Simply put, I am in awe of you.
Anyone that can put together a novel together with a beginning, middle and an end (even if it’s awful!) is pretty amazing to me. So, when you can do it beautifully, well then you are a superhero in my book. (I read Bird by Bird in college and decided then and there that being a writer was not for me.) So I am forever always asking authors, how do you do it? How do you carve out those hours in the day? How do you come up with your ideas? How do you deal with rejection? How do you persevere?
Today I am chatting with Rae Meadows, author of the upcoming Mothers and Daughters (Holt 2011). We’re discussing the moment her book first formed and how it evolved to what it is now. Rae’s novel is told in three voices and spans a century, from New York’s Lower East Side during the 1900’s and the Orphan Train Movement to modern day motherhood and the choices women still grapple with.
CAN YOU SPEAK A LITTLE ABOUT THE INSPIRATION FOR MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS? WHAT WAS THAT FIRST KERNEL OF AN IDEA THAT GOT YOU FIRED UP TO WRITE THIS BOOK?
The subject of my fiction often seems to emerge from a serendipitous collision of ideas. For Mothers & Daughters, I began wanting to write about my grandfather. He was the youngest of eight children, born into rural poverty in Barren County, Kentucky. When he was three, his family moved north to Illinois so his father could take a job in a lumber mill. I planned a sweeping story about family history and migration, imagining my great-grandparents at the turn of the 20th century, packing a wagon, seeking more for their children than they could eke out from their small parcel of Kentucky land.
BUT THE HISTORICAL PARTS OF MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS INVOLVE THE ORPHAN TRAINS. HOW DID YOU FIRST LEARN ABOUT THEM?
As I was writing my mom happened to ask me if I’d ever heard of the orphan trains. I hadn’t, and I was immediately enthralled. Beginning in the mid-19th century, under the direction of The Children’s Aid Society, orphaned, delinquent, and poor children from New York City were shipped out on trains in the hopes they would be adopted by Christian farm families in the Midwest—without anything set up in advance or any screening of potential adopters. Whoever showed up at the makeshift viewings could simply take home a child, as if picking up a sack of corn meal from the mercantile.
I HAD NEVER HEARD OF THE OPRHAN TRAINS UNTIL YOU MENTIONED THEM TO ME! I AM NOW EQUALLY OBSESSED AND FIND MYSELF ASKING OTHERS IF THEY’VE HEARD OF THEM.
I was shocked I’d never heard of this fascinating piece of American history. But the orphan trains were no secret; there has been plenty written about them, mainly devoted to personal accounts of orphan train riders. Most of what I read on the subject was folksy and sentimental. It wasn’t until I turned to the history of child welfare that the underside of the Orphan Train Movement became apparent: there was no protest or regulation of the trains because they were effectively draining New York City of a poor, useless class, delivering these children to labor-starved areas where they could be put to work for very little or for free.
HOW LONG DID YOU SPEND RESEARCHING?
I researched for about six months I think, reading everything I could about the orphan trains and about New York City in 1900. A bunch of the research I did was for the part of the novel that went away, about the doctor at the Wisconsin Insane Asylum. It was fascinating material, though, all original sources, so I don't feel it was wasted time. If you ever want to know how a run a turn-the-century asylum, just let me know.
MAYBE IT WILL FIND ITS WAY INTO YOUR NEXT NOVEL. HOW DO DID YOU GET FROM THIS HISTORICAL MOMENT, TO FINDING YOUR FICTIONAL STORY?
I started to envision a novel about two disparate characters brought together by one of the trains. One would be a girl who leaves Kentucky with her mother and ends up in New York City’s dismal Fourth Ward. The other would be an ex-Civil War doctor who runs the Wisconsin Insane Asylum, allowing me to delve into the history of Madison, where I’d lived for the past five years. I spent hours poring over photographs and asylum records at the Wisconsin Historical Society, and I read everything I could about the orphan trains and New York City in the last years of the 19th century. I was ready to write.
WOW, EVEN THIS ELEMENT OF THE STORY CHANGED SO MUCH. WHAT HAPPENED?
I had a baby. Motherhood turned my life on its head and made me question myself in a way that was scary and new. The first year was a time of euphoric highs and soul-doubting lows, and as the months slid by, I feared I would never want to write again. When my daughter was a year old, I finally sat down with all my old notes and creaked out some pages. But I was a different woman than I’d been before becoming a mother, in the obvious ways, of course, but also in subtle shifts of perception, longing, and contentedness. And I was a different writer, too. When I wrote about the doctor, it felt clunky and studied, dark and Gothic in a way that no longer felt right. What I wanted to write about—what I now felt compelled to write about—was motherhood. Admitting this allowed the novel to take shape. Springing from the original inspiration of my grandfather’s life, it became an exploration of mothers and daughters through three generations, anchored by the story and legacy of a scrappy girl named Violet who boards an orphan train in 1900. Mothers & Daughters melds my family history, the orphan trains, and the experience of becoming a mother. It is a manifestation, I hope, of the writer I have become.
AS A MOTHER, WHEN DO YOU FIND TIME TO WRITE? DO YOU SLEEP? BE HONEST.
I don't sleep! But these days, home full time with a three-year-old and a new baby, there's not much writing going on. I hope to get back to it in a couple of months, and I'm guessing it's all going to happen after the kids are asleep. One of the tricks I used to write Mothers and Daughters was to write two pages a day. That's how I eked out a first draft with a toddler underfoot. Not elegant, perhaps, but it got the job done.
ON THE BUSINESS SIDE OF THINGS, YOU DIDN'T SHARE THIS WITH ME UNTIL YOU WERE FINISHED. WAS THAT A CONSCIOUS THING? DID ANYONE ELSE READ IT?
It was a conscious decision not to send to you until it was pretty well formed. I, probably like most writers, am not thrilled about sharing projects in the works, even though I know it's a good idea. My husband is always my first (and sometimes toughest!) reader. He told me what I already suspected--the Insane Asylum thread of the novel wasn't working. When I lived in Madison, I was part of a group of woman novelists, and, after I reworked the manuscript, I had them read it. Their comments were very insightful, particularly in terms of craft. Then it went to my sister, Susannah. And then to you!
THANKS, RAE! To find out more about the author, check her out at http://raemeadows.com/