Genevieve Gannon, THE MOTHERS

Genevieve Gannon, THE MOTHERS

Journalist and author Genevieve Gannon explains to Zibby how her latest novel, The Mothers, started as a failed newspaper article pitch about two families and an IVF mix up. She continues on to discuss why it’s important for women to talk publicly about experiences with IVF and miscarriages, the influence her career in journalism has had on her novels, and how she outlined the characters to allow the story to focus on —you guessed it— the mothers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Genevieve. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Mothers.

Genevieve Gannon: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Zibby: All the way from Sydney, Australia, across days, across time zones. It’s very exciting. My best friend’s name is Genevieve, but we call her Gen.

Genevieve: Oh, really? It’s a pretty unusual name.

Zibby: Yep. She spells it exactly the same, same thing. Would you mind telling listeners what The Mothers is about and what inspired you to write it? I know this is your fourth book, your fifth book?

Genevieve: Yeah, it’s different to my other ones, though, because it was very much inspired by real events, which has not been the case previously. Essentially, it’s about a mix-up in an IVF lab. It’s not a spoiler to say that because the book’s very up-front about that’s what it’s going to be exploring. I wrote it because I had never heard of these mix-ups. I came across a story of a mix-up, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I work as a reporter in Sydney. I was looking into the IVF industry here. I write for a magazine. It’s very female focused. This is quite boring.

Zibby: It’s not boring.

Genevieve: Our local regulatory was cracking down on some advertising practices that we’ll just say were not best practice. I was reading articles and just kind of poking around. I stumbled across this very old article. I think it was nearly twenty years old when I found it. It was about two couples from New York. One couple had had a baby. A judge had ordered them to give that baby up. It turned out there had been a mix-up in the lab. The baby was four months old when the judge said, you need to give this child to their biological parents. I read one article, and I just could not believe it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. To me, my gut reaction was, that’s so unfair. That’s such a wrong call to these parents that have bonded with this baby, and the baby that only knows these parents. The more I read — I went back. I couldn’t stop thinking about. I read the judgement. I read some other cases. Then I changed my mind. I thought, well, maybe that was the right call. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I initially wanted to write it as a feature story. I thought it would make a really interesting investigation for a magazine, but it’s quite rare, thank god. The case is quite old. It wasn’t Australian, so it just didn’t really fit that profile. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I thought, maybe this is an interesting subject for a novel where you can explore some of the issues that arise when these mix-ups occur.

Zibby: Wow. Really, it’s a failed article pitch that led to this whole . If you had succeeded in pitching this article, we would not even be talking right now. That is really hard to believe and raises a zillion ethical considerations. What do you do in a situation? Of course, that is what you explore. You do such a nice job of really developing the characters and the two couples. To be honest, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the husband who has this penchant for online dating, online exploration, and sex talk with other women and the wife who’s trying to rationalize the behavior by saying, well, is it really that bad? The whole thing is like, what can we rationalize away? What in marriage is it worth turning the other cheek to? What is not? Her sleuthing notwithstanding, it just opens the door to lots of different interpretations. That was one wrinkle I found very interesting. Tell me about that subplot, if you will, with one of the couples.

Genevieve: That subplot exists for a couple of reasons. One of them was I really wanted to show how much pressure IVF puts on couples. I think we’re all very cognizant of how hard it is on mothers. I also wanted to show that it affects men as well and that the way they manage that might not be ideal. I know that IVF is very tough on marriages. It’s not great behavior. I’m not saying what I just said to excuse what Nick does. I don’t think our characters all have to be exemplary and perfect. I think it’s more interesting when they’re a little bit flawed. Part of it was just practical. The central conflict in the novel is this decision of, where does this baby belong? One couple gives birth to the baby, Grace and Dan Arden. Grace has that gestational bond with the baby. Dan’s her husband, but he doesn’t have a physical or a biological connection to that baby, which is not to say that being the husband and being there is not a connection. I just felt like it would be really interesting to make it just about the mothers. I wanted to remove Nick’s biological tie to the child. That’s why I had to insert a quite disruptive conflict for them.

Zibby: Interesting. I like it. Also, the scene with Grace when she realizes on the girls’ trip with trying to extricate some of the students at the school at which she works from the mayhem of an underage club and realizes that yet another cycle has failed was heartbreaking, and even the fact that she can’t talk about it, that she can’t tell her boss that this is why she didn’t file a report. It’s not really something that most women feel completely out in the open discussing. Yet you had some line like, if only he knew that she was on this intense rollercoaster of emotion all the time, maybe he’d have some empathy and understanding, but in the absence of that, no. It’s almost like the world is ever harsher than usual.

Genevieve: Yeah, I think that’s true. I don’t know if this has been your experience among your friendship group, but I think even today, miscarriage and a fertility journey is something that’s really not talked about. It’s so stressful and can be so distressing. I feel like we’re doing a better job, miscarriage in particular, of being more aware of what that does to a woman and what that means. That was something that came through really strongly in all of the research that I did, and from my friends. I have friends who have had some really challenging journeys with IVF. It’s all kept secret.

Zibby: I know. I’ve had friends. There’s just so much. Frankly, it’s a miracle any child ever gets born. It’s like, seriously, how does this ever even work in this day and age? Friends with late-stage loss, it’s heartbreaking. The road to having children is just — this particular situation is so — as soon as I read even the plot of this book, I was like, oh, my gosh, what would you do? What do you think? In the shoes of your characters, how would you have handled things in either ?

Genevieve: I don’t know. I tried to show how difficult that decision was. Grace, we don’t necessarily see her at her best. She becomes a bit manic, but I think you would. You would be so scared that you were going to lose this baby, but also perhaps aware that there’s another person that loves him and wants him just as much as you. By hanging onto that child, you’re denying that other woman the love that she feels for this baby. Similarly, for Priya, who is the biological mother, she finds out that this baby that she’s so desperately wanted has been born, but he’s been born to another woman. Does she make a claim and take him from that woman? Does she let him live with this family that she doesn’t know, and the family that’s done nothing wrong? I think that’s one of the most heartbreaking things about it. These situations arise out of errors. It’s almost impossible to say, this is right and this is wrong. You just have to look at what’s best for the child, I guess, which is what the courts have done in most cases. Interestingly, different courts make different decisions. I alluded earlier to a particular decision, but that’s not necessarily what happens in the book. I read as many cases as I could get my hands on. It’s interesting because there are some where there are little variations. There’s an error, but it’s only one parent that is the wrong parent. Then what does that mean? This baby now sort of has three parents.

Zibby: Oh, my lord. There was one line — you also do such a nice job of even talking about aging and women’s bodies and relationships with their bodies. Let’s see, where should I start? She said, “From the aerial view she had of her stomach now, it appeared thick enough, poking out beneath breasts whose nipples were slowly starting to point south. She examined her face, turning her head from side to side. There was a definite softening around the jawline, and her skin was slackening. She pinched her cheek and watched its surface crinkle. This is why we have children, she thought darkly, to distract us from the ravages of time.” I love that. If only they distract you enough. I’ve noticed, and this is a huge leap, but from the topics of all of your books to date, it seems to be following the lifespan of a woman going through the traditional phases. There’s the Husband Chasers where the character’s trying to find someone, and then Chasing Chris Campbell, The First Year about the first year of marriage, and now The Mothers. I feel like even though this has a different tenor, perhaps, they’re sort of going through the lifespan. Is this your lifespan that we’re tracking here too? Are these the main events in your life? Is this just the way it’s happened randomly?

Genevieve: It’s kind of a coincidence, I guess. Yeah, it sort of has followed the same general — although, not really. I’m not married, so I haven’t had that first year. I definitely wasn’t a husband hunter. I suppose naturally, the topics you’re thinking about and the topics you’re talking about with your friends are the things you’re really mulling over, so when you come to begin a novel, which is a major project, you may tend to explore issues that are going on. Interestingly, Husband Hunters came about because I interviewed John Gray who wrote Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. He wasn’t saying this completely. It was sort of just a throwaway line, but it really stuck in my head. He was saying that some women should stop being so romantic and imagining this Prince Charming and they should be more pragmatic. I just couldn’t stop thinking about that. I thought, wow, imagine if you took a really pragmatic, cold approach to marriage the way you approach getting your dream job or something like that. They all do tend to be kind of triggered by my work, but yeah, I think also what is going on with my friends and myself at that time.

Zibby: Tell me about this amazing journalism career that you’ve built and how you even got your toe in the door or your foot in the door, whatever you call it, and how you’ve built up your career in this slice of publication world.

Genevieve: I’ve been really lucky. I did the thing that everyone does where you go out to a little, small town and you do the regional reporting. You go to the council meetings. You learn the basic skill set out there. Just was lucky enough to — then got offered a job in the city. I was a court reporter for some time, which I really loved and had no intention of giving up. I got offered a job to be a feature writer at a magazine in Sydney. That’s what I do now. It’s really great. We have the opportunity to write longer stories. We’re very female focused. It’s a lovely place to work. We do lots of interesting stories that really look at — I just did one recently about a woman whose mother had quite severe dementia. The mother had been this really illustrious, groundbreaking scientist in Australia. She’d published eight books and won various awards. She was just so sick towards the end and really couldn’t communicate. Her daughter, who was also this amazing scientist — they’d collaborated together. They’d lived together. They really loved each other. She gave her a drug called green dream one night, a sedative. The mother died. There was a big trial. She was originally charged with murder. Then the jury found her not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter. The judge had to decide, do I jail this woman, or do I just give her what’s called a community corrections order? Getting to witness that is really interesting. I think it’s a really important story to tell because I’m sure a lot of people know what it’s like to see someone you love so much just languishing and suffering, really suffering, and seeing the consequences that had on the daughter. I feel like that might begin some conversations. We hope it will. That’s why we reported on it. It’s an interesting role. I’m very lucky.

Zibby: Wow. What features are you knee-deep in right now?

Genevieve: I’m doing one on cybercrime right now, and romance fraud and all that sort of stuff, which is also quite interesting. We’ve got this situation where — you know when you have the romance scam and you meet, usually it’s a military man, someone posing as a military man, Sargent Ryan or something? He’ll say, “I’m stuck. I’ve been deployed. Can you send me money?” People think, oh, here you go, two thousand dollars to fly home. Then of course, they never see that money again. We’re seeing new iterations of that where people are becoming aware that that’s a red flag, and so now they’re doing other things. We just had a case in Queensland where a scammer had posed as a military officer. He pretended to be pursuing this woman romantically. Then he said, “I’ve been paid out all this superannuation, but I can’t –” For some reason, he couldn’t get it because he was in a war zone. Could they have the money transferred to her bank account? Then could she transfer it somewhere else? The woman was like, “Sure, that’s fine.” Then it turns out he wasn’t military at all. He was a member of an organized crime syndicate. The money was stolen, ill-gotten money. She ended up being jailed for trafficking. Trafficking, is that the word? No. Yeah, trafficking, when you funnel money. That’s interesting. So just warning people to be on the lookout for that sort of thing.

Zibby: Yes, oh, my gosh, look at every email twice. What was it like for you writing these novels? What’s your favorite spot to write? What’s your process like?

Genevieve: I just do it whenever I can. Usually, after work, I like to find a nice café or a park or I just sit at my dining room table. I really enjoy it. It’s a real pleasure. It’s weird, it’s a stressful pleasure. When you’re doing it, I’m like, I’ve got to finish. I’m really enjoying this, but I’ve got to finish this. I can’t wait until I finish. Then you finish and you sort of miss it a little bit. You miss the characters. It’s a really fun and interesting, not really hobby, side hustle.

Zibby: Side hustle. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Genevieve: Oh, that’s a good question. Just do it. Just write as much as you possibly can. Be prepared for the early stuff to be not very good, but embrace that. Reread it. Look at why it’s not working. Just do it. Read as much as possible even though it can be depressing. You read a book and you’re like, I’m never going to be this good.

Zibby: No, you’re very good. It’s good. Your book is really good. I’m sure you know that. It’s very well-written. Are you the only person who likes to write in your family? Do your parents write? Do you have siblings who write? What’s the story?

Genevieve: They’re all teachers. My mother was a great reader. Thank you for the compliment on the book. Just on that, I’m sure you hear this from a lot of authors, you write your book and you’re like, ugh. You can only see the mistakes. You can only see the things you would change. Maggie Alderson has this great quote where she says women in particular seem to almost want to apologize when they put out a book. They’re like, oh, I’m sorry I wrote a book. Maybe it’s a good thing because it means you’re constantly scrutinizing the work to make sure it’s as good as it can possibly be. It can be hard having something out there for people to scrutinize and pick apart.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks for chatting with me today about The Mothers and for raising these really important issues. I’m sure as time goes on there will be more and more cases of things like this as the IVF industry continues to flourish and take on new directions, and cloning. Who knows what is coming down the pike for us? At least now we have some fiction to dive into to explore how we might feel about it.

Genevieve: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a real pleasure to chat to you.

Zibby: Thanks for coming. Have a great day.

Genevieve: You too. Bye-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Genevieve Gannon, THE MOTHERS

THE MOTHERS by Genevieve Gannon

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