BackStory: Four Questions with Becky Tipper

Engraving of 'The Virgin and Child Seated by a Tree' by Albrecht Dürer (1513), courtesy of the National Gallery of Art (USA)
BackStory: Four Questions with Becky Tipper

Author of Root

What inspired you to write ‘Root’?

Years ago, in a book about childbirth, I came across a brief mention of the history of the caesarean section. Although the operation had been used for centuries to save a baby if a mother died in labour, one of the earliest European records of a successful caesarean delivery – where both the mother and baby survived – is said to come from Switzerland in 1500.

The hero of the piece was a swineherd (or, according to some sources, a pig-gelder) called Jacob Nufer. His wife Elisabeth had been in labour for days, so eventually, in desperation, Jacob performed a caesarean on her and delivered their baby himself. The baby and Elisabeth lived, and the Nufers apparently went on to have at least five more children

I thought this tale was both horrifying and wonderful. It stuck with me, and I finally decided to write a fictional retelling that imagined the events from the perspective of Elisabeth (shortened to ‘Ilsa’ here).

What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?

Both of my own children were born by caesarean and in the case of my son, it was after a long labour. Obviously the circumstances were very different (thankfully, my husband didn’t have to perform the operation himself) but I think it gave me a glimpse of what Elisabeth/Ilsa might have experienced.

I sometimes think that parenting – whether it’s birthing children or raising them – connects people across boundaries of place and time. There are similarities no matter what moment of history you find yourself in. So in that sense I also feel a commonality with Ilsa as a mother.

How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?

I learned some interesting things about mediaeval childbirth, although I quickly realised I couldn’t begin to include much detail in such a short piece. Since some sources specify that Jacob was a pig-gelder, I also ended up watching several videos of traditional pig castration techniques (one of those times when research takes you to unexpected places!).

Certain details that I discovered about this story surprised me. I learned, for instance, that 13 different midwives came to see Elisabeth before Jacob took matters into his own hands, which brings home how utterly frightening it must have been, knowing that none of these people could help and there was nowhere else to turn.

Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?

I don’t know that I have favourite historical writers as such, but I definitely have lots of favourite works. There are novels that I love because they’re so richly drawn, with utterly compelling characters. Some of my favourites are Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, Mary Sharratt’s Hildegard von Bingen novel Illuminations, and Mary Webb’s Precious Bane.

Some of my favourite historical short stories are Kate Clanchy’s ‘My Grandmother Meets Katherine Mansfield Aboard a Packet Steamer in 1919’, Alice Munro’s ‘Meneseteung’, and ‘The Rotifer’ by Mary Ladd Gavell. All three stories dip vividly into a particular historical moment, but what I love is that they’re really reflections on time itself, and on the ways we imagine and make sense of the past.

Becky Tipper’s short (and very short) fiction has appeared in publications including The Honest Ulsterman, Prole, and National Flash Fiction Day anthologies, and has won the Bridport Prize for flash and a Tom-Gallon award from the Society of Authors. Becky is Reviews Editor at The Short Story. Find her online at and on Twitter @mercian_woman.

Engraving of ‘The Virgin and Child Seated by a Tree’ by Albrecht Dürer (1513), courtesy of the National Gallery of Art (USA), Rosenwald Collection 1943.3.3518.