Red Clocks: An Interview with Leni Zumas

This predicament is not new. The mender is one of many. They aren’t allowed to burn her, at least, though they can send her to a room for ninety months. Officials of the Spanish Inquisition roasted them alive. If the witch was lactating, her breasts exploded when the fire grew high.

Leni Zumas, RED CLOCKS, 2018

This year, writer Leni Zumas released her second novel, Red Clocks, from publisher Little, Brown, to critical acclaim and the rejoicing of her many fans. This engrossing novel delves into the lives of four women in a small town on the Oregon Coast who are encountering and reacting to recent national legislation to ban abortion and in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Each of the four characters are introduced by chapter titles that pointedly reduce the characters to their labels, as society presumably identifies them: The Wife, The Daughter, The Biographer (and high school history teacher), and The Mender (a witch), and a fifth character who is revealed through excerpts from the Biographer’s book about a polar explorer, Eivor Minervudottir. This brutal reduction sets the tone for how the characters will be diminished within their lives as well, most especially in terms of their gender.

While the rich characterization of these four/five characters provides an absorbing read to sink into, the gorgeous wordcraft of the author is also a delight. I especially enjoyed reading passages that describe its landscape, the Oregon Coast, with a precision and poetry I haven’t encountered before:

For seven years she has lived in the lee of fog-smoked evergreen mountains, thousand-food cliffs plunging straight down to the sea. It rains and rains and rains. Log trucks stall traffic on the cliff road, locals catch fish or make things for tourists, the pub hangs a list of old shipwrecks, the tsunami siren is tested monthly, and students learn to say “miss” as if they were servants.

After reading Red Clocks, and the novel contains many twists and surprises, I had a similar reaction to when I finished Zumas’s first novel The Listenersa reluctance to acknowledge that the book had ended. You will find yourself caring deeply about the women in this story. Maybe you know them already — maybe you yourself are The Daughter or The Mender or a mash-up of all five characters. Perhaps the author is suggesting in this novel that the lines between one “type” of woman or another are much blurrier than we will allow ourselves to imagine.

“Fear sharpened my writing.”

Leni Zumas, January 2018

RED CLOCKS author, Leni Zumas | Photo by Sophia Shalmiyev

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Interview with Leni Zumas

I think I may have seen you read an excerpt from Red Clocks many years ago. It was a section about a witch and I remember how much you seemed to relish saying the word “witch.” While all the novel’s characters are perfectly developed and balanced against each other, I wondered, was there a particular point of view that you relished writing a bit more than the others?

I like the acoustics of “witch”: the word starts pursed, like “why” or “where,” then opens into a soft, satisfying crunch. And I like all the freight it carries—fairytale energy, historical trouble, feminist symbolism, modern-day fashion statement. So much accomplished by that one little syllable.

The witch in Red Clocks is Gin Percival, a.k.a. the Mender. When I was writing the first draft, she felt mysterious to me. Remote. I kind of enjoyed that distance, but I came to discover, after a few friends read the manuscript, that she was too remote—almost impenetrable. I was keeping her suspended in flat glass.

During revision I worked hard to push the Mender beyond this constricted frame, and yes, her point of view came to be a favorite, especially because I could get as weird as I wanted with her syntax and diction. Also, it’s a pleasure to create a character who knows more than you do about something, because you get to dive into that something and paddle around. To write the Mender, I had to learn a lot more about edible and poisonous plants of the Pacific Northwest—and witches of New England—and herbal remedies for maladies minor and grave. (A research-joy fever arose with the Polar Explorer, too.)

Off the top of your head, were there any threads or subplots that didn’t make the final MS that may resurface in a follow up novel? [Please say yes!]

Yes! Or no? I wrote more about the Polar Explorer’s adventures, material that didn’t fit into Red Clocks, and I’d love to use it somehow. Same goes for the Mender and Aunt Temple. I will almost certainly cannibalize these outtakes for a future project, but maybe not a novel. Maybe for smaller bits of prose.

And now for the T**** question: Your novel will be published almost exactly 1 year after Trump was sworn into office (AGH). As a writer and a feminist, can you tell us how your writing this past year was informed or impacted by this peculiar/particular moment in history?

Trump is the horror that keeps on horrifying. More than anything, I have felt afraid. Not just of reproductive rights being slashed, but of all the ways a government can punish those of us who are vulnerable: people who emigrated to the U.S., who don’t have much money, who need extra support in school, who rely on Medicaid or Obamacare to survive—the list goes on.

Fear sharpened my writing. At least, it gave me a twitchier energy while I was revising Red Clocks, and it made me want to get more specific about the novel’s political dimensions. For example, I had the Pink Wall stuff but I hadn’t labeled it “the Pink Wall.” It was just an unnamed Canada–U.S. agreement. Then I hear Trump rage-whining about border “protection,” and I decide to mirror his southern wall with a northern wall that would keep U.S. citizens from reaping the benefits of Canada. When they go low, we go high.

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You can order or pick up your copy of Red Clocks at your local bookstore. And if you’re interested in seeing the author in person, check out her events page for upcoming readings.

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