Sisterwives by Rachel Connor (Crocus) and BloodMining by Laura Wilkinson (Bridge House) were published in October 2011 (in the same week) by independent presses based in Manchester. That’s not all the authors have in common. When Laura and Rachel met on Twitter, they realised that their novels share similar themes. Both draw on imagined near futures and conjure a world in which the traditional nuclear family and women’s roles are questioned, and where ethical and spiritual beliefs are put to the test. Here, Rachel and Laura talk about the representations of female identity and motherhood in their books, and the sources of their inspiration.
BloodMining, Laura Wilkinson
The publisher’s blurb:
Megan Evens appears to have it all: brains, beauty, a successful career as a foreign correspondent. But deep down she is lonely and rootless. Pregnant, craving love but unable to trust after the destructive affair with her baby’s father she returns to the security of her birthplace in Wales.
When Megan’s son is later diagnosed with a terminal condition, a degenerative, hereditary disease, everything she believed to be true about her origins is thrown into question. To save her son Megan must unearth the truth; she must excavate family history and memory. Enlisting the help of former colleague Jack North, a man with a secret of his own, Megan embarks on a journey of self discovery and into the heart of what it means to be a parent.
Sisterwives, Rachel Connor
The publisher’s blurb:
In her compelling debut novel, Rachel Connor weaves together a moving tale of love, faith and redemption through the lives of two women married to the same man. Rebecca and Amarantha are sisterwives, married to Tobias and sharing a home in a religious community that has isolated itself from the city of Lot. When the strain becomes too great, Amarantha escapes. Tobias, in desperation, goes in search of her.
Moving through past and present, city and community, following the tangled web of love and secrets, Connor’s richly expressive prose alights on each character in a poignant mixture of trepidation and hope. Sisterwives is a delight from a stunning new talent.
BloodMining was inspired by a real story. Was this significant in the building of your story and the decision to set it in the near future?
In short, yes! The story grew after I read a news item about a sixty-three-year-old woman who was having a baby. What would it be like for a parent just shy of seventy on her child’s first day at school, surrounded by much younger parents, I thought? How would her other children – all adults – feel about it? Advances in reproductive science have given us freedoms and choices that earlier generations could only dream of, but, I speculated, where will it all stop? So the story began with Hannah and her middle-aged daughter Elizabeth. To increase the tension created by Hannah’s decision to have another child I needed Elizabeth to lose her own family. Of course, I could have killed them off in something as prosaic as a car accident, but I wanted to create an environment in which Elizabeth feels isolated from most of society, not just her mother, and so I stepped forward in time to create a catastrophic event that could happen. The ethical framework behind our scientific and technological advances and issues of reproductive choice is shaky and differs widely from country to country. The laws around surrogacy and egg donation are still evolving. In my imagined scenario the guidelines and laws are open to abuse and corruption. I wanted to explore the effects this might have on the children born as a result of such abuse, and so subsequent generations followed. Characters like Megan, my protagonist, and her child, Cerdic. So I was propelled into the future by the characters. This sounds rather oblique, but saying too much will spoilt the plot! It’s important to say that while BloodMining is set in the future it is a society very much like our own (with key differences). As in Sisterwives, readers will recognise much of it – though, unlike Rachel’s book, the locations are real; places like Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey and Harlech.
One of the themes of the book is identity. What inspired you to write on this theme?
My life experience influenced the exploration of identity in the novel, though it wasn’t something I set out to do when I began. It crept in as I wrote draft after draft, and I recognise that missing parents is a recurring theme in much of my work. As a child I knew little about my biological father; he died when I was five years old. My memories were scant and somewhat vague, gleaned mostly from photographs and the odd conversation with my mother and grandparents. I was an adult before my mother finally talked in detail about my father, and though I’d always believed it didn’t matter to me I felt more complete once I knew his, their, story. Where I came from was important to me. But identity is made up of myriad influences. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the influence of my step father, a good man if ever there was one; had my father lived I would probably not have moved to Wales, and Wales is an important part of my sense of self. Megan’s identity is thrown into question early in the novel; the central quest is to save her son’s life, but in doing this she uncovers more about her history than she could have imagined.
In BloodMining you explore the notion of the ‘true’ mother. Is it nature or nurture?
As in all things in life, opinions differ, though ultimately Megan comes down on the side of nurture. In Sisterwives, Rachel’s character Rebecca experiences a powerful physical drive to have another child and this is something many women experience, so there is an emotional honesty at the core of Rebecca’s need. In BloodMining, Hannah does not experience this; this is not why she desires another child, and though it’s not explored in the book this may be because she is well past menopause and does not have the ‘nurturing’ hormones swimming around her system. Hannah’s desire to have another child is, arguably, selfish, and this is certainly how daughter Elizabeth perceives it. Again, as in Rachel’s novel, characters step in as ‘mother’ quite naturally and do a wonderful job. In BloodMining, the character takes on the role so naturally that she cannot bring herself to tell Megan the truth. And in BloodMining, the biological or natural mother does not see herself as mother at all. So much so that she is resistant to recognising her offspring. She has no such problem with the child she has raised from infancy.
How far will mothers go to ensure their child’s survival? Or to have children?
Phew, that’s a hard one! It depends on the individual and the strength of their love or their desire. There are many stories of the sacrifices mothers make for their children, and most mothers (and fathers) would give their own life to save their child. Megan would, if it was an option, and she resolves to do everything within her power to find a donor to save Cerdic’s life. And for those people who want children but cannot have them naturally there is a wide range of options today: IVF, surrogacy, adoption, even buying children, though ethically this is unsound in my opinion. The greatest heartbreak seems to occur when people are set on having their own biological child and all methods fail. Relationships and lives are shattered; we live in a society in which people see parenthood as a right. In BloodMining, Hannah goes to quite extraordinary methods to get what she wants, and there are many real life stories from which I drew inspiration.
Your protagonist, Megan, is a very independent woman in a society that in many ways, particularly in relation to women and motherhood, has reverted to a more traditional standpoint. Was this deliberate?
In all honesty? I’m not sure; she just grew that way, if that doesn’t sound too ‘writerly’. Action defines character; what we do and what we believe matters more than what we say. Megan is a foreign correspondent; a woman of action; she is a loner, with few close friends, other than Jack. In many ways she has rebelled against her small town background in Wales and a mother who has dedicated her life to her daughter. Motherhood comes as a shock to Megan; it wasn’t something she planned, and once she is a mother herself she values Elizabeth and the support she offers more.
Sisterhood? Is there such a thing in BloodMining? The female characters are strong, but are they feminists?
All three of the central female characters, Megan, Elizabeth and Hannah kick ass in their own way; they believe themselves equal to men in social, political and economic fields; they expect the right to vote, to own property and to make their own decisions, so whilst they might not define or describe themselves as feminists in the novel, they are. Without a doubt.
Sisterhood? This is a very loaded word nowadays with overwhelmingly negative connotations because of its association with feminism – the majority of young women today feel that feminism has little, if any relevance, to their lives. Oh, if only that were true – but I believe that there is sisterhood in BloodMining, just as it is on display in Sisterwives. When the going gets tough the women rally round: after Owen’s death Elizabeth puts her personal views aside and moves in to support Hannah and her unborn child; Elizabeth helps to raise Cerdic so that Megan can continue to work and, later, travel to find a donor; Stela helps Megan. But the support network also includes men; Jack is vital in the novel, as friend and confidant to Megan. And he’s a feminist too.
Sisterwives is set in a fictional community in an imagined place. What was the inspiration for the story?
Years ago I heard a radio interview with a Mormon wife who had escaped a repressive life on a polygamous compound in Utah. Her story was compelling: she was continually in thrall to the other wives; felt manipulated and controlled by the leaders of the religion, and was afraid for the future of her daughters. But at the same time, she spoke movingly about her relationship with her ‘sisterwives’ – the emotional connection with them, the practical support, their shared experiences. After she left, she felt bereft at the loss of those relationships, even while they were fraught with rivalry and pain. The personal and political dynamics of these relationships seemed to me to be deeply complex, and worth writing about.
So, like Laura’s novel, the basis of Sisterwives is rooted in reality; in terms of setting, though, the action takes place not in real places but imagined ones. I wanted the freedom to explore the pros and cons of that way of life without having to worry about the authenticity of a specific culture (be that fundamentalist Mormonism in the US or Muslim communities in the UK). So for some readers the setting of Sisterwives conjures up the way of life lived by contemporary Amish communities. Others see parallels with seventeenth-century Christian dissidents in England. The scenes set in the city, Lot, are different again – with a definite futuristic feel to them. This was a deliberate strategy, and I hope it conveys that the issues the characters tussle with are, perhaps, human and universal: the challenges of monogamy and fidelity; the subversive potential of desire; the difficulties of living harmoniously with others.
What does the novel have to say about the roles of women in contemporary society?
On the face of it, the women in the novel are forced into traditional domestic roles – they are the homemakers and housekeepers and rearers of children while the men make the important decisions. In Marah, sexuality becomes an expression of the women’s religion rather than for their personal pleasure; in Lot, women are able to revel more in sexual freedom, which we see when Ammie leaves for the city. In Marah the women accept a system in which they have to share their husbands with other women – the ultimate in sexual repression, perhaps. But, if we look beneath the surface, the gender dynamic is more complex than that. There are female Elders who are given the power of decision making too (and one of these women is one of the most vociferous of the Elders!). And, without giving too much away, the events at the end of the novel allow the women to reconsider their attitudes as individuals and each other, and to re-examine their choices. I suppose I’m saying that sometimes it’s possible for women to find power in the face of repression and that religion and ideological structures of all kinds need always to be questioned.
It’s worth saying that the men in the novel don’t necessarily ‘have it all’ either. Having two wives is a trial for Tobias – partly because his loyalties are always split but also because he is controlled by the same system. In many ways, he is also enslaved by the same system. While it’s true that I wanted to write about women’s experiences and women’s roles, a large part of the novel explores what it is to be an individual – of either gender – trying to live in a community which is rigid and rule bound.
To what extent does Sisterwives explore the notion of freedom and the choices women make?
I wanted to reflect that the issue of ‘women’s choice’ is more complex than it might seem – that even when we have choices, ideology can be a powerful influence that is difficult to think outside of. In Sisterwives the women who live in the isolated village of Marah aren’t kept in the polygamous community against their will, and in that sense they are ‘free’ to leave at any time but most of them rarely question it. The actions of the two main female characters – Rebecca and Amarantha (Ammie) – are meant to illustrate this. Ammie constantly yearns for freedom beyond Marah, and eventually makes the break, whereas Rebecca obeys the sense of duty to the system she has grown up with, even when things are impossibly tough. When Ammie experiences the freedom of escape, she loves it at first. But when she learns she is pregnant, her circumstances change and she craves the support of the place she left behind. You could say that it makes her reconsider the concept of home. Or, that in the face of the unknown she is influenced by the ideology with which she is familiar, even when that means a life that might make her unhappy.
The idea of freedom in relation to women’s roles is an interesting one and it became clear as I redrafted the novel that I wanted to examine it further. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale there’s a distinction between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ experienced by the female characters. Offred, the protagonist, is given the privilege (the ‘freedom to’) play scrabble with the Commander – a subversive privilege when other women around her are forbidden reading and writing matter. Yet she is still an object in a repressive society, something she can never achieve freedom from. In Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, when Sister escapes she gains freedom from the Authority, which has introduced the regulation of conception through the obligatory contraceptive implants. Her discovery of the commune of women – the Carhullan Army - seems like freedom (a ‘freedom to’ – to join, to take control) and yet in many ways is just as restrictive.
The world of Sisterwives is not a dystopian like Atwood’s or Hall’s. But it shows how two women find self-expression and emotional connection in ways that potentially subvert the system that defines them. Whether or not they succeed depends on your reading of the novel!
Many of the characters in Sisterwives are mothers. How do you use the story to explore different approaches and attitudes to motherhood?
Although the community in Sisterwives is close-knit and apparently fundamentalist, there’s a range of responses in the novel to the responsibilities and the joys of motherhood. Like Laura’s BloodMining, I wanted my novel to ask the question of where motherhood comes from – is it inherited or biological, the need for a child, the need to nurture? Rebecca’s model of motherhood is partly passed down from the community. She is the daughter of an Elder. She wants to do things the right way, and she is also constantly scrutinised by her mother-in-law, who lives next door. But there’s also an aspect of a strong biological drive: we see Rebecca’s longing for a fourth child manifest itself in a primal and very physical way. Ammie gets pregnant unexpectedly, without wanting it, and we see her struggle to make sense of how it changes her identity as a woman. Their different approaches are reflected back by Tobias who acts as a kind of filter for the reader. He has the opportunity to observe both his wives and reflect on their different approaches to mothering.
Sisterhood: is there such a thing in Sisterwives?
The polygamous system in Marah means that the wives are pitted against each other and compared. We see Rebecca’s struggle, in particular, to suppress her jealous impulses and accept the way of life dictated by her belief system. On the one hand, there’s a strong feeling of togetherness amongst the women: there’s a village green where they meet and bake bread together. They depend on each other for support, for help with mutual child care and domestic work; in this sense, the domestic scenes in the novel are very similar to Laura’s, when Megan and Elizabeth share the care of Cerdic. I wanted to show the positive sides of communal life, as well as the disadvantages. The shift in Rebecca and Ammie’s relationship begins once they acknowledge common ground (which begins with Rebecca’s role in the birth of Ammie’s son). This positive celebration of women’s ability to connect and collaborate effectively becomes, by the end of the novel, a testament to its power to change.