Yes, you can publish your first novel at the age of 70, if it is as good as Carola Dibbell’s The Only Ones (Two Dollar Radio, Mar.). In this near-future Northeast U.S., the world is ravaged by pandemics; whole neighborhoods of New York are burned to prevent the spread of contagion, but the Board of Education still notifies parents that their five-year-old must report for kindergarten. Nineteen-year-old Inez survives any way she can, including supplying material for reproductive purposes. When a client declines to take the new baby, Inez unexpectedly becomes a mother.
How did you come up with this story in this form? What were you aiming at?
I'd written a memoir about visiting an ashram and a novel about a women's friendship, but neither one of them was published. I'd published two realistic short stories. Then, a funny novella I was writing about the bohemian life became speculative, and I wondered whether I could write science fiction. The one science I know anything about is reproductive technology, because of my 10 years of fertility treatments, and adoption. I had some information and feelings, and when it occurred to me that cloning was an upside-down way of writing about adoption, it all came at once.
I thought a lot about the good mother concept. I wanted Inez to be lovable, but I also wanted her to make mistakes. When her daughter becomes an adolescent, things change, and Inez becomes as loopy as her daughter. And while Inez worries that Ani is like her, this is a common mother-daughter thing, it also plays with the idea that this might be going on because Ani’s a clone.
And I want to say that becoming a mother can be a subject. Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone, which I read at 22, was a big influence, the idea that motherhood is not just happening on the side of the real subject.
How did your knowledge of reproductive technology affect your writing the story?
Writing about my own treatment for the Village Voice in 1983 helped me organize my thoughts and values about what is a mother. Once we adopted a daughter, I started thinking about nannies and surrogates, so there were all these issues ready to be analyzed because they meant so much to me.
How long did it take you to find Inez’s voice? And why so much shifting of tenses from past to present in the same sentence?
A lot about Inez emerged from inside the character, sort of like Method acting. I knew she would be semiliterate or uneducated, and she would be writing this story, but how would she write? I saw her writing in these children’s notebooks, where there would be a stiffness in her writing. I didn’t want her to sound too sophisticated, so I did something kooky with the tenses. And I needed her to be articulating things with a limited vocabulary. How does she know these words about reproduction and cloning? The people she was working for would use these words, and she’s so observant, the words just stick, so the language she picks up became a means of creating her character.
Inez often says, “I like to see what happens,” as her motivation for doing things that seem dangerous, or possible crimes, or ethically questionable. How does that idea fit into your own outlook on life?
I didn’t want her to be a victim. She not only likes the work [of having her eggs harvested and her skin tissue taken for somatic cells used in cloning], it's actually the most interesting, and least degrading, work she's done. In my youth I was much more like Inez than I became when my daughter was a baby, and I was more concerned about her safety than I had been about my own.
What elements of your life with your adopted daughter informed Inez’s story?
The whole question about nature and nurture. There is no answer, but a lot of questions. There’s also the idea of risk, and there’s definitely a risk in adoption, because you never know what will happen. But I think the same questions of outsiderness and uncertainty apply whether a child is biologically yours or not, you never know who or what your child will be.