“An infertile couple hires a young woman to carry their baby, using her egg and the husband’s sperm. [She] needs the money because she wants to go off to college, but she’s never had a child before. Two days after giving birth, she changes her mind and has trouble turning over the baby, so she makes a lot of bad decisions.” Toni Halleen discusses The Surrogate with Alka Joshi on NPT’s A Word on Words.
Toni Haleen: I’m Toni Haleen. This is The Surrogate. This is the story of Cally, a woman who is a surrogate for another couple, Ruth and Hal, but Cally changes her mind and takes the baby on the run.
Alka Joshi: You have a great story about the inspiration for The Surrogate. I’d like you to tell us that now.
Haleen: The story for the inspiration is two parts. One is the real-life case of the Baby M case, which was happening when I was in law school. And the other is the postcard inspiration that got me writing.
Joshi:Tell us about the postcard.
Haleen: So, this was in the very first writing class I ever took. On the very first day, the instructor had an exercise where we were to reach into a paper bag and pull out a postcard. These were personal postcards she’s collected over her life. And the one I pulled out, when I looked at it, it was a picture of a snowy cabin in the woods. And it said Wisconsin. We were then told to sit and write. I imagined who was in that cabin and why: it was the surrogate and her boyfriend and this baby, and they were hiding the baby. I just had to find out why. And that’s what made me keep writing.
Joshi: You have written, as a lawyer, legal arguments. You’ve also written plays. You’ve written short stories. Tell us a little bit about your writing process.
Haleen: Well, I think a lot of it comes from improv. I have done improv where we make up stories that are inspired by just short words or phrases. And the other part of it is inspired by the Smothers Brothers, who had a comedy show when I was a kid. They used comedy and music to address serious issues.
So I wrote a musical about some serious issues in the law, played with gender discrimination and issues of greed. For me, the best way to address a serious question was to use music and comedy. That’s what started me writing in the first place.
Joshi: I think it took you 10 years to write The Surrogate, right?
Haleen: At least that long, although it was in fits and starts. I mean, I wasn’t working full-time on the book for 10 years but I wrote it so many times, so many different revisions. Many things changed. It was so hard because I didn’t know what I was doing.
I took many classes. I listened to many podcasts. I read many books—I’m a lifelong reader. All of that surrounded me and helped me through the process. I think that’s why it took me such a long time.
Joshi: In The Surrogate you give us four perspectives, the husband’s perspective, the wife’s perspective—the parents who are actually hiring the surrogate—the surrogate’s perspective, Cally and that of her ex-boyfriend. What was the reason for giving us those perspectives?
Haleen: As I learned about writing fiction, I learned about writing from different points of view. Which character knows which things, and which character can show you which part of the story. I’m still learning. I’m still working on that kind of way to use perspective.
I started writing this story as an omniscient narrator in third person. But it wasn’t getting personal enough. I wasn’t feeling emotional about it. Then I rewrote the whole thing in first person through Cally’s perspective. But there are a lot of things she didn’t know. So then, I added Ruth’s perspective. Those are the two foundational women of the story. I was really trying to have compassion and empathy for them. Writing in first person helped me do that. And then, of course, it was a lot of fun to become the husband who’s a lawyer and the boyfriend. I’ve had friends tell me, “That’s my husband,” or, “I’ve dated that guy.” That’s very rewarding to hear.
Joshi: Ruth is a Type A personality. She desperately wants a baby. And she’s a sort of micromanager of Cally. How did that character development come about so that we feel Ruth’s pain? We also feel her isolation as a mother who opts for surrogacy.
Haleen: I read real-life stories of surrogates and the intended mothers. Surrogates told that about how involved the intended mother was in the pregnancy, and how they felt about that, and how things changed during the course of their pregnancy when maybe the intended mother intruded a little too closely. I wanted to capture that. It felt very authentic. I could really understand something like that happening. Even as a mother, when you send your child to daycare, you want to know whose hands your baby is in. And you may second-guess some of the decisions the caretakers make. I think that’s just a natural thing that we do as humans and in caretaking.
I tried to imagine how that could play out in drama and create conflict for a novel, and how far could I push it and what fun could I have with that.
Joshi: Cally donates one of her eggs and it is matched to Hal’s sperm. Why did you make the decision to have something so personal come from Cally?
Haleen: There are two kinds of surrogates. There’s the traditional one who uses her own egg. And the gestational surrogate who uses a donor egg from a third party that’s mixed with the sperm and then implanted in the surrogate. The latter is by far the most common type of surrogacy today.
But in the past, before a lot of technological advances, a surrogate would use her own egg simply by becoming pregnant with the intended father, using a turkey baster or artificial insemination or having sex. And these two types of surrogates have great respect for one another. No one way is right or wrong, but they have very different consequences. They have different health risks. They have different emotional journeys, potentially, and different biological ramifications.
Again, I wanted to choose something that I could have the most conflict with—the most drama—and create more issues of what’s right or wrong. And I wanted to make the readers not be clear about it. I thought that would make for a more interesting read. That’s what I like to read—where it’s just not obvious how to feel one way or the other.
Joshi: What I see between Hal and Ruth is there’s a dance going on in their relationship. There’s negotiation and conflict. Can you describe that conflict?
Haleen: I love marital conflict. It’s the most ripe, juicy, universal experience that can come from love. It all comes back to love and fear. In negotiating that kind of relationship, a long-term committed relationship, you’re going to have that dance. It can turn into a beautiful ending with a flourish and a dip or it can crash where you both fall to the ground. But you have to get back up and keep dancing. You have to find something in the music to get you through it. It was really fun for me to try to put myself in the shoes of Hal and Ruth where I could really see Hal’s point of view and I could try to see Ruth’s point of view.
My training as a lawyer helped me do that. In law I’m trying to see both sides of an issue or all three, even four, sides of an issue. So that when I advocate for my client, I can see the biggest picture. If I know where the other side’s coming from or what their arguments are going to be, it’s going to help me tell my client’s story and address all of those different issues. I think that’s very similar to a marriage.
Joshi: Did you ever feel that you were siding with one character more than another? Who was right? Who was wrong?
Haleen: Every time I write in that person’s voice, I believe they are the one who is “right.” And also at the same time, I also always believe there is no “right.” That all of it is gray, all of it is rich, all of it is difficult. But when I’m writing in that person’s voice, I really care for that person. I want to respectfully bring their voice forward. I try really hard to be honest as them speaking. And I try to walk in their shoes as carefully as I can.
That’s what’s fun about writing for me: getting in all those shoes. It’s emotional. Sometimes it’s hard to let it be. As I go into the rest of my life, I’m still feeling that person inside me. It’s strange but it’s beautiful.
Joshi: I love that. You do so many different things. You’re a lawyer. You’re a ballroom dancer. You’re an improv person. And you’re a knitter. How do any of those come together in one person named Toni?
Haleen: You have to live a long time, first of all. I had the fortune to stumble across many things to try. You have to trust that it’s worth trying if you’re drawn to it. I think that’s great writing advice, too. If it’s something in your head, go for it, write it down.
I credit my parents because my mom’s an artist, and my dad’s a minister. And so, there was right brain, left brain activity going on all the time. There wasn’t a preference in our household; we were encouraged to do the arts and also to study hard at school. I just feel lucky that I had the chance to stumble into some of those things.
Joshi: Ruth feels that she has been judged for wanting surrogacy. Can you tell us if that is still a prevailing attitude?
Haleen: I don’t know. I’ve got to believe that it is, but I also want to explore things that are hard to admit. We only perceive things from our own eyes, so we perceive things with implicit bias. No one view is going to be accurate or true or real. We’re only seeing our own perspective.
I wanted to portray Ruth as somebody who was seeing how people were reacting to her and her telling us that story. So, you have to take it with the grain of salt. If we heard the nurse’s side of the story, we might hear a very different description of that interaction at the hospital that made Ruth feel so bad. I want to acknowledge that’s how we go through the life. We all see things with our biased ears and our biased eyes and our soft little biased heart. So that’s how I wrote it. I wanted that to come across.
Joshi: So, Toni—playwright, lawyer, ballroom dancer, knitter—what is next for you?
Haleen: I’m writing my second book. The deal I had with HarperCollins was a two-book deal. Lucky, lucky me. It’s really hard. But it’s coming along. It’s fun.
Joshi: What do you hope your readers take from The Surrogate?
Haleen: I hope that it’s a fun read. I hope it’s a good time. I hope it’s something that they don’t want to put down. I hope it’s something that they want to talk about with their friends or their book clubs. And I hope they take away compassion, compassion for each other, because we’re all just trying to do the best we can. The desire to be in a family, have a family, to love others. That’s a very powerful urge in us as humans.
And I think it can cause a lot of pain when it goes wrong or it doesn’t happen the way we had hoped. And yet, there’s hope. There’s hope for us to have a family, a chosen family, another family. Love in many places. And so, I hope that ultimately that’s something when we talk amongst ourselves about this book. We settle on the hope of love together.
The reaction to the book has been, “Wow, that’s eye opening. It’s emotional. It’s a roller coaster ride. I changed how I think about things. I don’t know what I think now. I went back and forth so many times. And I want to think about this a little bit more.”
Joshi: Thank you, Toni Haleen, for being with us. And thank you for watching A Word on Words. For more of our conversation, visit awordonwords.org. I’m Alka Joshi. Keep reading.
Toni Halleen Recommends
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen