What They Don’t Know hits bookstores tomorrow, and there isn’t a more important time for this novel than now.
After last week, a week of female outrage and toxic patriarchy, emotions regarding women’s issues run strong. Women across the country were reminding friends that #MeToo is more than a hashtag while men either shouted back, cowered in elevators, or stood strong in support of women. Nicole Maggi’s novel, What They Don’t Know, raises questions around the anti-abortion/pro-choice discussion, an issue that is as timely as ever with the Supreme Court nomination at stake.
What They Don’t Know delves into the journals of two teenage girls on separate sides of the abortion debate. When one of them is raped, leaving her pregnant, she’s alone to suffer a decision she never thought she’d have to make – and the only person who can help is an old friend she never thought she would turn to, a friend with her own dangerous secret.
I had the privilege to sit down with Nicole Maggi over a glass of red wine, with a distressing label featuring an ex-con, and chat about her timely novel, women’s issues, and female friendships.
Chris: What inspired you to write What They Don’t Know?
Nicole: I wanted to write about a female friendship. All my books have a strong romantic through line. I love romance as much as the next YA reader, but I really wanted to write about a female friendship. A passing comment about abortion from my agent sparked this idea in me; then I came up with the what if question, “What if there were two girls who were on the opposite side of the debate, and the anti-abortion girl finds herself in a situation where she needs an abortion and the pro-choice girl is the only one who can help her?”
Chris: Why did you choose the journal format for this novel?
Nicole: It was a gut instinct. I wrote 35,000 words in narrative form and it was awful. It was so wrong. And I was like what is wrong with this book?! After about 6 months, I was like what the hell do I do? My husband was the one who suggested it in journal format. It sparked this memory in me of when I was in college. One of my acting teachers made us keep a journal and turn it into him at the end of semester. I wrote deep, personal stuff in that journal. I trusted this teacher; he was so lovely and nurturing. I wanted my characters writing the journal to someone, so it doesn’t just belong to them.
I threw 35,000 words out the window. Once I started writing in journal format, it was immediately clear it was right. I tapped into their voices and everything clicked. I felt the story on a much more visceral level through the journal format than narrative. It was kinda amazing because I’ve never written like that. It happened organically, and I love it. You have to feel these characters in your gut and feel what they are going through in your gut. And that is how I could access it.
Chris: This book is so timely with the SCOTUS nomination that could swing the court to the right. I can’t think of a more important time for this book to hit stores. Would you call it prophetic?
Nicole: I really wish it wasn’t prophetic. I started writing the book in 2016. In June of that year, the Supreme Court struck down that restrictive Texas abortion law that closed down the clinics in Texas. It was a huge win for reproductive rights. Between that and it looked like we were going to have our first female president, I thought my book would be irrelevant. And here we are – and yeah…
I wrote most of the first draft in the months right after the election. I started plotting it in January 2016. In August 2016, I started it in journal format. Wrote from August 2016 to January 2017, but a lot of it was written in November, December, and January. There was a lot of shit in there. My editor came back and said, “Lise kinda feels like a mouthpiece for the feminist agenda.”
Mellie was pretty nuanced, but Lise took more work. Lise is me. I had to step back and make sure she was her own person and not a bra-burning feminist stereotype. It went through two major rounds of edits, and it was all during Trump’s first year. A lot of it was written in reaction to what was going on in the world around me. Then the book was on its way to the printer the week Justice Kennedy announced his retirement. I emailed my production editor to make changes based on what was going to happen. She told me I had two days. I changed the book so it is set 30 seconds in the future when Roe v. Wade is overturned.
The language of Roe v. Wade is very vague. It says laws cannot provide undue burden for women to seek an abortion. But what’s undue burden? There’s one clinic left in the state of Missouri – that’s an undue burden. All abortions are banned after 6 weeks in Iowa before most women know they are pregnant. Roe v. Wade has already been chipped away at that it’s close to being dead. I hope for a future where women can have an abortion without restrictions, but I imagine it will be more like an underground railroad for abortions, a network of women helping each other to get safe, legal abortions.
Chris: You listened to a number of women share their stories about their rape or decision to choose while writing this novel. Mellie also has a few characters share their stories with her too. What was the greatest truth you walked away from after hearing women open up to you?
Nicole: After I started writing the book, people started asking me what I’m working on. Seven out of ten times I would get, “Oh, I had one.” It came from every corner of my life. As the stories came to me, I started to feel like I was being given this really important responsibility to bear witness to these stories because there is such a stigma of shame around abortion and there shouldn’t be. It is a medical decision women have to make. Chances are you know someone in your life who had one who hasn’t spoken to you about it. These stories happen in the shadows, and it was my privilege to bring them into the light through this book.
A year and half after I had started writing the book, I reached out to one of the women who had said I have a story I’d love to share with you. That was my only official interview. All the other ones happened spontaneously. After three hours, I left her and curled up on the coach and cried for the rest of the afternoon. It overwhelmed me how hard and emotional this decision was for this woman to make. I was impacted by, one, that I was trusted with this story and, two, how gut-wrenching this experience is for women to go through it.
Chris: Some of the elements about the PCC (Pregnancy Care Center) seem far-fetched like telling someone they will get cancer from an abortion. What was made up for the plot and what was based in reality?
Nicole: Absolutely nothing was made up. Everything that happens to Mellie from that scene was taken from research – from not being allowed to leave, being given baby clothes, slut-shamed, a forced ultrasound. Every single thing happened. YES, that is what they tell women!
The thing that gets me about the anti-abortion side is they think we are pro-abortion. That is not true. We are trying to decrease the rate of abortions. Our goal is to give women a choice. If they want to have a baby and that is their choice, then yes we will support that. But if they want to terminate the pregnancy, we give them the choice to do so.
Women are healthier when they have access to full extensive reproductive care. The anti-choice side is not about saving babies because if it was they wouldn’t have an issue with birth control. They don’t want women to have access to birth control. It is about policing women’s’ bodies. Plain and simple.
Chris: A lot of hope feels lost for women’s rights today. Any advice on how your fellow sisters can push forward?
Nicole: Alcohol. Not seriously, but… We are what’s going to lift each other up, and yes, there are good men out there who will lift us up. We need them. We need good male allies. But we are going to need to do the work and lift each other up. That’s why I wanted to write about a female friendship, about how powerful girls and women can be when they lift each other up instead of tear each other down. And that will save us in the end.
Last week in particular there have been a lot of villains, but there have been a lot of heroes too. The woman who confronted Jeff Flake in the elevator is a hero. Honest to god, put-a-cape-on-her superhero. Women like that inspire the rest of us to stand up and be braver and speak out. Even when it is inconvenient and at risk to ourselves. Christine Blasey Ford is getting death threats, but she still went in front of that panel and held her head high and spoke her truth. Those women, we can look to them. That’s how we get through this; we keep being brave and stand up for each other. Somehow, if we all link arms we will get it done. The patriarchy will be smashed. I’m also inspired by the amount of pure rage I feel in me and every woman I know. That rage is powerful and will help us.
Chris: At the end of your book you have a statement to your readers that touches on this, but what do you want to say to all the Mellies and Lises out there?
Nicole: I wrote this book for them. I wrote it for my daughter in ten years. I wrote it because I wanted them to know that it is really hard to be a girl in this world. I wanted to tell them that there are friends in this world who will build you up and friends who will tear you down, and the sooner you learn how to tell the difference the better it will be. Be the Lise. Don’t be the Delia. Don’t be the fair-weather friend. Be the friend that is the light in someone else’s darkness.
Chris: We are Novel2Screen, so I have to ask – what is your favorite adaptation?
Nicole: This is going to sound so pretentious but The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It’s a beautiful movie. Oh, and there’s a French Les Miserables directed by Claude Lelouch. It’s not a straight adaptation of the book. The main character in the movie is basically the Jean Valjean character, and he’s an older man during WWII who winds up sneaking out a Jewish family from Paris. What happens to each character is what happens in Les Miserables. It’s an echo of the book and wonderful and you can’t fucking find it anywhere!
What They Don’t Know will be in stores tomorrow! Grab your copy and join the discussion.
For more of my interviews with authors, click here. Follow me on Twitter @ACCooksonWriter and on Novel2Screen.
And don’t forget to vote November 6, 2018.