A little known fact about me (Ariel): if I hadn’t become a writer I would have been a midwife. I suspect this has much to do with the fact that my mother had six children, all of them delivered by midwives, most of them at home, and that I spent a lot of time in midwifery clinics with her as a pre-teen. I have tremendous respect for these women and I am endlessly fascinated by the act of childbirth and the skill and empathy with which they bring children into the world. Apart from the births of my own children (and I suppose my own if you want to be technical) I witnessed the birth of one sister and two nephews–all of them delivered by midwives. So when we discovered these two new novels that revolve around the lives of midwives, we tracked the authors down and asked them to interview one another. Up first, Patricia Harman interview Sally Hepworth about THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES. Enjoy!
Patricia: Tell me a little about your inspiration for this book.
Sally: Well, I suppose the fact that I was pregnant at the time had something to do with it!
The truth is, during the first few months of my pregnancy, I battled terrible morning sickness, and I spent a lot of time curled up in bed with a book. I read Chis Bohjalian’s MIDWIVES and Ami Mackay’s THE BIRTH HOUSE in quick succession and immediately went looking for another book about birth! Specifically, I wanted to read a generational saga about midwives—to show how midwifery has evolved over the generations—but I couldn’t seem to find one. And, as you probably know, there’s a saying among writers, “Write the book you want to read.” That’s what I did!
Patricia: In THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES you show the differing opinions about the “right” way to give birth, even among the midwives. Neva, the youngest midwife, enjoys the ‘safety net’ of delivering in a birthing center attached to a hospital; her mother, Grace, is a staunch advocate of home-births; and her grandmother, Floss, now a retired midwife, believes the birthing environment is important only insofar as that it reflects the mother’s needs and wants. These views are not central to the plot (although we do see some development in the midwives’ views over the course of the book) so why include them?
Sally: I thought it was impossible to write a book about modern midwives without including this particular debate, because, in my experience, there is a lot of debate over the “right” way to give birth—even among those in the profession. It was also a good point of conflict, particularly between Neva and Grace, and in novels, conflict is king! The idea of right and wrong also tied in with my novel’s theme, but as you’ve asked about that below, more about that later…
Patricia: You mentioned you were pregnant while you wrote this novel. To what extent did this influence the writing of this book?
Sally: My pregnancy influenced the writing a huge amount! Apart from it being the catalyst for the book itself, it also helped me create the structure (the three points of view). From the moment I found out I was pregnant with a daughter, I knew it was going to be a book about a mother and daughter (the character of Floss, the grandmother, was added later when I began to research and found myself captivated by stories of 1950s midwifery). Also, writing Neva’s character (who is pregnant) while being pregnant myself, allowed me to breathe the feelings of joy, love, and utter terror of carrying a human being around inside your body, into her character.
(Oh, and my pregnancy also influenced the writing of this book in that I often fell asleep at my laptop while writing it …)
Patricia: THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES has a number of birth scenes – some quite dramatic and with unexpected complications! As you are not a midwife yourself, how did you prepare to write this novel? What research did you do?
Sally: I did an enormous amount of research as I prepared to write this book. I knew I wanted my birth scenes to be authentic (and yes, dramatic) so I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on—novels, memoirs, medical books. I also watched footage of practically every high-risk birth YouTube had to offer (which was a little nerve racking for my husband, who burst into the study a few times when he heard a crying, panting woman in the final throes of labor—don’t forget I was pregnant at the time!). On top of this, I subscribed to online communities and forums where I was able to ask questions about midwifery and birth and I touched base with several home-birth midwives and midwives alliance groups. I am also lucky to have an aunt who is a midwife and she was able to make suggestions and verify things for me.
Patricia: How does midwifery influence the theme of your novel?
Sally: As you mentioned above, there is a lot of debate throughout the book about the “right” and “wrong” way to give birth. This idea of right and wrong also ties in with what is at the heart of the novel: family. Unfortunately, there is still a commonly held belief that there is a “right” and “wrong” kind of family. Or at least a “good” and “better” type. But these days, there are so many different kinds of families—blended, adoptive, single-parent, same-sex parents, communities of singles. And, just as there is no right way to give birth, there is no right way to be a family. Ultimately, what I hope the reader walks away with is a realization that families are not about DNA…they’re about love.
Patricia: Midwifery has become increasingly talked about lately, perhaps in part due to the popular TV series Call the Midwife. Why do you think people are so fascinated by birth?
Sally: Yes, that’s a good question. I suppose it’s because birth is relevant to so many people—because so many people have (or want) children. And most people would agree that it is a beautiful thing to create a life. But I also think part of the appeal is that birth can also be a little scary and there is a lot of potential for things to go wrong. People love to be a little scared in fiction as it is a safe place to experience fear—and hopefully, come out the other side unscathed.
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Three generations of women.
Secrets in the present and from the past.
A captivating tale of life, loss, and love…
Neva Bradley, a third-generation midwife, is determined to keep the details surrounding her own pregnancy—including the identity of the baby’s father— hidden from her family and co-workers for as long as possible. Her mother, Grace, finds it impossible to let this secret rest. The more Grace prods, the tighter Neva holds to her story, and the more the lifelong differences between private, quiet Neva and open, gregarious Grace strain their relationship. For Floss, Neva’s grandmother and a retired midwife, Neva’s situation thrusts her back sixty years in time to a secret that eerily mirrors her granddaughter’s—one which, if revealed, will have life-changing consequences for them all. As Neva’s pregnancy progresses and speculation makes it harder and harder to conceal the truth, Floss wonders if hiding her own truth is ultimately more harmful than telling it. Will these women reveal their secrets and deal with the inevitable consequences? Or are some secrets best kept hidden?