Interview: June 29, 2007
June 29, 2007
Adriana Bourgoin's debut novel, NINE MONTHS IN AUGUST, captures the physical and emotional challenges one woman must experience after learning she is pregnant. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Barbara Bamberger Scott, Bourgoin shares some of her own habits, practices and fears while carrying her two children, and makes comparisons between herself and her protagonist, Gretchen.
She also elaborates on the tensions that the pregnancy places on her character's marriage, career and family relationships, and discusses the difficulties every new family faces when they find that their realities differ from the plans they make.
Bookreporter.com: You are a graduate of Smith College and the mother of two boys. Are you the model for your heroine Gretchen Fox, Smith grad and about-to-be-mom?
Adriana Bourgoin: I do share many interests, experiences and character flaws with Gretchen, but over time, she sort of became her own person (for example, I never shoplifted!) in the same way Fredrik isn’t really my husband. Initially, my husband was a bit nervous about the book, remarking that everyone who knew us and who read it would naturally assume the book was just a recounting of our experiences. I said, if the only people who read the book are people who know us, then we are in serious trouble because, well, we just don’t know that many people.
BRC: Gretchen is a smart, hip thirty-something woman who has waited to get married and then to get pregnant, and who also is someone with lots of seriously unresolved family issues. Do you see her as typical?
AB: I think people are complex --- yes. I don’t know how typical serious family issues are, but if you ask, usually someone can come up with something to complain about in terms of their families…nature of the relationships, I think.
BRC: Prospective father Fredrik is a great partner to Gretchen, obviously enthusiastic about the baby from the get-go and yet willing to stand back and watch her muddle along with no apparent plan for the coming blessed event. Is he the ideal husband or someone totally exasperating?
AB: Oh, he is both. Like a lot of couples, Fredrik and Gretchen were very comfortable --- and happy --- in their respective emotional roles prior to the pregnancy. But the presentation of a truly “shared” event, the imminent arrival of their baby, forces them to re-think their relationship a bit. During this time, Fredrik remains confident in Gretchen’s abilities, even if she herself is not; he doesn’t think she needs “taking care of.” Conversely, Gretchen does finally admit that she needs Fredrik. This is part of their progression as a married couple. In the epilogue, they have divided the work of caring for their baby, and each other, into various categories, e.g., “facilities” and “food services” --- the assumption here is that they must be truly equals to have a fulfilling life together (not to mention survive sleepless nights with a new baby!).
BRC: Gretchen comes across as a bundle of contradictions. She refuses to deal with the huge baby issue that is looming before her, even though she makes her living organizing events for other people. She can’t even face a baby shower, yet is willing to confront a huge corporation threatening a takeover at work. Have you known women who reacted to pregnancy like this?
AB: Not exactly, no. But certainly, you believe the idea that you can do it all on your schedule, well, until you experience the real physical limitations --- and responsibility --- of a pregnancy (where literally, how much water you drink can make a difference). So, that this was not immediately apparent to Gretchen, even though she is a consummate planner, is more a denial than a contradiction. Over time --- for example, as she tries to navigate through some of her anxiety around amniocentesis --- she does come to accept and even embrace some of the emotional and physical changes brought on by the pregnancy.
BRC: One of the elements of NINE MONTHS IN AUGUST that rings very true is Gretchen’s inability to deal with emotional situations in her life (including pregnancy) because she has not yet dealt with the grief surrounding her father’s sudden death when she was a child. Do you think that the act of childbirth stirs unresolved feelings and emotions?
AB: Absolutely. To some degree any major “life event” can bring up unresolved issues. Gretchen experiences this around her wedding as well, as she didn’t have a father to walk her down the aisle. But, there is something about starting a family of your own that, I think, gets you thinking about your relationships with your parents. Gretchen’s father passed away so suddenly and so violently that she’s really just now comprehending the extent of that loss, not only of him but also of her mother, who Gretchen can’t seem to connect with. So, even though she is embarking on this very exciting new phase, with a partner who clearly loves her (though he is easily distracted by his parents!), she is suddenly feeling very alone.
BRC: Why was it important for you to integrate that sense of fear and loss into what could otherwise have been a sunny portrait of pregnancy?
AB: I felt that the story of a woman, a complex person --- sympathetic in some respects, immature and not sympathetic in others --- was actually pretty realistic, based on my own experience. Or maybe I’m just dark, and my friends are depressed? I don’t know! Mostly, I just thought it would be interesting to write a character that way, to show a woman who faces a series of significant challenges.
BRC: One portion of the book revolves around a takeover of the hotel where Gretchen works by a big impersonal corporation. Gretchen starts out reluctant and ill-informed, but gradually emerges as a conscientious social activist. Were you using this situation to alert your readers to issues like the Family and Medical Leave Act?
AB: Ah --- well, yes and no. From my (limited) understanding, I think an expectant mother is actually probably better off at a larger corporation --- for a variety of reasons, including that smaller businesses are exempt from the law. The tough thing about FMLA is that while it does protect your job while you are on leave, it doesn’t really say anything about pay during that time, which is --- of course --- the crux of the issue. Meredith serves as a device for raising some of these issues, but Gretchen is more focused on just trying to survive the day without falling asleep at her desk. That said, the storyline about the hotel takeover is really about forcing Gretchen to take a stand on something, take a risk, even if the results aren’t guaranteed. Though it doesn’t work out as she imagines it should, she learns to take pride in trying.
BRC: Each chapter begins with a quote from an authoritative but chatty pregnancy guidebook. Were you consciously writing NINE MONTHS IN AUGUST not just as fiction but as a “rough guide to pregnancy”?
AB: I did read a lot of pregnancy books as part of my preparation for the writing of the book, and I also spent a lot of time online, on parenting message boards. One thing I noticed was the apparent disconnect between the “advice” and the reality of actually being pregnant --- like suggesting the best way to battle first-trimester fatigue is with frequent naps. Of course, that is the ideal (I would like to take one right now, and I am not pregnant); but, if you are working, or have other children, it is highly unlikely you are napping! So while the books are well-meaning and useful to many people (tracking baby’s development, etc.), I wanted to illustrate that having a different experience was normal, too.
BRC: Lots of modern dads go through birthing classes with their wives. Why did Fredrik avoid sharing that experience with Gretchen?
AB: Well, that’s true --- most Dads are partners in the process today. I think Fredrik shows his support and interest in the pregnancy in different ways (decorating the baby’s room, for example), but about the labor prep classes, he was somewhat hindered by Gretchen’s inability to express what their going together meant to her, and not just in terms of practicing breathing patterns. That he wasn’t just automatically motivated to go, well, Fredrik is only human --- and I think it’s fair to say some men may feel hesitation (What is my role?) or fear (Will they be OK?) around the labor experience.
BRC: Do you have friends like Gretchen’s mentor Meredith --- so competent and intelligent when it comes to the details of pregnancy yet so scattered when it comes to actually raising kids?
AB: I have a very good friend whose children are older than mine, and who --- when I was exhausted and depressed from trying to soothe my colicky baby --- was brutally honest about her own struggles with a newborn. But when she also took the time to reassure me that it would get better, well, I believed her because she’d been so candid. So, I don’t see Meredith as scattered; I see her as someone who is figuring it out as she goes. She doesn’t have all the answers, just because she’s had a baby and has another on the way. This is an important part of the story, and it’s good for Gretchen --- ever the perfectionist --- to see that it’s OK not to have it all just so. Really, I think most of us need some time to grow into the role of mother (I certainly did).
BRC: You had to make a decision to set the labor scene in a blackout. Was there a sense that a “normal” childbirth just wasn’t dramatic enough for good fiction?
AB: Any labor is inherently dramatic, definitely (isn’t that the appeal of TLC’s "A Baby Story"? I think so --- I watched it every day during both my pregnancies...). I had the idea to use a blackout as the setting for the labor scene based on my own experience. I was a little over eight months pregnant with my second and in New York for a business trip when the power went out all over the Northeast in August 2003. I was in the Gap trying to buy flip-flops for my grossly swollen feet when the store went dark, and as I’d gone early with my first, I was terrified I’d have the baby right there in the shoe section. Once I was safely on my way back home to Washington, DC, I started to think about those women who had gone into labor and what that experience, already so overwhelming, must have been like. A few weeks later, I went into labor --- during Hurricane Isabel, something about the barometric pressure --- so that was the other possibility for the scene.
BRC: Gretchen reads pregnancy books and watches chick/action flicks. What about you?
AB: I have to admit that I really wasn’t a big pregnancy book reader. I was more likely to ask friends, or look online. As for movies, I do enjoy the sentimentality of “chick flicks,” and the resolution of action films (Gladiator is a current favorite. I realize that movie is not at all “current” but as I have two small children, I’m not really going to the theater anymore). But I also enjoy smaller films --- The Squid and the Whale, Grizzly Man, A Very Long Engagement (one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last five years) --- that are brought my door, compliments of Netflix.
BRC: Since you went to Smith yourself, you obviously know the geographical setting of your book and its population very well. I see that you’re working on a second novel. Will that book range farther afield, or do you hold to the principle of “writing about what you know”? Are there any plans yet for a sequel to NINE MONTHS IN AUGUST?
AB: I have a framework for the second book, but I haven’t really settled on the details yet. I’d say it’s unlikely I’d the set the book in Northampton. As for a sequel, I don’t think so. It will be a new story.