In March 2015, we’re publishing a debut novel called The Only Ones. It’s by a writer named Carola Dibbell, who has had fiction published in The New Yorker, the Paris Review, Fence, and Black Clock. But she’s probably best known as a critic, having written about music for the Village Voice and many other periodicals.
The Only Ones follows Inez, who wanders a post-pandemic world, strangely immune to disease, making her living by volunteering as a test subject. She is hired to provide genetic material to a grief-stricken, affluent mother, who lost all four of her daughters within four short weeks. This experimental genetic work is policed by a hazy network of governmental ethics committees, and threatened by the Knights of Life, religious zealots who raze the rural farms where much of this experimentation is done.
When the mother backs out at the last minute, Inez is left responsible for the product, which in this case is a baby girl, Ani. Inez must protect Ani, who is a scientific breakthrough, keeping her alive, dodging authorities and religious fanatics, and trying to provide Ani with the childhood that Inez never had, which means a stable home and an education.
With a stylish voice influenced by years of music writing, The Only Ones is a time-old story, tender and iconic, about how much we love our children, however they come, as well as a sly commentary on class, politics, and the complexities of reproductive technology. It is an outstanding book, grand in scope, relatable, heartbreaking, accessible, that I know will turn a lot a lot of heads.
Following is a Q+A with Dibbell.
Inez is one of the most memorable and charming characters that I’ve encountered in recent literature. Her voice is so distinctive and fresh, raw and human.
Inez was a surprise to me—I was really just fooling around with language in the early stages of The Only Ones when I got into her voice. Then she ended up running the show.
I already knew the novel’s basic subject and themes—a reproductive experiment set in a dystopic future—but this was going to be different from anything I’d ever done before, and I was trying to get the hang of the thing, how many parts realistic, how many parts genre or experimental? This was not long after my daughter had completed the rite of passage known as the SATs, and I’d been pondering what dumb ideas people have about intelligence, so I suppose that was in the back of my mind when I decided to see how the story sounded from a narrator who was barely literate but unpredictably smart.
I got very literal about how literate she would actually be. I had a sudden vision of early grade-school notebooks with their odd mixture of formality and amazing mistakes, tried some of that, added slang and swagger plus background details that would make sense, and once I’d been in that voice for a page or two, I knew I was never going anywhere else. It was deadpan and funny but touching. The logic was crazy. It was so much fun. And that was before I even understood how having someone like Inez tell the story would take it to a bigger, wilder, more surprising place. She was so open, so game. If she wasn’t going to be a tragic victim of the complicated reproductive drama the plot turns on, she’d have to be some kind of hero.
You wrote about music for many years. In an interview with Black Clock, you suggest that Inez’s “stiffness and jerky rhythms,” as well as your “distaste for literary smoothness ” were influenced at least in some small part by punk and hip hop.
I loved punk and spent years in CBGBs listening to bands and writing about them and often wondered how punk elements could translate into fiction. A lot of early punks knew about minimalism and dada and French movies but had a potentially commercial pop flavor that interested me. They were rebels, nothing new in rock and roll. But they were funny about it, always aware of limits, including their own, and they did such great things with those limits, you were glad they didn’t know more chords. It’s not that my literary tastes didn’t already run to inelegant writers like Dreiser but this spare, loud, bristly music gave me new ideas.
I suppose you could say that Inez is a punk herself—a tough little hero from Queens with a funny voice. She does a thing with tenses as weird as the way Joey Ramone pronounces words. Her limits read as hooks. You could also say that as a writer, I learned a lot from punk about using the chords I had. Trouble with pacing? Be abrupt. Rush through. Just keep a strong beat. I learned things about flow from hip hop, too. You can find your rhythms in ordinary conversation. But always hang them from a beat.
The Only Ones is a very visually arresting read, and you do an incredible job of creating this post-pandemic world that feels almost too tangible, too probable. Were there any visuals that anchored or propelled the story, or that you returned to for inspiration?
I worked with two maps taped to the wall, Queens and central New York state—the main locations where the novel takes place—and I referred to them often. I always tried to picture my characters traveling back and forth by way of a deeply dysfunctional transportation system. I reread David Copperfield as I wrote and sometimes think I internalized the way distances work in that novel, where people routinely walk miles at a clip, all the way across London just to visit a friend. I also spent time riding around Queens with a notebook. Queens is an amazing place, full of place names just waiting for dystopia. Ozone Park! Utopia Parkway!
I got ideas about dystopia from Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, where post-apocalyptic anarchy combines with odd pockets of civilization, and from Bruce Sterling, whose high-tech futures are rendered credible by persistent glitches. Later, pondering the mad scientists I’d dreamed up, chubby veterinarians living in Quonset huts in upstate New York, I wondered if I’d been channeling hobbits.
And there were always memories of 9/11. The smell, the dust., the barricades. Katrina, too. The book was essentially done by the time Sandy hit my neighborhood. But it did seem all too familiar, when it came.
Once you peel back the layers – the post-pandemic setting, the cloning – there is at the heart of The Only Ones a relatable mother-daughter story that is tender and powerful. You wrote a piece for the Village Voice about infertility and motherhood; how did your own experience inform or influence the nature of this story?
My own experiences of infertility and adoption definitely inspired and drove this novel. The Voice piece ran in the early ’80s, at a time when infertility was just entering the public conversation, and it was a way for me to tangle with the superstition, ignorance and shame I’d encountered in my own years trying to conceive a child. Once my husband and I went on to adopt a baby girl, I never wanted to go public with that personal story which I felt belonged to my daughter as much as me. But as adoption scandals and custody cases made headlines during her childhood, I puzzled over nature/nurture, genes, bonding, and what love has to do with it. When I began to try my hand at speculative fiction fairly late in my career, I realized that the old sci-fi clone theme would be a way for me to tackle those questions. Cloning is, after all, about a parent and child whose genes don’t line up in the conventional way. And as I dug into The Only Ones, at a time when reproductive technology was already starting to seem like science fiction, I saw my story as a parable for all kinds of unconventional families—biracial, single parent, same-sex parent, not to mention kids conceived in vitro, or from sperm or egg donors, or gestated by surrogates—different in some ways. In other ways, not different at all.
Did you do a lot of research?
Cloning was actually the easiest part to understand. I read up on Dolly and other experiments, brought my in vitro research up to date, read an interview with an egg donor and some very interesting studies about varieties of in utero gestation. I researched pandemics and immunities. The hardest part for me, in writing about a world where so much has stopped working, was to have some notion of how things work when they do work. I finally resorted to a children’s book to help me out, How Things Work.
You’ve only had a few stories published, but they’ve been in extremely reputable venues – The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Black Clock, and Fence. Have you not written much fiction, or do you find that you need to achieve some balance between your fiction and non-fiction work?
I am a very slow writer.
But I do have other completed projects I would dearly like to see out in the world. A memoir from so far back I called it a non-fiction novel. A novel I rewrote and rewrote. A novella. Other short pieces.
All this work is interesting and good, and like many interesting and good writers, I could not get the work in print. It’s always part of how I understand what I do. It’s part of how I understand what other novelists do. We’re working novelists even if we’re not published novelists.
The Only Ones is your debut novel, and we’ve scheduled it to publish in March 2015, which is a month before your 70th birthday. That’s pretty rad.
Having said all that about the dignity of unrecognized labor, let me be clear. It is a life-changing event to have work I’ve put so much into about to head out in the world. I find myself thinking I should finally start cardio workouts so I’ll be alive to write the next novel. I think about the shape of a life with this late-breaking twist. It is very, very sweet.
It also would have been sweet at sixty.
If you are a bookseller or affiliated with the media and interested in receiving an ARC of The Only Ones, write to eric[at]twodollarradio.com.