Hey, everyone, and welcome to my stop on the “Promised” blog tour! Today we’re having a conversation/interview with author Caragh O’Brien on the the “Birthmarked” trilogy, reproductive rights in YA lit, and more.
This is a very interesting trilogy, and quite exciting for the YA dystopian genre, and it’s definitely one of my favorites of the genre so far. There might be some spoilers in this conversation/interview, so if you haven’t read the book and don’t want to be spoiled you might want to read this after you’ve read the book.
USAGI: Your trilogy is possibly the most vocal out there right now in YA about women’s rights, and so I’d love to hear your take on why you decided to write it. Did you set out to write a trilogy featuring reproductive politics/women’s issues/gender issues in such a big way?
CARAGH O’ BRIEN:
Let my first say, Usagi, how much I’ve enjoyed discussing this a bit with you behind the scenes, and I’m so glad you brought it up.
I’m deeply pleased that my novels have ended up dealing with women’s issues, but that was not at all what I set out to do. I wanted to tell a good story about characters I could care for, and I was completely fascinated by Gaia as soon as she showed up in that first sentence, delivering a baby. Who was this girl? I wondered. What made her into a person who could take a newborn from a mother and turn the baby over to authorities? By choosing to make Gaia a midwife, I knew I was giving her an important, powerful role in life-and-death situations, but it was only as the story progressed that I began to realize how her job would lead her into controversial scenes with difficult choices.
U: Did you deliberately up the stakes for women’s issues in Book 2, “Prized”? If so, why?
COB: I thought it would be interesting to write about a matriarchy where the women were in charge of the men who grossly outnumbered them. The inherent injustice and tension appealed to me, but most of all, I thought the dynamics would present an important reversal for Gaia, who was so underappreciated in her old society. I wanted to see what would happen to her, so again, my main motivation was focused on my story and characters.
Peony was a teen with an unwanted pregnancy that I kept at the edge of my story through eight drafts. I was unable to cut her, but I couldn’t figure out how Gaia should deal with her. I knew Peony was a focal point for abortion and right to life issues, and I didn’t fully want to grapple with them. I didn’t know how to, either. At some level, I was afraid of making my readers, my relatives, and my editor uncomfortable or even mad at me, so I was sort of censoring myself. I finally had a pivotal conversation with my editor Nancy Mercado, who heard me out, and then, in the gentlest way, she suggested I bring Peony’s issue forward and see what happened.
That’s when I finally accepted what I was writing and then, yes, I knew I was upping the stakes. It wasn’t that abortion became the centerpiece of the novel—it’s one thread of a complex system of relationships and plot lines—but it rippled, and it forced me to figure out a side of Gaia’s character that I’d never wanted to explore. It struck me as realistic that Gaia, a midwife, would eventually encounter a mother who didn’t want to continue her pregnancy. The real dishonesty would have been leaving Peony’s situation out.
Have these books turned into a thorny issue or led to thorny conversations for you?
COB: Yes, but in a very good way. The overwhelming majority of email and letters I receive about the books is warmly supportive. Prized has also led to some very difficult conversations with people where we have struggled to understand each other, but these I value. I have been amazed by how respectfully people will argue their sides and truly listen to each other, even when they fundamentally disagree, and I’ve learned better how to speak up politely about what I believe. On the other hand, I’ve had readers question how I can be a Catholic and present the views that I do, others have felt that the second book betrays a pro-life message in the first book, and still others have told me my book is not appropriate for young, impressionable readers. I certainly agree that some kids are not yet mature enough to encounter right to life issues, but I hope they encounter them in fiction and in caring discussions before they meet them in real life. Ideally, my books are more of a starting point for discussion than an ending point.
U: Would you consider these books as relevant to the current political climate of American culture?
COB: Consider all the ways reproductive rights drive daily behavior and public health policy: insurance at Catholic institutions, friends volunteering at Care Net, high school juniors obtaining their contraceptives from Planned Parenthood, banks of human eggs for sale, the lack of licensure for Certified Professional Midwifes in my own state, online forums where people ask the most basic questions on the biology of sex and sexually transmitted infections because they need to know. Novels like mine can raise issues in non-threatening ways and invite nuanced conversations. Genuine health and real, human heartache underlie our decisions about women’s rights, so they deserve our careful consideration.
U: Does your third book carry on with more reproductive rights and women’s issues?
COB: The third book brings up contraception, infertility, surrogate births, egg donation, and in vitro fertilization, so issues of reproduction definitely figure in Book 3/Promised. Gaia’s essentially a single mother raising her sister even while she’s leading her people, so childcare is juggled in the novel, too. As before, I let my story and characters guide me, and just as in real life, the women’s issues are inextricably tied up with everything else. They’re human issues, after all.
Again, Usagi, thank you so much for having me by and for pitching such great questions!
U: And thank you for letting me ask you these difficult questions, Caragh! “Promised”, the final book in the “Birthmarked” trilogy is out now from Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan in North America, so be sure to check it out! It’s definitely one of the best of 2012, and deserves to be read.