Sophie Mackintosh, BLUE TICKET

Sophie Mackintosh, BLUE TICKET

Zibby Owens: Sophie Mackintosh is the author of The Water Cure which was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and won the 2019 Betty Trask Award. In 2016, she won the White Review Short Story Prize and the Virago/Stylist Short Story competition. She has been published in The New York Times, Elle, and Granta magazine, among others. We’re going to be talking today about her most recent novel called The Blue Ticket.

Welcome, Sophie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sophie Mackintosh: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s such a pleasure. I was just saying to you, The Blue Ticket is so fresh in my mind because I just finished it. Now I have a zillion questions about it. Would you mind just telling listeners quickly what the book is about?

Sophie: It’s set in Wales where on the day of her first period, girls are sent to a sort of lottery station. They pick a ticket from a machine. The ticket dictates whether they can have a child or not. If you pick a blue ticket, you’re given a life without children. If you pick a white ticket, you have to have children. Then the book follows the protagonist, Calla, as she grapples with her ticket. She picks a blue ticket. It’s not a spoiler to say that she kind of feels the ticket is the wrong color for her. She wants to change her ticket, so to speak. Then we follow her on this journey towards motherhood.

Zibby: Wow. Imagine if that’s the way it really worked in the world. At least you would know what fate awaits you or perhaps was intended. How did you come up with the idea for this? Tell me about the inspiration for this story.

Sophie: I’d spent my whole life just being really sure that I didn’t want to have children. Then something happened when I got to my late twenties. I’m still not sure whether it was social stuff, seeing everyone around me having babies, or whether the time was right, but suddenly I just got really broody, like so broody. I thought it would be interesting to explore that in fiction. It was really disconcerting to have this really strong idea that I knew how my life was going to be. It was going to be childless. I was really happy with that. Then suddenly to be seeing a pregnant lady or a friend’s new baby and just suddenly wanting to cry and thinking, I want that, I want that so much. I thought that would be kind of a cool way to explore it. It actually started out as a horror novel. I was looking into pregnancy and learning more about the physical side and seeing friends having babies and hearing the horror stories of labor and thinking it’s such a ripe area for exploration. How could I do a different take on it as someone who has not yet had a baby but really wants one?

Zibby: You said in your acknowledgements how you had spoken to a lot of women about it. Then I read an interview that you did recently where you said you just didn’t realize some of the physical pain and how much the body of the mother is still so invested in the child and how you still have to wake up all throughout the night and every couple hours and your body has to heal. Some of these more physical things that came out were surprises to you. Do you still want to have kids?

Sophie: . It’s funny. I always think about seeing my sister-in-law just after she had her first baby. She’d been through a forty-eight-hour labor. She was in so much pain. She wasn’t really prepared for it. Then I saw her a week after this had happened and met my lovely new nephew. She was just exhausted. I think I’ve never seen anyone that tired before. It was like she was on another planet. It was really an eye-opener because she just seemed totally different to the woman I knew. I was like, wow. In my brain, I’m like, you have the baby. You carry the baby around. It’s lovely. It’s sweet. You’re just hanging out. It’s like, no, there’s a whole level of physicality that I actually can’t comprehend.

Zibby: It’s also one that mothers forget right away and enables them to do it all over again. You forget the intensity of all the bad stuff. You’re just like, look at my cute little thing. Let’s do it again.

Sophie: Every time I ask my mom, “Is labor painful? Is having a baby painful?” my mom was always like, “You hold your baby and you forget it all instantly.” It wasn’t until recently she was like, “Yeah, it really, really hurts.”

Zibby: That’s so funny. I was actually wondering about your views on having kids and all the rest after reading your book because I felt like throughout the book you had all these different quotes about — well, you had all these different things that you wrote about childbirth and having kids. I just wanted to read a few of them as quotes. This is Calla speaking. “As I got older, babies seemed to become malevolent with their power.” You also said childbirth is a kind of death and that your body is hijacked by baby. You said later, “You’ll watch the baby every second of the day. You’ll be convinced they’re dying. You’ll hold them to your body and weep. Sometimes you’ll think of killing them yourself.” I just wanted to raise these as a big question mark onto the mixed feelings that come with motherhood. What do you think about that?

Sophie: I think it’s just that kind of viciousness of the love of it, from what I’ve learned from people but also what I’ve imagined myself. I’ve got friends who told me, and my mom. That sense of fear but also, you’ll do anything for your baby, that was something — it may sound so negative, but at the same time — the thing about having your body hijacked, that was me grappling with physical realities and reading science behind it and watching labor videos on YouTube, which I don’t recommend, necessarily. As someone who has not had a baby, I’m always aware that my perspective is obviously as an outsider, but I’m kind of looking at it in a different way than someone who has had a baby. It’s this fascination. It’s almost like enviousness, wanting to have a baby and looking at people having babies and wondering what it would be like and grappling with those feelings.

Zibby: Interesting. What made you do this book after The Water Cure which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and came to so much literary acclaim and all the rest? I’ve heard that your sophomore novel can be a stress-inducing one because of all the pressure of the success of the first novel. Tell me about starting this versus your last book. Did it feel different? Were you nervous about it? Did it just come naturally? What was your process like both times?

Sophie: I had the idea for a while. I think there was a part of me that was a bit afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it again. I’d written one book. I was just afraid that maybe I only had one book in me even though I had these ideas, things that I definitely wanted to write about. I was motivated a little bit by that fear. I wasn’t at all under any pressure from publishers and stuff. They’ve always been amazing. I’m the person who puts the most pressure on myself all the time in everything. I gave myself a deadline basically to try and spur myself on. I wanted to have a first draft of Blue Ticket ready before The Water Cure was published because I thought it would kind of — I had no idea what publication was going to be like. I had no idea that things would kick off as they did. Having something in reserve that I could focus on and something I could work on I thought would be really helpful for me, so I did. I gave the first draft of Blue Ticket to my agent the week before The Water Cure came out. Then even though we didn’t have a book deal for it, knowing that I had done it, I’d done something. Even if it was a terrible first draft, it was something to work towards.

Zibby: How long did it take to write both of these books? Where did you like to write them? Give me a little visual into your process of writing, please.

Sophie: Each of them took about two years. When I wrote The Water Cure, I was working full time. I used to be a content manager for a big brand in the UK. I used to work in the morning before I went to work or I would work after work and on the weekends. I had a little station set up in old my flat, a little desk in my living room. It was a tiny flat, but it was cozy. That’s where that happened. I used to go to a lot of cafes. It seems funny thinking about cafes now because I’m writing my third book sans cafes, no cafe at all because of the lockdown. For Blue Ticket, it was much the same except I was working freelance by that point, so I just had more time. I feel like my process is quite boring. It’s literally wake up, get some words done.

Zibby: That’s okay. I read your Modern Love essay about your partner, Christopher, and going through bowel cancer and your obsession with watching Love Island, the reality show, as you grappled with your own emotions. Tell me a little more about that experience and what has happened since. Is everything okay? That’s such an insensitive question. What was the aftermath of that essay?

Sophie: I would say that was a really strange year. Probably, that experience was something that also, now looking back on — it was while I was writing Blue Ticket. I’m trying to think, yeah. It was one of the things that really influenced my feelings on children because suddenly we were having to think about these things and think about the future and think about the potential if he was going to get chemo and things. Since then, things have been really good. He’s doing really well. He’s currently in remission, which is amazing. It has been strange to think about because with the lockdown — obviously, it was a strange experience having the book out while also grappling with the cancer. Now having a book out and there’s a massive global disaster happening, I’ve never really had a normal book publication experience. In some ways, at least everyone’s involved this time because it was quite lonely to be having such an amazing thing happening at the same time as having such a really heartbreaking, scary thing happening. Things are weirdly more stable now.

Zibby: How open were you at the time about what you were going through with Christopher? Did everybody know when it came out that this was going on, or is this something that happened after? I’m just jumping into your life now.

Sophie: He was diagnosed a week before The Water Cure came out, no, ten days. I gave him the draft of Blue Ticket. Then he was diagnosed. Then Water Cure came out. It was a really intense few days. I had to be really open with everyone because he started going through surgery and stuff. Almost immediately, they needed to get the tumor out. I was really open about it because everyone could see that I was kind of not in the state I would normally be in. I had to really, really pull it together a bit. In a way, I was a bit on autopilot. I remember doing things like, I’d spend the day at hospital and then I’d go to do my dream event. There’s a bookshop called the London Review Bookshop in London. I love it. I’ve loved it since I moved to London. I was so excited to do my first event. I just went there straight from the hospital. I was almost in this weird state of shock. We have these little gin and tonic tins in the UK. I was drinking one right before to try and get into event mode. It was strange. Everyone was really amazing about it. Everyone really understood that it was the strangest time.

Zibby: Wow. I’m so sorry you had to go through that and that it all happened at once. I’m so happy he’s doing well and the rest. Gosh, what an intense period of time for you. So this is your first book post all of that trauma in your life, the one that you’re writing currently, correct?

Sophie: Yeah.

Zibby: Do you feel like everything that’s happened to you has affected your writing in a noticeable way for you as you’re going through the draft?

Sophie: One of the things I noticed that I was surprised by is that I assumed it would take me a shorter amount of time to write this book because I was like, finally I have less going on. Everything’s kind of calm. I’m not working full time anymore. Writing is actually mainly what I’m doing now. I have more time. We’ve moved into a lovely house. We have more space. Everything feels like optimum writing time. Then it’s almost like that thing when things are quieter and suddenly you kind of breathe out. You realize what a whirlwind the past couple of years have been. I haven’t been super productive in the standards I set to myself. Then I’m just trying to trust in the process and know that even if it feels slow to me, it’s still actually — Blue Ticket has just come out. The Water Cure only came out two years ago. I’m really not behind by any metric. It’s just, again, the pressure I put on myself. Writing is my favorite thing in the world. I love to do it so much. It never feels like something I’m making myself do. To be writing these books, there’s no way I’d rather spend my time, basically.

Zibby: That’s so nice. How great to be good at the thing you like the most. That works out very well. I read another article where you were talking about the importance of letting people know about rejected manuscripts, not in a way to celebrate the one-off successes when people actually do become overnight sensations, but that there is so much work and so many required steps on the way to having a manuscript that’s ready to be published, which I thought was such a great thing to hear from a writer. I talk to writers all the time and it seems to me that your third attempt at a novel is the one that’s going to sell. I feel like I should just write a book called Only Try to Sell Your Third Novel or something like that. Everyone has stuff in a drawer that they feel badly about. Yet you actually have to do it to learn how to do it right, I think. I don’t know. What are your views on this?

Sophie: I call them pancake novels. You have to do them to get the good pancake. They’re still delicious. They’re just not quite right, maybe. Then you can get your good pancake after. I went through the submission process twice. I wrote a book that didn’t get published. I did a major rewrite and revision. It took me a year, maybe a year. This, still I was working full time again. To go through two rounds of rejection for a novel was really heartbreaking. It felt like I spent my whole twenties writing this one book. It was the book that I put everything into. I’d spent maybe six years on it. It was so hard to let it go. In the end, I had this chat with my agent. She’s like, “We love the book, but there’s something about it that’s not clicking with publishers. Do you have another idea?” I said, “Yes, I do.” That was The Water Cure. It was really hard at the beginning. It taught me so much about resilience and about rejection. I really didn’t think I could write another book. It was terrifying. I’d really put all my hopes into it. But I could. I think about that whenever I’m like, maybe I can’t write a third book or a fourth book. Maybe I’ve only got two books. It’s like, no, it’s fine, I’ve got this.

Zibby: It’s not like there’s a spigot and it only came out with a little bit of water and the well dries up. It’s like the more you pump the well, the more the water rejuvenates or something. That’s the worst analogy ever, particularly for someone who wrote a book with water in the title. Anyway, something more like that. The more you do it, the more it can come out or something.

Sophie: I saw something on Twitter as well recently where someone was talking about taking a break from writing and coming back and not to feel afraid of fallow periods because your brain is still doing things, you’re still taking things in, all things like that and things that I kind of went through with writing my first book that did not get published. I have very fond feelings for the book. Sometimes I look back at it. I go through the Word document. I kind of allow myself to feel all those feelings but also remember it wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t bad at all. It was good enough for my agent to take it on. There were publishers interested. It just wasn’t the one.

Zibby: It all worked out. What types of books do you like to read? What’s your taste in books?

Sophie: Largely, literary fiction. I know it’s such a nebulous genre. I grew up reading everything. I would genuinely read everything. I was thinking yesterday about how I would read — there was a first aid book in my house. I think I must have subconsciously tapped into that for Blue Ticket because there’s a part in it that was how to give birth in your house. reading this and seeing the little diagrams and just a lot about towels and hot water and stuff. I would really read anything. I still try and read everything. At the moment, I have been going back to comfort books, which for me is things like Jean Rhys and Maggie Nelson, things that are quite easy and short to get through and that give me a lot of emotional clarity and beauty.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Sophie: Yes, I have lots. I’m trying to think of what is the most useful thing in this time of unprecedented global change. I always say be kind to yourself and to just do what you can. One of the mistakes I made that really stressed me out was expecting so much of myself and getting really down on myself at every rejection and taking things really hard and forcing myself and forcing myself. Like you said with filling the well earlier, you have to put things into yourself to get things out. It’s really important to take time to take things slowly and to give yourself things that you enjoy. Basically, just be good to yourself. Just trust that the work will come from that.

Zibby: That works. That’s good advice. I like it. Thank you. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Congratulations. Now I’m hoping that when your third book comes out, it’s not paired with some sort of horrendous event. Maybe give me a heads-up of when your third book is being published. I’m going to gird myself and go buy some paper towels and get ready for whatever disaster the earth might —

Sophie: — Might have to get some nuclear fallout suits or something.

Zibby: Exactly. I’m getting my hazmat suits for your next book. No, I’m kidding. Anyway, best of luck. I know it just came out, so congratulations. I look forward to watching your success as it unfolds. It’s really exciting.

Sophie: Thank you so much for having me. It was lovely to chat.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Sophie Mackintosh, BLUE TICKET