Research Notes · 03/13/2015

The Only Ones

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Carola Dibbell writes about The Only Ones from Two Dollar Radio.

+

I started researching The Only Ones long before I ever dreamed of writing it. From 1974 till 1984, I consulted half a dozen doctors and an acupuncturist, had three surgical procedures and took dozens of tests, who knows how many medications, and a lot of unsolicited advice, in the attempt to conceive a child. At a time when there were far fewer books about infertility than there are now, I published a long essay based on the handful that had come my way. By the time my husband and I adopted a baby girl, in 1985, I had a working knowledge of the logistics and language of assisted conception including reproductive hormones, artificial insemination, and the then new field of in vitro (which I did not pursue). I also had some gut experience of the bizarre and sometimes cruel attitudes people may bring to the subject.

I assumed I’d put all that behind me as I began my first heady years as a mother, but a set of scandals about illegal or contested adoptions and surrogacies soon made headlines, and I found myself in many uncomfortable conversations about nature versus nurture and who was a “real” mother. Once again, I read what books and articles I could. Canadian sociologist H. David Kirk, author of Shared Fate and Adoptive Kinship and himself an adoptive father, was one of few to explore adoption theory with the hard-headedness and vision I craved. Besides clear-eyed observations of nature/nurture in his own family, he probed the peculiar prominence of adoption in myth and fiction.

Meanwhile, in the 80s and 90s, genes themselves were becoming news — gene patenting and engineering, genome mapping. Stem cell was adding new ethical controversies to the ones that already surrounded abortion, and advances in reproductive technology seemed to be taking the field right up to science fiction. All of these experiences — the years of infertility treatments, those headline dramas and ethics shouting matches, as well as my own adventures as a parent among other parents with their own fears and insecurities — were in my mental files by the time I had the idea to write a science-fictionish novel about a single mother raising her own clone.

None of the later research I did had anywhere near as much impact on the book I eventually wrote as my personal need to understand the various ways we are parents, and related, and ourselves. But I did in fact research like crazy. I was working in genre, but I wanted my story to have some hard-science credibility. Cloning itself proved graspable for anyone with a working knowledge of in vitro. Gina Kolata’s The Clone Age was a good read which provided a history of cloning, a visit to Dolly the cloned sheep, and the inspiration to make my mad scientist a livestock veterinarian. Most of the books and articles I picked up here and there about cloning as well as genes and genetic engineering tended to be preachy and not terribly informative. But Matt Ridley’s Genome was a very brainy exception, even if I took nothing tangible from it except a feel for how a brainy person like my livestock vet might think. The Only Ones was in late draft by the time I happened upon a piece by Wendy Goldman Rohm in Wired, a step by step account of one cloning attempt, far and away the most specific description I’d come across. Some of its details worked their way into a cloning scene that I’d already written.

The gestation I’d dreamed up involved an artificial uterus — a possibility pregnancy guides don’t cover — but two books by Peter W. Nathanielsz offered useful information about life in the womb, including intriguing studies that showed how environmental factors can affect even conventional pregnancies. I used the accounts and images in those books and The First Nine Months of Life by Geraldine Lux Flanagan to help visualize the fetus in a laboratory situation that I wanted to show as both outlandish and familiar. I also picked up some nitty-grit about egg donation in a fine article I read so long ago I’ve lost the author’s name. I still remember its level tone about one egg donor’s experiences, and the useful attention to physical details. I’d been injected with some of the same hormones myself.

Because plotting logistics had led me to a story involving pandemics and immunity, I read various encyclopedia articles about the great Swine Flu pandemic of 1918, plus some pop science books like Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, from which I learned about filoviruses long before the recent Ebola crisis. But hereditary immunities were harder to get a bead on, and when I found myself at a cocktail party with a journalist who’d written about AIDS immunity in Africa, I just walked right up and picked his brain. In fact, waylaying experts at parties or conferences became a useful if embarrassing strategy in the thorniest research I faced: what would a pandemic dystopia actually be like? Imagining energy depletion in a devastated future, I did manage to research alternative possibilities. The problem was, I didn’t know how most things worked when they did work — electricity, cell phones, transportation systems. I thought a children’s book, How Things Work, might be on my level, but I remained so ignorant I just went back to Samuel Delany and Bruce Sterling, whose realistic-seeming dystopias offered models for how to fudge the details.

Finally, I read or reread novels with uneducated narrators like my own Inez Fardo — Anita Loos’s urbane Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Damon Runyon’s Broadway sketches, and the one-of-a-kind Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, which narrates a post-apocalyptic future in a phonetic version of Midlands English, jazzed up with idiosyncratic capitalizations. I had already read narratives of mothers in hard times, Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel and James McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water. Now I treated myself to perhaps my third reread of Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone, a ground-breaking little novel that in the early 60s proved not only that a 19th century novel could be written about a 20th century British academic clueless enough to engage a reader’s sympathies, but that out-of-wedlock pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering was at least as fit a subject for great fiction as war, romantic love, or chasing large fish.

+++

Carola Dibbell is a highly regarded rock critic whose fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, Fence, and Black Clock. Writing about books as well as music, Dibbell was a Village Voice contributor for many years. The Only Ones is her debut novel.