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."
Albert's own mother raised her three children on formula, after her doctor told her that breastfeeding was "very low class."
"She didn't question it," Albert says; her own generation did nothing but. In a 2014 column for Time, "Rich Moms of the First World, Stop Fighting About Breastfeeding," she discusses her own nursing struggles, the shaming of virtually every choice privileged women can make about breastfeeding, and the odious practice of formula marketing to third-world women. Her engagement with birth politics spurred her to train as a certified doula, along with poet and editor Rebecca Wolff. ("She was my doula doula.")
Albert has attended four births and is now working with her fifth pregnant client. "In a perfect world, no one would need to hire a doula, or a hospice nurse. We've created these vacuums," she says. "Women's bodies matter. How we're treated when we're vulnerable matters. If we're marinated in fear and treated like objects when we're that vulnerable, it has lasting consequences."
She's structured many of her bookstore events as conversations, appearing with Hudson Valley literati Jenny Offill, Chloe Caldwell, and Wolff, among others. A recent appearance with Orli Auslander at Woodstock's Golden Notebook "turned into a consciousness raising, a bunch of women and a handful of men, saying, 'Why doesn't anyone talk about this?' I love when that happens."
The daughter of two lawyers who met at UCLA, Albert grew up "surrounded by books. My mother taught by example. She was voracious. It was so obvious that there was this hunger she had, and the only way to sate it was a book. There was this whole universe of things to know." By nine or ten, Albert was reading her mother's novels when she finished them. "Amy Tan, Chaim Potok, John Irving—that was my language. I read all the kid Judy Blumes, then started on the adult Judy Blumes. I knew a lot. I got in trouble for educating my peers."
She also knew there were tensions that no one discussed. Her parents had split up, but weren't admitting it. "They didn't get divorced for 15 years. They were separated, but we never got sat down and told, 'Hey, kids...' My brothers were six and nine years older, maybe they understood. But that was a seed for me, that the reality and the conversation don't always line up."
Albert found solace in Ani Difranco songs. "I was turned onto her by a counselor I had a crush on at a Jewish summer camp in Ojai. She's a real lighthouse," she says, quoting lyrics from "Not a Pretty Girl." She attended "a very uptight private school," where she was an underachiever. "I couldn't be forced to care. I got Bs and Cs in math. It was a scandal. My family is very big on achievement. My mother would say, 'You'll have to go to community college!' like that was the worst thing in the world. Meanwhile I was reading my face off. I cared about that."
She went on to Brandeis, then moved to New York, where she earned an MFA from Columbia. Not long after, she sold her story collection and the then-unfinished Book of Dahlia as a two-book deal. "So I had to write the novel, and I was teaching and freelancing at the same time," she recalls. "The longest thing I'd ever written was a 20-page story."
After Dahlia, she edited an anthology about siblings called Freud's Blind Spot (Free Press, 2010). After Birth is a furious and triumphant return to the world of fiction.
But real life beckons. The sun is sinking, and Miller wants to go to the neighboring park with his mother and grandfather, who's visiting from California. As everyone dresses to leave—Miller improbably donning a seersucker jacket and royal blue bowtie—Albert describes how she came to own the battered metal sign in the hall, which reads "Parking for Planned Parenthood Only—Others Will Be Towed." When a nearby clinic moved to another location, she bribed the construction crew with a dozen donuts to rescue the sign. ("I asked Ed if we could put it over our bed," she reports. "He said no.")
She and Schwarzschild bought the three-story townhouse from an architect couple who restored its intricate woodwork and soaring ceilings to pristine condition. "It's our Albany consolation prize," Elisa Albert says with a sly smile. "There are many."
As usual, she speaks the truth.