“I like writing about worlds where the rules are very different to what we know,” said Sophie Mackintosh when I met her in a café on London’s South Bank in early March, before the lockdown. “Even in a world where the rules are off-kilter, there is a comfort in systems. There’s a comfort in being told how to be.”
The 31-year-old novelist, who previously worked as a content executive at Virgin, has garnered critical acclaim for the elegant and sparse prose of her feminist fables. Her 2018 debut, The Water Cure, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won a Betty Trask Award. It imagined a world in which toxic masculinity is literally toxic to women, and three sisters hide themselves on an island for their safety.
Her second book, Blue Ticket, which will be published on 27 August, is similarly concerned with feminist dystopia. In the novel, on the day a girl gets her first period, she must go to a “lottery station” to be allocated either a white or a blue ticket. White means the girl will find a husband, have children and live a family life; blue means she will be force-fitted with an intrauterine device (IUD) to ensure she cannot conceive.
The book does not describe to us the circumstances in which this “grey, seedy” world came about. “I didn’t want to explain the lottery because that wasn’t important. I just wanted something clear cut, a rule that would be obeyed or disobeyed,” said Mackintosh, who grew up in south Wales and now lives in London.
But the sexist system which deprives women of bodily autonomy feels urgent. Access to abortion continues to be threatened across the US, and the issue of what people can and can’t do with their bodies has in 2020 become a point of contention that few could have anticipated.
Since the pandemic sent Britain into lockdown, we have been living under new rules. For some, lockdown and the enforced wearing of face masks are blights on our liberty. For others, this period has been a reminder of how individual choices – how regularly we wash our hands, how keenly we social distance – are vital for the common good.
“It’s weird thinking about free will in the context of my books because the stakes were always higher in my novels than in reality,” said Mackintosh when we spoke again over Zoom in late July. She wore a black T-shirt and red lipstick, and sipped an iced coffee. For her, these fictional stakes are about life or death, love or loss. “And suddenly the stakes feel high in real life as well. We have so much responsibility now.”
Despite the system under which they live, Mackintosh’s characters do have free will. As a teenager, Calla, the heroine, pulls a blue ticket. “I was not motherly. It had been judged that it wasn’t for me by someone who knew better than I did,” she thinks, realising that she is not destined to have children. But as an adult, she desires a child and illegally conceives. “If what you’re given and what you want lines up, that’s a powerful privilege,” Mackintosh said. And if it doesn’t: will you fight it? “You’ll do a lot for your want.”
For a long time Mackintosh thought she wouldn’t have children and was content with that. And then suddenly pregnancy was all around her.
“I became very broody. I would see a pregnant woman on the street and burst into tears! It made me think: what happens when your body is a stranger to you? You think you know your body. But what if you don’t?”
The time it takes for a book to be written and published is long enough that Mackintosh thought she might have a baby by the time her new novel was out (more so given that Blue Ticket was delayed because of the pandemic). She doesn’t have children and is not pregnant, and has found her middle ground illuminating.
“I don’t see the book as being about motherhood so much as the space around it,” she said. While writing, she looked to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (2018), “a book which gives you permission to be ambivalent and swim around in this not knowing, to think about it critically. There’s a lot that I don’t know. Maybe in that uncertain space you have more room than if you had all the answers.”
In the novel, Calla is so certain she wants to have a child that she removes her IUD and sets off on a long and treacherous road trip in an attempt to reach safety. But pregnancy makes her future uncertain. “She doesn’t know what it’s going to do to her body; she doesn’t know what it’s going to do to her life.”
This uncertainty is where Mackintosh uses the ticket conceit to explore the nuances not only of pregnancy and motherhood, but of the ways in which society imposes ideas of selfhood on to us.
“I know that we can’t divide people into two types. It doesn’t exist. I also know that if you’re told something about yourself, you start to believe it and it does become intrinsic to who you are. But what if that framework ends? What if you realise: I’ve been living this way my whole life, and it’s been a lie? I might have been a different person.”
Mackintosh’s fiction has been compared to writing by Margaret Atwood and Shirley Jackson. The latter’s renowned short story “The Lottery” (1948) was an influence, Mackintosh told me, but she sees Blue Ticket as a road-trip novel rather than an all-out “dystopia”.
“It’s a parallel place, somewhere that is different to ours, but not too dissimilar.”