curious how you made the decision to structure this novel. It’s slim, but hugely powerful. And there are no chapters, and very few scene breaks. Mostly because we get very few scene breaks in the real-world of labor. What are your thoughts on all of that?
Pamela Erens: I prefer novels with chapters myself! I need pauses like anyone else, chances to catch my breath or permission to put the book down for a bit. But it was clear chapters were not going to work for this novel. The time period is too compressed, and as you mention, a labor is one long extended action. You don’t break off from it and go somewhere else. All the small moments that make up that long action mattered to me and I didn’t want any major jumps in time. That said, there are a few minor jumps, which are signaled by space breaks. So maybe the novel has a very few pseudo-chapters.
L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from ELEVEN HOURS?
Pamela Erens: I hope they take away that it’s possible, and possibly interesting, to write about physical or emotional processes that are normally overlooked in fiction because they’re seen as too intimate or (somewhat contradictorily) too universal and banal.
L.L. What’s keeping you up at night? What do you feel driven to explore?
Pamela Erens: What’s keeping me up at night is the imminent Presidential election, but I don’t see myself writing any fiction about it. Taking on politics directly doesn’t seem to be my fictional bag. Plus, political events move so fast: you can barely write about them before they’re over. But you never know. I would never say I could never end up writing about this or that.
L.L.: Pamela, it was a delight to have you! Thanks for stopping by.
Pamela Erens: Thank you for having me, Leslie!
For more information, or to follow Pamela, please see her website.
Pamela Erens is the author of the novels Eleven Hours, The Virgins, and The Understory, all from Tin House Books. She has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, and the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. The Virgins was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Salon, and Library Journal. Erens’s essays and criticism have appeared in publications such as Vogue, Elle, The New York Times, The Millions, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Los Angeles Review of Books.Reader’s Digest has named her one of “23 Contemporary Writers You Should Have Read by Now.”
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[Special thanks to Tin House Press and the author. Cover and author images courtesy of P. Erens and used with permission. Author image credit: Kathryn Huang.]