My Twins: On First Children and First Novels

February 3, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 5 4 min read

I just had twins. One of them is human—fingers and toes, eyes and ears. The other is a hardcover—346 pages long, eight years in the making—my first novel. The doctor gave me a November 2nd due date, the publisher a February 2nd publication date. These are very different creatures, yet they were both made somewhere inside me, gestating over months or years.

In early summer, I laid on my back on the papered vinyl chair while the doctor squirted warm goo on my belly and pressed the magic wand down. On the screen, the grey smudge of a baby appeared, looking like a faint and mysterious creature spotted through a rainy windshield. He turned away from the heat of the wand and covered a little cheek with a little hand. The doctor counted those fingers—one, two, three, four, and a thumb. He switched on the 3-D effect so we could see the face, although it looked more like a friendly monkey than a person. My husband fidgeted in his chair, later telling me that he had been uncomfortably transported to a National Geographic movie in which an archaeologist examines the ancient insides of a mummy. Monkey or mummy, there was a distinct face that might have even been smiling a little. It moved as we watched, fingers wiggling, and then legs. We saw the bottom of the feet, and the sweet knot of a determined fist. The four chambers of the heart opened and closed in black and white.

The next day, I received the jacket description for the novel from my publisher. Reading it felt like examining the ultrasound for that book—the x-ray vision that lets a reader see the black and white outline of the spine, the chambers of the story’s heart before she has cracked the cover.

coverTo grow my novel took eight years. The first full draft was an unsmart creature that felt like it was crawling around, eating things off the floor. I could not leave it alone for a long time without worrying that it would go into a coma and never wake up again. Every day, I had to administer some kind of electric shock. I gave up on it dozens of times. Once, I spent half of a vacation on the Red Sea in Egypt sitting on the balcony of a cheap hotel room typing because I had had an epiphany about what to do with the book.  It did grow, and get smarter. But it happened in jolts and bursts and sometimes it got worse instead of better. My brain, working as hard as it could, was not a fast machine.

My body, mostly, took care of the baby. I had no idea how to grow the first eyelashes, how to expand the mysterious accordion of the lungs, but my body did. The baby only took 41 weeks from speck to human. After the book, this seemed shockingly short. My body, which usually just goes quietly along keeping me alive with ten zillion processes a day, asking for no notice or acclaim, was finally enjoying a chance to show my brain up. “You’re really working hard aren’t you?” it seemed to say to my brain. “You wrote a whole page of words? In here, we formed synapses and fingernails.” My body cannot write a novel, and my brain cannot make a baby. These twins came from very different wombs.

I began writing this book because I wanted to know my ancestors, to meet them, but since I am alive and they are not, I had to find them in my imagination. In a way, I was ‘starting a family,’ only I was doing it in reverse: first I was bringing in the ghosts, and later I would add children. My great-grandmother became a character with whom I spent thousands of hours. She was part of my very real days. I have spent years living a fictional world of my own making; I remember being there, walking around, smelling the cold winter-earth. The publication of the book is incredibly exciting and gratifying, but the real imprint on my life was made by the time I spent writing it. Long after the thrill of having a book in the world has faded, the story, the place, the characters will remain with me, part of my immediate family.

A week after his due-date, my squirming son was born. In one breath, he went from an aquatic creature to a terrestrial one. I was surprised by how fully formed he seemed—he was not so much a baby as a tiny person, complete and present. I still don’t know how my body did that, by what miraculous means those long, feathers of eyelashes were constructed, those perfect fingers. The way different genes melded seamlessly into a brand-new, never-before-seen creature.  He coughed and fell asleep on my chest, the cord connecting us still pulsing. A few moments later, it would be cut, and we would go on as separate beings, although I hardly felt that way—now that I had shared my body with this person, I would never be alone the way I once had. I had a physical companion in the world, no matter how far apart we were. That night, I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t stop staring at my baby—my baby!—lying there next to me. I felt ten trillion kinds of gratitude at once—that he was healthy, that I’d made it through labor, but mostly I just couldn’t believe that less than a year ago he did not exist and now he was so incredibly here.

Slowly, my twins are making their way out into the world. My son is bigger and more and more part of the world. He smiles and reaches for things, he recognizes my voice and brightens. I imagine us growing up together, the ways we will be in each other’s lives for the duration. In a few days, the books will reach bookshelves, and from there, they will enter other people’s heads. I don’t know how the release will impact me, whom I’ll meet because of it, what it will do to the chemistry of my life. It will be a privilege to share my twins, but I still haven’t gotten over the feeling that the true miracle, the real stroke of magnificent luck, was to be there when those tiny embryos came alive.

Image Credit: Flickr/abbybatchelder

is the author of the novel No One is Here Except All of Us (Riverhead). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, One Story, the Best American Fantasy, and online in the Paris Review. Her stories have received special mentions in the Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Pushcart Prize Anthology. She lives in Santa Barbara, California with her husband and son.