Emilie Pine: ‘I miss the children I didn’t have. Some people get that and some don’t’

The author’s debut novel draws on her personal experience of infertility and loss

Telling the truth about your darkest days creates a space for others to do the same. Author Emilie Pine knows this – which is why she is sitting in a hotel lounge in Dublin on a Friday afternoon patiently listening to my sad stories, when I am the one who should be asking the questions.

This is not an uncommon experience for Pine. Her first book, Notes to Self, was a collection of personal essays that focused on her father’s alcoholism, infertility and sexual violence. Since its publication in 2018, people have been sidling up to her with stories to tell.

“They would always say, I like the book, and then they follow up with [their own experience]. At first I thought I had to say the perfect thing in response. Then I realised that it’s not about me at all, it’s absolutely about the person getting to say the things they wanted to say.”

Now Pine is writing fiction. Her debut novel, Ruth & Pen, is set on a single day in Dublin in 2019. Two women walk the streets of the city, wondering how to fit within their own lives. Ruth is a therapist in her late 30s, and she and her husband, Aidan, are struggling with the grief that comes with infertility and loss. Pen is a teenager with autism, falling in love with her best friend.

Having opened up so much about herself in Notes, is this move into fiction her way of establishing some new boundaries around her work?

Pine’s move into fiction was more considered than the writing of Notes to Self, which “in some ways felt quite accidental, I didn’t really know what I was doing as I was doing it. With Ruth & Pen, I had time off work. I was sitting down to write, which felt like a slightly different project.”

Pine is a professor of modern drama at University College Dublin. "I love my job as a lecturer," she says. " It doesn't feel like my entire identity is riding on being a writer."

Nevertheless, she took a year off to write Ruth & Pen. “The first time since my early 20s that I felt I had me time. It felt like being given permission to try something else.”

Irish publisher Tramp Press originally published Notes, and Pine credits editors Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff with helping her to find her way as a writer. "Maybe one of the best things they ever did was say to me that they liked my voice. This was extraordinary for me, because I always thought I'm not literary enough, because I'm not John Banville. I think what Notes to Self did was made me feel like it was okay for me to write as myself. I'm very happy to be publishing my first novel in my mid-40s."

Having opened up so much about herself in Notes, is this move into fiction her way of establishing some new boundaries around her work?

“Yes and no. So having written Notes, and then the extraordinary reception of it, and meeting so many people and hearing their stories, I felt like sharing was absolutely the right decision to make there. It was hugely healing for me in lots of ways.

“But then at some point, it started to cost more than it gave. In particular, talking about sexual violence. I had to draw a line under that and say, I’ve written my story if you would like to read that, but I’m not going to talk about it anymore. I needed to just stop being that person. It felt emotionally I was dragging myself back into the past. I needed to move on.

“I am still dealing with a lot of those issues emotionally, but not autobiographically.” Fiction allows her “to explore other people’s lives or trajectories”, she says.

Her parents read Ruth & Pen in draft form and “were both hugely supportive of it”, she says. “Notes was difficult from a revealing-the-family perspective.”

In one essay, Pine wrote about finding her alcoholic father in a “small pool of his own sh*t” in a rundown Greek hospital.

Are they delighted you’re writing fiction now? I ask.

She laughs. “I’ll let you make your own decision on that one.”

Pine explains that the character of Ruth, "a slightly difficult middle-aged woman", lived in her head for some time, but she wasn't sure what to do with her. Then in 2019 she spent time as a writer in residence at the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street.

“The whole hospital were so welcoming. I was like, I made a choice to be here, where do I go imaginatively.” This is where Ruth came in.

Pine has written extensively on her own experience with infertility and miscarriage. In Vogue magazine, she wrote, “The fact of infertility was a wall I thought I could break down if I simply hit myself against it with enough force.” In later interviews, she suggested she was done with the topic. Was she surprised to find herself returning to it for this book?

“I think I was done with my own version of the story, but not done with the subject matter.”

Writing in an office in Holles Street sounds difficult, but for Pine, “it felt right”. “I’m not saying it wasn’t really hard walking through the doors. I was curious about it, and when I’m curious, I don’t want to walk away. It’s not finished then.”

Pen, the teenage girl in the novel, was “an extraordinary kind of counterbalance” to Ruth. Pine needed both characters – writing about Ruth and her husband, Aidan, was “claustrophobic emotional work”.

Having written about her own experiences of being a teenager in Notes, I wonder if she drew on that for Pen. At one point in the story, Pen is at a sleepover and the girls tell her to get into a wardrobe and leave her there. Pine once had a similar experience.

“Oh, I got in a wardrobe,” she says quietly. “[It was] exactly that level of cruelty. But a completely different scenario. It’s an invention, in a sense, because Pen is an invention of a character, but I know that happens. I think bullying is a very sad, terrible thing. And more than that, it’s about loneliness.”

There is something of Ulysses about Ruth & Pen. 'It's set on one day with two characters of the same gender walking around so it has to be, right?'

There is a real tenderness in the way in which Pine writes about the teenage girls in the novel.

“Is there any time that you’re more in flux? For me, Pen’s life is all about possibility. The world is there for them. They’re moving forwards into it. I say, in Notes to Self, I would love to go back and give my 14-year-old self a hug. To say, this is really hard.”

Pine wrote about her “wild” teenage years in Notes but found comfort in the structure of academia from the moment she entered university. “I found somewhere I belong, and I never lost that sense of belonging.” Things may not have worked out as they did. “It felt scary there at a point in my life. People don’t make it, I’m very aware of that. And people are constantly telling you that this is the best part of your life. The joy of discovering that it wasn’t! The joy of getting older!”

Pine sees Ruth and Pen as women who are “both working out how to live their lives on their own terms. You’re constantly in a negotiation between the thing that you think you should do, the thing other people want from you. Often it comes down to just one moment where you decide no, actually this is me.”

There is something of Ulysses about Ruth & Pen. “It’s set on one day with two characters of the same gender walking around so it has to be, right?” She also found inspiration too in David Park’s short novel, Travelling in a Strange Land. “Those big texts like Ulysses can often feel like a burden in some ways, too significant. As a writer, you have to find little lighthouses that you can use to steer by.”

We discuss the references to the National Maternity Hospital in Ulysses. “In that chapter in Ulysses, you see a lot of men talking and none of the actual experience. For me, one of the things I wanted to do with Ruth and Pen was to bring Aidan’s experience to the fore. The kind of exclusive association between maternity and women’s bodies, and fertility and having babies, it’s so damaging in so many ways.”

Why don’t more men write about this topic?

“Maybe they have seen how people respond to women writing autobiographically. Look at how women get treated, as if to write about your own life and your own body, your own experience, is lesser somehow. Why would men take that risk?”

Before we move on any further I tell Pine my story, so she knows that I know about miscarriages and rounds of IVF, so there is a shared understanding here in this room. And to let Pine know that I believe what she believes, that it helps to hold these things up to the light. It changes something about the conversation.

We talk about whether miscarriage and fertility are still not written about enough.

“I don’t know about you,” she says, “but there are quite a few memoirs about IVF and infertility and a lot of them end with a baby. And I found that really hard.”

I tell her that I feel like a lot of those books are written from a safe harbour – the hardship has been endured and overcome, the baby is in the world.

'Realising that I was in mourning was really important for me. It took so long to get to the point that I understood that this was grief'

“I find it very difficult to read that,” she says. “I’m delighted for them in their lives but that’s not my story. It’s one of the reasons why I wrote Notes. When you’re going through it, you’re looking for something that will make you feel better in that moment, that looks vaguely like your life. I struggled to find that in 2015. So I wrote it for myself, the title of it really is true. Now there is that small window opening up for those kinds of memoirs. But so often, they’re also twinned with extraordinary things, like, you know, ‘I swam the Channel.’”

We both laugh.

“Why can’t we just be ordinary?” she says.

But hasn’t she done something extraordinary now, with these books?

“Writing Ruth & Pen or writing Notes was finding a bit of paper and a pen and a bit of space. I was very lucky with Ruth & Pen to be able to take time off work, but with Notes, I was doing it on the bus. I was doing it around my job. Everybody’s lives look extraordinary from the outside, but from the inside it, it feels very ordinary. I think that’s really something to hold on to, and to be in love with the ordinary.”

Did the absence of children in her life create a space that writing came to fill?

“Oh yes, but the book is not my baby. There is no replacement for that. You do know, right? But I am aware that I most likely wouldn’t have written either of these books had I had the baby, and neither is better or worse. I have heard people say, you know, everything works out for the best . . .”

That it was all a path to where you are now, I say.

“There isn’t a path,” Pine says. “Everybody has something in their lives that they are carrying. And then hopefully, everybody has some joy in their lives as well. It’s about having both of those things and acknowledging that.”

Towards the end of Ruth & Pen, there are scenes were Ruth and Aidan circle again and again the question of whether they should keep trying for a baby.

“It’s hard. When to stop?”

We talk about the difficulty of knowing when to draw a line in the sand – trying to gauge the regrets of your future self.

“I had those conversations with myself,” she says. “I still do.” She mentions a friend who said to her “you need to make a decision. You just choose one. There isn’t a right decision. Which made me very annoyed when he said it, but it’s true. There is no perfect decision. I really believe that.”

When Pine and her partner decided to stop trying, it was important for her to acknowledge the feeling of grief.

“Realising that I was in mourning was really important for me. It took so long to get to the point that I understood that this was grief. Why aren’t we having more open public conversations about grief?”

In Ruth & Pen, Ruth says, “I miss the children I didn’t have.” It’s something Pine has also written in her essays.

'I think we are so hungry to see our lives reflected, whether that's in fiction or non-fiction. It's just the places that we will seek out in order to have a moment of identification that makes us feel less alone'

“I said it to somebody who has children and he said, I don’t understand what you mean. I said, that’s an emotional understanding that you and I don’t share in this moment, and that’s fine. But I miss the children I didn’t have, and some people get that and some people don’t.”

I mention another line from Ruth & Pen, “Her work wasn’t a consolation, it was a way of creating something new.”

“That feels true to me,” Pine says. “On a really pragmatic level, it’s about time. You know, the horrible stereotype of the infertile woman, that they’re so self-centred or they forgot to have children. The flip side of that is if you don’t have another person in your life that you have to put everything on hold for because they’re entirely dependent on you, you have the space and time, and not just in terms of hours, but the emotional time to spend on something else. So I’m going to sit down at the desk. This is what I have decided to do.”

We talk for a little while about the portrayal of infertility on television, about "child-free" writers such as Elizabeth Gilbert, about Elizabeth Day's podcasts. Chatting with Pine, you move seamlessly from Netflix to Beckett. She talks about searching for similar stories in Irish theatre: Norah's miscarriage in The Plough and the Stars, the stillbirth in The Faith Healer.

We are talking around the idea of representation, about the human need to see our story in someone else’s.

“I think we are so hungry to see our lives reflected, whether that’s in fiction or non-fiction. It’s just the places that we will seek out in order to have a moment of identification that makes us feel less alone.”

She describes an experience she had doing a book signing for Notes. “A man was getting me to sign his book. He said, ‘I have to read your book to see my experience reflected. I wish there were more men [writing] books like this.’ It was a very moving moment where he was saying, it’s wonderful, I loved reading the book, but I wish that there was more of that coming from male writers. I found that that’s really stayed with me.”

She believes that the “ordinariness” at the centre of her work is key. “If it weren’t ordinary, people couldn’t connect to it. The amusing thing is on the back of the first edition of Notes, Mark O’Connell, who is lovely, said it was a book about an extraordinary life. And I was like, it’s not! It’s such an ordinary life. But everybody’s life is extraordinary.”

They may be ordinary experiences, but it’s still extraordinary to talk about them.

“Oh god, who would?” she laughs. “Like people have boundaries for a reason, y’know?”