‘I wanted to write a book which somehow expressed the altered reality of the woman who is pregnant, or in labour, or who has just given birth’ – An interview with Joanna Kavenna, author of The Birth of Love

‘Joanna Kavenna’s second novel, The Birth of Love, has just been longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize, and her previous novel, Inglorious, won the Orange Prize for New Writers in 2008 – not a bad pedigree! I’d read the cover blurb for The Birth of Love – the New Yorker praises Kavenna’s ‘ruthlessly naturalistic depiction of modern childbirth’ – and I was hooked.’ Valerie O’Riordan interviews Joanna Kavenna.

Valerie O’Riordan (VO): You spoke in an interview in the Guardian last year about wanting to portray the ‘existential process’ of pregnancy and childbirth. Do you think that’s something that’s been lacking in literature to date? And do you feel like you’ve gone some way towards redressing the balance?

Joanna Kavenna (JK): I wanted to write a book which somehow expressed the altered reality of the woman who is pregnant, or in labour, or who has just given birth.  I feel these are very strange states of being, and they have certainly been under-represented in literature and philosophy.  Simply because, I suspect, most of literature and philosophy, until very recently, was written by men, and these highly altered states are pretty unimaginable I think until you have been through them. There is some beautiful writing (D H Lawrence, Tolstoy, ie) about men waiting for their wives to go through labour, their horror at the violence and danger of the process.  But these authors don’t venture into the mind of the woman herself. In the 20th and 21st centuries, there has been some wonderful writing about the experience of birthing and rearing children – Enid Bagnold, Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, Adrienne Rich, Rachel Cusk, Anne Enright, Meg Wolitzer and many others. The tradition is being brought into being – yet, there’s still much left to write. 

Even the western notion of the ‘individual,’ the distinct ‘self’ is questioned by pregnancy – a woman contains another self within her, which will become an autonomous being, but which as yet is conditioned entirely by the environment of her body, bonded to her by a cord, deeply affected (so they say) by what she eats, even her shifts in mood…For much of history, and still in many countries in the contemporary world, women were/are pregnant for most of their adult lives. So, this notion of the distinct, single self is profoundly questioned by the state of pregnancy, and yet there has been, until very recently, comparatively little discussion of it.  Our anointed ‘great philosophers’ do not muse on the Self of the Pregnant Woman, or adjust their definitions of the self in relation to it – ie Socrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Sartre etc etc …

So, being pregnant, giving birth, makes you question an entire tradition of thought, I found. The whole process changed so many of my assumptions. About, say, time – I felt during labour that I was one tiny part of a vast, ancient process, women long before me birthing children, my female ancestors, and other women I’d never met, and women not yet born, who would in the future birth their own children… And I felt a sense of bizarre community with these unknown or barely remembered or not yet existent women.  Also it changed my sense of what was real and what was fantastical, watching my body do this commonplace thing that was at the same time utterly insane. It made ordinary reality become dreamlike.  Labour was like the most disorienting dream I’d ever had. So I knew my novel had to elide notions of ‘realism’ and ‘fantasy’.

I also thought it would have to make use of a fragmentary form. I felt entirely fragmented the whole time I was writing The Birth Of Love – I wrote with babies sleeping on my lap, as they stirred and twitched, as I said ‘ssshhh’ and stroked them asleep again, trying to finish a sentence, a chapter, before they awoke…There was something incredibly moving about writing while holding a child I had birthed. And yet it also fragmented my work. I thought, and wrote, in fragments.

At first I thought, this looks like a ‘things fall apart’ type thing.  I would have to use the traditional forms of the modernist/postmodern genre, I thought. (I think of the postmodern fragmented narrative as a genre, like detective fiction, or the bildungsroman.) Pound, Eliot, and Joyce.Beckett alluding to Joyce.Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet. Orts, shards and fragments, as Woolf puts it in Between The Acts. Michael Cunningham alluding to Woolf in The Hours. Then Italo Calvino. Then Russell Hoban. Then David Mitchell alluding to Italo Calvino and Russell Hoban. A long line of writers overlapping and alluding to each other.

Orts shards and fragments – I felt that was an accurate enough description of my mental processes at the time. I wanted to write about the past, I found about the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a doctor living inVienna, who discovered that childbed fever, a deadly scourge at the time, could be eradicated simply by doctors washing their hands. He was dismissed by the medical establishment, and spent the next 20 years watching countless women die, needlessly, because his medical peers refused to adopt his findings.  I was profoundly moved by his story, but Semmelweis was a shard at first, I couldn’t quite grasp him. As above, I wanted somehow to write about the future too – but who knows what it’ll be like to exist in the future? So any writing on the future is really a patched-together fantasy, perhaps a literary pastiche of other fantasies about the future…And postmodern writing relies heavily on pastiche.

So perhaps I was heading for conventional postmodernism – but then I started to think that the modernist/postmodern fragmented form didn’t quite express what I was trying to convey.  Because, as well as being fragmented, everything was so cyclical too… Of these authors I was thinking of – these authors of modernist and then postmodern fragmentation, in which each work feeds off the others – none of them had put birth at the centre of their novels (or poems, or anti-novels, or plays, or etc).  They had not been forced, thereby, to contend with what birth does to time and form.  The cycles of life – when I birthed my son I was staring this in the face.  The rise and fall and rise and fall of generations. On and on…Also, none of these authors had been forced to contend with the moment of birth where – as above – things don’t fall apart at all. They cohere, beautifully, if transiently, in the sense of past, present, future, existing at the same time, and the sense of deep community with other women, alive, long dead, not yet born…A sense of timelessness, even as you exist in this one, unrepeatable moment. Or, even, that time has collapsed and everything is happening at the same time…

So I thought, I would certainly allude to this tradition of fragmented/postmodern writing. But also there were elements of it that would be changed, necessarily, by my subject matter. So my book was also about literary form, to a degree, and how the treatment of neglected subjects might force changes in established literary forms. For example, I realised my fragmented narratives must turn circles…And in the end they must partly, or briefly cohere, somehow…So my novel would work with cycles of time, and birth and death, on and on…past, present, future… And then there would have to be a moment of bewildering climax and apotheosis.  Before it all begins again.

So The Birth of Love has one story set in 1865, one in 2010, another in 2010, one in 2153.  Past present present future.  The central story, to me, is set in 2010. A woman, Brigid Hayes, is in labour. We go through the whole of her labour to the moment where she births her child.  And the other narratives work around her – Semmelweis in 1865, an author Michael Stone (the other 2010 narrative) whose mother is dying, and a futuristic narrative in 2153.  We move through these narratives one by one (chronologically). Then it begins it again. We start again in 1865, go to 2010 (Brigid Hayes), 2010 (Michael Stone), and then 2153. Past present present future. I wanted to suggest that it would keep on going, circling and circling, with these moments of apotheosis within the cycles.  So in the final third of my novel everything merges together, all the narratives come together.   They exist at the same time.  As Brigid finally gets to the moment of birth (in 2010), past, present and future merge and seem to be happening at the same time…

(As if a wormhole has opened, in a way – everything merges, for one moment…)

Then another cycle begins – so each of the four narratives in this book ends with a beginning…

For the 19th century I pastiched the sort of gothic Edgar Allen Poe/ Dickens style and for the future, as above, I pastiched the classic sci-fi/dystopian interrogation/clash of civilisations scene – William Morris, H G Wells, Aldous Huxley, Doris Lessing, Philip K Dick, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Azimov, Frank Herbert, Marge Piercy, David Mitchell…(Perhaps I should explain why – I will in the next answer…) The present day narratives were written in what might pass as a ‘realistic’ style of writing, but with a few necessary disruptions…As above, I wanted there to be sense all the time that it is not only the past present and future that merge at the moment of birth, but also that ‘realism’ and ‘fantasy’ become indistinct.

VO: I wasn’t entirely convinced by the futuristic sections, possibly because the (slightly) increased tolerance towards natural childbirth and home births in the past ten years here in the UK makes a future like that one seem unlikely – though I’m aware that the situation is different in the US, and the precarious-looking future of the NHS might change everything here, too. But I’m getting political. I wonder if you could talk us through your decision to portray the reproductive future of humanity in such a severe way?

JK: It wasn’t meant as a Cassandra-like wailing prophecy of doom, based on current NHS mores or US policies.  I saw it partly as the dark fantasy of a woman in labour, how she might envisage another world. 

So, as with the scenes set in the 19th century (more later), I wanted the altered reality of the woman in labour to disrupt a standard narrative. So, I took the traditional sci-fi interrogation scene, a quite established literary cliché (also the Platonic dialogue scene of utopian and dystopian fiction – ‘so, tell me how you create these vast fields of wheat?’ ‘Well, we bring all our workers from the blah blah kingdom, and etcetc…’) and I tried to transform it in line with the revelations and dreams and fears of the woman in labour.  So, if my labouring woman, Brigid Hayes, imagined the future, what might it look like?  She is physically restricted herself (at the beginning she is so pregnant she finds it arduous to leave the house, later she is in labour and grave pain, even later she has had an epidural, she can’t move at all, then she is on an operating table, being given a caesarean).  So her altered reality translates into (brings into being?) a future in which all the characters are in a sort of prison.   A future in which no one knows what is real and what is fantastical.

There are some prisoners, being interrogated by some Protection Scientists. They claim that one of their group – a woman called Birgitta, though the Scientists say this can’t be her real name, there’s no record of anyone of this name – has become pregnant and has had a baby, even though she was previously completely sterilized, and her womb was ‘closed’.  This is clearly impossible – the scientists quite reasonably explain that it is not possible at all. But the prisoners maintain that it is true. The prisoners’ story sounds like the Christian myth of the Virgin birth, if anything.  And yet, does the reader trust the Protectors either? (In part they represent the worst fears of the labouring woman – the unsympathetic control of her body, in line with some prevailing ideology).  So I wanted this narrative to project the reader into a world in which it is very hard to know what is real and what is not.  Whether this world is ever going to exist is also meant to be ambiguous.  Birgitta is revealed later in this narrative to be a descendant of Brigid Hayes herself.  But this could be simply that she is the dark fantasy of Brigid Hayes, just the imaginative progeny.  So the futuristic world could just be the projection into the future of the fantasies and horrors and general disorientation of Brigid in labour…(Because the future only exists in our imaginations, and so we create it and re-create it all the time, and yet it is only ever a fantasy…)

There are themes of physical entrapment throughout my book – in the past narrative, Semmelweis is in chains, in a cell; he can’t move at all.  And as above, in the futuristic section, we are in another prison, and the prisoners are also being immobilized and controlled with drugs.  All of this came from my own experiences of labour: I had an epidural and was at one point during my first labour taken to an operating theatre because they thought I might need a caesarean, and it was like being in a crazy dystopia, I had no control of what was happening to me, just these glaring lights, and doctors with masks over their faces, and people saying, ‘Lie still, now, lie still, don’t move.’ It was like a dream.  Of course, it’s not like this for everyone. Also, this doesn’t mean I think epidurals and modern medicine are bad per se.  Brigid is profoundly grateful for the epidural she has, as I was when I had mine.  I have a suspicion that if I’d been labouring in, say, the 19th century, with my first child, he and I would quite probably have died. But, despite this, there is a grave sense of disorientation and a loss of control at such moments. It’s hallucinatory – the same with all the gas and air, you feel completely drunk and insane. So, I wanted to push this disorientation and fear to a further state.

VO: I noticed shades of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale in those sci-fi sections. The interlinking narratives also brought to mind David Mitchell, Michael Cunningham and Matthew Kneale. Did you have anything in mind as conscious influences on your work? And aside from direct debts (if any), which writers are favourites of yours? 

JK: Yes, there are lots of writers who were important for this book. I was influenced by the modernist/postmodern tradition, as above, and felt I was writing within it at times and against it at others. So my book was definitely a response to the work of many writers in that tradition, particularly I think Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence Durrell, Italo Calvino, Borges, Russell Hoban, Michael Cunningham and David Mitchell. Further writers who always influence/inspire me are: Mark Twain, Charlotte Bronte, Knut Hamsun, Celine, Robert Musil, Albert Camus, Thomas Mann, Joseph Campbell, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Iain Sinclair, Geoff Dyer, Philip K Dick, etcetc.

VO: As we’ve said, the novel’s got several intertwining sections. I’m curious about your writing process. Did you write each separate section straight through and chop it up afterwards, or did it all arise in the way we see it on the page? Also, do you write fast or slow; are you a laborious redrafter, or does it all come spilling out in one glorious attempt?

JK: I wrote the whole thing as it appears on the page. It took me ages to get to the point of writing it  – years of reading and thinking and writing sketches and openings and a few false starts. Then, suddenly, it poured out.  Saul Bellow wrote of one of his novels that he wasn’t so much writing it as catching it, and that’s what happened with this novel, in the end, but after long years of gestation…I was pregnant with my second child and feeling slightly dire and sleep-deprived and had very little time to write. I kept wondering if it was really the best time to be writing a novel, but in the end it almost insisted on being written.

I am a laborious elaborator of novels, ie it often takes me a long time to get to the point of writing them.  Years sometimes of thinking and scribbling in notebooks, going in too soon, testing the water, finding it rather tepid, retreating again. But then when it is finally ready, it often comes out swiftly. And that is quite ecstatic, you suddenly feel the anxiety and procrastination were worth it…

Then I edit it very slowly…

VO: Can you tell us a little about your path towards publication? Had you been writing for a long time before your first book (The Ice Museum) came out?

JK: Yes, I’d written for as long as I can remember.  Poems, plays, stories, diaries and the rest. Of course, most of it was fairly diabolical, as is usually the way. When I was about 18 I started writing novels.  I wrote about four without showing anyone – editors or agents I mean, I showed what I had written to a few friends. Then I wrote two novels that I showed to agents – to little avail. Then there was a novel that was picked up by an agent, and he sent it out to publishers, but they all rejected it. I nearly gave up then – not writing itself, I’ve always had a compulsion to write, but I started to think that my writing was just not the sort of thing that publishers wanted. I moved abroad and lived in the US for a while. I wrote journalism for anyone who would publish me. I came back to the UK and worked as a journalist in London, and while I was doing that I got the idea for what became my first published book, The Ice Museum. I realized that book would have to be a travelogue, so I needed money to travel. So I sent in a proposal to various publishers, and got an advance. That was very odd, to have a book bought before I’d even written it, after years of writing books either with no expectation of publication or with tentative hopes that were summarily dashed…

VO: This is your second novel, but you’ve also published a non-fiction travel book, and indeed, The Birth of Love deals partly with a non-fictitious character, Ignaz Semmelweis. Is the factual/historical research part of writing something you particularly enjoy? Can you tell us how you initially came across Semmelweis’s story? Did you have to alter it much to make it work within the framework of the novel?

JK: I don’t really research formally for writing but I just read and follow my interests and so certain things start to intrigue (or perhaps even obsess) me and then I read voraciously and in even a slightly unhinged way for some months, or even years about those things. And gradually it all congeals into a novel (or in the case of The Ice Museum, something that was published as a travelogue, as you mention).  With Semmelweis I had known a bit about him before I got pregnant, but then he kept appearing in the histories of childbirth I was reading during my first pregnancy. As you’ll know, he was an Austrian doctor who discovered in the mid-19th century that childbed fever, deadly at the time, could be prevented if doctors would only wash their hands.  His theory was absolutely right, it turned out later, at the time he was generally ridiculed and ignored. Women continued to die in vast numbers, new mothers, who had just passed safely through labour, and were nursing their small babies. They died with their newborn babies wailing beside them, because of the doctors wouldn’t believe Semmelweis. He died in an asylum, rejected by his peers. I was very moved by this story- of the poor women, dying even as their babies cried for them, and not being able to help these children they had just birthed, and the children themselves, deprived of their mothers.  And also by Semmelweis’s own suffering: he was completely right and yet was cast out by the medical establishment and ignored. He was furious about all the woman who had died needlessly, because his theories had been ignored. He called his colleagues ‘murderers of women’ because they had carried on infecting mothers without even trying his techniques.

And I thought – as with the future – that the past is unknowable, we can’t imagine what it was like to be there. For all I know, none of it existed and the whole thing was made up 20- years ago, etc. (I don’t precisely feel that way, but sometimes, about some aspects of the past, almost). So I realized my ‘past’ had to be a fantasy.  The Semmelweis narrative in my book has been written by a writer living in 2010 – Michael Stone.

It takes the form really of conversations between men – Semmelweis and Robert von Lucius, and a battle between Semmelweis and the male doctors, and another battle between Robert von Lucius and a male doctor, and Robert von Lucius also seeks advice from another male professor.   They talk about women, but we never see one.  Women are silent, in this narrative. The theories of medical authorities may cause them to live or die. A woman in this world is fettered by mind-forg’d manacles and their realization in protocol and medical practice…Yet there are visionaries too – men such as Semmelweis, who see the realities before them, and are punished for their brilliance…

The Semmelweis narrative (as written by Michael Stone) is disrupted by Semmelweis’s nightmares of a woman called Birgit Vogel.  Semmelweis thinks she is a woman he once infected with childbed fever, before he understood the need to wash his hands. (Birgit Vogel was invented by me-as-Michael Stone – there’s no such figure in history.)

There’s a conversation in the 2010 part of my novel, when another writer says to Michael Stone – what about this weird woman who haunts Semmelweis. Brigit Vogel – the bird, the plucking beak – why did you call her that? Why did you put her in?  And Michael suddenly thinks, my god, how embarrassing, I’ve put my mother in my book, without realising it! (He has a bad relationship with his mother…) But also, to me, there was a further meaning, which Michael misses even as he thinks he’s understood:  he has focused in his novel on a conversation between men – Semmelweis and a man called Robert von Lucius.  So Brigit Vogel then becomes a disrupting presence, both for a history that ignored women’s experience and also for Michael’s idea of what his book is about. I called her Brigit to link her to the consciousness of Brigid, our labouring woman, and the same goes for the future Brigitte, the mother there, who is linked by her name to the consciousness of Brigid too…Birgit Vogel may be something like Brigid looking into the past, and finding only men talking about women as if they have no opinions of their own about birth and what happens to their bodies during labour.   Also I had a vague idea about her being something like the other side of the Victorian ‘angel of the hearth’ story – the woman trying to escape, trying to fly away from the hearth…For her, Brigid’s present would be a glorious fantasy, when a woman has some autonomy of choice…But I wanted her to be ambiguous.

With all of these answers, I should add that one central strand of my novel is ambiguity – because of the uncertainty of birth, and the eliding of reality and fantasy – so I don’t want to be too determinate and thereby adulterate readers’ responses…But these were the sorts of ideas that were driving me along.

VO: Do you think you’ll carry on with fiction for the time being, or go back to non-fiction? What’s up your sleeve?

JK: After writing The Birth of Love I wrote another novel, a dark comedy, which will be published fairly soon. Now I’m working on two further novels – I have been developing the ideas for both so now have to be disciplined and write one first and then the other…Ideally…

I’m sure I’ll write another non-fiction book in the future.   It’s just a question of finding the right idea…


The Birth of Love by Joanne Kavenna is published by Faber and is available now


  1. A great interview.

    How wonderful that you and Joanna Kavenna gave so much time and space to consider all of these points in such detail.

    A real gift — many thanks!

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