Update: HBO Max has announced they'll be producing the movie, which will star Haley Lu Richardson as Veronica and Barbie Ferreira as Bailey.
It’s a story that could be ripped from the headlines: high school senior Veronica Clarke realizes she has to drive over nine hundred miles to get a legal abortion, so she asks her ex-best-friend Bailey for help and sets off on a secret road trip from Missouri to New Mexico — making sure Veronica’s parents and boyfriend don’t find out. But this isn’t a news story about the latest rollback of reproductive rights. It’s a YA novel called Unpregnant, by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan. Hendriks and Caplan are both screenwriters, and appropriately, the novel is already being adapted into a movie, which will be directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg (Valley Girl & The Mindy Project).
Though the story of Unpregnant is very current, the initial idea came back to Hendriks back in 2012. Hendriks, then a writer for How I Met Your Mother, was driving home listening to NPR and heard a story about a proposed law that would create a 72-hour waiting period to get an abortion in South Dakota. When she got home, she texted Caplan: “I know what our next project is: abortion road trip!”
While Caplan was unsure at first, Hendriks assured him it would be funny, and he got on board, they tell Refinery29. “The more we talked about it, the more excited we got about the challenge of tackling a topic that’s normally approached in a very serious manner. We figured, if we could pull this off it, how could it not be something special?”
We talked to Hendriks and Caplan about Unpregnant:
In Unpregnant, Veronica has to travel from Missouri to New Mexico to reach the nearest legal abortion clinic, showing how limited abortion access is for so many. Did you intend to make a statement about reproductive rights?
Hell yes! Not only did we want to highlight how difficult access is, especially for minors, we wanted the central story to focus on something other than our main character’s decision to get an abortion. So often abortion stories focus on the debate over whether or not to stay pregnant, when in reality, sometimes it’s not a debate at all. We wanted to make sure our story highlighted that.
Also, if the story focuses solely on “the choice,” it makes it feel like this is the only thing that’s truly important about the character. Veronica’s growth comes from her interactions with Bailey. It’s because of her that Veronica changes and becomes a better human. She is not just a person who got an abortion, she is so much more. Ultimately, people are more than this one decision and we wanted to make sure readers, especially young readers, felt that.
Along with abortion, Unpregnant touches on difficult topics like reproductive coercion — Veronica becomes pregnant after her boyfriend poked holes in the condoms. And Bailey's storyline is about her coming out. How did you balance handling serious topics with a lighthearted tone?
Well, there was a lot of arguing with each other over salads at Panera Bread at first. We think we lost them a few patrons after we shouted the word “fetus” a few too many times. We knew there would be a certain level of anxiety regarding these subjects, but we saw that as an opportunity rather than a hindrance. The key was in the characters. Bailey’s attitude allowed us to have so much fun without making light of the situation. She could poke at Veronica in the way only someone who knows you too well can. We really believe humor is one of the best ways to make a subject less scary. Hopefully, by the end of the book, the reader is less nervous about the topic and can see that getting an abortion isn’t something that needs to be clouded in shame.
Regarding reproductive coercion, it’s so great that you asked about that specifically. Early on when we were working on this story (before we sold it to HarperTEEN), we got pushback over whether a guy would really do this. We had to send news reports and studies to people to prove that, yes, this is a thing that really happens, which made us feel even more strongly about including it as a story point.
There are very few comedic abortion stories out there, period. There's Obvious Child, but not much else, and I can’t think of anything for a YA audience. Did you have any inspiration for how you handled this topic?
Thelma and Louise is clearly an inspiration, but it’s not very funny is it? And we both grew up as big fans of (the now-problematic) John Hughes and always loved how he was able to ground his humor in real teenage issues.
But part of the draw to the project was that there wasn’t much out there like it. Trying to make something that was both humorous and heartfelt about a subject that was so divisive was very exciting for us to tackle. And who doesn’t want to own the phrase, “comedic abortion story”? (We’re gonna have a subcategory all to ourselves on Amazon, right?)
Unpregnant will soon be a movie! Did you imagine it as a movie when you wrote the book?
We actually envisioned it as a movie first! We wrote a script back in 2012 and tried to get it made but found the world was not ready for it (at least that’s what we tell ourselves). But we really believed in Unpregnant and didn’t want to give up. It took many years, a novelization (our first time writing prose), and a big change in the political climate for this story to seem viable. Abortion is kind of the third rail in the film industry, and we are so happy to have found partners that are willing to challenge that mindset.
How involved will you be in the movie-making process? Do you have any dream cast members?
We were so thrilled to be able to write the script for the movie, but most of the time screenwriters aren’t involved in the day-to-day production decisions on a film (we’re better off locked up in a room anyway). Luckily, we have a great relationship with the director, Rachel Lee Goldenberg, and our producers (Berlanti Productions, Picturestart, and WarnerMedia) have been incredibly supportive.
In terms of casting, we would love it if Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis could make a cameo to pay homage to Thelma and Louise. (Ms. Sarandon, Ms. Davis, if you’re reading this, come be in the movie!)
Is there anything else you'd like to mention?
We’d just like to encourage other people who have a story that they think no one wants to hear to just keep working at it. Even if it’s the craziest idea ever and everyone you tell at Panera nods slowly and backs away in fear. You never know how the world will change, and while sometimes it changes for the worse (Trump), it can make your work even more necessary.
Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan are the authors of Unpregnant, on sale September 10, 2019 from HarperTeen. You can follow them on Twitter @JenniandTed, Instagram @jenniandted, and their website at www.jenniandted.com.