We sent Amanda Ortlepp, author of her popular début novel Claiming Noah, to three book clubs recently to discuss and debate her emotionally charged family thriller. Involving embryonic donation, adultery and post-partum psychosis, there are multiple ethical dilemmas to be torn over in the book.Here’s some discussion below from the three events – big thanks to Jenny from Kogarah Library, and Lisa and Kerry who hosted the events in their homes, for organising such a fantastic series of book club visits! Also a huge thanks to Amanda and her publicist Carol from the fantastic Simon & Schuster. Read below to catch all the juiciest discussion, and read more about Claiming Noah here.
Amanda can you tell us about how you started writing Claiming Noah?
I always wanted to write a book and then one day I just decided to start writing. I didn’t have any ideas – well, I didn’t have any good ideas – I just wanted to start writing something. So I spent about 3 months doing that and then I was having dinner with my sister one night – she was an anaesthetics nurse at the time – and she told me two doctors she knew who wanted to have a baby and they were thinking of using embryo donation, which I didn’t even know existed. So I was fascinated because it was a step on from egg or sperm donation and seemed to have a lot more issues to think about. And that night I went home and thought that’s the book I have to write.
I wrote it with two different protagonists because what I really wanted to get out of the book was that there’s not necessarily a right or wrong side to this story. There are two women’s stories and what they are doing and the decisions they are making are affecting the other one, even unintentionally. I wanted to see how two different women could come at the same issue and explore how their lives could affect each other.
How did you research the post-partum psychosis in the book?
It was traumatic, all the things I had to read. I did lots of research online but I found a book called Understanding Post-partum Psychosis: A Temporary Madness, and it was all first-hand accounts of women who had been through post-partum psychosis. Because it was all first-hand accounts it described what they went through and the fact that they didn’t hate their babies. The ones who had thought about killing their babies did it out of love – they thought it was the best thing to do for everyone.
What sparked your interest in the subject of embryonic adoption?
It was a conversation with my sister because before that I didn’t know that embryo donation existed at all. My sister is a nurse and was telling me about two doctors she knew who were good friends and wanted to have a child together and they were planning to use a donated embryo. So we ended up having a whole conversation about it and I found it fascinating because so many things cross your mind immediately when you hear about something like that – someone’s going through the entire journey of pregnancy and childbirth and would it (being pregnant with an adopted embryo) feel different, would it feel so much more like your child than if you adopted a live baby. I assume it would at least initially, but then once the baby’s born what does that mean in terms of the ethical and moral issues, and for the people that gave the baby away will they want to know who it goes to stay in contact or not stay in contact, will they always be looking around thinking “That child over there looks so much like you or me” and what happens if anyone gets health issues down the line in terms of blood transfusions and organ transplants. Do you constantly wonder “Is that embryo we donated a child? Is it being raised properly?”. Once I started researching embryo donation I found out you can choose to keep in contact with the recipient parents or not.
So when you were thinking about all the issues that might arise had you seen anything come up on the news – had there been stories?
Not really but it’s happened lately with Sofia Vergara, from Modern Family. That’s one of the reasons why embryo donation fascinated me – I wondered why it wasn’t in the news more because it’s been around for about 10 years. With IVF they used to create 5 or 6 embryos and implant them all at once and people ended up having twins and triplets and more. But now they only implant one or two at a time so it’s happening more and more because there are more embryos that people don’t know what to do with. Not many want to donate them and not many want to donate them to science, so most people just store them. In Australia less than 10% of couples donate their embryos and there are 120,000 frozen embryos in Australia.
You confronted me with a decision – would I procrastinate and let them (unused embryos) die, give them away or destroy them. I don’t think I could have destroyed them.
Most people don’t. You get a letter in the mail every year asking if you want to store them for another year and most people – about 80% of people – keep storing them until they become unviable. Very few people destroy them and about 10% donate them.
Towards the end of the book I started to think are we too precious about this subject. 100 years ago when there were bigger families, children might get farmed out to an aunt or a cousin. We really have become a bit possessive about all of this and it really wasn’t that way 100 years ago. It was practical it wasn’t such an ethical dilemma.
I think it’s going to become more and more of an issue because there are 120,000 excess frozen embryos in Australia and 600,000 in the US and it’s all because of the way IVF is changing. So now instead of implanting multiple embryos, they just do one or two. So there are more embryos created that then need to be stored.
Are any of the characters based on you?
The character of Catriona is an amalgamation of me and a lot of women I know who are career-minded, very much in control of their own lives and happily independent. A lot of Catriona’s issues with pregnancy and becoming a mother are what I’d expect to happen to me. My friends have said they love the character of Catriona because she’s not maternal even though she eventually gets there, she doesn’t love pregnancy, she’s not glowing, she finds it horrible, she’s sick and she’s fat and she doesn’t like this thing taking over her body, and that’s how I think I would feel as well.
Has much changed from the first draft to the final draft?
Not a lot. The story has stayed the same but the wording was polished and extra scenes added, and I also added some extra characters and tightened up the beginning of the chapters. My agent’s common feedback to me was “It’s too dark Amanda, put in a little bit of light!”, so I had to do that too!
It seemed to me you were trying really hard to balance the two couples – that each couple had pros and cons and questions about their fitness to be parents, when in fact we all have questions about our fitness to be parents!
Because it was such a dark and emotional book I wanted to balance them, especially in the earlier chapters, so when one of them is down the other is up.
I wasn’t a big fan of Richard.
You didn’t like him? My friend’s mum loved him! She came up to me last time I saw her and asked “Did Diana get back with Richard?!”
Was it hard for you to believe you could write a book? Did you have internal discussions with yourself – who do you think you are? What makes you think you’ve got a book in you?
More so for the second book because the first book I really just wrote for myself and then I got swept away with it and found an agent and then a publisher. The second book was harder because I knew it was definitely going to be published and that’s when I started asking myself “What do you think you’re doing? This is terrible, you can’t write!” I heard a really good quote, I think it’s from Matt Haig the author of The Humans, and he talks through the thought process of writing, which is basically: This is genius, this is terrible, you’re an idiot, I’m going to have some cake. That sounds about right!