Rebecca Ann Smith is the author of Baby X, the story of Alex Mansfield, the doctor behind a project to grow a human foetus inside an artificial uterus. When she goes on the run — and takes the new baby with her — the parents wait for news and Alex’s coworkers try to figure out what happened.
Here we talk about the story behind Baby X, the editing process, and her inspirations.
Baby X centres around the concept of in vitro gestation. What drew you to this concept?
I found the experience of becoming a mother both fascinating and disorientating. When my eldest child was about a year old, I wrote a weird little science fiction story about a doctor caring for a foetus in an artificial uterus. The experience of writing it was so intense it kept me awake at night. Afterwards, once the story was finished and I’d calmed down a bit, I looked at what I had and thought, ‘Oh yes, there it is.’
Perhaps a different kind of writer would have put their experiences into a very different sort of novel. A poetic, literary novel, charting the moment-to-moment emotional journey of those first few days. But I’m not that sort of writer. If I was going to write a book about becoming a mother it would have to be the sort of book I like reading: a psychological thriller with a twisty-turny plot, danger and adventure, and maybe even some unexplained, magical realist elements thrown in for good measure. It would have to be thrilling, scary and disorientating, like Gone Girl, or The Girl on the Train, but, you know — with more breastfeeding.
What areas did you need to research and which did you already know about?
I did a lot of research for this book. I read books on genetics and the bioethics of trade in human gametes (eggs and sperm), and also about psychology, mainly attachment theory. I also read a lot online about fertility medicine — both about the causes of infertility and the therapies and techniques which are currently available.
I went down a lot of internet rabbit holes following things that interested me. I’m quite fortunate in that I’ve had quite a lot of experience reading and parsing academic and scientific papers, so I wasn’t intimidated by the science.
I already knew quite a bit about trimesters, crying babies, mastitis, nappy changing…
Did you plot the story before you began, or let it evolve as you wrote?
Early drafts of this book were allowed to evolve, but I became more of a plotter as I reworked the material.
In fact, I think it’s a two stage process — I write the first draft without worrying too much about where it’s all going, but then in subsequent drafts I’m much more rigorous about structure, and I use a spreadsheet to map everything out.
How long did it take you to write?
I’m a bit embarrassed to answer this. Each draft took me about 6 months to write, but I spent a long time — years really — trying to find a traditional publisher for this book. I’d probably have given up sooner, but I kept get encouraging comments from agents, for example saying they’d like to see the book again, and advising me to rework it. Which I did, several times over, before I finally found my publisher, Mother’s Milk Books, an independent small press.
When I signed my contract with Mother’s Milk Books, I committed to another rewrite, and then several rounds of editing, which again took time. Of course, making submissions to agents and publishers takes time, because there’s lots of waiting for people to get back to you, and there were times when I stopped working on Baby X altogether to focus on other projects. Overall I think about nine years elapsed between having the original idea and publication.
What was the hardest part of writing Baby X?
I think the hardest part was wondering if I’d ever get the story to work, and if I’d ever find a publisher willing to take a risk on the manuscript.
There was a lot of hard graft to get the book right after I did find my publisher, and the editing process was tough. But at least by that stage I knew I was going to see my work in print — and I knew someone else believed in it — which made all the difference.
How do you fit writing in around family life?
It changes as my family changes and grows. When my kids were babies I used to carry a notebook with me and scribble any moment I found myself free — for example I’d go out for a walk and sit down on a bench to write when they fell asleep in the pram. Nowadays the juggling act involves a paying job, work to promote Baby X, and a lot of family responsibilities on top. So at the moment, I’m getting up very early in the morning to work on another novel.
Was there a part of the publication process that surprised you?
I’m not sure about ‘surprised’ but I certainly learned a lot during the publication process.
I suppose I was surprised at the number of typos that managed to remain invisible until the final edit!
What are you working on now?
I’m working on another novel that centres on a big concept, this time it’s for a YA audience (although I’m hoping adults will read it too.)
It’s the story of Anna, a normal fifteen-year-old girl obsessed with friends, clothes and boys, who lives in a world where there are three genders: male, female and a ‘third sex’ of second-class citizens, which she and her friends call the ‘herms’.
When Anna gets involved with one the herms it challenges everything she and her community believe about themselves, about sex, gender and normality, and leads to a violent and disturbing conclusion.
The book also grapples with contemporary issues including pornography, body image, the sexualisation of young girls, and the role of social media in young people’s lives.
Sounds interesting! Who are your biggest literary inspirations?
I’ve got a lot of favourite writers but the three I want to mention here are Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin and Kurt Vonnegut. They’re probably the most relevant to the sort of writing I aspire to because they deal in ‘What if’s and combine dark humour with a lot of heart.
Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favourite books. My ambition for Baby X was always to combine serious ideas about technology, society, and feminism with a good story full of suspense and tension, the way Atwood did in that book. But I know I’ve still got a long way to go before I could claim to write as well as any of my heroes.
What advice would you give to other writers?
It’s worth sticking at it. And if you can get someone who knows what they’re talking about to give you advice — whether it’s on your work itself, or on your career — it’s worth listening to what they say.
I can see now that my first version of Baby X wasn’t ready for publication, and I’m proud of what I’ve managed to achieve through all the rewriting, even though it was a hard slog at the time.
I suppose it’s about having the right mix of self-belief and humility — the self-belief to keep going if you don’t immediately get what you want, and the humility to take genuinely constructive criticism on the chin and learn from it.
Rebecca Ann Smith blogs at www.rebeccaannsmith.co.uk.