Sophie Mackintosh

Sophie Mackintosh interview: ‘Women’s pain is something that can’t be put aside’

Her debut novel The Water Cure earned Sophie Mackintosh a Booker Prize nomination. With her second, Blue Ticket, she explores questions about fertility and choice in an uncanny world.

The last customers of the day are disembarking at Hollow Pond, the boating lake in Epping Forest. For the first time in hours, a mellow sun emerges through low clouds. Sophie Mackintosh and I are headed to the woods.

The location was the author’s choice: there is forestry here as well as stretches of scrubland, where the ghostly remains of long-dead trees pierce the fading light. It’s hardly as remote as Pembrokeshire, where she grew up, nor the dense Swiss woodland that partially inspired the eventful forest in Blue Ticket, her second – and latest – novel. But it’s close enough.

Outside in late summer, without a facemask in sight, it’s almost possible to forget about the pandemic. It’s within walking distance from her home and coming here, she tells me, “was a nice thing to do in middle of lockdown, be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to go for a three-hour walk and see nobody.’”

The Water Cure and Blue Ticket, Mackintosh’s two books, leave long tails. The first novel, released in 2018 and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, earned the author comparisons to Margaret Atwood. Vogue called her a ‘Star of the Future’ for the 2020s. A portrait of three sisters in an otherworldly backwater, told sparsely through their individual and collective narratives, the book conjures a world where masculinity is so toxic it makes women ill. When men enter their deliberately shut-off existence, violence and passion take hold within Mackintosh’s restrained prose. It is a novel that lingers.

Girls are ritualistically designated with a ticket that will define the shape of their lives

Two years on, and with her second novel Blue Ticket, Mackintosh says she found she had “settled into [her] writing and felt more solid in [her] voice”. The premise is simple: when they have their first period, girls are ritualistically designated with a ticket that will define the shape of their lives. If it’s blue, they will be child-free: they will work in the city, smoke and drink to excess, and have meaningless flings. If it is white, they will be mothers and that will be their sole duty. The tickets are assigned by a greater, anonymous, authority – details of which are scant – and the girls have no say in the matter. When Mackintosh’s protagonist Calla, who is a Blue Ticket, falls pregnant she embarks on an escape mission to maintain a motherhood she never knew she wanted.

“Everyone’s going to want to compare it to the first one,” Mackintosh says, and while there are similar themes to The Water Cure (female desire, inexplicable societal restrictions, the mysteries of inhabiting a woman’s body in a patriarchal world), Blue Ticket has a very different atmosphere. A crisply unfolding thriller to The Water Cure’s warped family saga, it’s somehow cooler, tinged in sepia and cigarette smoke. In The Water Cure, threat lingers near-constantly below the surface. In Blue Ticket, it breathes in your ear.

Listen to an extract from Sophie Mackintosh's Blue Ticket

Both revel in deliberately ambiguous fictional worlds. We never know when or where The Water Cure is set, and as Mackintosh explains with a throaty laugh interrupting her rapid Welsh lilt, Blue Ticket takes place “in this weird world, and on some levels it feels futuristic and authoritarian and on some levels it’s like, ‘Am I in a road trip movie in the Seventies and everyone’s smoking?’ But also there’s a doctor who can track my every move, but also there’s no technology.”

What Blue Ticket undeniably is, though, is a book about motherhood, fertility and the expectations society holds over women’s bodies. It’s also about female pain, which Mackintosh says, with unnecessary apology, she “could ramble on about for ages”. She maintains that women’s pain is “not being taken seriously”, that society has a tendency to “pathologise” it rather than acknowledge it properly – that childbirth can leave women with life-changing injuries, that going on the pill makes teenage girls suicidal. “I just want to give those topics seriousness, approach them in a way with gravity,” she says animatedly. “These are things that can’t be put aside.”   

Sophie Mackintosh
Sophie Mackintosh. Image: Stuart Simpson / Penguin

It’s also a far more personal book that The Water Cure was. “One of the reasons I wrote it was because I was thinking about babies so much,” she tells me, within seconds of the interview starting. “I was trying to work out whether I wanted them or not. I was really firm on the idea that I didn’t want them, and then suddenly I did. And it felt like a great betrayal of my body.”

Mackintosh is not a mother, although in interviews she has been open about her ambition to become one. She is in her early thirties, the age where people suddenly shift into becoming parents – “seeing my friends have babies, and having issues having babies, having babies unexpectedly” – and one’s awareness around pregnancy and birth can skyrocket. “Like, why does nobody tell you your pelvis can break, or you can just tear, or it’s the most dangerous thing your body can do?!” she rattles off. “It’s really interesting being that naïve.”

It was from this that Blue Ticket emerged. Mackintosh says she thought of it “in terms of body horror and metamorphosis, what if a pregnant woman could be monstrous? Then it evolved into something a bit different.”

'What if [your fertility] is decided for you, and you don’t have any say?'

That evolution also came as a result of Mackintosh’s cherry-picking writing process. There were books and films about women on road trips – Morvern Callar, both Alan Mourner’s book and Lynne Ramsay’s film adaptation, which was “really important, aesthetically”; Thelma and Louise and Michael Faber’s book Under the Skin, which inspired it – but also Pinterest boards and Spotify playlists. It’s a habit leftover from when Mackintosh wrote The Water Cure alongside an admin-heavy day-job. “There was a lot of filling out spreadsheets, so I would just plug in my headphones and play my movie soundtrack of The Water Cure and that would maybe keep it alive for me.” This time around For Blue Ticket, ‘Cherry-Coloured Funk’ by the Cocteau Twins was on heavy rotation.  

What’s particularly noticeable about Mackintosh’s writing is its precision. Like that of Shirley Jackson or Ali Smith, no word is wasted. Her sentences are short and they don’t faff about; even quotation marks are rendered unnecessary. Birds sing “like an alarm”, teeth come loose like “gravel, dirt, bone”.

Adjectives are few, and yet Mackintosh manages to evoke clear and distinct atmospheres and landscapes – it’s partly why her books are so memorable. During her adventure, Calla finds herself in the affluent, aspirational neighbourhood of those allowed to have families, and Mackintosh instils the whole thing with want: “Sand gave way to a group of small houses, yellow-painted. Flowers and shells in the gardens, benches on which you could sit and breathe in the sea air. White-ticket.”

Sophie Mackintosh
Sophie Mackintosh. Image: Stuart Simpson / Penguin

Does it just come out like that, I ask. “I know there are some writers who can just write perfectly off the bat, but that’s so not me,” she says. “My first drafts are so baggy and so messy. I’ve gone over and over and over it. I had a really specific idea of what I want it to be, and what I want an image to be, and so I’m quite careful about it.”

In Epping Forest, the sun is sinking. It catches on the lake under stretching skies. A gentle breeze rustles the rushes Mackintosh stands in as the photographer snaps away. The sound of the shutter and his direction catch on the air.

Blue Ticket was released in America a few months ago to warm and excited reviews. With them, it seems like Mackintosh might be shaking off that dystopia label: instead, there is a real sense that her writing about motherhood is deeply resonant at this time, when the future of next month, even next week seems bitterly uncertain – let alone that of another lifetime. It makes me think of one of the ideas Mackintosh said she came up with while plotting Blue Ticket: “what if [your fertility] is decided for you, and you don’t have any say?”  

In times like these, riddled with global pandemics, history-defying recessions and climate catastrophe, parenthood feels like an increasingly loaded life choice. In creating a world where that decision is made for you, Mackintosh has made a provocative mirror to that we live in.

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