How many fictional abortions can you remember reading about (that aren’t set in a dystopian future)? What about movies in which the protagonist terminated a pregnancy (that were filmed during this millennium)?
That’s what I thought.
I wrote my first novel, My Thirty-First Year (And Other Calamities), so that women could see their lived experiences represented in fiction.
This is important. It’s why we consume art: To look for ourselves, to discover, process, and organize our feelings, to connect. We find community by recognizing our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences in others. Story, in all its forms, is connective tissue. Ancient humans who devoted all their resources to survival made space for it. This means that art is not “extra,” but essential. I would not know myself without it.
I found my late-twenties and early-thirties to be confusing, disorienting, and difficult. My expectations about gender equality, sexuality, partnership, pregnancy, motherhood, the workplace, and what being a happy, valid woman meant were all challenged, and dashed. I knew that lots of other women felt the same and, like me, had also experienced abortion. https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/induced-abortion-united-states?gclid=Cj0KCQiA8aOeBhCWARIsANRFrQFytZvKbfELfHX3MW7I9b-Ywa4G66BvQloXf7JO3-DaRKOVazU3rgYaAm-KEALw_wcB. But, in my voracious fiction reading, I didn’t see enough female protagonists like us.
So, I created Zoe Greene. In My Thirty-First Year, Zoe navigates abortion, divorce, gender and age dynamics in the workplace, internet dating, sex, imposter syndrome, society’s constructs of female happiness, and her own. She also practices law, exercises, journals, plays guitar, spends time with friends and family, laughs, cries, and flails. In other words, she lives — a regular, extraordinary life.
I knew that Zoe was relatable and the book well-written. I knew that abortion had been politicized, but also that it had been a regular part of life for centuries. It was topical. I therefore thought that, despite the dire statistics (https://www.zippia.com/answers/how-hard-is-it-to-become-a-published-author/), a publisher would buy my book.
I was wrong.
I first sniffed trouble when trying to find a literary agent. I’d expected the scores of non-responses and form rejections. Even the agent who expressed interest only if I changed Zoe’s abortion to a miscarriage didn’t bother me. What did were the long, thoughtful emails I received from agents who’d obviously read the manuscript, lavished me with praise, yet concluded with some version of, “Unfortunately, it’s not right for us at this time.” These rejections read like apologies. Something about them felt off.
I immediately forgot all of this when I found my agent, Beth. In the summer of 2019, after we’d perfected the manuscript together, Beth told me she was putting My Thirty-First Year (And Other Calamities) out on submission — that is, pitching it to publishers. “Keep your cell phone on you,” she said. “I think this book will go fast.”
Eleven months later, Beth and I had a more somber conversation. The book hadn’t sold — not to a single imprint, big or small. The feedback Beth received sounded just like the apology-rejections I’d gotten from agents. I was about to voice my suspicion when Beth beat me to it: “I think it’s the abortion,” she said.
We talked about how we knew of no fictional protagonists who had abortions. Only celebrities who’d written about their abortions in op-eds and memoirs. Neve Campbell’s character on the TV show Party of Five (1994–2000) miscarried before her scheduled abortion, and therefore didn’t need it. (In reality, she likely would have needed a “D&C” — Dilation and Curettage — or “D&E” — Dilation and Evacuation — because this same procedure used in surgical abortions is often used to complete miscarriages.) In Dirty Dancing, (1987) Patrick Swayze’s Johnny Castle was falsely accused of getting his dance partner, Penny, “in trouble” and sending her for a back-alley abortion that almost killed her. Penny was a minor character and a victim; her need to convalesce thrust Jennifer Grey’s Frances “Baby” Houseman into the lead dancing role. Even Miranda on Sex and the City (1998–2004) walked out on her abortion appointment to carry her pregnancy to term.
The last authentic protagonist’s abortion we could remember occurred in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High…in 1982. Cameron Crowe, upon whose book Fast Times was based, acknowledged that the abortion scene would have been “outrageously controversial” in 2019. https://www.thecut.com/2019/07/fast-times-at-ridgemont-high-abortion-too-bold-for-2019.html
Rage caused me to buck Beth’s advice to write another book or two and hope that Big Publishing would be ready for My Thirty-First Year in the not-too-distant future. But I knew readers were ready for my book now. I was tired of bowing to political agendas and to shame. So I made the humbling and scary decision to sign with She Writes Press, a hybrid publisher that requires authors to help bankroll their books, and at which industry snobs thumb their noses. Despite selling the audio rights to Dreamscape Media, who produced a bang-up audiobook, and despite the Dobbs decision coming down just weeks before my publication date, I am still nowhere near breaking even on My Thirty-First Year.
Publisher’s Weekly, which has reviewed books by every author I know, including those from She Writes Press, immediately declined to review My Thirty-First Year. Despite my publicist’s considerable efforts, I have not had a book event anywhere in the Chicagoland area — where the book is set, where I lived until I was 31, and where I have tons of family and friends who would buy books and bring friends. Not the bookstore I grew up frequenting, not my local library, not my local Jewish Community Center. A progressive Chicago bookstore that’s sold several copies of My Thirty-First Year told my publicist that it didn’t want to host an event for “an abortion book.” At least they were honest.
My Thirty-First Year (And Other Calamities) has garnered some favorable reviews and been, on the whole, well-received. Most importantly, it’s meant something to my readers, several of whom have been generous enough to tell me so. These readers feel seen, are processing their own experiences and feelings, and finding sisterhood as a result of this book. That’s worth something. My good, hard work is worth something. Women are worth something. So are the millions of people who’ve had abortions. It’s time the book industry started acting like it.