June 22, 2017

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Newbery Winner Laura Amy Schlitz on Women, Writing, History, and Hired Girls

SLJ sat down with librarian and award-winning author Laura Amy Schlitz to talk about her new work of historical fiction, The Hired Girl (Candlewick, Sept. 2015). Be sure to scroll below to view a short video of Schlitz discussing her process and inspirations.

hiredgirl_coverThe Hired Girl is an epistolary novel, the 1911 diary of a young farm girl with a romantic heart and a curious mind. I read that several objects inspired this tale. One was a gift from a student. The other was your grandmother’s diary. Can you tell us about these objects and how they sparked Joan’s story? How close is Joan’s story to that of your grandmother’s?

The diary that the student, Lance, gave me was a beautiful and special book, but he is also a special kid. I remember when I was trying to finish Splendors and Glooms (Candlewick, 2012), complaining that I had another 150 pages to do that summer. Lance did the math and looked at me and said, “You can do it.” So I wrote in the diary, which was so beautiful—it was almost counter-intuitive to write in something that beautiful—but I just wrote longhand. And I wrote really fast. This was an easy book—perhaps it was partly because it was written in Lance’s handsome gift.

My grandmother wrote many diaries, and they were divided up among my family. They are wonderful period pieces. Her life was actually very unlike Joan’s. She had a comfortable, middle-class life, much more Betsy Tacy than Sister Carrie. It was interesting, because I would have almost expected a girl of that time to spend all her time doing needlework. And she spent a lot of time doing needlework. But she was also on the baseball team, and she joked about mowing the lawn with her best friend. She lived in Brooklyn, and she went to concerts and came home at 10 o’clock at night and didn’t seem to have felt frightened. She played a lot of kissing games at parties. And she would talk about going to a party with the other girls and seeing how many Lima beans they could pick up with toothpicks, and she’d write, “We had tons of fun!” It actually sounded like, you know, a much less repressed life than you would imagine, just looking at corsets.

You mention that you wrote this in longhand in the beautiful book that Lance gave to you. Is that your typical process, writing in longhand?

I usually do write first drafts in longhand. But there was something about having it in that book. It sort of made it easier than just writing on loose pages. I don’t know why. Certainly writing in first person solves a lot of problems. Spendors and Glooms was difficult because it had five main characters, and that’s a killer. That’s five people you have to keep rotating among. So I vowed to myself that if I ever got out of that book—if I ever got out alive—I would just write about one character.

The diary form also allows you to skip those chapters that are so hard to write. Those are the chapters where you’re setting up for the next big thing. Basically, you sort of have to write, “Well, the next few days were pretty much the same except…” and you put in your necessary exposition. But those little passages, those in-between passages that transition the reader, are disproportionately difficult to write. When you actually have a big event, say a fire, or a kiss, the passages just sort of propel you along. With a diary you can skip [the tedious parts] because the diarist wouldn’t bother. I mean, there are a couple of places in the book where Joan talks about how “nothing’s happening!” and how “this is the most boring diary….” But I didn’t have to compose those many difficult chapters. Spendors and Glooms took me six and half years. The Hired Girl took me less than two.

And did you submit that bound diary Lance gave you to your editor, in longhand?

Oh, no! After each major entry, I’d put it into the computer and revise and revise and revise. Because I’m a bricklayer writer. Until chapter 13 is pretty much as good as I can get it, I can’t write chapter 14.

So you don’t write the majority of the book and then go into revisions. You write and revise, little by little, as you go?

Yeah. It’s funny, though. If you write plays, plays are different. Plays are written out of order. You might start with Act 2, Scene 1, and write that first. And then you kind of quilt them together. But plays are just different. There’s a reason why they call it playwrighting—using the same spelling that you’d use for wrought iron.

Some authors seem to jump into the writing process without a clear idea of where the narrative Laura Amy Schlitzmight take them—they can be surprised—whereas others start with an outline, which propels them. Which one are you?

I’m one of those who messes around. I sometimes have an idea of the ultimate destination of the character. I sort of know the end sometimes, but it’s the middle that I don’t know. And you can spend a lot of time running into dead ends and getting bogged down. But I think that wanting to know what’s going to happen is what gets me writing. Part of me is green with envy when I hear about writers who have an outline, because that would take so much of terror out of the process. But it would also take some of the suspense out of the process.

That reminds me of readers who, before starting a book, flip to the very last page to see how it ends (the horror!). For certain readers, they need to comfort of knowing how it’s going to end.

Yeah—I certainly try not to do that as a reader. There have been a few memorable occasions. I had to make sure that Gandalf was going to come back. I couldn’t stand it when Gandalf seemed to vanish into the mines of Moria.

Joan yearns to leave her circumscribed life on the farm and see the wider world. She loves literature and wants to learn about art. The book is divided into seven parts, each named for a famous work of art featuring women, such as “The Spirit of Transportation,” “The Maidservant,” and “Girl Reading.” What do these works mean to you? Why did you select these particular works of art to frame Joan’s experiences?

In my very first complete draft, I had Joan refer to the “Spirit of Transportation.” I thought, this farm girl is going to go wild when she sees this sculpture. And then there were the engravings that she comes upon in Mr. Rosenbach’s book. And when I began the second draft, I thought, there’s something about a diary that’s not divided into pieces. But it’s a little wearying to read a narrative with no breaks. I knew there was no way I’d get actual pictures in the book, because it would be too expensive, but I might as well do it my way. So I put a different work of art [as the title] for each chapter.

At once I thought of “Girl with Cow,” the Theodore Robinson painting that’s in the Baltimore Museum of Art. It kind of made me laugh, because of the cow in Joan’s story—both Joan and the cow will not stay in their pens. And the cow, kneeing Joan in the eye, seals her destiny. If she hadn’t had that black eye, she would not have been able to stay with the Rosenbachs. So that seemed like fun. In my third draft, I started thinking about the works of art and sort of aiming the writing at the themes in those works. The “Joan of Arc” section, for example, is not only about Joan’s wanting to be the model in David’s painting. It’s also about her efforts to convert the Rosenbachs and Joan’s own religious life. The paintings became useful to me in that way.

I loved paintings when I was Joan’s age. I had a scrapbook made out of postcards and cut up photos from National Geographic. My parents would sometimes take me into the city. And I didn’t realize it at the time—they both worked really hard—but to take me 45 minutes in to the city and drop me off for four hours and then drive back and pick me up so that I could look at pieces of artwork? That was a really kind thing that they did for me. And those were really special times when they would say, “Oh, okay. You can go to the Walters and wander around and look at art for a few hours.” My grandmother was like this, too. In her diary, whenever she got to go to a concert of classical music, she would paste the program into her diary and make little notes about which pieces she thought were the best. I think there was that idea of bettering herself by experiencing these things. So Joan inherited that. She was going to be a “refined and cultivated person.”

One part of the book I loved was Joan’s first experience going to the daytime opera—how enraptured she is.

I remember my first time going to the opera, too. That section was so much fun to write because I could both talk about how much I love opera, but also make fun of opera. It is as absurd as it is sublime.

When Joan gets to Baltimore, she eventually finds herself in the employ of a well-to-do Jewish family. In some ways, her ignorance of the wider world also makes her innocent of many prejudices. She is grateful for the Rosenbachs’ kindness and is appalled to discover the meaning and real-life instances of anti-Semitism. She is eager to learn from the family and, though a Catholic herself, curious and open-minded about Jewish custom and traditions. Why did you decide to have Joan join this Jewish family? What research did you do to create the Rosenbachs?

I tried to get that right. I did do some reading and research. I talked to Jewish friends about what they had been told. At the time [I began writing], Park School, the school from the book and the school that I work at, was preparing for the Centennial (the school opened in 1912). And some of my friends were researching the group of progressive German Jews who founded Park. I knew I wanted to write a story about a girl who wanted to escape into a bigger world. It’s sort of the immigrant story; she has everything she owns in her cardboard suitcase. And she’s going into a completely unfamiliar world. It’s an act of insane courage. And I realized at that point that I could either write a story where she’s kicked on and abused or I could write a story where she actually lands on her feet. And I decided I didn’t want her to be somebody who’d be better off if she never left the farm. I wanted her to find something of the wider world. And so I thought, I’ll put her with the Rosenbachs. But then I had a problem—because the Rosenbachs were so lovely. And [laughter] I realized since they were not going to make that much trouble for her, she would have to make some trouble for them.

Joan is almost uniquely placed not to be anti-Semitic. Between growing up in the country where there were no Jews and where she really didn’t know anything except Sir Walter Scott and then running into exactly the kind of people she’s always wanted to meet—stylish and educated and cultured—who happen to be Jewish, she’s sort of saved from anti-Semitism. It was a time when there were a lot of immigrants. There was a lot of nationalism and stereotyping. So at one point, she finds out that the German Rosenbachs are not pleased that Solly is marrying a Polish girl, and Joan says “I wonder what’s wrong with the Poles.” It’s not like she brilliantly rejects all these stereotypes through her instinctual goodness, but she does bring a relatively untutored mind to it.

The Hired Girl, in many ways, feels like a classic coming-of-age novel, with shades of Jane Eyre (one of Joan’s favorite books, of course). There’s also something incredibly modern and feminist about Joan. Sure, she’s got this tender worldview, with lofty, romantic ideals—and she’s awfully immature at times—but she’s also outspoken, opinionated, clever, and a bit stubborn—which makes her all the more human and lovable. Are there women in your life who inspired this wonderfully complex character?

I certainly had wonderful teachers—especially English teachers who inspired me and held out little bits of the world the way that Miss Chandler does for Joan. But I think Joan is herself. I began to write this book and almost immediately her voice was very clear to me. And I had fun writing in her voice. She made me laugh. So, no, she’s not based on a particular person. She’s herself and she’s also my memories of what it’s like to be young and wanting to invent yourself. Yearning for all kinds of things, yearning for a bigger life.

Joan struggles with religion—with being a “good girl”—reconciling her belief system with her own desires and emotions and coming to a deeper understanding of her faith. Some of her prayers to God and the Virgin Mary reminded me at bit of Judy Blume’s Margaret. Why did you decide to make faith such a big part of Joan’s story?

I needed to make some trouble. Partly because she was with the Rosenbachs and they were so lovely. So I thought one of the ways I can make trouble is to make more tension between her religion and their religion. And then I realized I was writing about religion, and that’s not good because that’s something that everybody can get their kickers in a twist about! I could offend everybody in one way or another. But I also think religion is interesting. And why would you not want to write about something interesting?

Joan finds in books what she cannot find in her real life—at least not yet. Art, culture, poetry, beauty, adventure, true love. Are there books that fed you the way they feed Joan?

I started reading teen romances in about fourth grade. I liked them. But they so often concerned things like “Do you love the really handsome boy with the red sports car? Or the boy who’s the head of the science club who wears glasses but is really nice to you?” Often these books had a very clear moral. But the choice was always between two boys. One book that was important to me growing up was Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark because it’s about a young girl growing up to be an opera star. It’s mostly about her childhood and her youth. It was unique because it wasn’t about her finding a man. There’s a man in the story who she does fall in love with, but she goes back to being an opera singer. And that book really stood alone and seemed so true to me. Because I got into high school and there were not two boys vying for my attention. There were no boys and my life wasn’t about the boys. So I felt like even though I loved these teen romances and read them, they weren’t about my life. Assuming there aren’t any boys, what are you going to do with your life? What are you interested in? It wasn’t just the feminist didact that produced Joan’s ending, but the part of me that was a little rebellious about the fact that almost every book about girls and women that I read as a teen had to do with who she ends up with, who she marries, who she loves.

What’s fascinating to me about this story is how we learn about Joan and the world around her. It’s in first person, so we are close to Joan and her perspective, her individual take on things. And yet there is room for readers to make up our own minds about Joan’s perception. Sometimes Joan is wrong or impulsive. But you don’t tell us that. You show great respect for your readers, allowing us to enter Joan’s world, her mind, and come to our own conclusions.

In this book, it was a little bit like A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, which is told completely from 11-year-old Maude’s point of view. The reader is supposed to know some things that Maude doesn’t. The reader is supposed to see some things and figure out some things before Maude. So you get everything from her point of view, but it’s also like you’re standing behind her, seeing around her. For me, that’s part of the fun of writing first person. You want the reader to know some things and infer some things that Joan may not yet know. And that’s fun to kind of manipulate. Also, first-person diary form is lovely because you don’t really have to finesse the sentences in the same way. If you feel like writing colloquially, you can. You don’t have to have really elegant sentences all the way through. In fact, you don’t want that. Because then you lose the idea that somebody is confiding in you, telling you the story.

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is how Joan’s empathy and her eagerness to better her circumstances helps her to learn from each relationship she forms—from her schoolteacher, Miss Chandler, to the grumpy Yiddish housekeeper, Malka, to her passionate crush on David. She’s like a sponge, absorbing everything she can, finding role models even in unlikely persons. 

Joan is very curious and she’s very interested in her own life. She kind of sees herself as the heroine of her life.

It was an interesting novel to write because it ended up being about things I didn’t expect. I didn’t know that I was going to write about religion. I didn’t know that I was going to write about the different worlds of men and women. I didn’t know I was going to write about money. But with industrialization since the 1880s, more and more women were working outside their homes. I mean, sometimes the history books make a real blunder and say, “Women were entering the workforce.” Are you kidding me? Women were the workforce! No—they were beginning to be paid. And lots of hired girls sent all their money home. That’s a whole different destiny when you are working outside the home and you are being paid. What happens with that? One of the things that happened was that some of the labor organizers were frustrated because women were spending their money on those “infamous” dime novels and finery. That was their quick grip on a finer life.

The world is wide open for Joan. There are hints that she could become an author—she’s certainly a gifted storyteller. Where do you imagine Joan in five, ten years?

I sort of don’t think that’s my business. I like to take my characters someplace where they are pretty happy and say, “Okay, I’ve done my best for you—off you go.” I’ve certainly left options open. I definitely don’t think she’s going to finish her epic poem about the life of a vestal virgin. Of course, in a few more years, it’s World War I. And that’s going to change the life of the German Rosenbachs. And that’s going to change her life, too. I don’t know what will happen to Joan, but I think she’s going to be an interesting woman. I think that anyone who wants a “big life” like she does is going to get it.

Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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