Leni Zumas' novel Red Clocks is one of the most talked-about of 2018, celebrated for telling a complex, thoughtful story about five strong women grappling with motherhood in vastly different ways.
Her central characters—a biographer, a daughter, a wife, an explorer, and a witch-like mender—find their paths intersect as reproductive rights undergo major governmental regulation. In this unnamed year, abortion is illegal, as is IVF, and soon, a new act entitled "Every Child Needs Two" will eliminate single parenthood.
Leni took seven years to complete the novel, and even became a mother herself in the midst of writing. Originally from Washington D.C., she now resides in Portland, Oregon, and talked to Apartment Therapy about her writing process, her literary inspirations, and the hodgepodge of meaningful mementos she keeps on her desk.
It looks like you have a beautiful view! The natural light in the room tells me you might be a morning person?
I am a morning person! But when I was working on Red Clocks, I had to become a night owl because I worked full time. I teach at a college and I still have a small child, so when I was revising Red Clocks, and even when I was even finishing writing, the only time I had was after my son went to bed.
Do you do all of your writing at your desk, or do you move around?
In a pinch, I'll work at my office at Portland State, but I prefer to work at home.
If I want absolute privacy, I'll sometimes work in Starbucks. It is always the same; there's something kind of antiseptic and impersonal about it. I don't know if there's a word for when space itself is like white noise but to me, the Starbucks font and signage and the way everything is so uniform, it almost cuts itself out, like white noise. In Oregon it's kind of blasphemy [to go to Starbucks] because we have such interesting coffee shops…but if I'm in a more interesting space, I might be more distracted.
Despite the need for "white noise" to focus, it seems like your desk has different books and photos—and what looks like a stitched coaster of the Red Clocks cover!
I gave a reading in New York and former student of mine did a cross-stitch of the cover and gave it to me and I love it!
So what's the qualification for an object making it onto your desk?
I try to keep things on the desk that have their own energy and their own magic and are not a bill to be paid or a domestic task that's waiting to be finished. Bills might be on a pile on the floor next to the desk, but if I can't see them, then I can pretend that I'm just in my own little world.
When I have a "clean" workspace to write, I like to have books that I might be using for my research. For Red Clocks, I read a lot about witchcraft and mythologies around witches and also wild crafting and edible plants for [the character of] The Mender. Another book I like to keep close is Virginia Woolf's Writers Diary. She's a big inspiration to me and that book in particular is good for encouragement.
Does the other artwork on your desk provide similar encouragement and inspiration?
My partner, my sweetheart, is a guy named Luca Dipierro who is an artist and animator and I love his work. I think he's brilliant. And I keep a lot of his work close by, not just because it's beautiful and interesting in and of itself, but because he's someone who loves me and who supports my work fiercely. A couple of his little pieces of art are actually handmade covers for CD mixes that he made for me.
Then, there's a postcard from Café Mogador in New York. The writer Eileen Myles wrote me that postcard about Red Clocks and it means so much to me because she's a writing hero of mine and I've loved her work for a long time. It meant a huge amount for me to get her generous words.
And since the book is called Red Clocks I would be not doing my job if I didn't ask you about the clock on the top shelf of the bookshelf next to your desk.
That clock came from my mom's house long ago. It's a family heirloom. But the clock part is broken and some of the glass is shattered. Even before doing this book, I loved clocks. I love how they look, and I like to have them around but I'd prefer that they don't actually tell the time. If I know what time it is, then I'm thinking, "Oh, what's the next thing I have to do?" But I like the face of a clock.
Any other major desk inspiration we missed?
On the bookshelf, there's a peacock feather in a white vase and that's in honor of Flannery O'Connor, a favorite.
How do you build up a workspace by balancing the functional and sentimental? There is some organizational structure here amidst all of the inspiration.
I would describe myself as someone who likes order and also can't throw anything away. Those two things are in direct opposition to one another. I still have reference books that have since published three editions...like the Chicago Manual of Style. I keep the first one that I've ever used near my desk on the shelf just because it has some of my notes about when I used to be like a freelance writer and proofreader and I get a sentimental attachment does not serve my other impulse to be organized.
Every three to six months I do a purge of my workspace and I'll throw papers away and re-alphabetize my books.
Is there a special reason why you chose the physical desk? It seems very simple and functional.
I think it's [originally] a kitchen table from IKEA. It's not really a desk. I have more IKEA furniture than I would like to admit just because it's easy.
That's something we can all relate to.
In our house if you want to hear some very loud curses in Italian (my partner is from Italy), come here on a day when he's putting together IKEA furniture for five hours. You'll hear him shouting the furniture. I don't even try anymore!
My fantasy would be built-in bookshelves that were so tall you need one of those ladders— like how the libraries have the ladders on wheels.
Until then, how do you decide which books get space in your office?
I have poetry and essays and then downstairs my house is where all the fiction is. That actually has to do with my work process because I find that if I'm at my desk and I want something to kind of jumpstart my mind typing I'll look to poetry or looked to a great essay rather than fiction.
Do you have any current essay collections or an upcoming release that you're excited about?
One recent one that I love so much is Samantha Irby's We're Never Meeting In Real Life. I'm really looking forward to Zadie Smith's new essay collection and a memoir that's coming out called Heart Berries. I haven't finished reading the whole thing but I have the book and I heard the author read from it the other night and it's fierce.
I say the same thing about Red Clocks—it's fierce. It looks at motherhood on such a spectrum. How did it change your relationship to being a mother?
I started writing and before I became a mother and I finished writing it after my son was born, so I was going through so much transition in my own headspace. Becoming a mother brought me closer to certain questions I already had about what it means to care for another human being or take care of someone, and I don't think these questions have to be answered only by the experience of motherhood.
In a paradoxical way, my relationship with my son makes me think more about other kinds of connections that aren't just the nuclear family. That's something I think I'm going to be writing about in my next book: less-typical ways to live in communities that do bear resemblance to families but that aren't nuclear families.
Other than your aforementioned fascination with clocks, was there any other reason you chose clocks as the metaphor for this novel?
The phrase "red clocks" was pointed in a lot of different directions. It does invoke that idea of "time's running out," and the biological clock, but also invokes the idea of a cycle. And not just a menstrual cycle, but the cycle of history.
I think a lot about people in the past, especially women, who did things that made it possible for me to be a writer, for me to get an education, for me to vote. It's amazing to me that we're less than a hundred years from a time in the U.S. when women couldn't vote. That's not that many presidents ago.
Many people compare your work to Margaret Atwood, but she is one of many writers on your "Gratitudes" page. What voices do you feel helped form this book?
I would say Virginia Wolf, Grace Paley, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison—those four are the first that came up for me in terms of not just their complexity of how they think about women's lives but also their prose itself and their artistry and interesting ways of braiding narratives together.