Sophie Mackintosh: ‘There is this huge physical trauma of having a baby that no one talks about’

The young writer is routinely compared to Margaret Atwood but her new feminist dystopia is far more impressionistic. She talks to Annabel Nugent about why mothers are the ultimate survivalists

Tuesday 15 September 2020 12:10 BST
(Sophie Davidson)

Mackintosh writes with a language drawn from the body. Like a loose tooth finally tugged free by a piece of string or the gentle pulse of blood expelled from a papercut, there is a sense of corporal catharsis in her books. Her latest sci-fi novel has a pregnant narrator trying to escape a quasi-totalitarian regime. But Mackintosh is not concerned with the pregnancy glow nor the baby bump: instead, she is fascinated by the skin that stretches taut over blue veins, the discolouration of flesh. “There is this huge physical trauma of having a baby that no one talks about,” she says.

Today over Zoom, Mackintosh, 32, is wearing red lipstick and a demeanour several shades rosier than the dark matter of her novels. Her list of published works is short, but already they’ve left a mark: her breakthrough novel The Water Cure, about a family who sequesters themselves on an island as protection against literal toxicity carried by men, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018. It established the Welsh writer’s macabre strand of so-called “feminist dystopia”, a genre that includes writers like Louise Erdrich, Leni Zumas, Bina Shah and Margaret Atwood, to whom she is routinely compared. At the time it was a buzzy phrase in fiction but Mackintosh doesn’t want to be limited by such a trend.

“The issue isn’t so much with the term but people’s expectations of the genre,” she says with the weariness of an author who takes every Goodreads review to heart. “I’ve had people read the book and say, ‘This is just a terrible Handmaid’s Tale’, even though it’s nothing like it,” she says before caveating her frustration: “I think I’m just really conscious of disappointing people.”

Blue Ticket, her recently released book, certainly hasn’t disappointed, impressionistic and haunting in equal measure. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it deals with the politics of reproduction: set in an unnamed place at an unnamed time, the story follows young Calla, who, on the day of her first period, is allocated a ticket by the government. A white ticket means her fate is to bear children; blue and she is forbidden by law. After feeling initial relief at drawing blue (being denied motherhood in this society is equal to being permitted a career, a sex life, freedom), Calla is consumed by a desire to do the thing she is prohibited from doing.

Upon closer inspection, though, the similarities between Blue Ticket and The Handmaid’s Tale fall short. Where feminist dystopias typically fill in the gaps between our world and their fictitious ones, taking care with great detail (and sometimes a heavy hand) to outline the hazardous path society is careening down, Mackintosh doesn’t bother. Calla, for example, exists as if in a video game. Her immediate surroundings are intensely detailed, but anything beyond that is blurry, perhaps not even written into existence at all.

'Blue Ticket’ is Mackintosh’s second published novel
'Blue Ticket’ is Mackintosh’s second published novel (Penguin Random House)

“Readers get disappointed by my lack of world-building,” says Mackintosh. “They want me to talk about the societies I create and how these scenarios came to be but the world is just a tool to drive the narrative,” she says. “Calla is the character and the world is just there as a helpful prod in the right direction. The character is always the point.” And who can fault her? With characters so fully written – thin-skinned and fleshy and all-feeling – there is little desire to look beyond the peripheries anyway.

In fact, while typical feminist dystopias gain much of their power from a riveting event-heavy plot, the most captivating moments in Mackintosh’s novels are almost always confined to the parameters of her narrator’s own flesh and bones. In Blue Ticket, Calla’s metamorphosis during pregnancy is due the most attention. “When I first approached the book, immediately I was like ‘body horror’!” she says of the lurid way in which she ended up describing that change. But she also wanted to show a different side to pregnant women: their strength. The first part of the book is familiar, a solipsistic bildungsroman written like how Sofia Coppola films look (hazy, hyper-feminine, dream-like). But somewhere along the way, Blue Ticket switches gears and becomes a fast-paced chase, thrown into motion by Calla fleeing the city.

“The idea of a pregnant woman being a survivalist isn’t something you see usually [in pop culture],” Mackintosh explains, “but it’s something that made a lot of sense to me, that if you’re pregnant you would naturally have this strong survival instinct. I wanted to dispel the idea of Calla as this milky lady who’s very serene and docile. It’s got this ‘Bear Grylls but pregnant’ vibe which is fun.”

Mothers, babies, pregnancy. As a writer concerned with the tenuous state of women’s rights, the themes of Blue Ticket feel like a natural progression for Mackintosh, whose one previous book earned her a reputation for taking to task the policing of women’s bodies. But in reality, the impetus was more personal. “I used to not want a baby at all,” she says. “I was very sure about that.” But in her late twenties, she said that completely changed. She looks a little surprised as she admits this, as though this unexpected desire still feels foreign to her.

In Blue Ticket, Calla says of her yearning to be a mother: “I wondered if I was purposely masochistic or just a moth blundering into a flame.” On our call, Mackintosh echoes a similar sentiment: “Why am I doing this when there are so many reasons not to?” She cites personal grounds (loss of freedom, financial strain, dizzying blood loss, the vague multitude of rips) and wider ones too (the ongoing pandemic, economic recession, climate crisis) as the things which had dissuaded her from motherhood for so long.

Just as Mackintosh’s turn to motherhood was a drastic departure, her path to writer was not without its own pit stops: a fashion course and a stint in PR included. She did, however, glean her first experience of the so-called “writerly life” – a serene existence surrounded by books and cloistered from financial concerns – when on residency at Gladstone's Library last year, which is where she wrote most of Blue Ticket. “It’s amazing how much you can get done in a whole month of not having to do anything else,” she says.

‘The Water Cure’ was long-listed for the Man Booker prize in 2018
‘The Water Cure’ was long-listed for the Man Booker prize in 2018

Mackintosh has the uneasiness of a writer still settling into success. She knows what a privilege it is to be a full-time novelist and how quickly that can all change with just one misspoken word. On Twitter, her newfound literary fame has made things less fun. “Sometimes I think, ‘Oh no, I can’t really post that terrible joke’ or ‘maybe I need to be a bit more parent-friendly’,” she laughs. “I would love to be like Sally Rooney on Twitter who just occasionally swoops in and then back up.”

When it comes to discussing Mackintosh’s next project, her apprehension manifests as an endearing worry. “I’m a bit superstitious talking about it, because I don’t know when I’m going to finish it and I’m thinking, oh my God, what if it’s awful?” What she does divulge, however, is that it’s a piece of historical fiction set in the 50s – not a feminist dystopia at all then, and certainly, it will be nothing (nothing!) like The Handmaid’s Tale. “No one can compare them this time,” she laughs. “Nope! Absolutely not.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in