Author interview: Kate Manning

_DSC5087ccccKate Manning’s second novel, My Notorious Life, was six years in the making, and it was worth the wait, so far as I’m concerned. It’s the story of Axie Muldoon, an orphaned child from the streets of 1870’s New York, who makes good, in one sense, only to find that there’s a man determined to bring her down. It sounds like the stuff of all great fiction, but in fact the character is based on Ann Lohman, a 19th century midwife and abortionist. If this makes Axie sound somewhat unsympathetic, it’s a testament to Kate Manning’s skill that I found myself rooting for her all the way. Her motives are pure – she wants to help women. Becoming rich happens to be the result of the natural remedies she sells, ones that might cause a miscarriage if the patient wants them to. Clearly a lot of research went into the book, yet I never felt I was being lectured. Apart from the feeling that I was stepping in and out of Victorian New York each time I picked up the book, it was exciting, too, and I wanted to know more about what went into it.

PS This interview is longer than my usual ones, but Kate’s answers are well worth reading!

GC: You’ve drawn a marvelous picture of late 19th century New York. How much of the descriptions you write come from old photos, and how much from your imagination? GirlBaby350
KM: The photos of Jacob Riis, from his classic work How the Other Half Lives inspired me to write about that era. But it was also the city itself, the parts that are ever unchanged (smells and smoke, energy and grit), that fed the story. Books and newspapers of the 19th century, and the vivid first-hand descriptions of people who lived then, really helped me imagine it – the voice of those times was so dramatic (murder! mayhem! saints! sinners!) so overwrought, full of lovely arcane language. It’s always the very specific detail that makes something come alive, the more precise the better. Reading old medical textbooks and trial transcripts helped. The Diaries of Charles Loring Brace, the founder of the Children’s Aid Society and the orphan train movement (he’s a character in the novel) gave me a sense of Victorian attitudes toward medicine and women, children and charity that also deeply informed the book’s tone and outline. get-attachment-4.aspx
GC: Axie is an unusual character with a very distinctive voice. Was it hard to transition her speech patterns from street urchin to successful (if nouveau riche) businesswoman?
KM: The New York vernacular has a distinct cadence, as does Irish-English. I’ve been immersed in both these dialects for a long time, and so I heard Axie’s voice as a combination of these rhythms. I knew that as a street child, she’d not’ve been very well educated, but that as a striver, she’d want to “speak like the upper crust,” as Charlie counsels her. And so she tries to do that. It made sense to me that as she grew up her speech would improve. It was really fun to write in the voice of an irreverent character who broke the rules. A great help was a little dictionary compiled in 1859 by the New York City police chief, George Matsell, called The Secret Language of Crime, A Rogue’s Lexicon.
GC: You mention in an interview printed in the paperback edition that one of the book’s problems that you find almost unchanged in modern New York is the number of homeless children. Which other social issues do you think cause problems today?
KM: The parallels between our times and the Victorian age fascinate me – because we believe ourselves to be so enlightened, philanthropic and egalitarian. In the1850s there were 30,000 homeless children living on the streets of New York, most of them out in the open. Today there are still some 35,000 homeless kids in the city, and while it’s true that they mostly live in shelters, their situation is often quite as dire as the ones Jacob Riis chronicled in How the Other Half Lives. The gulf between insanely rich people, and the destitute is as wide now, in 2015, as it was during the Gilded Age, if not wider. The greed is obscene, really. The other strong and frightening echo between our own times and the late 1800s is this increasing and relentless erosion of women’s reproductive rights. I did not write My Notorious Life as some kind of object lesson, but as a rollicking story of Axie’s search for family, the mercy and kindness she shows to the women who come to her for help, her strength in standing up to zealotry, her respect for the complexities of women’s lives, for their choices – and lack of choice. This was an era when the birth rate was seven live births per woman. Women died in childbirth at very high rates, and abortion was the main method of birth control. I wrote a NY Times op-ed about this history. But the current attacks on women’s autonomy, the demonizing of abortion care providers – is the the same kind of harassment that happened to midwives in the 1870’s. “Anti-vice” crusaders succeeded in abolishing all birth control and abortion for our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. Now, lack of access to good reproductive health is causing dire problems for women – especially poor ones – same as it did in 1878.
GC: The Orphan Trains seems to have come to the forefront fairly recently, with the publication of a novel, a program on PBS and new information coming to light from the Children’s Aid Society itself. Did you intend to include that in the novel from the start, or was it something you found in your research that prompted you to make them part of the plot?
KM: The book started out – in 2005 – as a story about the orphan trains. I’d long been fascinated by this little-known chapter in our past. Then, in the course of my writing and research about that era, I came across a character that just bowled me over–I could not believe I’d never heard of her, given her notoriety during her lifetime. Ann Lohman, AKA Madame Restell, was known as the “wickedest woman in New York.” She was a “females’ physician” who delivered babies, gave out birth control information and devices, placed infants for adoption, and also performed abortions. She grew rich selling medicines, was publicly shamed, often arrested, and ultimately brought down by religious zealot Anthony Comstock. I was immediately drawn to the astonishing details of her dramatic, sweeping story, and it made sense to me that my scrappy orphan train rider, Axie Muldoon, the story’s heroine, would grow up to be someone like Lohman. I borrowed certain parts of Lohman’s story for Axie. A faked suicide provided the perfect plot device, and the novel really took off after that. Funny thing: just as My Notorious Life was about to be published, I heard an author on the radio about her new book “Orphan Train.” I admit that I cursed this coincidence quite loudly–because I felt proprietary about this material, and thought “nobody else has heard of this chapter in history…” Since then, however, I have become friends with that very generous and bestselling author, Christina Baker Kline—whom I adore–and we’ve done quite a few events together talking about our shared interest in this fascinating time.
GC: I found the book more and more gripping as I started to get near the end. Any chance of a sequel? If not, what else is on your mind?
KM: There’s always that impulse to tie off loose ends, so, in doing just that, I seem to have written myself out of a sequel! At least for now. But I don’t lack for book ideas. Always on my mind is the drama that goes along with the wide gulf between haves and have-nots, and how that feels, especially to the have-nots. In any story set in our country, this concern necessarily involves a hard conversation about race. In my first novel, the psychological ‘thriller,’ Whitegirl, I was circling around ideas about whiteness and celebrity culture and unexamined ideas about the past, in the wake of the OJ Simpson trial. Times have changed somewhat since the 90’s—but I think we white Americans have a long way to go, to understand our history, the grim impact and long tentacles of slavery. So I have about three other books fully formed in my head that I’m trying to get out onto the page. This is always rough going. One of them is set in the early 1900s, a time of great labor unrest, financial panic, looming war, and changing ideas in the evolving idea of what it means to be American, a woman, a human creature. I hope I can pull of the ambitious idea of it, but each story is its own world, and presents a new challenge. Wish me luck! And thanks so much for the enthusiasm and the wonderful blog. It’s a privilege to answer your interesting questions.

You can connect with Kate on her website, Goodreads, Facebook, and Twitter

Thoreau and the mystery novelists: Author interview

As a lover of historical fiction and of mystery novels, I was intrigued when Thoreau at Devil’s Perch came to my attention, because it hit two of my buttons at once. It begins as Dr. Adam Walker meets Thoreau one day just as the latter has discovered the body of a young black man in the woods. Using Thoreau’s encyclopedic knowledge and with the assistance of his cousin, Julia Bell, Adam seeks to prove that the young man’s death was not an accident and to find the person responsible. Great stuff!

BenBethOakThe fact that the book was written by B.B. Oak, who turn out to be a husband and wife team, Ben and Beth Oak, made sense, since the story is told from Adam’s and then Julia’s point of view in alternating chapters.

I’m always interested in people who create collaboratively. There are many very successful novelists whose work is written “with” someone else (like James Patterson) and other cases where a child takes over from an ailing parent after collaborating on a couple of books (Dick and Felix Francis). And there’s Charles Todd, a mother and son collaboration. The results can be excellent, but I sometimes wonder how it actually works, day to day. So I decided to ask B.B. Oak (both of them…).


GC: I understand that you met at BU and discovered each other and a fascination with Henry David Thoreau. A fascination is one thing, a murder mystery with him as one of the main characters is something else. What put the idea in your head, and whose idea was it?

Ben – It hit us like a bolt of lightning.

Beth – Are you talking about the day we met?  Or the day we came up with the idea of a Thoreau mystery series?thoreau at devil's perch - 342x500 pix

Ben – Both.  But to answer Gabi’s question, the idea of having Thoreau as our crime-solver seemed to come out of the blue.

Beth – But of course nothing really does.  It was more like all our past experiences and knowledge and interests meshed.  We’d been talking about writing a mystery together for a while.  But we weren’t interested in writing about modern forensics, so we decided it should be a historical mystery featuring a fictional character who was a master of observation and deduction à la Sherlock Holmes. 

Ben – And then one fine spring day, as we gazed across Walden Pond, I remarked how Thoreau, with his acute analytical skills as a naturalist and professional surveyor, would have made a great detective.

Beth – It was in the fall, not the spring. And maybe I was the one who made that remark.

Ben – You will allow at least that we were at Walden Pond?

Beth – For sure. And I don’t actually recall who initially suggested the idea. it just seemed so obvious, once we started talking about it, that Thoreau had all the qualities needed to be a good sleuth. His friends would have

Ben –And he was a loner with his own code of honor, like so many great detectives in literature, from Holmes to Marlowe to Spenser to Reacher.  After all, Thoreau was the one who coined the phrase ‘marching to your own drummer’.

GC: Can you tell us something about the way you work?  Who does what?   

Ben – The first thing we do when we start a book – and we’re writing our third book now – is plot it together.  This is the fun part because we keep things free and easy, tossing out ideas, no matter how ridiculous, and letting them lead us wherever they may.

Beth – Of course sometimes they lead us down a dead end and we have to turn around and get back on the right track.  But better for that to happen in the early planning stages than half-way through the book.

Ben – Once we start writing, we work from the same story outline so we’re both going in the same direction when we write separate scenes.  But we keep the outline sketchy to leave room for creativity.   

Beth – Which gives Ben the opportunity to head off in another direction entirely!  Sometimes that works out great.

Ben – And when it doesn’t, Beth makes sure to let me know.

Ben – We both like doing the research for our books.  In fact, we like every part of the process.

Beth – Even the disagreements

Have you ever had a serious disagreement about the novel as you were writing it?

Ben – Not often.

Beth – All the time!

Ben – Depends on how you define serious.  We’ve never had a situation where one of us said, if the other doesn’t buy this idea, the books isn’t going forward. 

Beth – That’s not to say we don’t have animated, and occasionally heated discussions.  But that’s a good thing because our strong feelings give our books energy.  And for the most part, it’s great to have a writing partner.  Two heads really are better than one when devising an intricate murder mystery plot. 

Ben – And we each have different strengths to add to the writing.  Beth is better at dialogue and emotional scenes and I prefer writing action and descriptive scenes.

GC: Does Beth write Julia’s journal and Ben Adam’s?

Ben – Yes.

Beth – Well, that’s the simple answer anyway.  But then I revise Adam’s journal and Ben revises Julia’s.  The work goes back and forth during each draft.

GC: Does this experience encourage or discourage you from writing a sequel? 

Ben – Our second book, Thoreau on Wolf Hill, is already written and will be released Nov. 2014. 

Beth – And like our first, Thoreau at Devil’s Perch, it’s more than a murder mystery, with a love story and mystical overtones running through it. 

Ben – In our second book we return to the fictional town of Plumford (right next door to Concord) in the middle of a consumption epidemic that has given rise to long-buried vampire superstitions.  We based the story on incidents that actually took place in New England in the 1800s.  Thoreau even mentioned one in his journal.  In our fictional account, a vampire is thought to be responsible for several ghoulish deaths and Thoreau, Adam and Julia set out to quell the rising fear in town, which may lead to violence against innocent people. 

Beth – Our third book, Thoreau in Phantom’s Bog, is still in the outline stage.  It’s about the Underground Railroad, in which Thoreau and his family were very active participants.  The research is fascinating!

You can find them on their website, Facebook and on Goodreads..

via BooksNewHaven: A Violet Season

Sandi Kahn Shelton is the writer behind the blog for readers and writers called BooksNewHaven. author of four and a half novels (just finishing her latest) she uses the blog to promote and encourage interaction between writers and their audience, and does frequent interviews with authors, many of them in Connecticut. When she interviewed Kathy Leonard Czepiel, I asked if I could re-post here, because the novel, A Violet Season, sounded fascinating. Here’s the beginning of the interview:

Kathy Czepiel’s beautiful new novel talks about sacrifice, women’s lives…and violets

Kathy Leonard Czepiel is the author of A Violet Season, a historical novel set on a Hudson Valley violet farm on the eve of the twentieth century.

Photo: Chris Volpe

She is the recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals including Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, CALYX, Confrontation, and The Pinch. Czepiel teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters.

Come and hear her talk about the history of the violet industry and listen to excerpts from her novel at New Haven’s Mitchell Library in Westville on Monday, October 29th at 6:30 p.m.

Tell us about your new book.

A Violet Season is set on a Hudson Valley violet farm operated by three brothers at the turn of the twentieth century. Ida Fletcher, who is married to the black sheep youngest brother, has taken up wet nursing to help pay the bills, and her teenage daughter, Alice, has been forced to leave school Read more here:

You can find her on Facebook and Twitter as well as at her website