Jennifer Haigh, MERCY STREET

Jennifer Haigh, MERCY STREET

Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Haigh to talk about her seventh novel, Mercy Street, which was inspired by her experience volunteering at a women’s clinic. The two discuss the impact Jennifer’s upbringing had on her opinions on reproductive rights and class, as well as why it is so important—especially right now—to talk frankly about abortions. Jennifer also shares how she got her start as an author, why she needs to fully disconnect from the outside world to write, and the effects teaching at UMass Boston has had on her own writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jennifer. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Mercy Street, your novel.

Jennifer Haigh: Thank you for having me, Zibby. I’m so excited about this.

Zibby: Yay. First of all, you’ve been getting so much coverage for this book. You must be so excited. It must be doing really well. That’s so awesome. Congratulations. Please tell listeners what it’s about. Then I want to know what inspired you to write this.

Jennifer: Mercy Street is a novel that came out of my experience volunteering at a women’s clinic. This is a book I never would’ve written otherwise. This was some years ago. I started volunteering there not with any idea of writing about it. I just did it because I believed in the work they were doing. That experience was so compelling, kind of life-changing, in a way. At a certain point, I knew, okay, I’m going to have to write about this. It’s a hard subject to commit to because it’s so polarizing. There is no greater third-rail topic, I think, in American life than abortion. I’m very attuned to all the controversy about it because of where I grew up. I grew up in a tiny, little town, Western Pennsylvania. It’s Northern Appalachia. It’s socially conservative, overwhelmingly Catholic. I went to twelve years of Catholic school. I’d been hearing about abortion my whole life. I knew abortion was evil before I understood how you get pregnant. That was my baseline. That’s where I was coming from. I had never met anyone who was pro-choice until I went to college. I’m very, very aware of all the prohibitions around this topic and all the convictions people have, strongly held convictions. I knew in writing this story there’s a proportion of the readership that’s going to be turned off instantly because, oh, I don’t want to read about that. I knew that going into it. I had to do it anyway. This experience of volunteering, it was pretty intense. I was volunteering on a hotline at this clinic. I and the other volunteers, we had a lot of training to do this, but we basically answered calls from women, a few men, but mostly women who had contraception questions —

Zibby: — So just like the book? Just like how it starts.

Jennifer: Right, just like the book. The main character in the book is a professional counselor at this clinic, not a volunteer. I was just a volunteer. I got to know some of the people who were working at the clinic. I found them fascinating. I also thought a lot about what toll this takes on your life because it is a real pressure-cooker environment to work in. You show up for your shift, and there are always protestors outside. Every single time I worked on the hotline, I would show up, and you had to work your way through the gauntlet of protestors. Some days, there were a bunch of them. Some days, there was just one. There was always someone there in your face just for, in the case of my character Claudia, just for showing up to work every day. She goes through this every single day. It becomes a routine for her, but it never really becomes normal. It can’t. A lot of the story is about that. It’s about the toll it takes on your life and the coping mechanisms you discover to get through your life in order to do this really difficult, really important work. That’s where the book came from. In fact, the first scene in the book is Claudia at work looking out the window counting the protestors outside. It’s Ash Wednesday, so it’s the first day of Lent in Boston, the most Catholic city in America. It’s a big protest day. There were priests there. There were monks there, and some regular people too. On that particular day, it’s all men, which is not unusual. That’s the first scene I wrote when I sat down to write this book. It became the first scene in the book, which never happens. That’s never happened to me. This is my seventh book. I have never just instinctively known where the story starts. This time, I did. That’s the first glimpse you get of Claudia.

Zibby: Wait, I’m curious. You went from Appalachia, never meeting anyone who was pro-choice, to working in the clinic. What happened between those two things? What happened when you got to college and you met someone? Did you have a feeling about it? Had you read about it? What happened?

Jennifer: I had read about it. I did have feelings about it, but it was not a subject that could be discussed where I grew up. When I went to college, I met people who talked openly about this. Kate Michelman, who was the founder of NARAL, came to campus to speak. That was astonishing to me, that this courageous woman who had founded this organization and had been fighting for reproductive rights for years and years spoke openly about this. There was a huge crowd of people there who felt the same way. I felt the same way, but I’d never been in a group of people who said this out loud. I’ve been strongly pro-choice since forever, really, but it was a thing that I could only talk about after I’d gone away from my hometown.

Zibby: Where did you go to college, by the way? Where’d you go to college?

Jennifer: I went to Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. It’s a little school in the middle of the state. It was a wonderful little school. I loved it.

Zibby: Amazing. So you went to the NARAL protest. One of the things in the book when the hotline starts and your main character gets surprised by all the times that people ask her advice, the main thing becomes how much it costs. How much does it cost? Then often, would just hang up after finding that out and saying, oh, okay, I can’t afford that, so I’m going to have a baby, which of course, makes no sense because it’s so much more expensive to have a baby and a child than to have a four/five-hundred-dollar procedure even though it’s a lot up front. Tell me about that.

Jennifer: In a way, everything I ever write is about class. That has a lot to do with my background, the way I grew up. In literary fiction, there are not a lot of stories about poor people. There are not a lot of stories about working-class people. I grew up working class, so that’s naturally a world I know and I’m comfortable with. As writers, we write what we know. We write what we have feelings about. Class comes into everything I write. In Mercy Street, you really see the intersection of class and femaleness, how poverty particularly lands on women and how having an unplanned pregnancy is completely disastrous for some women. For other women, eh, there’s a workaround. There’s a solution. One of the things I loved about this clinic is that it was the most truly inclusive, diverse space I’d ever encountered in the city. I want to talk about the cover of the book, which I’m going to hold up.

Zibby: Please. Yes.

Jennifer: It’s beautiful. I love it.

Zibby: I love the cover.

Jennifer: I love it for many reasons. One of the main reasons is that the cut-out paper dolls on the cover, they actually were cut out of construction paper. They’re not photoshopped. Allison Saltzman, the designer, actually cut them out of paper. If you look at them closely, you could see their heads are a little pointy like when kids cut out of construction paper. What I love about this is that these outlines, they’re outlines of women. They’re women of all different colors. Of course, on the book, they’re pink, blue, and purple so as not to be overly literal. In fact, it reflects an important truth about this clinic. It’s that this is a situation women from all walks of life find themselves in. There was an incredible range of patients who came to this clinic. There were young teenage girls who were still in high school. That’s kind of what you’d expect, maybe. It’s what I expected when I started volunteering there. There are also professional women in their forties. There are military women. There are women of every background, every educational level, every race, every ethnicity, every language background. We had interpreters on the hotline because we regularly got calls from women whose English wasn’t great. This is something that, if you have a female body, there’s a decent chance you’re going to find yourself in this situation. We know that one in four American women has an abortion at some point in her life. It’s so common.

Zibby: That’s high. That’s higher than I would’ve thought.

Jennifer: It’s a lot. That means that everybody knows someone who’s had one. It’s such a taboo subject in a lot of communities that women might never speak about it. In fact, everybody knows someone who had an abortion. It’s that common. Yet it’s a topic that we have such a hard time talking about. Women don’t feel safe talking about it. There was a book a few years ago called Shout Your Abortion. It was a lot of women, mostly very young women, talking about their experiences, which I think was a really great development and really healthy. I also understand that not all women can be that honest about it because depending on where and with whom you live, the reception might not be very supportive. It might even be scary.

Zibby: You do not have to answer this. This is probably way too private, but have you had an abortion?

Jennifer: I would answer it. If I had, I would say so. I think it’s important that people say it. I would say so. No, I haven’t. It’s not a speakable thing for so many women. One of things that were so striking to me working on this hotline was how many women are living in domestic violence situations. I had never truly thought about that. When I thought of all the reasons why women have abortions, that one didn’t enter my mind. Yet there was one day working on the hotline — I can actually point to this as the moment at which I knew I was going to have to write this book. There was a woman who called and wanted to talk about her reasons for terminating. A lot of patients didn’t feel any need to. They made up their minds. They just really wanted to make the appointment and get on with their lives. There’s a proportion of women who do want to process it a little bit with a counselor. This woman who called said to me, “I can’t be pregnant because if my ex finds out I’m pregnant, he’s going to come to my house and shoot my kids.”

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Jennifer: Yeah. It was such a mic-drop moment. It was so mind-blowing. It appears in the book. Claudia has this experience in the book with a caller. Claudia thinks about this. She’s having lunch with her ex-husband. She’s talking about this caller. She says, I have no way of knowing whether this was true. Maybe she was just paranoid. Who knows? Who is anybody else to make that judgement? That woman is a better judge of whether or not she can go through with a pregnancy than any stranger answering the call on a hotline. This is why it’s essential that women have to be allowed to make their own choices about this. No outsider can possibly know what’s going on in a woman’s life or the reasons that lead her to this decision. We cannot know.

Zibby: I read something in some novel about a woman who was pregnant in a domestic abuse situation. The husband did something so awful to her stomach to make her lose the baby. All these things.

Jennifer: Actually, pregnant women are in much greater danger of being murdered by an intimate partner than women who are not pregnant. Pregnancy itself is a risk factor for having your boyfriend kill you. Really, it happens. We have to acknowledge that women’s lives are complicated. Everybody’s life is complicated. Laws have to reflect that.

Zibby: Wait, so what happened with all the people you couldn’t talk about abortion to and now you have the book out? Growing up in your neighborhood, your family, how did everybody respond?

Jennifer: Radio silence thus far.

Zibby: Really?

Jennifer: Yeah. I’ve not been back there. The book’s only been out a few weeks. I’ve not been back to Pennsylvania since it came out. Of course, it’s getting a lot of press. It’s getting a lot of reviews. People are aware of it. Not everybody in my hometown is plugged into The New York Times Book Review. That’s not to say everybody knows about this. The people who are readers, who have been my loyal readers over six books, they’re certainly aware of this book and what it’s about. I’ve not heard any pushback at all, but it’s early days. Also, because of COVID, I’m not doing a book tour as I normally would. I’m doing this. I’m sitting at my laptop in my house having conversations about my book. I’m not in the room meeting readers the way I would normally be when a book comes out.

Zibby: Where do you live? Where are you?

Jennifer: Boston.

Zibby: Oh, right. Okay. This must have been why our mutual friend. Tell me the story of selling your first book.

Jennifer: I was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was in an MFA fiction-writing program. I finished writing this book called Mrs. Kimble at the end of my first year in the program. I still had another year in the program. While I was there, I met my first agent. She had come out to Iowa City looking to sign new clients. That’s one of the great things about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Agents do come there looking for clients. It’s a lucky thing. She was able to sell the book quite quickly during my second year as a student in the program. It was astonishingly fast, actually. That book came out a year later, which is pretty typical. It’s called Mrs. Kimble. It’s a story about how we become different people in different relationships. It’s told from the point of view of the first wife and then the second wife and then the third wife of the same man. You see him through the eyes of these different wives. You see how they are altered by being with this person. That was the first one. It came out February 2003.

Zibby: It sort of reminds me of — did you ever see Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts?

Jennifer: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: There’s a scene at a diner when she’s always ordering the eggs. She orders whatever eggs the guy she’s with at the time orders. Then there’s the scene at the end where she finally realizes, wait, maybe I should figure out what kind of eggs I like instead of always ordering the ones he likes. That scene has stayed with me forever because it’s so easy when you’re with someone to sort of morph. You know?

Jennifer: Absolutely. I think that’s in my nature. I have a lot of flex in the relationship. Especially when I was younger, I would turn myself inside out for a guy. No problem. I didn’t even think about it. It was automatic.

Zibby: I remember when my mom started dating the man who’s now my stepfather and has been for twenty-five years or something crazy, twenty years. I don’t know. He would come over. She would be like, “Oh, I love meatloaf.” I’m like, “Why are we having meatloaf? You don’t like meatloaf. You’ve never eaten meatloaf before. Who is this guy? What has he done to you?” Anyway, he’s amazing. We still have never had meatloaf. It must have been a dating thing. What is your writing process like? What’s it like when you’re in the middle of a novel? Where do you like to write? Do you have little sticky notes? How do you do it?

Jennifer: It’s really boring, is the short answer. I sit alone in a room day after day hours on end. It’s the only way to do it. I write first thing in the morning. This is really important to me; I write before I’ve had any conversations with people. I wrote before I’ve read the newspaper or listened to NPR. I don’t want any language coming into my brain until I’ve done my work. I don’t want to hear anybody else’s voice. I get up really early. I work for as long as I can stand it. Some days, that’s actually not very long, especially in the early days of a novel where I don’t know very much yet. I can work for maybe an hour and a half, and that’s all I got. I have to go home and wait for the bucket to fill up again. I don’t like working at home. I have done it at certain periods when I had to. In early COVID, I was doing it. I do rent an office space and get up and go every morning. It’s very helpful for me to have some separation between my writing and real life. One of the things nobody says about working at home is the corollary, which is, you live at work. I don’t want to live at work. I want to have a life. Having a separate place to go and work is really helpful.

Also, I don’t have internet in this workspace. That’s crucial. I don’t take a phone with me. I work on an old laptop. It’s actually an old desktop computer. I’ve taken out the wireless card, so I couldn’t get a signal even if there was one. That is what makes it possible for me to write. In this age where we’re all accessible all the time, I don’t know how people do it otherwise. You have to make yourself inaccessible while you’re working so that whatever’s going on in your head is more real than what’s in front of you. I look at these writers who can write in coffee shops. I think, wow, what kind of superhero are you? I couldn’t possibly. I would get so interested in what was happening around me. Everything is easier than writing, everything. My house has never been cleaner than when I tried to write at home. You realize, suddenly, I am going to mop the kitchen floor because that is so much easier than writing. Some days, it’s more appealing than writing. I cleaned a lot when I was pretending to work at home.

Zibby: That’s so funny. Literally right before you, I did a podcast with these two anthology editors, including a woman named Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. She says she sits in the corner of a restaurant all day long, all day, because she needs to be around all the noise and all the stuff. It’s such a personal preference. Everybody is committed to theirs. It’s interesting.

Jennifer: When you’re writing, almost nothing works. If something works even once, you will do it until you die. If you had one good writing day in a busy restaurant — we’re very superstitious creatures, writers. You will just do that into perpetuity. It makes no sense. When I started writing, I wrote everything longhand. I still do that a lot. I started writing on white legal pads. I don’t know why. I remember thinking, if I had to work on yellow legal pads, it would be all over. I’d never be able to write again, which is really stupid. We do fetishize any kind of talisman that works for us even once.

Zibby: That’s true. That’s really funny. I love that. What are you working on now?

Jennifer: It’s sort of early days, so I don’t want to talk about it too much, but it is a story that I started writing when I was in Shanghai for some months some years ago. I had gone to Shanghai on this fellowship. I was there for a few months. I had started writing Mercy Street. My plan was to work on Mercy Street while I was there, but it wasn’t possible. It was my first time traveling in China. It was so fascinating that I couldn’t channel Boston to write Mercy Street. I couldn’t think about anything else but where I was. Interestingly, that was the one time in my life I have been able to go out and write in public in a coffee shop. It was because I don’t understand a word of Chinese. It was wonderful because I could be out among people. It was fascinating. I felt some community with the people around me, but I couldn’t be distracted by anything because I understood nothing. It was kind of a golden period in my writing life, that brief window where I could feel like I was out in the world among people. It was because I didn’t understand the language. I’d started writing this story while I was there. I thought it was only a story. As it turns out, it’s bigger than that. That’s, I think, the next thing, but I’ve got a long way to go.

Zibby: I won’t jinx it. I won’t say anything else. It is amazing what lengths you have to go to to be completely disconnected. The fact that you have to go rent another office space — I’m just imagining you pulling out — I don’t even know how to pull that card out of my computer. All the things that you do to feel alone or not distracted, it’s quite a poignant commentary on life today.

Jennifer: It used to be a lot easier to get that feeling. Now you have to want it. You have to go to some extraordinary lengths.

Zibby: I feel like the most I can do is close the mail browser. That’s it. If I just close out the browser, I’m like, that’s it. Then I’m still anxious about what I’m missing. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Jennifer: You need to read every day in your life. You need to read the best things you can find. I really believe there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure if you’re serious about your craft because bad language gets into your head. I can no longer enjoy trash, which is terrible. I used to love trash. I can’t read trash anymore. It’s kind of like sitting next to somebody who’s coughing and sneezing on a crowded airplane. Bad language is contagious. Bad sentences are contagious. You really do have to nourish yourself with the best writing you can find. It’s like taking vitamins. I say to my students all the time when I’m teaching, writing is part of reading. You can never stop reading. Rather, reading is part of — well, I guess both are true. Reading is part of writing. Writing is part of reading. It all begins with that. We all decided to become writers because at some point, we fell in love with a book.

Zibby: Very true. What are some of either what you’re reading now that’s beautiful or what you have read that you absolutely love?

Jennifer: The last thing I loved was this very short novel, I guess it’s a novella, by Claire Keegan. I have trouble remembering the title of it. It’s right here. It’s this, Small Things Like These. It’s completely wonderful. It’s set in Ireland in 1985. It really conjures that time and place. The language is just exquisite. That’s the last thing I loved. I just finished reading that. Some of my go-to books, the books I go to and have for years and years, the books that made me want to be a writer were novels by William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. I really think of them as companion writers. I think they’re best read side by side. Most people don’t know this, but Toni Morrison was a student of Faulkner and did her dissertation on Faulkner. She, were she alive, would be, I think, not at all surprised to hear that there are commonalities between her body of work and his. They’re writing, in some ways, about the same world, though at different times. They both write this very rich language. They have a wonderful sense of place. They write great dialogue. Those are the books I go back to when I need something to remind me why I’m trying to do this.

Zibby: Wow. What and where do you teach?

Jennifer: At the moment, I’m teaching creative writing in the MFA program at UMass Boston. This is my second year there. I don’t normally teach. I usually teach one semester after finishing a book. It’s once every four years or something, I’ll teach a semester. This is the first time I have ever taught two full years in a row, four semesters in a row. I’m enjoying it. I love it, but it’s really bad for writing. It’s really hard to do both at once. When I’m writing, my first thoughts in the morning are of my own work. Even before I open my eyes, I’m lying bed, I’m already writing. I’m already in it. When I’m teaching, my first thoughts are of my students’ work. It’s terrible. Writing and teaching, for me, run off the same battery. I just don’t have enough juice to do both fully. After this semester, I’m going to go back to just writing for a spell. I’m looking forward to that.

Zibby: Amazing. Those are lucky students. I feel like now I know what it’s like to be a teacher in an MFA program after reading Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot. Did you read that book?

Jennifer: I have not read it. People love that book, though. I definitely have that on my list.

Zibby: It’s from the point of view of someone who teaches at a low-res program. Now when people say they teach, I’m like, oh, yeah, sure, I know what that’s all about because I read this one novel, which of course, is not true. Thank you. Thank you for chatting with me today. I’m sorry if my questions were too invasive. I’m kind of regretting I asked you that. Maybe I shouldn’t have. It was delightful to meet you. I hope I get to meet you in person.

Jennifer: My pleasure, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Jennifer: Bye.

Jennifer Haigh, MERCY STREET

MERCY STREET by Jennifer Haigh

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