Leni Zumas in Conversation with Alexis M. Smith

August 2017 · Digital exchange

Over the course of three books Leni Zumas has mapped the (sometimes surreal, always exquisite) interiors of teenagers, loners, punks, witches, spinsters, teachers, and mothers. Karen Russell called her writing “sorcery,” and Noy Holland called her “an alchemist.” It’s no wonder, then, that her latest, Red Clocks, evokes both the current political and social divisions in our country and the storied history of witch hunts around the world. In Zumas’s novel, federal lawmakers have passed legislation limiting reproductive rights of women and the parental rights of those not in conventional heterosexual unions. The women of the coastal town of Newville, Oregon, find their lives splintered with the shards of their freedom—to be mothers, or not, and more: to determine for themselves the stories of their lives. Zumas writes with musical precision, from word to word and sentence to sentence, echoing the voices of women who’ve come before, both ancient and modern. Red Clocks is a formally and ideologically daring novel and I can’t help but admire it unabashedly.


Red Clocks is a story of many voices. Whose voice came first, and did you know at the time that other voices would join hers?


I knew so little—almost nothing—at the beginning. Probably the first voice was my own; I thought I was writing an essay. This was seven years ago, when I was living in Asheville, North Carolina. I had a bunch of notes about my desire to become a mother and my ambivalence about this desire. I wondered how much of it was my own, and how much of it came from worn-out scripts for women’s lives. I was in a place of wanting something very badly yet doubting my reasons for wanting it.  

As soon as I figured out I was writing a novel, not an essay, the Biographer was the voice for my doubt. There are five point-of-view characters in Red Clocks, but the Biographer’s was the first to take shape. She is a writer and teacher who happens not to be in a romantic relationship, and she is trying to get pregnant:

Can the biographer remember first thinking, feeling, or deciding she wanted to be someone’s mother? The original moment of longing to let a bulb of lichen grow in her until it came out human? The longing is widely endorsed. Legislators, aunts, and advertisers approve. Which makes the longing, she thinks, a little suspicious.

As the Biographer’s character emerged, I envisioned two other women standing near her. A triangle, unstable and vibrating. These other characters would lead, I imagined, very different lives but would be connected to the Biographer somehow—in friendship, solidarity, competition. One of these women became the Wife, the other morphed into the Mender. The Daughter and the Polar Explorer joined them slightly later.


I wondered if the Biographer was the first character to emerge. Her role in the novel—and her project, the book she has been working on—strikes me as symbolic: she’s piecing together an identity for herself as she’s reconstructing the life of another woman, Eivør Mínervudottír, a 19th century scientist. Fragments of Mínervudottír’s story (channeled through Ro, the Biographer) are woven in and out of the stories of the women of Newville, at times mirroring one woman’s predicament, at times another’s. Is Mínervudottír a historical figure, or is she a creation, like Virginia Woolf’s Judith Shakespeare, a woman who could have existed, but whose story has been lost or erased or arrested by patriarchal culture? Can you talk about fragmentation and women’s stories, as it relates to the women in Red Clocks? I’m thinking of a particular line from the Biographer: “After the body of Eivør Mínervudottír sank to the bottom of Baffin Bay, west of Greenland, it entered into many other bodies.”


I love that you brought Woolf in—she’s a major influence and brain-spark for me (Several of the names in Red Clocks allude to characters in The Waves.)—and for you too, I think? A Room of One’s Own throws light into corners darkened by patriarchy, and in that sense it’s a forebear of the Biographer’s project. Ro is fascinated by a Faroese polar hydrographer, Eivør Mínervudottír, who was an actual person (at least in the world of Red Clocks) and she’s frustrated that Mínervudottír barely gets mentioned in books on nineteenth-century Arctic exploration. So she writes her own book. The written history of Western culture(s) is mostly the story of white men; stories of people of color and white women come to us in scraps—incomplete, hidden, distorted, torn. “Scrap” means crumb or leftover, but it also means fight. A scrappy person won’t stop trying. The unfinishedness of a scrap, its secrets and potential, might be the very reason we want it. The fragment’s refusal to join the whole is maybe its strength.

Shreds of the Explorer’s corpse go into the mouths of sea creatures, and shreds of her journal go into the mind of the Biographer, one woman’s narrative threading through other narratives, all of them unfinished, echoing. As I’ve heard Buddhist teachers put it, “We inter-are.” The structure of Red Clocks—a rotation of short chapters tracking each of the five main characters—is meant to enact this interbeing, switching perspectives often enough that no single view holds sway.


That description perfectly captures the feeling of reading these interwoven “scraps” of lives: the many stories become one. And I love that subtle literary allusions (I sensed Woolf’s presence, though I didn’t pick up on the reference to The Waves), also contribute to this feeling of interbeing: the biographer’s full name is Roberta Louise Stephens, a nod to Robert Louis Stevenson and his family of lighthouse builders, I assume. And Moby Dick makes an appearance (more on whales later)…

One of the delights in reading Red Clocks is the variation with which these women’s stories emerge. Though told in a close third-person narration, each woman’s individual voice comes through. The most striking, to me, being the Mender, Gin Percival’s. Her voice—maybe it’s more apt to call it her consciousness, these scraps of thought we’re privy to—manages to feel both archaic (in grammatical construction and diction) and modern (in the free-associative quality of the imagery). How did you develop and sustain her narrative consciousness? Does she have forebears in history or literary history to whom you looked for inspiration?


Some of the Mender’s syntax and diction came from books I was reading while I worked on Red Clocks: the witch-hunter’s manual Compendium Maleficarum (1608), Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal (1818), trial transcripts, botanical histories, guides to edible plants of the Pacific Northwest. One of the first texts that inspired the novel generally, and the Mender’s character specifically, was a 1906 monograph called The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals by E. P. Evans. I was amazed to learn that for several centuries, in parts of Europe, non-human creatures were put on trial—and sometimes executed—for crimes such as stinging a man to death (bees) or biting off a child’s ear (pig).

Gin Percival’s historical antecedents are women who’ve been harassed, punished, or killed because people feared them. Accused witches from colonial New England are obvious examples, and in early drafts I used language from the Salem trial transcripts in the Mender’s courtroom scenes. As a healer who forages for plants to cure maladies, Gin operates outside the authority of the medical and pharmaceutical industries. She’s a high school dropout who learned alternative medicine from her aunt and from library books. She is not “allowed” to dispense the treatments she dispenses, but she does anyway, like so many women who help others in unauthorized, unacknowledged ways.

More broadly, the Mender belongs to a lineage of solitude-loving outsiders, people uninterested in (and perhaps incapable of) fully joining the social order. Hers is not the story of a shunned person who yearns for a place in society; she is happy being apart, with goats and chickens and a cat as companions. Such an embrace of solitude, especially by a woman, is unsettling. People in the village are frightened of her, label her strange or deficient. I’m really interested in female singleness—solo-hood—and how it too often gets narrated as a problem requiring a solution (romance, marriage, death) rather than as a valid, even desirable, way to live. Like the Mender, the Biographer is content without a partner, yet many of the people around her, including her therapist, insist she would be happier if she “found someone.”


I have a copy of Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s Witches, Midwives & Nurses: A History of Women Healers on my desk right now and there’s this great quote that brings to mind not only the Mender, but also the political and cultural reality you set up in the book: “Women have always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and anatomists of Western history… For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbor to neighbor and mother to daughter. They were called ‘wise women’ by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities. Medicine is part of our heritage as women, our history, our birthright.”

Red Clocks imagines another wave of restrictions on this “birthright.” The Mender becomes the focus of the community’s fear in a time when the country has passed laws outlawing female reproductive autonomy. Abortion is illegal, and reproductive procedures more and more restrictive for unmarried, non-heterosexual people; single women like the Biographer who want to be mothers will no longer be able to legally adopt. All of the women in the book are affected by these laws in one way or another (or in the case of the Wife, demonstrate what may come to pass for married, heterosexual women). Readers will probably immediately think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and there is a kinship between your books. And yet, I would hesitate to call Red Clocks “speculative fiction,” because it feels not just possible in our current political reality, but imminent (goddess forfend).

I know you’ve been working on this book for years, so I wonder how much of the current political reality you anticipated as you wrote, and how much was an unhappy accident?


The Ehrenreich/English book sounds great! I don’t think of Red Clocks as speculative fiction, either. I invented a few details in the political landscape, such as the Pink Wall, but nearly every other law in the novel (including the Personhood Amendment) has been proposed, at some point, by politicians in our own world. Threats to reproductive rights in the U.S. have been rising for years, orchestrated by men who’ve held office far longer than Trump. Mike Pence is a seasoned architect of misogynist legislation. (Example: forcing women who’ve had miscarriages or abortions to pay for funerals for the fetal tissue.) Paul Ryan and current CIA director Mike Pompeo were cosponsors of a 2013 bill called the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which gives a fertilized egg “all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood.”

That said, I did not anticipate the bonkers shit-cake of the Trump regime. After his election I was depressed and terrified, as millions of us were and continue to be; and I was still revising Red Clocks. It was appalling to revisit certain scenarios in the novel, like the repeal of Roe v. Wade, that had felt unlikely before November 8 but which now seemed entirely possible. My sister called me on November 9 and said, “I’m scared your book is going to come true.”


Let’s talk about the setting of the novel. I’m always interested in how characters (and writers, actually) interact with the natural world. Newville is fashioned after a coastal Oregon community. What appealed to you about the landscape of the coast and the dynamics of a maritime town? As you said earlier, the novel began when you lived on the East Coast, but you’ve been living in Oregon for several years now. Was there something about the landscape here that fed the story? Has living in the Pacific Northwest changed your writing, beyond providing the setting of this novel in particular?


The Pacific Northwest feels blessedly removed from the hyper-productive, hyper-competitive literary culture of New York City, where I used to live. This isn’t to say that PNW writers aren’t productive or ambitious; but there’s less anxiety. More privacy, more space. I like being a writer here.

I just went back through my earliest notes for Red Clocks and found this: “Coastal town. Northern. Lots of bad weather.” I was vaguely picturing Nova Scotia or Newfoundland as the novel’s setting, but I changed it once I moved here and saw the Oregon coast. This stretch of Pacific seaboard is stunning and uncanny and a little forbidding, and it has so many lighthouses. It reminds me of other northerly coasts I’m attracted to: Cornwall, the Shetlands, the Faroe Islands. Stormy cold places with cliffs. The Polar Explorer grew up in the Faroes and learned how to read in her uncle’s lighthouse; I see that lighthouse as a North Atlantic counterpart to the Gunakadeit Light, a fictional beacon near my fictional town.

The trees in Oregon are important to me in a way that’s hard to describe. Is there a word for being sensually overcome by trees? The way evergreens look, sound, smell: I just want to be near them. I know for sure that I didn’t do justice in Red Clocks to the bewitchingness of firs, spruces, cedars, and pines. The natural world isn’t easy for me to write about (see first sentence of this paragraph). I admire authors who do it well.


There is that Japanese idea of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” that captures the whole sensory experience of being among trees. It’s meant to be a way to spiritually, mentally, and physically reset oneself.

I think you capture the moody atmosphere of the Oregon coast and coastal forests quite well, the way they can be both foreboding and soothing, sometimes in the same moment. It’s sort of perfect for writers, I think, the paradoxes we encounter in the landscape here. As bountiful as it is in beauty and resources, we live in imminent danger of unpredictable environmental catastrophes (earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions), which primes the imagination for all kinds of weird and terrifying, even supernatural, phenomena.

Which brings me to the pod of whales that washes ashore on a Newville beach (hearkening back to one of Oregon’s most famous whale tales). Some of the townspeople suspect Gin is responsible for the strange happenings in their environment, almost as if their minds leap to the fantastic before looking to more obvious answers. Can you talk about the spectacle of the whale corpses? Were there were other unusual natural phenomena that caught your imagination in the writing and researching that didn’t make it into the story?


I think I agree with Keith Waldrop’s definition of the novel: “That literary form into which you throw everything that’s captured your attention in the last five years.” I’ve been preoccupied by sea creatures and nautical lore for much of my life. The whales didn’t come into Red Clocks as plot devices or markers of ecological crisis; they came in because I love them. It was only afterward that I figured out how to link them to the characters’ pre-dicaments.

While researching the Faroe Islands, I found a video of a sperm-whale carcass exploding. A Faroese biologist had cut it open and hit a gas pocket. This led me to another video (which you’ve probably seen, Alexis) of a dead beached whale getting blown up in Florence, Oregon, in 1970. Evidently the Oregon Highway Division thought it was too much of a hassle to chop up the body, so they used dynamite. Chunks of whale were landing on people, crushing the hoods of cars. Out at sea, the corpse would have decomposed slowly, ingested by creatures as great as sharks and as small as bacteria. A “whale fall” can feed the deep-ocean ecosystem for decades. Fifty years of nourishment versus a few seconds of waste.

I did wonder, at certain points, if I should include whales in the book at all. They are already so freighted with symbolism and fit so easily into a sentimental storyline: “dead whale” becomes emotional shorthand for nature’s vulnerability to human selfishness, and the only possible reaction is pity. I knew I might be teetering on a dubious line. But if I listened to my brain every time it warned me that something could be read in an objectionable way, I would have to quit making fiction. Also, luckily, there are models for writing unsentimentally about cetaceans, such as Charles D’Ambrosio’s beautiful essay “Whaling Out West.”

Here are a few things I’d hoped to include in Red Clocks but couldn’t find a harmonious place for:

Dolphins as psychopomps, guiding souls across the sea of death to the Isle of the Blessed.

Treatment for whooping cough, 19th century: “putting a whole trout’s head into the mouth of the sufferer and letting the trout breathe into the child’s mouth”—I found this in Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, by William Henderson, which was published in 1879.

The Mender’s incantation against the brown garden snail: “You irrational and imperfect creature, the brown garden snail, you come in droves to do damage in the ground and above the ground. The rat lung worm, cause of deadly affliction in humans, does get transported on your mucus and in your meat.”


I love that so much I’d like to end our interview there. But I want to know what’s “capturing your attention” these days, now that Red Clocks is out in the world. Have you made the leap in your mind to a new story or stories?


I recently finished a small new story that circles around witch-burning, fame-seeking, and Detective Fin Tutuola of Special Victims Unit. Now I’m writing an essay on normative American ideas about the family, and how inadequate or outright damaging these ideas can be.

Thank you for your wonderful questions, Alexis!

Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.
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