One of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century, the birth control pill (so famous we usually just call it “The Pill”) transformed the lives of countless women around the world and changed sexual mores and gender roles forever. Jonathan Eig tackles this monumental story in The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. How did he do it?
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Birth of the Pill?
Jonathan: I finished my book about Al Capone and wandered a long time in no-man’s land, searching for the next idea. At one point I was making lists, just to get my brain working; lists of great inventors, important Supreme Court cases, important inventions, famous women, famous Jews…. And the birth-control pill appeared on a list of inventions. I remembered hearing a rabbi say once that he thought the birth-control pill might have been the most important invention of the 20th century. I also remembered that my wife had encouraged me to try writing a book aimed toward women readers. So I began digging into the story of the invention of the pill and I was astonished by what I found. It was such a thrilling story, with a great cast of unlikely heroes setting out to accomplish something that should have been impossible, and something that they knew would radically transform the world if they could pull it off. As soon as I read about Gregory Pincus, Margaret Sanger, John Rock, and Katharine McCormick, I was hooked.
Jonathan: I began by spending time with the daughter of Gregory Pincus, who had worked with her father and had known all of my story’s protagonists. From there I dug into the archives. They were all great letter writers and left a detailed paper trail. Scientists are much better subjects that gangster and ballplayers in that way.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Jonathan: I’m not the most organized person. When I used to write newspaper and magazine stories I would let the research pile up on my desk and then dig through it when it was time to write. That doesn’t work for books, though. Books are too big. So I create file folders—some electronic, some paper—and I sort my research material according to names, subjects, and dates, and I try to keep the files organized chronologically as much as possible. It’s still a mess, but it’s manageable mess. With this book, for the first time, I cut down on my paper files dramatically and converted thousands of files to Google Docs. That made searching through them a lot easier.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Jonathan: No such thing as a typical day. I usually get the kids out of the house around 8 in the morning, and that’s when my work day begins. I’d like to start earlier but it’s not going to happen until they’re a little older and more self-sufficient. Once the house clears, I might spend the day doing interviews, I might spend the day in a library, I might spend the day writing, or I might do a combination of writing and research. The promotional work is cyclical. When a new book is published, I’ll spend a lot of time promoting it. I enjoy that part of the work, but I’d rather spend my time on research and writing.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Jonathan: I’m not sure it’s my favorite but one of the most powerful tools for me is anxiety—or the fear of failure, the worry that I won’t do justice to the story that I’m telling, won’t bring the characters to life in the full dimension they deserve, won’t do enough to keep the reader turning the page, that I’ll never come up with a book idea as exciting as the last one. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m a worry-wort. I’m not. But when I think about why I work so hard on research and why I re-write so often and so compulsively, I think it’s most because I’m anxious that I might leave some scrap of information undiscovered or leave some sentence short of elegance. So there you have it, anxiety is my tool. Also I like Proquest, NewspaperArchive.com, Lexis/Nexis, and my MacBook Air.
Bonus question: What challenges did you face in weaving together the stories of the four crusaders: Margaret Sanger, Gregory Pincus, John Rock, and Katharine McCormick?
Jonathan: I’m glad you asked. The weaving was critical in this book, and it was not easy. I’d never written a book with four equally strong characters, and it took me a lot of wrestling before I could figure out how to tell all their stories, and all their back stories, without hopelessly gumming up the narrative. I reminded myself to think of this as a TV series or a movie with four actors, each of them trying to steal every scene, each of them flirting with the writer to get more good lines written into the script. When you think of it that way, it’s not such a bad problem to have. The trick was making sure no one got slighted. I’ll confess that Pincus was my favorite. If this were a movie, I’d want George Clooney to play his part. But Sanger’s the biggest hero of the story. Rock, in many ways, is the most interesting. And McCormick is the one I’d most want to spend time with. So I enjoyed my time with all of them and felt fortunate to be directing their drama.