Paula Bomer’s Nine Months begins with a scream. Sonia, our protagonist, has just given birth, and shrieks, “I DID IT WITH MY OWN BODY!” The first paragraph ends, “Her insides came out. It’s the end of the world.”
From the most vivid and descriptive birth scene I’ve ever read, the novel only gains steam. We’re taken back in time, eight months previous, to Sonia’s discovery that she is pregnant with a third child. A painter, Sonia gave up her art to stay home with her two sons, and she is not thrilled to be pregnant again. As Sonia’s pregnancy and ambivalence toward it continues, she slowly loses her bearings as she finds herself at the center of a whirlwind of advice, pressures, and demands put on her not just by her family, but by the culture at large.
Finally, she loses it. She leaves her family and takes to the road, visiting old haunts and far-flung friends and relatives — and finds herself on something of a tour of our ideas about motherhood today. The book is fast-paced, mercilessly funny, and ultimately a touching and harrowing exploration of the conflicting and sexist pressures that even the most liberal circles — and “mommy culture” at large — inflict on women who have children.
Paula Bomer spoke with me over the phone about offending readers, the question of “likable” fictional characters, absent mothers in literary fiction, and the weirdness of birth.
Nika Knight: I hear that it took you a long time to publish Nine Months.
Paula Bomer: I wrote Nine Months at least ten years ago. Every now and then I’d send it out; every now and then an agent would ask me to do some revisions, but no one ever took it on. A couple of times people got very angry at me, and were like, “This is awful!” Agents would scream at me, and then I’d just put it on the shelf for a while.
And then after Baby came out — my first book, my story collection, was well-received and then people started asking me: did I have a novel? And I said, “Well, I’ll bring this one out again.” I actually have a couple of other books, but I thought that thematically Nine Months was somewhat similar to Baby, and then I found someone who loved it. Mark Doten [at Soho Press] loved the book.
We worked really hard on it, though — we did a lot of revisions. At one point he made me cut all sorts of chapters and just said, “Do something else with it.” He basically made me rewrite the road trip part.
Wow, it’s hard to imagine it being any different than it is.
I think I made it the book it should be with the help of Mark. But prior to working with him, it was written from multiple points of view, not just Sonia’s. There was her husband; there was a marriage counselor point of view; Clara had a bigger part. Mark said, “This is her book, you have to make it just from her point of view.” That was the first revision, and then with the road trip, he was like, “Go visit other people.”
What was that revision process like? Was it difficult?
It was! It was really hard. I find writing hard. Occasionally, you get into a groove, or whatever — there’s sort of a fancier word, books are written about it — but things start flowing. “Flow” is probably better than the word “groove.” But generally speaking, I find the writing process very difficult. Especially novels. The short story process, because I’ve written so many, can be less stressful. Although, sometimes not — like right now, I’m trying to finish a collection and I’m having a very difficult time.
It’s not easy, but sometimes it’s easier. Sometimes it’s really hard, sometimes it’s not hard. There are definitely weepy moments, where your head is just laying on the table and you’re like, “Ughhh.” But, you know, I always say I’ll give it my best college try. I work hard at it, and I’m willing to work harder if it doesn’t work.
[When revising,] there was never any compromise on my part, it was just . . . writing more. Mark never made me change Sonia’s character. The book has gone through massive revisions, but Sonia has always been Sonia.
You said when you were trying to get it published, that some people got angry about it?
Well, offended. One agent said, “I find this book extremely offensive.”
I cried. Now, looking back, I think I’m trying to offend some people. I think I’m trying to push some buttons. And yet when I do it, I feel all ashamed. Which is ridiculous, because I know what I’m doing. My reaction doesn’t make much sense.
One of the reasons I liked Nine Months was because I felt like it was challenging a lot of norms — it’s about a pregnant woman shattering all the demands our culture makes of mothers.
Yeah, I was definitely shooting to do that.
I loved it. I mean, I’ve never had children but I do feel like there is a lot of mom stuff everywhere right now. There’s mom blogs, “mommy lit”….
I think that’s one of the reasons I was able to sell it now. The mommy culture just continues to get more insane.
I thought this was such a great contribution to that discussion, because I feel like there are endless articles about, like, “Oh, can women have it all?” Or, “Should moms work, or should they stay home?” And then there’s Sonia, just abandoning her family and going on this roadtrip and exploring all those questions in this way that felt so much more satisfying, somehow, than reading these articles that just start to feel the same at a certain point.
Well, Sonia is a character who basically explodes under the pressure. I think the pressure has even gotten more intense than when my children were small. . . . You know, when you’re pregnant, everyone has advice. When you have small children, strangers come up to you — once, I was getting a coffee, my second child was in one of those baby carriers, and I was exhausted, like always. I was getting a cup of iced coffee at the deli. And this woman, I’d say she was in her forties. I had my children sort of young, so I was in my late twenties, early thirties. I didn’t know her, she was just standing in line at the deli, and she said, “You know, you really shouldn’t drink coffee. It’s really bad for the baby.” Plus, she said, “Are you breastfeeding?” A complete stranger is asking me if I’m breastfeeding. Why would a complete stranger think that it’s any of her business? And then, the idea that a cup of coffee is somehow horribly dangerous to an infant — it’s just absurd.
I luckily had a great pediatrician who enlightened me to the nonsense of all that, to things like “don’t eat garlic, that’s what makes the baby cry!” There are just so many ridiculous things that people tell you. Actually, there’s a great nonfiction book out called Why Have Kids?. It’s a very thoughtful book by a writer named Jessica Valenti. She discusses things that I didn’t even know existed when my kids were little — like, there’s this diaper free movement. The idea is that you’re so in tune with your child that they should never be wearing diapers. Diapers are not “natural.” Everything should be about “natural.” And you can tell when the baby needs to pee or poo, and you hold the baby over the toilet. When I told my son about this — I was cracking up reading it, and I told my son about it — he said, “What’s natural about holding the child over a toilet?” There’s nothing natural about that, either, you know?
Sonia is a big “fuck you” to all that. And it’s probably bad that she left her kids for two months, but that’s two months of an entire life. I don’t think she’s a completely horrible person.
It’s interesting that people were so offended by it. I felt that she was kind of like an “Id.” She’s not like Clara, or most of the other moms in the book — she’s not tamping herself down, she just does whatever she feels compelled to do at any given moment.
I think that’s a great way of looking at her. She’s lost all of her responsibilities, principles, all those things. She goes nuts. It’s not great, but it’s also really just a few months. Prior to that, and afterwards, who knows. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t had a few bad months in their life. They don’t necessarily go on road trips, or have casual sexual encounters, but still. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t had a few bad months.
But there are a bunch of Amazon reviews — like a one star review that’s just titled “Disgusting.” I was mentally prepared for it, but not prepared for how it would bother me. Actually, it bothers me less and less as I’ve gotten more and more of them. Goodreads, too. Lots of haters on Goodreads.
Wow. And is it just because of the choices that Sonia makes?
Yeah, “she’s nuts,” “she’s pathetic,” “she’s horrible.” I thought at first that the bad reviews might be interesting but they’re all the same: “she’s nuts and pathetic,” “this book is foul-mouthed.” I’m not going to be like, “Wow, I really shouldn’t have used the F word so much.” Actually, for one revision I had a writer friend who was just like, “You’ve got to just take out all the F words.” And I’m like, really? That just seems that’s not how this book should be, you know? So, a lot of people are offended.
One four star review was like, “This book is great! It shows how some people should really not have children. It’s the perfect example of how some people are just not capable of having children.” Which I thought was one of the most bizarre readings.
That seems crazy to me. I thought the end, in that kind of climactic scene where she’s confronting her old painting mentor, Philbert Rush — I feel like she legitimizes her choice to have children in this way that felt really empowering and really true.
That was never revised. That chapter really came to me when I was writing the book and it’s the real conclusion. It was a really fun chapter to write, which is rare. Like I said, I find writing difficult.
It’s a big argument. That’s what makes the novel sort of a book of ideas. Hopefully not didactic — it’s not just a book of ideas — but it’s a novel that besides telling a story and a narrative and creating characters is putting forth a discussion.
All the women Sonia visits seemed to represent different popular ideas about motherhood. And then, after visiting all of them, she faces the cultural expectations of artists, which don’t allow for motherhood.
The truth is, a lot of writers balance things well. Jane Smiley has three kids, and I read an article where the writer asked her something like, “You have three children, and you wrote all these novels. How did you do it?” Her answer was the anti-Sonia. It was all, “Oh, it’s not a problem. I had this great daycare, all my friends helped out, and then I would write, and then I’d be with my kids.” It was just completely not an issue, though I don’t think it’s that way for most people.
When I was raising my small children, I saw a lot of people struggle for any kind of balance, and even identity. And I also saw a lot of people giving up. But then again, a lot of writers and painters just give up anyway because it’s so difficult, regardless of having children or not.
I don’t feel as though I’ve read many novels about a mother abandoning her family, while an absent father is such a trope in fiction.
Yeah, there’s a lot of that. In life, too.
People are so furious about Sonia running away from her family for two months, but she does come back in the end. Why do you think there aren’t more delinquent mothers in fiction? Why is that still such a taboo?
That’s society, that’s sexism. There are a few incidences of mothers leaving families in fiction — I think Ladder of Years by Ann Tyler is about a woman who leaves, but then, she really leaves. She just disappears and starts a new life. But no, I agree, there are way more fathers who leave. It’s just socially less acceptable for mothers to leave. Motherhood is more of a saintly thing than fatherhood. I’m not saying that in fatherhood there aren’t cultural pressures, but the pressures are different. And they still are, you know? It’s 2013 and certain things really haven’t changed.
And I do think that motherhood is the greatest thing in the world — you might not know that from reading my books — but at the same time, I also think about the implications of motherhood a lot. I’ve written two books chewing on what motherhood and family is all about, what it means to us.
Another thing that stood out to me about Nine Months was that a lot of it is about Sonia’s physical experience. It opens with that incredibly visceral birth scene, for example. We really get —
All the details about her pregnancy, having sex, giving birth.
Yeah, it’s very physical.
I liked that aspect of it, and I felt like that focus was rare.
It is. I actually got some bad advice, which I thankfully didn’t take — you know, it’s funny, at some point you have to believe in what you’re doing, even if it takes ten years to publish something — but someone read the first chapter, which is basically a very lengthy, detailed birth scene, and someone said, “You’ve got to take it out. It’s too much. It’s disgusting. Or at least, put it at the end.” So I did, I moved the chapter to the end and I sat on that for a while. And then I thought, “No, I don’t want it there. I’m going to move it back to the beginning.”
It’s not actually disgusting. I mean, it’s intense and visceral, but there’s nothing disgusting about birth. I mean, there is — it’s sort of disgusting. When I was in Lamaze classes they would show birth movies and everyone would like cry, because it was so beautiful? And I would look away, like, “I don’t really want to watch this.” I wonder if I would feel differently about it now, now that it’s been so long. But yet, it’s —
I feel like it’s just not ever really depicted —
In literature. People have mentioned that. I’ve read a couple of interesting birth scenes, but that’s out of reading, like, millions of books. So yeah, it’s not that common. Sylvia Plath had this interesting birth scene in her journals. That was inspiring to me. There’s also a writer, a very underrated and under-read woman, named Elizabeth Jane Howard. She’s an English writer. She has a very lengthy, elaborate birth scene which is very disturbing — not in the physicality, in the details, but more in just how birth was handled in the thirties, as really a shameful act, and one that women had no control over. They were drugged; their babies were taken away from them. Their husbands never came and helped out.
Although, now I think it’s just gone overboard. They have these husband pregnancy suits that men can wear to pretend that they’re pregnant, too. And I also just hate the “we are pregnant” phenomenon. “We’re pregnant!” It’s like, no, I’m pregnant. My husband is so not pregnant. There’s nothing pregnant about him at all, and he’ll never be pregnant, ever. It’s slipped so far in the other direction.
But there’s a very interesting birth scene in Howard’s collection of novels, The Cazalet Chronicles. Giving birth in 1938 in England, even if you had money, was just a humiliating, degrading experience. It was frightful; doctors would keep knowledge away from people. Whereas now women are empowered by knowing what’s going on with their bodies — it’s great that it’s slipped in the other direction, for the most part, but then I don’t know why people have to take it so far to make natural childbirth a competition.
I was very blessed, I had two natural, pretty easy births. But then I had some friends who weren’t as lucky — and really, there’s luck involved. In fact, there’s a lot of luck involved. And they felt like failures. Although, not my more intelligent friends. My dearest friend, she had two C-sections, and was just like, “that’s fine.” She didn’t breastfeed because she had to go back to work, and she was fine with that. She didn’t care about what anybody thought. But then there were other people who felt so tortured, they were trying to push for something like six hours and then things got dangerous and they had to get a C-section, and they have post-traumatic stress disorder. Which is understandable — some births are much more harrowing and scary than others. But there was also this pressure. In their mind, they were like, “birth is natural!” Yeah, it’s natural, but it’s also dangerous, and things can go wrong.
I remember my seventh grade science teacher saying that we haven’t evolved to give birth well — our hips are so narrow and our heads are so big. He was impressing upon us the dangers of childbirth while we were all in middle school, for some reason.
Yeah, I remember reading stuff, too. It’s about the head size, the size of the baby’s head.
It comes across in the scene in Nine Months as, not traumatic, but intense.
“Traumatic” and “intense” I think can be a little interchangeable there. I would definitely say giving birth was a traumatic experience, but not necessarily all bad trauma. The chemicals that are going through your body — it’s like taking drugs, even though luckily I didn’t have to take any drugs. I was talking to a friend who was on Stadol, and she was hallucinating during her whole birth experience. I don’t know exactly what Stadol is, but she said, “Whatever, it made me hallucinate.” She was seeing weird visions. But birth itself is a hallucinatory experience. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever done in my life, that’s for sure.
It definitely comes across that way.
Well, I’m glad you think I captured that. That was obviously an intention, to try to capture that birth is absolutely weird.
One of the things I appreciated about the book is that Sonia is really attuned to the weirdness of all the influences in her life. She’s incredibly observant and aware.
Yeah, it’s definitely an inside-the-character’s-head book. You’re inside her head the whole time, and so you’re getting her take on everything, and her reactions. She’s got some pretty strong reactions. She’s thinking about everything she’s experiencing.
Yeah, you feel very close to her the whole time. Maybe that’s partly why people had strong reactions — you sort of feel like you are Sonia, that you’re almost complicit. But in my case, I was rooting for her.
And that’s so great, because I’ve gotten people’s reactions like that. First of all, my editor said that, and I said, “Really? You like her?” Because everyone hated her for ten years. He said, “I love her. We’re going to make this book better, but no, I love her.”
Sonia is very much an alter ego in some ways, and in other ways she’s a mouthpiece for me about certain things. But it’s been great to have people be behind her, and I think it’s interesting when people really, really dislike her. The whole idea of likability in literature is interesting.
Yeah, it’s strange. I feel like talking about whether a character is likable is a popular thing right now, for some reason, but isn’t most literary fiction filled with characters who are extremely unlikable?
The reader who is interested in liking characters is just not going to be my kind of a reader. If they can’t like a character because that character has a bunch of flaws or they’re doing something wrong, what does that say? Who are these people? Forget about characters in books, but if I didn’t like humans in general, and I didn’t like them because they had flaws, or were in trouble, then I wouldn’t have any friends. Where are these mythically perfect people?
I’m also interested in these perfectly likable characters.
Yeah, what book is that? For example, Flannery O’Connor — are her characters likable? No. She’s just a brilliant writer who writes brilliant stories about the moral difficulties of being human. Actually, Flannery O’Connor has an essay, and in it she said that a woman wrote her a letter saying, “I read a book to be uplifted, and your stories really brought me down.” And Flannery said, “To that I say, if her heart had been in the right place, she would have liked my characters and she would have been uplifted.” She was so confident. I’m not quite that confident, but I think it’s an interesting concept. If your heart’s in the right place, you’re going to get behind Sonia, even if you know she’s not doing everything right.
A lot of people were like, “I just wanted to shake her, but I really loved the book.” That, I can deal with. I wanted to shake her, too, you know? That, I can live with. But to completely dislike a book because the characters aren’t behaving well — that just seems so strange to me.
It speaks to how strongly our cultural ideas about motherhood are embedded, that we can’t even read a novel about a character who briefly doesn’t live by those rules.
There’s the Madonna/whore syndrome. Mothers are supposed to be perfect, which is ridiculous. The pressures are enormous — which is somewhat understandable, you know, you’re taking care of children. I think Jessica Valenti, in that book I mentioned, Why Have Kids?, talks about how people call motherhood a job — “the most important job.” She goes, “It’s not a job, it’s a relationship.” You have a relationship with your children. That’s a good way of looking at things.