Interview with Kerri Maher
Every so often, something that seems to have been relegated to the realm of historical fiction abruptly resurfaces in the present. As discussed in my latest interview with Kerri Maher, the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling of June 24, 2022, is one example of such a change. By revoking the constitutional right to an abortion guaranteed by the court’s own Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, the justices threw the issue of reproductive health care back to the states. Conservatives did not hesitate, in many cases having lined up limitations and bans on abortion that would go into effect as soon as Dobbs became law. In the last fourteen months, the number and extent of such limitations have only increased.
What seems to be lost in the debate is the reality that bans on abortion don’t end abortions. They merely restrict safe, legal abortions. In the Middle Ages, women took potions of juniper or yew to end unwanted pregnancies. Sometimes the medications had the desired effect, sometimes they didn’t, and sometimes they took the lives of the mothers as well as the children. So it has been throughout history, although the methods and the consequences have varied from one time and place to the next.
For all these reasons, Kerri Maher’s new novel, All You Have to Do Is Call, couldn’t have come at a better time. Through the eyes of three women and their friends, it explores the situation not long before Roe v. Wade went into effect. Read on to find out more.
You’ve written several previous novels—most recently, The Paris Bookseller—but this one, in a sense, must have turned from historical fiction into current events right before your eyes. Was that a coincidence, or did you imagine when you started out that such a thing might happen?
It was definitely a coincidence. While I certainly had not imagined that Roe would be overthrown, when Dobbs was decided, I was horrified but not entirely surprised. There was an inevitability to the decision that sickened me.
That inevitability is partly the result of the emotionally charged language we’ve come to use to talk about abortion. One of the things I realized in my research was just how differently we talk about abortion today than people did 50 years ago, because the anti-abortion movement has completely hijacked the language we use to talk about reproductive justice, pitting “pro-life” against “choice,” as if it’s a natural binary, when in truth every pro-reproductive rights person I know is in fact pro-life AND pro-choice. By contrast, in the early 1970s, the language of reproductive justice was rooted in women’s liberation and bodily autonomy, in gender equality and legal equality.
Language is slowly being wrested out of the hands of the fringe groups, but the damage they did was deep. It’s going to take a while to heal it. But I do feel that this summer, we made some major leaps forward, with Greta Gerwig preaching independence and sisterhood in Barbie, and Taylor Swift and Beyonce singing it in sold-out stadiums nationwide.
Before we explore your characters and the central issues of the novel, could you tell us a bit about the real Janes and how you learned about them?
Appropriately, I was on my way to meet a friend back in 2018, when I heard an NPR news story about the women of Jane in 1970s Chicago. I was amazed! Here were women just like me—wives, mothers, teachers, students—with no special medical training, who had had learned to give safe abortions to other women and offered them affordably and illegally, but with the utmost dignity. They did what needed to be done to help other women when the law was unjust. I immediately knew I had to write about them.
Your novel alternates among three women’s points of view. Introduce us first, please, to Veronica and what drives her.
Veronica is a crusader. She grows up in the post-war Chicago suburbs and pines to be part of the social changes she sees on the news, but she’s too young. She tries to become a Freedom Rider but isn’t offered a place. She gets married, becomes a teacher and part of the social movements changing city schools in the 1960s, but then finds herself pregnant. She wants to be a mother and loves her daughter fiercely, but always has the sense that she’s meant for more. Jane becomes her more.
Her best friend, Patty, has taken almost the opposite life trajectory to Veronica. Where is she, when the main section of the book begins in the fall of 1971?
Yes, in contrast to her oldest friend Veronica, Patty wants nothing more than to be a wife and mother. She lives that dream happily for many years, until—when the novel opens—she’s starting to see cracks in her formerly perfect life. Her husband is distant and might be cheating; her sister has been missing for three years; she misses her mother, who has been dead for six years. She has the sense that her life is spinning out of her control.
The third point-of-view character, Margaret, is at a very different point in her life from these two. What can you tell us about her?
Margaret is in her late twenties and has attained impressive success in her chosen career as an English professor. But she’s been unlucky in love so far, and she wonders “if perhaps love was antithetical to meaningful work.” Then she falls for Gabe, another professor she’d had a crush on for years, and she starts secretly volunteering for Jane where she meets Gabe’s ex-wife—and things get complicated for her very quickly.
There are several other women who, although not narrators, play important roles in the novel. I’m thinking specifically of Siobhan, Eliza, and Phyllis. Could you give us a very short introduction to them—especially Phyllis?
Siobhan and Veronica co-founded Jane and have been fearless leaders together, but in some ways they are aging out of their ability to lead the organization—in Siobhan’s case this is because she is single-parenting her daughter, and her career as a painter is taking off.
Eliza, Patty’s sister, is the youngest of the important characters, and she is figuring out who she is in relationship to her dead mother, her sister, and the changing world around her. She desperately needs support and encouragement, but has no idea how to ask for it.
A former model and colleague of Margaret’s at the University of Chicago, Phyllis has her own complicated long-term romantic relationship with Keith, a rising star superintendent whom Veronica once worked with. Phyllis’s story is especially important as she is the only Black member of Jane at a time when Jane provided abortions and birth control counseling mainly to Black women in Chicago.
I feel so lucky that I got to explore the lives of six remarkable women in this novel, each of them bold and brilliant in their own unique ways.
This book will be out next week, but it must have been in production for some time. Are you already working on something new?
I am! I just signed a contract for two more books with my wonderful publisher Berkley, and I couldn’t be happier! I’m in the early stages of researching and writing Summer of Love, a dual timeline novel alternating between the 1960s and 2010s, set in the California wine country and the San Francisco counter¬culture revolution.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Kerri Maher is the bestselling author of The Kennedy Debutante, The Girl in White Gloves, and The Paris Bookseller, as well as the memoir This Is Not a Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World. All You Can Do Is Call is her latest novel. Find out more about her at https://www.kerrimaher.com.