Exploring the art of prose


Interview: Clare Beams

Image is the book cover for THE GARDEN by Clare Beams; title card for the new interview with Abby Manzella.


I began reading Clare Beams’s extraordinary work with her first novel The Illness Lesson, which follows young women at a newly founded school in nineteenth-century New England where the students begin to mysteriously fall ill. That novel brought to life the real through the surreal, and because of that experience, I then turned to Beams’s short stories, which are equally startling, yet eerily familiar. Many tell of women’s experiences in a past that reflect our own present, including her memorable story “Lidded” about a working-class woman who serves as a labeler at a pickle-jar factory.

Therefore, I was thrilled when I found out that Beams had a new novel coming out this spring, The Garden. In the novel, women who have experienced miscarriages are brought to a house-hospital to sustain their new pregnancies by treating them with a synthetic estrogen. The premise is loosely based on a historical reality of this type of medical treatment, but Beams likes to brush up against history as a starting point for her own imaginings. The novel contains the gothic stirrings of a house and garden that feel far too alive, recalling Shirley Jackson, as well as the haunting concerns about motherhood found more recently in writers like Jessamine Chan and Julia Fine.

I had a very enjoyable conversation with Beams over Zoom about medicine in relationship to women’s bodies, genre-hopping, and the horrors of building a reliable timeline within a novel.

—Abby Manzella


Abby Manzella: Ive been impressed with how you play with genre in both your short stories and your longer fiction. Youre engaging with literary fiction, with feminism and the historical, while also touching on the gothic and the surreal. Is there anything youd add? Also, I’m interested in why you like to play with genre?

Clare Beams: That sounds pretty complete. I think it took me a while to understand how important the strange is to my work. All through my grad school years I was writing these extremely careful, very realistic short stories in which there was a lot of uneventful tension. I was careful with sentences, and the sound of the sentences was always something that was a strength, or maybe where the engine of the writing was (and is for me still), but I just couldn’t seem to make anything happen—I think because I was so afraid of failing, of creating something that couldn’t actually hold together. My solution was just to not really try to do very much, and it turns out that fiction that is not risking anything is also not usually very alive.

Then I found and loved writers like Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and Helen Oyeyemi. I always loved reading stories that were weird and magical as a kid, but then I’d moved away from them because I felt like moving toward realism was what I was supposed to do to write a perfect story. It turns out when I’m trying to write a perfect story, I write a very dead story. Playing with genre for me is crucially tied to playing in general, which is really important in my work—to be entering the process in a spirit of not knowing if it will work in the end.


AM: For your new novel The Garden, let’s start in the historical before we get to the surreal. It is about the historical experience of women who were treated with a synthetic estrogen during their pregnancies. How did you find this bit of history, and at what point did you figure out that this detail was worth your time to develop?

CB: I always like to say, when history comes up, that I think I am a very particular kind of historical fiction writer who is also inventing species of birds and making ghost stories happen. Usually when I turn to the historical, even though I don’t know this at the time, it’s because it offers me a way of looking at a more extreme version of a dynamic that I think is still with us—extremes being our friend in fiction most of the time. I don’t know that when I start, though. The spark for me is usually tied to image, or to a feeling or a mood that I want to draw out.

I first came across the reference to diethylstilbestrol, which is the synthetic estrogen you mentioned, when I was researching alternate titles for The Illness Lesson. I was poking around in obscure corners of the history of women’s medicine and found a reference to this drug, which I had never heard of before. To clarify, this drug is not actually the drug in my novel—I took a seed and then let it grow in a different direction, which is usually what I do when I write historical fiction. But two aspects of the factual drug caught me immediately: first, it was pioneered for use in pregnancy by a husband-and-wife researcher team, and the idea of the woman/wife in that partnership was really interesting. It took so much force to make your mark, as a woman, in that field at that time, and then came this tragedy of the pioneering drug being such a medical catastrophe. It causes really quite terrible side effects, which no one knew. The question of why no one knew, I also think, is interesting.

The second aspect of this history that grabbed me initially was that this research team had noticed women’s hormones swing a lot around miscarriage, and their thinking was that if they could just even out those hormones, everything would be better. When we start talking about “evening out” with regard to women, we are usually in scary territory. Scary territory being where a lot of the fictional juice lives, I started experimenting with how I could use it to communicate something I had been thinking about since I myself had been pregnant—what a weird experience it is to be a pregnant person.


AM: Youve been using the phrase “the strange,” so I wanted to turn to those moments in the novel. The characters are in this very scientific world of the live-in hospital, but there is also this walled garden, and Irene is seemingly experiencing these “memories” from her doctor’s past. What do you do as youre writing to help you get into that space of the strange or the surreal? How are you building that tension within the story that is both reality and nonreality at the same time?

CB: I love that liminal space between the real and the surreal, which is why I often end up using strange as a word for it because certainly there are pieces I’ve written wherein nothing technically surreal happens, but to me there’s still a strangeness. Some of the stories in my collection and some of the stories I’ve written since would fit within that umbrella. There’s always something that to me feels like a little extra-real—I’ve pulled on reality, just a little.

I think what’s most important for me is to trick myself into this space of pretending I’m alone in the room, which I am, for a lot of the process, and that I’m truly just playing. I literally type at the top of my screen when I’m first-draft writing, “Remember, no one ever has to see this.” I’m going for every weird turn I can think of, especially if there’s a rich sensory component to it, in the first draft. I am seeing what happens if I play with making bold moves for a while. With this novel, I tried not to be too aware of what I was doing in terms of this hyperscientific world of the house-hospital and all of the extra life or material that’s been shoved elsewhere and into this pocket of the garden, where it’s taking on a life of its own. That tension turned out to be very important, but I wasn’t necessarily consciously aware of it at the time.

So really, the tension and the more intentional dichotomies eventually develop through a zillion recursive drafts. When I start to have a thematic sense of what I’m doing, I make a note of it for myself, and then I go on playing. I try not to let my editor-brain into the room too early, because then I don’t attempt any of the moves that end up being the lifeblood of the work, because I’m too unsure I can pull them off.


AM: When and how do you turn to that kind of thinking and editing?

CB: The way my process works is I usually write this very thin, very bonkers, first draft, and then I print it off, and I take a pen, and I tell myself I’m fixing it, but really what I’m doing is writing ninety-nine percent of what will go in the actual book.

There’s a section in George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain when he talks about revision as this process of many tiny moments of the Yes/No meter on your forehead, and never letting yourself read past the “No.” Then, each small adjustment sends you in a new direction, so you end up with this incredibly complicated final version you could never have planned ahead of time. Revision is an active responsiveness. I want to put down the weirdest thing I can on the page, and then I want to see how seventy-five million versions of myself react to it so that eventually I’ve ended up putting something together that is hopefully smarter than I am and has a better grasp of the world than I do, because it’s not just one me. It’s all the mes who visited that sentence all those times. So it’s not that at some point I’m like, “Now I will undertake my thematic revision.” It’s through all of those readings and minute steerings that I end up somewhere that has a cohesion to it.


AM: I know Saunders’s meter element well, and the way you’re rephrasing it feels like acting where “acting is reacting,” and yet you are both actors.

CB: Yes, you are, and you’re the actor who will read this piece again tomorrow. That expectation of still further revisiting turns out to be very key for me, because in every moment of revision I also have to feel free to experiment. I don’t have to be sure yet. I’m just trying it out, because I will visit it and revisit it and revisit it again. So I have infinite chances to control it and make it into what I want it to be. The writing comes from the worry, but in a weird way the act of writing is almost the ultimate act of control, even though it’s also responsiveness. You get to play with it until you’re done. And then you publish it and you have no control ever again.


AM: I was thinking about how tightly organized The Garden’s narrative is from the standpoint of time. At the start Irene is fourteen weeks pregnant, and the book is trying to get her to a healthy delivery. So, the reader will be moving through those weeks and months. It then becomes an important task for you, as the writer, to make sure readers feel like they understand how time is progressing within that window. At which points were you aware of the issue of time? Where were you shifting it? How was it functioning?

CB: Time was the bane of my existence in this book, and there were many drafts in which I was not nailing it, and for exactly the reason you say: Irene arrives at fourteen weeks, and we have to make quite a bit of time pass, and the women are mostly just waiting, except that there are also these important three-day intervals once we discover the garden and what it seems to do. So I had this narrative composed of a number of months with these concentrated three-day stretches where there was a lot of tension, and eventually I had to print out a calendar of 1948 and plot not just Irene’s pregnancy, but Margaret’s and Pearl’s, and try to hit the right timing to get everybody to the point they needed to get to narratively in this restrictive window I had created. There was a draft in which I dipped back in to place markers so that we could tell where we were.

It is a good thing Irene is such a rule-breaker and such a pusher of boundaries—something I did instinctively, but that turned out to be important—because otherwise, this whole novel could have gotten very static. It’s a novel about the passing of quite a few weeks in one place, so you have to have somebody who is making the story move.


AM: Irene is an unusual character for this kind of story in that she really seems to be desirous of this pregnancy mostly for her husband. Also, feminist storylines are often set in an all-women’s space or depict men who are clearly the antagonists, but in this novel, George is such a supportive and loving partner, which really did draw me into this narrative. How were you thinking about George and Irene’s dynamic? Was some of this also in relationship to him returning from World War II?

CB: I thought of him pretty early on as her one softness. He is her whole heart. Irene is prickly. I mean, I love her dearly, and everything about her makes so much sense to me given her situation, but she is not a person who oozes love when you meet her. Her love for George is her exception, and her prime driver up until this point. Then I do think, over the course of the novel, she does really also come to love this creature she is incubating, though it’s a love that gets very mixed up with horror. She comes to have a relationship with the baby over the course of the book, but her entry into that love is as a desire, more than anything, to give this husband, the person she loves more than she loves anyone else, what he wants.

I was playing with how the drive to have a child, for him, would have come about. I had two grandfathers who were in World War II. One was a doctor in the field, and one fought in the war. One of them died before I was born, and one of them died when I was two, so I don’t remember either of them, but what their time in the war was like became part of family lore—with this caveat that it was something that they rarely talked about because it was too horrible to remember. There was this whole generation of men who came home from this truly terrible war with this desire to have a bunch of babies and fill up life so they wouldn’t have to think about war anymore. Of course, that dynamic didn’t hold for everyone, and there are many forces that explain the Baby Boom, but this desire to build a kind of foundation is one of them—this idea that maybe I can leave it behind in a bodily way by making this nice little house, a nice little family.

I wanted George to be motivated by something like that desire to fill his life up with a newness that would be as big as what he had just experienced but good this time. So if he is Irene’s one softness, her most important love, and she can tell he needs a baby in some deep psychological way, and she can’t make it happen for him—the panic of that inability is what I wanted. I knew she had to be very, very motivated to stay at this hospital given all the fear and difficulty I was going to make happen to her there. So that was part of it. How can I make this motive feel tied to what is most precious to her?


AM: What are you reading at the moment?

CB: Right now, I am actually reading a beautiful story collection by a former student: Marguerite Sheffer’s The Man in the Banana Trees. She just won the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the book will be out in the fall. She is also playing with these boundaries of the real. I recently also read a fantastic story collection called Ghostroots by ’Pemi Aguda forthcoming from Norton that is like a slightly darker Kelly Link. I’ve been lucky enough to do a big batch of reading ARCs of books that aren’t out yet, which has been fun.


AM: What are you working on now?

CB: I am in the stage of not knowing if I can pull this novel off, but I am writing a novel that is set in the near future.

I’m from Newtown, Connecticut, originally. I lived there from the age of six until I graduated from high school. I was pregnant with my first daughter, and at the stage where I had just started to be able to feel her moving, that day in 2012 when the massacre at Sandy Hook happened. For someone who tends toward wanting certainty and safety, and wanting to learn as much as I can until I convince myself of both, parenthood was already going be a big leap for me—and then to have a place that I associated so closely with a certain kind of childhood go through such horror when I was right on the cusp of parenthood, it was a forceful opening of a door to fear.

The new novel I’m writing is set in a fictional version of Newtown that has a lot to do with ghosts and hauntings and a character with a certain kind of clairvoyance. I’m in this space, which is a long space for me, where I’m like, Will this work? Who knows, but the only way I’ll find out is by trying.


CLARE BEAMS is the author of the novel The Illness Lesson (Doubleday, 2020) a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and the story collection We Show What We Have Learned (Lookout Books, 2016), which won the Bard Fiction Prize. Her new novel, The Garden (Doubleday), has been named a most anticipated book of 2024 by Literary Hub and Bookshop.org. She has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and was a finalist for the 2023 Joyce Carol Oates Prize. With her husband and two daughters, she lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in the Randolph MFA program. She’s on Twitter @clarebeams.

ABBY MANZELLA is the author of Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Displacements, which won the Society for the Study of American Women Writers Book Award. Her work has been published by places such as The Threepenny Review, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Massachusetts Review, and Pleiades. An assistant professor of English and creative writing at Truman State University, find her on Twitter @abbymanzella.