EG: What surprised you, if anything, about reaction to Nine Months?
PB: Well, I wasn’t surprised to get that one-star review that was like “this is disgusting!” A friend of mine checked out all the other books that person read and they were all, like, bodice-rippers. So that’s just not my audience, and I’m fine with that person thinking it’s disgusting. And I got a lot of “the narrator’s not sympathetic,” which I’m not surprised by, because it took me ten years to sell this book, and it was mostly because all these agents and editors didn’t find the character sympathetic enough. But finally I found an editor who loved her, and since then I’ve met a lot of people who’ve loved the book. And that’s been very gratifying. Even though I love to push buttons, I also love that some people get what I’m trying to do, and have sympathy for a character who has kind of lost her mind.
The funniest review, though, was a four-star review that said “This is an example, that some people should not have children! The narrator is a horrible person and it’s so great that someone wrote a book about how some people should not have children!”
EG: I asked a friend who is a literary agent why she thought this great book wasn’t published by a bigger publisher and why it is not, so far, a mainstream bestseller. And she said, that it’s because (spoiler alert) the narrator, Sonia, is redeemed at the end. She does these crazy things and there aren’t tragic consequences. In the mainstream bestseller version of this book, that narrator would have to be punished in some way.
PB: She’s unlikable, she doesn’t get punished …
EG: I don’t even think she’s “unlikeable!” It’s so weird that “likeability” has become so important to readers, somehow?! I can’t help thinking that when we’re talking about “likability” we’re talking about something else.
PB: Where are all these mythical perfect people, in life? And that’s who you want to read about? Reading books where the character isn’t particularly likable, where you can’t believe the character is doing whatever it is they’re doing – that’s a feeling that I had when I was reading Freedom, a lot. Richard Yates is another writer who writes characters who are incredibly human, in the “flawed” sense. Yet he writes beautifully about them, and with compassion. And that’s what I was, obviously, trying to do. Maybe pushing it, testing the limits of the empathy of the reader. And also, my book is clearly a satire – hence all the parts that are funny and over the top.
EG: The beginning of this book is a scene of childbirth that is so visceral, and it’s unprecedented in my reading experience to read a childbirth scene that … real. Is that what childbirth is really like?