Half Known Lives
August 07th, 2012
The stork doesn’t bring ‘em. Books, as W.P. Kinsella says, are born from 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. For our continuing series called Origins, BCBW asked Joan Givner to discuss Half Known Lives (New Star 2000) her novel originally titled The Foetus—about an ardent, male, right-to-lifer who becomes pregnant. With oblique references to Mary Shelley’s introduction to Frankenstein (‘dilate upon an idea’), Givner recognizes the contributions of her husband and her editor in the creative process and traces the genesis of her story to a 1983 Supreme Court case.
I am grateful for the chance to explain how I, a sober academic type, came to think up and dilate upon so wild an idea as a group of women taking a man hostage, impregnating him, and holding him prisoner for the duration of the pregnancy.
As to writing, the wonder is not so much that I have produced one now as that I have not done so sooner. For at regular intervals during our 35 years of marriage, my husband has said to me, “Why don’t you write a novel?”
David is by temperament, training and profession a philosopher. Although he has the most gentle and amiable disposition, as a practitioner of the Master Discourse, he tends to underestimate the complexity of other forms of discourse. And so, rather than giving serious consideration to his question, I generally replied, “Why don’t you?”
However, in his Socratic way, he rephrased the question as “Suppose you wrote a novel, what would it be about?”
I replied, without hesitation, “It would be about a man who got pregnant.”
I was probably thinking of a famous court case in Regina where I then lived. It involved the owner of a health food store in 1983 who brought a case against therapeutic abortion to the Supreme Court of Canada. The visual images resonated long after the case ended.
Perhaps I had recently pulled out my file of newspaper clippings, as I have done just now. They’ve yellowed over the years but they still form a remarkable collection.
The courtroom artist for this anti-abortion case was the cartoonist Brian Gamble who worked for the Regina Leader-Post before going to the Globe & Mail. I detect the satirical intent of the cartoonist in the drawings of the all-male cast. The faces are fatuous and smug, and there’s a deliberate suggestion of myopia in the glazed eyes of the lawyers, the judge and the so-called ‘expert’ on childbearing. This expert, Dr. William Liley, was brought all the way (who knows why) from New Zealand to testify.
Michelle Landsberg summed up the occasion well. “The thing to remember about the lunatic spectacle in Regina is that, in a case affecting the private sexual life of every fertile woman in Canada, the voices of women will barely be heard.”
Around the time of this case, my daughter Emily showed me a book. It contained the following paragraph: “The foetus, scientists are discovering, is self-sustaining. Hormonal fluctuations, breast development, and most side effects of pregnancy are caused by the foetus’s influencing the mother and not by the mother controlling the foetus. Therefore, it seems to follow that if a man became the incubator for a foetus, the developing baby would give him weight gain, morning sickness, lactating breasts, and anything else a woman may experience. It would be like a tubal pregnancy and the man could face a risky delivery after carrying the foetus for nine months.”
No doubt various memories converged, harmonized and arranged themselves around a central idea. Once conceived, the idea so possessed my mind that I immediately wrote a scene that contained the germ of the novel. This scene was entitled ‘The Annunciation’ and it described the moment when a group of women (named for the French feminists I was reading at the time) inform a man that he is carrying a foetus.
Here are two fragments.
“I sometimes think the clearest memory I own is of that moment, an incandescent moment, frozen in time, all of us sitting around the white bed, with the white landscape outside the window. Julia, Helen, Simone, Monica and I, Lucy…”
“In the beginning, Max was befuddled by the anaesthetic and by the painkillers, but much more disoriented by the situation. He kept saying, “Where am I? How did I get here? What happened? Last thing I remember was being interviewed. I can’t even remember getting into my car to drive home. Did I have an accident? Is this a hospital?”
Perhaps if I had been less busy I might have sat down there and then and struck off the novel. But I was teaching, keeping abreast of the new literary theory, editing a literary journal and involved in other writing projects. All the same, the embryo conceived so casually developed a life of its own.
I became even more enamoured of the characters I’d created than my subjects as a biographer. These people were absolutely my own creatures. The pregnancy of the original scene ran its course and ended, but the story went on and on in my mind. The women quarreled, dispersed, regrouped and inevitably went on with their lives as I did mine.
“Have you not finished that novel yet?” my husband would ask.
“No, I have not.”
Perhaps I never would have finished it, if I had not had the good luck to find someone who quietly and effectively nudged it to completion.
I met Audrey McClellan when she oversaw the special issue of A Room of One’s Own on my work in 1992. She was a board member of New Star Books, a Vancouver publishing house. Although her plans for New Star to bring out a Canadian edition of Self-Portrait of a Literary Biographer were blocked by my American publisher, we kept in touch. A few years later I took Audrey a haphazard collection of essays and stories, a mix usually considered unmarketable. She and New Star speedily and amiably ushered them into print as Thirty-Four Ways of Looking at Jane Eyre.
I felt I was in good hands indeed. Accordingly I brought her the 20 chapters of The Foetus. She was able to take what I thought of as ‘a poor thing but mine own’ and make it into a better thing without making it any less ‘mine own’. This process was thoroughly enjoyable but I knew from experience that such enjoyment comes to an abrupt end with publication.
Now it is time to let the progeny go forth. It is a difficult parting because the pages of Half Known Lives contain so many conversations, scenes and memories from a world that I once inhabited—a private world that no longer exists.
Essay Date: 2000