Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Interview with Jacqueline Davies

Hi All! As I said yesterday, I'm part of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour!

Yesterday, I reviewed and haunting and wonderful Lost by Jacqueline Davies. Today, she's stopped by Biblio File to have a chat!

My favorite part of this book was Essie's voice. It grabbed me from the first sentence and didn't let go. It's extremely distinctive and consistent throughout the book. How did you find (and hang on to!) her Lower East Side Jewish speech patterns?

Finding Essie’s voice was one of the greatest challenges in writing Lost. It’s an incredibly daunting task to travel back through time to resurrect a way of speaking that no longer exists. As I tried to create an authentic voice of that time, I went back to primary sources. I looked through books that included interviews with Lower East Side Jews at the turn of the century. I studied trial transcripts that recorded speech patterns, word for word. I read through the newspapers of the day, as well as fictional stories by Anzia Yezierska, who wrote of that time in that time. It was very important to me to rely on first-person sources, because anything else has passed through some kind of filter, and that distorts the material. So anything that was created or recorded contemporaneously and accurately, I paid close attention to and took from it what I could.

Then I widened my search and listened to as much current Yiddish as I could—from people, websites, recordings. I listened to the songs. I loved listening to the songs!

Most of all, though, I lived with that voice for ten years. For ten years, I heard Essie talking inside my head, and that, more than anything else, is what made it possible to write the novel in a voice that remained consistent from beginning to end. There are parts of Essie’s speech pattern that have crept into my own and my family’s. Just the other day, my daughter asked a question in exactly the way that Essie would have. We all lived with Essie for the past ten years!

In your acknowledgments, you say that it took you ten years to find a way to tell the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. What about this tragedy spoke to you so strongly?

This book began with a sound. Back in 1999, I was watching Ric Burns’ documentary New York. I already knew the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I’d studied it years ago in college. But watching that film, I heard a sound effect that was created by the sound engineer: It was his imagining of the sound you would hear when the body of a young girl strikes the sidewalk after falling eighty feet. The sound was like a combination of an overstuffed dufflebag thrown from a great height, a stack of books dropped on a hard wooden floor, and a hand smacking a face. It’s a sound I will never forget, and it had the effect of pulling me back over a century and putting me in that place, in that fire, with those girls. The story I wrote ended up changing many times over the years, but it always goes back to that sound and my wondering of what it must have been like to be there. That’s the hook that always pulls me into writing historical fiction.

How much research on hat making did you have to do? Have you ever made a hat?

A lot! When you have a character doing something in a book, you have to know how to do that thing. So I had to know every step of making a frame hat, especially a hat as stupendous as a Merry Widow. It wasn’t just about hat-making, though; it was about hat-making at the turn of the century. Luckily, I was able to get my hands on a few hat-making manuals written in the Teens and Twenties. I also have stacks of books that show photographs of vintage Edwardian hats. I love those hats. Every hat described in Lost is an actual hat in one of those books.

I’ve never made a frame hat before, but I’ve made many knitted hats. And I’ve done a lot of sewing and designing of clothes over the years. I like to work with fabric and yarn. I like the feel of those materials in my hands.

So, this is a blog tour for an award for Jewish books. One of the things I loved about it was that while Essie was Jewish and that was a big part of her, the story would have also worked if she had a different ethnic or religious background. Why did you make her a Jew?

You’re right. Essie could have been an Italian immigrant—most of the workers at the Triangle were either Eastern European Jews or Italians—and there was a time early on when I experimented with the idea of going that route. Both of my mother’s parents emigrated from Italy around 1915.

But the experience of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century was different in many ways from that of Italian immigrants, both in terms of why they came to this country (religious persecution versus economic hardship) and why they stayed (or ended up going back as so many Italian immigrants did). In early drafts of the book, I was exploring the themes of opportunity and fate and luck, and I think at that stage my main character could have been of nearly any ethnic background. But as the book developed, the theme that emerged was one of loss, and that’s a theme that particularly resonates with Jewish history, culture, and ethos. As the book is now, I couldn’t imagine Essie being anything other than Jewish.

There's been a lot of talk lately in the blogosphere lately about diversity in books. On January 4th, Colleen from Chasing Ray dared us to name 10 books with Jewish characters that weren't about the Holocaust. It was pretty hard and over half my list were books written by Judy Blume 20 years ago. Why don't we see more non-Holocaust books about Jews?

I’m glad this discussion is underway. It gives all of us the chance to recall some of the great books with Jewish main characters that have come out in the last few years: The Other Half of Life by Kim Ablon Whitney (a WWII story, but not a Holocaust story), So Punk Rock by Micol Ostow, Naomi's Song by Selma Silverberg, The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah by Nora Raleigh Baskin, Letters from Rifka and Brooklyn Bridge by Karen Hesse, and then the series of American Girl Rebecca books written by Jacqueline Denbar Greene.

When talking about diversity in books, we each—writers, publishers, reviewers, readers—bring something unique to the table. I can speak only as a writer, which means my view has both insights and limitations.

There are several possible reasons we don’t see more non-Holocaust books about Jews. It might be that writers aren’t writing that kind of book. It might be that writers are writing it, but publishers aren’t publishing it. It might be that writers are writing it, publishers are publishing it, and reviewers are ignoring it. Or it could be that writers are writing it, publishers are publishing it, reviewers are championing it, but readers aren’t buying it. And of course, if readers aren’t buying a particular kind of book that might lead to fewer writers writing such books, and it will certainly lead to fewer publishers publishing these books, because publishers respond to the marketplace. I remember when I showed an early draft of Lost to my editor, we talked about the similarities between the fire scene and accounts of the World Trade Center falling. My editor told me, “Teens don’t want to read about 9/11,” and that awareness of what teens want and don’t want was part of our discussion. So are we talking about a cycle here, and if so, who started the cycle turning: writers, publishers, reviewers, or readers?

As a writer, I don’t write books because of a personal or social agenda. Some writers do, but I don’t. I have a lot of causes I feel passionate about, but that’s not where my art comes from. I write because I have a story to tell, and out of that may come a call to action or the expression of a personal view I hold. But it’s never the reason for writing the book. I also don’t write books in response to the market. I don’t survey the market, identify a hole, and say, “I’m going to write a book to fill that hole.” Some writers do, but I don’t. I can’t write a good story if I’m following the dictates of an agenda or the marketplace. The only way I can write a good story is if I let the story itself guide me. So that’s how I do it.

It might be useful to flip the question around and ask, Why are there so many books about the Holocaust? From an author’s perspective, I can only say that writers look for conflict in telling a story, and it’s hard to imagine a more compelling, moving, heartbreaking, significant conflict than the Holocaust.

That said, I look forward to the day when the Jewish experience—along with the experiences of every ethnic and religious group — is portrayed in children’s and teen literature in a way that is full, well-rounded, and balanced. The responsibility for moving toward that goal belongs to all of us.

And now questions about you:

What is the worst job you ever had?

Oh, I’ve had some doozies. I think the winner, though, is the time I spent selling solar doors by phone. Can you believe such a job existed? I was in college at the time and needed a job that could work around my schedule. I would make cold calls—that’s right, dialing right out of the phone book—and try to get people to agree to have a sales rep visit their home. The vast majority of the people I called were elderly. Many of them were shut-ins, and they just wanted someone to talk to. Of course I listened! You could tell how lonely they were, and besides I like listening to the stories that people tell. So at the end of an hour, I would have completed two, maybe three, calls. But because I only got paid for sales calls that eventually led to sales, I never made a dime!

Where do you do most of your writing?

I write at home, in my office. A few times a year, I manage to sneak away from my family for a three- or four-day writing retreat, and those times are always particularly productive for me.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I take care of my three children. I read. I knit. I garden. I run three miles a day. I try to sleep! That pretty much takes care of the day.

What are you reading right now?

At the moment, I’m reading What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, which is a collection of New Yorker essays written by Malcolm Gladwell on every subject under the sun. I’ve also accepted the challenge of the students at Fox Hollow Elementary School in Port Richey, Florida, to read along with them every title on the Sunshine State Readers List, so I’m reading a lot of terrific middle-grade fiction, like: Igraine the Brave, Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It, and The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School. The kids are way ahead of me, though. I still have six more titles to read on the list, and the deadline is fast-approaching!

What are you watching these days?

You mean television? Uh, did you see my answer to the question what do you do when you’re not writing? Honestly, I don’t have time to watch television! Except for the occasional Celtics game, the TV in our house is pretty much a dead zone. I do watch movies, though. Mostly documentaries. I just watched “The Boys of Baraka,” and tonight my daughter and I are going to watch “Across the Universe” (her choice).

What are you listening to?

When I turn on the radio (in the car or when I’m cooking), I listen mostly to NPR. When I run, I listen to a weird mixture of singles that motivate me to keep going. My current running playlist includes Cold Play, the Beastie Boys, Joe Cocker, The Fray, The Chiffons, Sheryl Crow, and Jack Johnson, among others. My son Sam and I swap an iPod Nano back and forth for running and skiing, and so I sometimes listen to what he’s listening to: Jay-Z, Counting Crows, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Lady Gaga, Shwayze, the Doors. The kid’s got wide-ranging taste in music.

Thanks so much for stopping by!

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Phyllis Sommer said...

great interview - great questions!!!!

i'll have to read this one, i have an interesting fascination with the triangle fire....have you read Margaret Petersen Haddix's Uprising? It's marvelous.

Heidi Rabinowitz said...

Fascinating interview! And I'm particularly interested to learn of the discussion on Chasing Ray about non-Holocaust books, I missed that but will have to go back and look for it. Thanks to Jackie and Jen for such an interesting discussion!

Anonymous said...

Such a fantastic interview. And yes, great questions!!!

I too have been drawn to the Triangle Fire since my youth. I was even part of a Senior Cantorial recital that was about the fire when I was @ HUC.

This is definitely going on my nightstand.

Charles said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
KSP said...

Wow! I am always drawn to the research aspect of writing fiction, and it is obvious that this work made the book so interesting and believable.

Dreamybee said...

What great background info on this book-thanks for sharing this interview!