An Unlikely Interview with Nicolette Barischoff

In Follow Me Down, your characters’ field of study is preternatural obstetrics. You’re tackling ideas that don’t necessarily get a lot of play in fiction, particularly the idea of childbirth as a formal academic subject. Childbirth, and specifically women helping other women give birth, is often depicted as an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation. It’s something for women to work out among themselves, and not a worthy subject for the hallowed halls of academia, which don’t concern themselves with messy things like the birthing process. Were any of those things you set out to consciously explore in your story? If not, what drew you to writing this tale?

I didn’t specifically set out to write a story that addressed these things (though I’m obviously gratified to realize I’ve done so.) I suppose I considered the College of Theogony to be very Greek in its sensibilities and its attitudes towards learning, especially as regards the practice of medicine. We know that female doctors were a regular presence during birth, acting as “cutter of the cord” alongside less generally educated midwives, so childbirth in antiquity wasn’t ghettoized from the rest of formalized medicine as it later became. The ins and outs of safe childbirth were part of the formal education of the female doctor.

I also think the Greeks were a people who liked textbooks. They liked to have their wisdom written down: How to Write a Good Play. How to Form a Utopian Society. Why are Men Hairier than Women?. I tend to believe that if a skilled practitioner of any discipline thought something was worth passing down, he had a scribe put it on paper and called it So And So’s Complete Treatise on Something Or Rather. It just made sense to me that a tradition of formalized education would have sprung up around the birthing of demi-gods, at a time and place when certain gods had a reputation for getting frisky with mortals. I sort of imagine that the tradition was brought to Europe (and then the New World) via the spread of Christianity and its own signally important Superum birth.

Incidentally, I also did not set out to write a story with an all-female cast. One of the (many) characters who ended up on the cutting room floor was a male colleague of Ramona’s who took a more relaxed, amused attitude toward Kora Gillespie’s exploits.

But in the end, the story was about Kora and Ramona, and what to do with your fear when the thing that you fear cannot help but be what it is. Everything else had to go.

You recently wrote a blog post about the natural fit between speculative fiction and academic settings. As you say, it’s the perfect place for authors to test rules, build worlds, and explore the hows and whys behind the way things happen events in their stories. Now that you’ve laid the groundwork for their base of knowledge, do you foresee taking Kora and Ramona out into the wider world to apply their skills in future stories?

Hm. Perhaps. I think Kora would have to grow up a little bit for that to happen, though. I don’t see Kora’s “mischievous imp” antics continuing to be entertaining for the length of multiple stories. Sooner rather than later, she is going to have to grow up (already has begun to grow up by the time we leave her in Follow Me Down) so the question then becomes, would we still find Kora compelling if she wasn’t a troubled (and troubling) vulnerable little girl anymore? I’d have to think about what growing up would mean for a personality like Kora Gillespie’s, what her journey to adulthood would look like, what such a person would have to offer a wider world… which I suppose would be quite fun to do… so, yes. Absolutely. Why not?

Do you have a favorite magical school from literature? If that school offered you admission, do you see yourself gravitating toward a particular subject or specialty? If you were offered a teaching position at that school, is there anything new you’d add to the curriculum?

Jordan College (part of Philip Pullman’s alternate Oxford in the His Dark Materials series) was definitely tugging on me when I created the New York College of Theogony and Preternatural Obstetrics (I don’t think it’s a secret that there’s quite a bit of Lyra Belacqua in Kora Gillespie). I’ve always thought Jordan College was a perfect example of that inherent contradiction within all academic institutions: It is a place dedicated to learning, something which in its purest form requires free exploration, and the challenging of accepted rules and boundaries. And yet, Lyra is actively discouraged from wandering its expansive grounds, or from asking inappropriate questions. In other words, she’s expected to stay put, and to only desire to learn what she’s told she must learn.

I love the atmosphere of a place that offers so many lofty nooks and crannies in which to break its own rules. It’s hard to imagine studying anything in particular at Jordan College. I think most learning in that universe comes from the conversations you shouldn’t hear, and the books you shouldn’t open, and the costly-looking golden trinkets you shouldn’t mess with. I see myself more engaging in that purer form of learning, scrabbling up into towers and down into ancient tombs with my daemon familiar at my side. (A North American box turtle, in case you were wondering. I’m sure you were.)

Of course, the two institutions have spiritually very little to do with each other. Jordan College is a very severe, restrictive, patriarchally-centered environment, almost fearing the learning to which it has devoted itself. In Theogony, I think I found something which captured the same kind of vivid, old world adventure-rich milieu, while being a much more progressive, inherently optimistic and well-intentioned place. Theogony does not actually intend to be fearful or restrictive. But these differences in intention mean little to someone like Kora, who still finds herself in trouble more often than not. In a sense, I think I wanted to show the limitations of even the most well-intentioned academic institution in dealing with any sort of unstructured learning.

Pick an author whose work you enjoy (past or present) and tell us about the book they never wrote, but you wish they had (e.g. Tolstoy’s long-awaited and even longer page count sequel to War and Peace.)

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is, and ever will be, one of my favorite novels. It’s a story about all things that can make a human heart anemic and hard and ungracious, and unlikable. And it’s a story about renewal, and coming alive after spending so long thinking you were dead, the strange things that end up drawing us out of the dark, and saving our lives. So I’m always frustrated when I come to the end and remember there’s not more of it.

It might just be that I love it so much that I would live in it for weeks on end if I could, shut away in a garden with an unpleasant, lonely little girl and her creepily prescient bird (there’s a little bit of Mary Lennox in Kora Gillespie, too). But I always imagined there was a much longer work in there that more thoroughly explored the story’s magical overtones, and perhaps gave us a chance to see what kind of adult Mary became. Sometimes I think what I want is a fantasy novel set on the dark, sprawling grounds of Misselthwaite Manor, with Mary as a mature sort of gothic fantasy heroine. I’ll have to see if anyone’s writing something like that.

We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?

It wasn’t that long ago, actually. My first sale was just last year, to Long Hidden. So, I don’t really have enough distance from it to have a radically different perspective. It was the beginning of me as a genre writer. I used to think I was a “Capital L” Literature writer, even though almost everything I read and loved was fantasy. Other people’s expectations are a hard thing to break free of, and most people in my life kept nudging me in the direction of Classical Literature. A good friend and mentor told me about LH, and I was still picking at an idea I developed during a Chinese Folk Religion class, so I thought I’d give it a try. It was my first attempt at genre, save for some college assignments. But when the book came out, I found myself in a Table of Contents with such beautiful, dazzling stories, and I knew I’d found my people. I haven’t looked back since.

Twenty years is a geological microsecond, but is a vast stretch for a person, no matter how quickly it seems to slip away, and it can be interesting to think about what one’s characters might be doing twenty years in their futures. Do you see anything interesting in any of your character’s futures that you’d be willing to share with us?

Ramona might object to the idea now, but looking ahead, I see absolutely no reason why she wouldn’t take a more mature Kora abroad with her as her assistant. Kora has a unique and valuable gift that allows her to know when a woman’s dreams are disturbed by supernatural visitors, and to offer direct emotional support then and there. I don’t see Ramona allowing that to go to waste. Perhaps the two of them are destined to become a sort of traveling practice, assisting on a sort of emergency basis when crises arise in places like Chiloe.

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?

God willing, a benefit anthology I contributed a short piece to called Angels of the Meanwhile should be out before the end of the year. It’s full of poems and stories by such amazing authors as Ellen Kushner, Catherynne M. Valente, Amal El-Mohtar, and my Academia ToC buddy Rose Lemberg.

I’m currently working on a few things, one of which is a sort of Canterbury Tales collection of stories imagined up by a bunch of cousins quarantined together with chickenpox. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, though.

Oh, and you should all read Accessing the Future. It’s a seriously good and important anthology.

3 Comments on “An Unlikely Interview with Nicolette Barischoff

  1. “Childbirth … [is] … something for women to work out among themselves, and not a worthy subject for the hallowed halls of academia, which don’t concern themselves with messy things like the birthing process.”

    Pardon? I mean …. pardon???

    You could have avoided the misfortune of your phrasing in your opening paragraph with a quick google search. In the REAL WORLD, where your desk and computer are located and one assumes from which perspective you are writing, obstetrics is a respected and professional field steeped in academic history and centuries — CENTURIES — of higher education and research. Male and female doctors and nurses specialize in childbirth — having learned from those hallowed halls — about “messy things”.

    In fact, EVERY university that offers a medical degree has a WHOLE department called “Obstetrics and Gynaecology”. Each one. You know that, right? That would be, I suppose, Messy Things One and Two, to you.

    And what about midwifery? … also a licensed body of medical professionals trained at the university level. They were first licensed in 1716. Doctors developed midwifery courses in 1765 that were attended MOSTLY BY MEN. By 1799, Universities associated with hospitals held lectures on childbirth. You might dismiss childbirth as something messy to be shuffled under the covers, but I assure you that the medical professions have not, not since the 1700s at the very least.

    In 1828 the field of childbirth became known as obstetrics and was taught … yes, in hallowed halls. By 1856 whole institutions specialized in the “messy things” called childbirth. There’s a theme here. You get the gist.

    If “childbirth, and specifically women helping other women give birth, is often depicted as an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation” then it is only in archaic fantasy and medieval literature — or it is an antiquated idea trotted out by dottering old men who couldn’t say placenta even if it has been offered to them, fried, on a plate.

    Or it is ‘only’ an oral tradition when used as a literary device that does NOT reflect reality. Anyone giving a passing nod to realism in their fiction is aware that childbirth is a well-taught, well-studied respected field about which EVERY MD learns. And every nurse. For the last 300 years.

    Good grief.

    Mz Barischoff’s idea of preternatural childbirth, as taught in hallowed academic halls sounds like an absolutely fascinating premise and I would like to read those stories. In fact, I will seek them out. It is an excellent device that gives weight to a work of fantasy, to have preternatural childbirth (the products of frisky demigods!) taught in academic institutions as part of world building. It aids in suspending disbelief. It fires the imagination. I like the idea and look forward to the body of work.

    But “ideas that don’t necessarily get a lot of play in fiction, particularly the idea of childbirth as a formal academic subject” is unlikely to be the outstanding aspect of such stories. PRETERNATURAL childbirth: of course, we readers say to ourselves — all those non-humans were born and that’s a story or several dozen right there. It’s genius. THAT’S the key to sitting up straight and paying attention: not that it is taught in a university setting.

    Childbirth IS, and has been for some time, a subject of formal academic study, my dear troglodyte. And most folks know that.

    At the risk of being accused of working for the Redundant Department of Redundancy (too late) … good grief.

    • Dear Deb,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It was not my intention to imply that childbirth and obstetrics are not a legitimate field of study, or that they do not exist in the real world of academia. Nor was it my intention to imply that childbirth is actually a messy thing that should be shuffled under the covers. What I meant to convey in posing my question is the fact that I personally have not seen childbirth and the study thereof featured as a prominent subject in speculative fiction. I should have been more specific in my wording of the question and stated it as such, rather than simply saying ‘fiction’. That was an error on my part.

      It was also not my intent to imply that the idea of studying obstetrics and childbirth is the only noteworthy thing about Ms. Barischoff’s story, or the sole reason anyone should read it.

      I hope you will not take the poor wording of my interview question as a negative reflection on Ms. Barischoff’s story, or indeed on any of our stories, our authors, or our publication as a whole.

      The fault is entirely my own, and I will be more careful with my choice of wording in the future. Personally, I would be very happy to see more speculative fiction stories that place pregnancy front and center.

      Best,

      A.C. Wise
      Co-Editor, Unlikely Story

      • As always, a gracious and professional response, which I appreciate. I look forward to more interviews on Unlikely Stories and also appreciate learning about Nicolette Barischoff’s work.
        Thank you.

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