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Interview by Barbara Ehrenreich with Wendy Smith
SOURCE: An interview in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 270, No. 30, July 26, 1993, pp. 46-47.
In the following interview, Ehrenreich discusses the writing of her first fiction book.
"I feel like a criminal," says Barbara Ehrenreich. "I didn't mean to do it!" She's not referring to an act of civil disobedience from her anti-war past (about which she'd be unlikely to repent); she's talking about the reckless act of writing a novel. Kipper's Game (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Fiction Forecasts, Apr. 26), an adventurous tale involving a computer game, Nazi scientists and a mysterious illness that causes uncontrollable bleeding, is indeed not the book you'd necessarily expect from a 51-year-old writer best known for her journalism and such works of social and cultural analysis as The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment and Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, all written from a bracingly leftwing point of view.
That was the idea, she says. "It was escapism. I started the novel when we'd had two terms of Reagan, Bush had just been elected, and I was constantly grinding out columns and articles trying to make my good little moral points: don't fight, share things, all that stuff." (You can tell she's a mother, although Rosa, 22, and Benjamin, 20, presumably no longer need to be told to share.) "I just felt that I had to go into another dimension for part of the time."
The decaying suburb of the near-future in which Kipper's Game is set may not strike everyone as the perfect place to flee to. Its trees have been stripped bare by a plague of caterpillars, brownouts are frequent, escaped laboratory animals roam the halls of the decrepit scientific complex where the heroine works and radio evangelists warn of the coming apocalypse. Even when she's getting away from it all, Ehrenreich can't abandon habits of social observation she's honed over three decades: her unnamed locale is based on some of the grimmer sections of Long Island, where she lives and her protagonist, whose husband leaves in the novel's first scene, "is a character I had been thinking about for quite a while, because I had written a few articles about middle-class women who are suddenly divorced and completely unprepared to enter the world.
"I'm not grinding an axe; there's not a feminist point or a humanist point—that I know of," the author comments. "But it wasn't going to work as escapism for me unless it was a very challengingly complex sort of plot, with too many subplots and lots of mysteries I wasn't sure they were all going to come together at the end; there were many points when I really thought it wasn't going to work."
Fiction, she discovered, "is completely different; it didn't seem like anything I'd learned writing nonfiction particularly applied. Fortunately, I've read a lot of novels, so I started studying whomever I was reading to see how they did it I would say, 'Hey, wait a minute: how did this author get the characters from place A to place B?'"
Crowded with intellectual characters who consider issues like the nature of truth, the role of religion and the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors, Kipper's Game is an ambitious project for a first-time novelist. "There are certain books I've admired enormously that gave me permission to do this. I don't like family dramas; I like books that have insanely complicated plots and deal with major philosophical themes: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, which I'm going to have to read again to understand; Unassigned Territory by Kem Nunn, borderline SF with a very paranoid plot; Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star—that's a really loony book; it's wonderful A lot of the ideas my characters explore are real thoughts I've had that could potentially have been expressed in a nonfiction way, if I could have figured out what that would have been. We don't have a big market for metaphysical speculation, so you're almost forced to put it in another form."
The novel's scientific material was no problem for Ehrenreich, who graduated from Reed College in 1963 with a B.A. in chemical physics and received her Ph.D. in biology at Rockefeller University in 1968. How did she get derailed from her training "to be a seven-day-a-week, 14-hours-a-day scientist? I got swept up in the anti-war movement, as so many people did. I went into college as someone who loved the existentialists, had a soft spot in my heart for Ayn Rand, had no social or political views of any kind. Then I saw a little more of the world, read some newspapers—the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, those got me involved.
"I was more of a science appreciator than a scientist, and I knew as I got more involved in the movements of the time that I didn't want to be a professional scientist, that whole macho ethos of being at the bench all the time. So I started with little journalistic things, but I didn't really think of myself as a writer until the late '70s, when I noticed that's how I was earning my living—not much of a living!" she adds with a laugh.
In the late '60s, Ehrenreich and her first husband were asked to write a book about the international student movement ("the publisher paid our way to Europe and would have made bail if necessary"), and in 1970 they co-authored a scathing critique, The American Health Empire. Medical issues remained her focus in two pamphlets she wrote for the Feminist Press with fellow activist Deirdre English, who also collaborated with Ehrenreich on For Her Own Good: One Hundred Fifty Years of Experts' Advice to Women (Doubleday, 1978).
"I was making the transition to being 'socially relevant,' as we called it in the '60s, and the obvious thing to write about was medical and public health issues. My background in biology meant I wasn't intimidated by doctors or their pronouncements about how the medical system should work, because research biologists look down on doctors!" She continues to keep up to date in the field and recently completed an essay about the current debate over health insurance; after reading voluminous material by the proponents of "managed competition," she professes herself "appalled: it's like turning everything over to Empire Blue Cross."
Ehrenreich was past 40 when she wrote her first book solo. "I guess I'm a real slut when it comes to collaborating," she comments jokingly. "I've been promiscuous in doing it all my life! I got a lot out of it, but now that I have my own style I probably won't be collaborating much anymore. It wasn't that I had to shake anybody off for The Hearts of Men; I just had this idea and knew exactly what I wanted to do with it." Published by Doubleday in 1983, the book argued cogently—and controversially—that men's abdication of the breadwinner role was at least as responsible as the revived feminist movement for the break-down of the American family. "People thought that I said this male revolt caused feminism, but I just pointed out that it came earlier."
Although she had an amicable relationship with Loretta Barrett, who edited For Her Own Good and The Hearts of Men, Ehrenreich found herself less comfortable at Doubleday after it was purchased by Bertelsmann. The publication of Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex, a return to collaborative writing with Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs that appeared in 1986, led to a break. "It got completely lost in the corporate shuffle. I don't blame Loretta; it just seemed better to go to a smaller place where they watched each project carefully."
That smaller place, ironically, was Pantheon, which in early 1990 caused an enormous uproar over corporate interference in publishing matters. Ehrenreich, along with fellow Pantheon author Todd Gitlin, spearheaded the determined protest against the forced departure of managing director André Schiffrin, which prompted fears in the literary community that profitability had become such an overriding goal at the major houses that it might preclude the publication of the kind of provocative, socially conscious books for which Pantheon was known.
"Todd and I got on the phone to lots of people; we had a demonstration—it was the first time a major publishing house had been picketed by authors—and we published a letter signed by hundreds of famous writers. I had done a lot of organizing, but never of hot-shot intellectuals; we were very proud of all the big names we were able to get on the letter. Along with the support for Salman Rushdie a year earlier, it showed that the intellectual community could come together, which was good, because by and large the New York literary world is pretty stuffy and conservative; it's not a lively or politically active bunch.
"I didn't have any illusions that we were going to get Random House to change its mind about Pantheon, but I did think it would be good to create some cost. Writers are so powerless compared to these guys who run the mega-corporations that control so much of publishing that all we can do is now and then bring a faint blush to the pinched cheeks of these Scrooge-like fellows!" She gives a short laugh, acknowledging the hyperbolic tone of her comments, but standing by their substance. With her blonde hair pulled loosely back by a barrette, wire rimmed glasses framing a makeup-free face, clad in jeans, a royal blue shirt and sneakers, Ehrenreich has abandoned neither the look nor the political attitudes of her student days.
The author followed Sara Bershtel, who had edited Fear of Falling and a collection of Ehrenreich's articles entitled The Worst Years of Our Lives, from Pantheon to FSG. "Sara's a very involved editor, maybe the hardest working editor on earth, and I think she improved Kipper's Game a lot. There were about 20 more subplots until she took a look at it, and she made Kipper appear at the end—he wasn't going to, there was another ending, but she felt that he should. I actually enjoyed the revisions, because I didn't want to leave the book; I probably could have gone on forever."
Peter Biskind, executive editor of Premiere magazine and an old friend, also commented on the first draft, and Ehrenreich discussed nearly every chapter with her son, now a religious studies major at Brown. "Benjamin was a big supporter of my writing a novel; I kept losing confidence, but he would read things almost as I was writing them, we would discuss it and that kept me going." Her daughter is also an author; Rosa's book about her experience as a female student at Oxford will be published in England next year. Ehrenreich's husband of 10 years, Gary Stevenson, "is just reading the novel now. He's a union organizer, which is like being an elevator operator: up and down." Thrown out of the Teamsters by its previous corrupt administration, Stevenson came back with the current, reforming leadership and now serves as Eastern regional director of organizing. Fear of Falling was dedicated "To Gary—and the old-fashioned struggle against class injustice that he so ably serves."
Ehrenreich's current project is, typically, a radical change of pace. "It's about theories of war, and it's serious: I'm reading 18th-century treaties and learning about cross-bows! You have to know the details, and there's a tremendous amount to learn. All my previous history work was social history, women's things, so now I'm finding out what men have been doing all this time. I like to learn a completely new area; I don't think that constitutionally I could specialize in an academic way. People have sometimes thought was a sociologist or a historian, but since I have no formal education in any of these things, I'm not tied to a discipline, so I can rampage through any kind of material I want."
Ehrenreich continues to produce a monthly column for Time magazine and whatever other journalism strikes her as necessary. "I like to do both. They're completely different ways of thinking and living for me: journalism is a more frenetic lifestyle—I'm switching on CNN all the time and maybe going on television myself to argue with somebody—and writing books is more solitary, contemplative, reclusive and obsessional." She also remains active in the Democratic Socialists of America, formed in 1983 out of the union of two earlier left-wing groups ("an anti-corporate merger, as it were"), which like all political organizations requires time-consuming meetings and discussions. "Too bad there aren't 48 hours in the day!" she comments wryly.
Somehow, you get the feeling that Barbara Ehrenreich will always manage to squeeze it all in.
This section contains 2,099 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)