The Book of the Unnamed Midwife Turns Ten

Ten years ago, I published my first book. That book changed my life.

An author’s first published book always changes their life. It’s the first time that the work becomes real to other people who are not the author’s agent, or publisher, or friends. It becomes real to people the author has never spoken to and will likely never know. It was a heady accomplishment, and the very top of my goal list at that time. All I wanted was to get published, and I could die happy thereafter. After it happened, I had to sit with my sudden lack of goals: what next?

I got very lucky with my first book. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is an angry piece of work, born out of my white-hot feminist rage and my understanding of where we were headed. I knew in 2012 that we were going to lose Roe. I worried about it and I marched and I fought. I escorted people into Planned Parenthood and I wrote this book about childbirth becoming fatal, about a world where women are scarce and hunted. I hoped we would not build the torment nexus.

But we did.

My obsession with the precarity of owning a uterus turned into this novel, and the work that followed me through the years in which I would have to decide what to do with mine. I have six books out now, and no children. There are more books coming. I have no regrets.

Midwife was published in June of 2014 by Sybaritic Press, a small operation based in Los Angeles. Not typically a publisher of novels, they took a chance on mine. I had spent more than a year querying agents and trying other ways to get published. That first hurdle is high, and I could not clear it. When Sybaratic made me a modest offer, I took it. I just wanted to see my book in the world.

No one was more shocked than me when it was nominated for the Philip K. Dick award. I went from not being able to get anyone to give my first novel the time of day to lavish attention in the L.A. Review of Books and competing with real authors who had real careers already: R. K. Duncan, Jennifer Marie Brissett, Emmi Itäranta, and Cherie Priest.

No one was more shocked than me when I won.

Brissett took the special citation for her excellent novel, Elysium. I was wild the night I won; drunk on whiskey and optimism. I had just met George R. R. Martin, the guest of honor at that NorWesCon. I had been hand-selling copies of my book out of a suitcase; the convention bookseller told me he couldn’t get copies. I couldn’t afford to stay in the hotel and had been crashing with friends nearby. I nearly blacked out when they read my name. I had not written an acceptance speech at all.

It is difficult to explain how many doors were suddenly open to me. I graduated Berkeley that same year, and it felt like a long and difficult takeoff had finally culminated in breaking through the clouds and into the bright blue sky. I was shown so much kindness by people in this industry, by veterans and optimists and other new writers. I was lucky, every day. I still am.

A writer’s life is a series of long waits. It feels as if those of us who are lucky get these bright blazing moments and then wait a year, two or three years, for another. It took two years for Midwife to re-debut, through a new publisher with a new cover. Those years between bright events feel like the grave; I worried that everyone had forgotten my name, that my career had been a wonderful anomaly and now it was over. Long-time career writers told me that it always feels like that. Brissett and I both live in New York— I had lunch with her recently and I had come (as we do) to devalue my own accomplishments, feeling like it was all so long ago and far away.


She reminded me of how lucky we had been. How much it still means. How most writers never get what we got. She’s right, and I’m lucky again to know writers like her. The last ten years have brought me so much joy, so much pride, and given me reasons to keep living, keep making art.

Ten years later, it’s still a good book. I’m fantastically proud of it. It’s sold over one hundred thousand copies. It’s been optioned, though no film has been made. This book was a raft I built myself because I knew nothing about the sea of publishing except that I wanted to be on it. I picked the thing that I hoped would kill me, and I’m overjoyed that it’s still trying.

Writing books is the only job I ever really wanted, and the best one I’ve ever had. I can’t wait to show you my next one. I can’t be anything but proud of and grateful for my first, ten years later.


Liked it? Take a second to support Meg Elison on Patreon!

Leave a Reply