Elisa Albert sits cross-legged on her couch, below several paintings of female legs and next to two cushions with ANGER and HATE rendered in pretty needlepoint. It's hard to imagine a more apt set design for an interview with the author of After Birth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), The Book of Dahlia (Free Press, 2008), and the story collection How This Night Is Different (Free Press, 2006).
Fellow writers are quick to lob Molotov cocktails of flaming praise Albert's way. "After Birth cuts open the body of literature on mothering, birth, feminism, female friendship, female hateship—whether academic treatise or poem or novel—and wrenches out something so new we barely recognize it. Wet, red, slimy, alive: a truth baby," Merritt Tierce writes in the New York Times Book Review. Shalom Auslander asserts, "Nobody burns, or screams, like Elisa Albert." Emily Gould says, "This book takes your essay about 'likable female characters,' writes FUCK YOU on it in menstrual blood, then sets it on fire."
So who is this furious harpy?
She seems very nice.
Albert shares a drop-dead gorgeous Albany townhouse with her novelist husband Ed Schwarzschild and their son Miller, an ebullient six-year-old who opens the door and declares, "Mom's in the bathroom." Albert comes downstairs in cozy layers of sweater, purple tights, and knee socks, immediately offering tea. Her voice is soft, her smile warm and genuine. Still, it's easy to link her mellow-mom style to her edgy persona in print. The same piercing intelligence and deadpan wit animate both; it's like seeing the moon in two different phases.
And fiction is fiction. True, After Birth's narrator Ari shares some biographical DNA with the author—both are whip-smart Jewish women married to academics in grim upstate cities (Schwarzschild is an English professor at SUNY Albany), and both gave birth to sons—but don't assume this is a thinly disguised memoir.
"Every character is a version of me," Albert asserts. "Ari is one, Mina's another, even her nightmare mother. Even horrible characters are a funhouse reflection, spun out, 20 times magnified, shrunk back and blown up again." She quotes Susan Sontag: "To write, you have to allow yourself to be the person you don't want to be, of all the people you are."
You also have to invent telling details, arranging them amid home truths like a shrewd magpie. Ari is an echt New Yorker and an only child; Albert grew up on LA's west side with two older brothers. Ari was subjected to a hospital-imposed C-section that her friend Mina likens to rape. Albert opted for a home birth, though that had its own set of issues. In an interview for The Rumpus, she says, "We've collectively bought into some big misconceptions: that birth is problematic by nature, that it is likely to go awry and must therefore be handed over to the 'authorities,' that it is 'safe' to be completely passive in birth, that if we question, we put our own lives and the lives of our babies at risk."
Albert has carved out a career as a no-holds-barred feminist truth-teller with a wicked sense of humor. Why This Night Is Different opens with a wincingly fraught bris ("The Mother Is Always Upset") and ends with an audacious metafiction hocking Philip Roth to father her child. The Book of Dahlia charts the life and death of a prickly, defiantly stalled 29-year-old woman with an inoperable brain tumor.
She started writing After Birth in 2010, a year after Miller was born. "If you're going to commit yourself to writing something so long, it has to be personal. It has to be passionate. You're trying to answer some question, some obsession that won't go away," she says. "I thought of this as a female war movie. The parallels go on and on: life and death, extreme reaches of human endurance. The men are there, but they're not in the action. They're back at home, waiting for women to return from the front. They can't be there in those trenches."
Along with the visceral experience of birth and desperate isolation of new motherhood, After Birth revolves around female friendship. Ari, who's never been able to get close to women, forges a life-changing bond with riot-grrrl rocker turned visiting poet Mina Morris, insouciant, unpartnered, and "hard-not-to-stare pregnant."
Mina, says Albert, "has none of the typical female insecurities. She's not competitive or threatened, she's past all that. So she's actually available for a true, non-gendered friendship." She's also plunged into crisis when her newborn can't nurse. Ari offers her own breast to check his latch. She and Mina wind up switching babies, so each beginner is paired with an experienced nursing partner. It's the most natural thing in the world, and probably a first in American literature. (Albert cites the scene in The Grapes of Wrath in which Rose of Sharon breastfeeds a dying man, but that's hardly the same dynamic.) "Ari gets to be generous, which is so healing for her, to someone who doesn't compete or judge her," she says. "It's a corrective upward spiral."