Clare Beams births a new kind of pregnancy horror with The Garden | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Clare Beams births a new kind of pregnancy horror with The Garden

click to enlarge Clare Beams births a new kind of pregnancy horror with The Garden
Photo: Kristi Jan Hoover
The Garden author Clare Beams
Clare Beams calls herself “a trees person, not a forest person” when revising copy.

“You can say to me, 'I don’t understand the character. Why is she so mean?'” Beams tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “And I’ll be totally thrilled to write three new chapters to try and understand that, to soften that. But if you start with my commas and my wording, I get very bristly, not because they’re perfect, but because I’ve just really thought about everything.”

As in her debut novel, The Illness Season, set in 1870s New England at a school for adolescent girls, Beams uses the past to examine contemporary issues. Her recently released second novel The Garden (Doubleday) takes place during the late 1940s at a hospital run by two doctors attempting to help women conceive after suffering miscarriages. But the main character Irene Willard, who suffers five miscarriages before entering the remote hospital near the Berkshires, finds layers of intrigue in both the treatment and the grounds surrounding the facility.

The Edgewood-based author will appear on Tue., June 11 at the Cooper Siegel Community Library in Fox Chapel to discuss The Garden.

Beams, who stylistically evokes Willa Cather, Carson McCullers, or Eudora Welty, found inspiration for the story after learning about a forgotten drug: diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic estrogen once thought to be useful for women who’d suffered miscarriages, but was proven to cause severe complications and birth defects.

“I just sort of stumble across these things,” Beams adds. “But when I get excited about them and they feel like they’re mine, I feel like they could be the seeds for something that could comment on an experience that I’ve had in some way that I don’t feel I’ve seen a lot about."

Beams came across the drug while searching for an alternate title for the British version of The Illness Season, which ultimately kept its original title.

Notably, diethylstilbestrol was pioneered in the United States by Olive Watkins Smith, a biochemist, and her husband George Van Siclen Smith, an obstetrician. Beams says, at the time, because women’s hormones swung during miscarriages, the Watkins wanted to use the drug to “even out” women’s conditions during pregnancies.

“I think the idea historically of evening women out is not usually an indication heading somewhere great,” she says.

Beams believes that pregnancy has, historically, not been researched as thoroughly as it should be, and notes that there are reasons for that.

"Women don’t volunteer for studies, but also women’s bodies, in general, haven’t been studied the way that men’s bodies have," she says, adding, “And so, there’s this weird legacy, I think it’s just centuries of misogyny, but also weird ideas about sacredness, and, we better not look too closely at these origins of life. And certainly, we shouldn’t use the right words for these things because that would be more than women can handle."

A mother of two young girls, Beams notes that, during each of her pregnancies, there were “strange little things” on her scans or tests that were inexplicable to her physicians. She recounts how a doctor told her, "Don’t worry, nature knows what it’s doing."

"And I was like, that doesn’t help me," says Beams. "It was very much like, don’t worry your little head.”

Despite the personal connection to The Garden's subject matter, Beams says she never intended to convey any message or commentary.

“I’m not the type of writer who starts out thinking I have something to say,” Beams says. “I’m the kind of writer who writes and then I’m like, `So that’s what I think about that.’ I discover what I think as I write.”
Clare Beams: The Writing of The Garden. 6:30-8 p.m. Tue., June 11. Cooper Siegel Community Library. 403 Fox Chapel Rd., Fox Chapel. Free. Registration required.

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