Meet the incomparable Axie Muldoon. Axie’s story begins on the streets of 1860s New York. The impoverished child of Irish immigrants, she grows up to become one of the wealthiest and most controversial women of her day. In vivid prose, Axie recounts how she is forcibly separated from her mother and siblings, apprenticed to a doctor, and how she and her husband parlay the sale of a few bottles of “Lunar Tablets for Female Complaint” into a thriving midwifery business. Flouting convention and defying the law in the name of women’s rights, Axie rises from grim tenement rooms to the splendor of a mansion on Fifth Avenue, amassing wealth while learning over and over never to trust a man who says “trust me.”
When her services attract outraged headlines, Axie finds herself on a collision course with a crusading official—Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. It will take all of Axie’s power to outwit him in the fight to preserve her freedom and everything she holds dear. Inspired by the true history of an infamous physician who was once called “the Wickedest Woman in New York,” Kate Manning is “writing in the venerable tradition of Stephen Crane…those social reformers knew that a powerful tale with memorable characters could draw us into the heat of social debates like nothing else” (The Washington Post).
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
For Bread Alone
n the year 1860, when the Western Great Plain of America was the home of the buffalo roaming, the cobbled hard pavement of New York City was the roofless and only domicile of thirty-five thousand children. In our hideous number we scraps was cast outdoors or lost by our parents, we was orphans and half orphans and runaways, the miserable offspring of Irish and Germans, Italians and Russians, servants and slaves, Magdalenes and miscreants, all the unwashed poor huddled slubs who landed yearning and unlucky on the Battery with nothing to own but our muscles and teeth, the hunger of our bellies. Our Fathers and Mothers produced labor and sweat and disease and babies that would’ve been better off never born. The infant ones, small as a drop of dew on a cabbage leaf, was left wrapped in newspaper and still bloody on the doorsteps of churches, in the aisles of dry goods stores. Others among us was not older than two, just wee toddlers with the skulls still soft when they was thrust Friendless upon the paving stones of Broadway. These kids dressed in bits and pickings. They begged what they ate or filched it. Many never had known a shoe. The girls started out young to sell themselves and the boys turned to thuggery. Half the babies dropped at the foundling hospital died before they had a birthday. The rest of the so-called street Arabs was lucky if they lived to twenty.
Me and my sister Dutch and my brother Joe was nearly permanent among this sorry crowd, but by the mossy skin of our teeth we got turned from that path by a stranger who came upon us and exchanged our uncertain fate for another, equally uncertain.
The day in question I was not more than twelve years of age. Turned up nose, raggedy dress, button boots full of holes and painful in the toe, dark black hair I was vain of pulled back, but no ribbon. And my father’s eyes, the color of the Irish sea, he always said, blue as waves. I was two heads taller than a barstool. My legs was sticks, my ribs a ladder. I was not no beauty like Dutch, but I managed with what I got. And That Day we three got our whole new proposition. It walked right up and introduced itself.
Hello there, wayfarers.
We stood in the doorway of the bakery. If you stayed there long enough, you could get maybe a roll that was old, maybe the heels they would give you of the loaves. We were not particular. We would eat crumbs they swept out for the birds. We was worse than birds, we was desperate as rats. That day the smell was like a torture, of the bread baking, them cakes and the pies and them chocolate éclairs like all of your dreams coming up your nose and turning to water in your mouth. We Muldoons had not eaten since yesterday. It was February or maybe March, but no matter the date, we were frozen, no mittens, no hats, us girls without no woolies under our skirts, just britches full of moth bites. We had baby Joe warm in our arms, heavy as beer in a half keg. Dutch had my muffler I gave her, she was so cold. We wrapped it around my head and her head both, and there we stood looking like that two-headed calf I saw once in Madison Square. Two heads, four legs, one body. Two heads is better than one, but we children should’ve been smarter that day and seen what was coming.
A customer started in the door. This big fat guy with big fat neck rolls over the collar of his coat, like a meat scarf.
Dutch said, —Mister? with those blue eyes she has, such jewelry in her face, sparkling sadlike eyes.
The Meat Neck Gent said, —Go home to your Ma.
Dutch said back, —We ain’t got no Ma.
—Yeah yeah yeah, he said. —I heard that before, now beat it.
—Please mister, I said. —We ain’t. It’s the truth. (Though it wasn’t exactly.)
—Just one a them rolls or a bannock of bread.
And the guy said, —Beat it, again. He was a miserable cockroach in fine boots, but he was not the one who ruined us, that was the kindness of strangers.
So we started to cry very quiet now, me and Dutch, because we had not had food since yesterday noon, standing there the whole morning with pain like teeth in our guts. The scarf around our head was frozen solid with our tears and snuffle.
Along at last came another customer, quite fancy. This one had the type of a beard that straps under the chin, and a clump of hair left stranded in the center of his bald dome that we saw when he removed his tall hat, like a rainbarrel on his head.
With the tears fresh in our eyes, we said, —Hey Mister.
—Why hello there, wayfarers.
Right away he got down low, peering hard at us like we were interesting, and asked in the voice of an angel, —Why you poor children! Why are you here in the cold? Don’t cry, sweet innocents. Come inside and warm yourselves.
—Nossir, I said, —we ain’t allowed. They tell us scram and kick us.
—That’s an outrage, he said. —You’ll freeze to death.
Picking baby Joe out of our arms and handling him, he marched us into the warm smell of the shop. We were hemorrhaging in the mouth practically with want. You could eat the air in the place, so thick with bread and warmth that it stang our cheeks.
—Out out out out, cried the bakery hag when she saw us. The dough of her body was trembling with fury. —Out! I told you.
—These children shall have three rolls of that white bread there, and tea with milk, said the Gentleman, and he slapped down his money bright on the counter.
The dark scowl of the miserable proprietress smoked over at us in fumes. But she swallowed her bile when she seen the Gentleman’s copper and fetched us tea. It scalded our tongues but did nothing to damage the softness of her bread or the crunch of its golden crust. It made no sense to have such a hard woman with such soft bread. We were fainting and trying not to wolf it down like beasts. The Gentleman watched us eat the same as if we were a free show.
—There now, he said, his voice a low burr in his throat, —there you are, children.
Dutch threw her arms around his neck. —Oh thank you kind Gentleman, she said. Her sweetness was like payment to him, you could see by his smile. Even with the grime on her face, Dutch was a pretty child. No one could resist her blarney and her charm, and though she was only seven years of age, she knew this well.
When we were done with the first bread, he says, —Are yiz still hungry?
Wait. Let me get his voice right. In fact, he said it all beautiful, with elocution: —Do you jolly young wayfarers still have an appetite?
And we said, —Yessir.
It was our lucky day then, for he bought us another round of penny rolls and fed us under the glare of the bakery woman’s eyes.
—Children, where are your parents? the Gentleman said.
—Please mister, our father art in heaven, said Dutch. It was the wish to be proper was why she mangled her vocabulary with a prayer. Our father was not our Father Who Art in Heaven, though he was dead. Perhaps he was in hell, what with the one sin we knew of him, which was his death two years before, from drunkenness and falling off a scaffold while carrying a hod of bricks, leaving Mam with us girls and Joe, his infant son. It was just after Joe’s arrival and our Da was celebrating with his lunch bucket and a drop, for he did like his drop, Mam said, coming home every night, so dusty and singing Toura loura loo, a stick of licorice in his pockets if we was lucky and a blast of whiskey in our faces if we wasn’t. —Fill me the growler, there’s a good girl, Axie, he says to me nightly, and I’m off like a shot for the shebeen downstairs and back in a flash without spilling. Then Da would raise the bucket in a toast and sing out, —You’re a Muldoon, dontcha forget it girls. Descended from the Kings of Lurg. The daughters and sons of Galway.
—The Kings of Lurg did not have nothing over your father, Mam said in her grief when he fell. —He was a grand hard worker, and more’s the pity for there will be no payday now he’s gone to God.
After he was gone to God we was gone ourselves, away over to Cherry Street to live with our father’s sister Aunt Nance Duffy, while Mam went out to work as a laundress to a Chinaman.
—Where is your mother then? the Gentleman asked.
—She got an injury, I says. —She can’t get out of her bed for three days.
—And where do you live? he asks us. —Have you warmth and shelter?
—Truth, says I, —it’s the food we miss.
—My name is Mr. Brace. He put out his hand, which I inspected, lacking the manners to shake it. It was clean and soft as something newborn. —Who might you be?
—Axie Muldoon. And these here is my brother Joe and sister Dutchie.
—A pleasure to make your acquaintance.
He did not look like it was a pleasure exactly, and stared like he was a police trap in brass buttons, frisking us in the face to find out our secrets. He was a big gaunt man, with pale eyes dug back in his face, an overhung forehead, jutting jaw, nose long as a vegetable, and big flanges of nostrils. There were hairs in them that I could see from down low where I was. Like any child I was disgusted by the hairs, but hoping to extend his philanthropy just a few pennies longer, I said, —Thanks mister for the bread.
—Certainly, my dear. Still you must know that man does not live for bread alone, but lives by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord.
We gazed up at him without no idea of what he was going on about.
—I should like you to have bread, said he quite gently, —yes, but more than bread. I should like you three children to come along with me.
It seemed he was going to give us cakes and ale and possibly a handful of silver, so I was all for it. He picked up our Joe and took Dutch by her hand, which she surrendered, trusting as if he was Our Lord the shepherd and she was the sheep. Not knowing we were marching off to our Fate, we all trooped out together. I was last, which was to my advantage because on the way out I gave a loud raspberry to the bakery lady. Very satisfying it was, too, and you should have seen her face, the cow. Full of her baking, we followed the Gentleman down the street.
—I would like to bring this bread to your Mother, he says. —Where do you live?
He had a parcel with the telltale shape of fat loaves under the brown paper, so despite Mam’s instructions never to truck with strangers, there was no choice but to lead him home. For bread alone, I done it.
nknown to me, My Enemy Comstock, meanwhile, was in a different order of life altogether, a fussbudget lad growing plump on pie and milk in the bosky dells and stony fields of New Canaan, Connecticut. His muttonchop whiskers was then still dormant under the skin of his smug expression as he pursued his hobby: writing in his diary about how he trapped wee soft bunnies and happy squirrels by crushing them under stones. He still had hair in those youthful days and had not yet acquired the bald pate or rotund shape of an inflated hog’s bladder that was his in later life. Still, photographs of the young Tony Comstock reveal that his slack jaw and dull mean eyes were in place from the time he was in knee pants.
It has been propositioned to me by intelligent freethinkers and kindhearted gentlefolks that no soul is pure evil and while I accept that My Enemy was a dutiful son, a doting husband, a loving papa, I can think of him only as a cabbage-hearted weevil and MONSTER for what he done to me and other good citizens too many to count.
He was just three years older than myself, and though we grew through the same times, we was worlds apart. While I was picking the ash barrels of Washington Square for scraps of gristle, My Enemy romped around his Papa’s 160 acres of pasture, dawdled in the family sawmills where money grew like chestnuts on the bushes. He feasted on ice cream in the parlors of church ladies and went forth on outings to the shore at Roton Point in Norwalk, where (he told his dear diary) he chastised some sailors for looking under ladies’ dresses. Even then he was a prig, with his chin weak and hands folded in his lap. Every Sunday of his boyhood My Enemy sat through four Congregationalist sermons about hellfire and damnation (so that he would know how to inflict these on me) and went to sleep each night fearing the hot breath of Satan. On weekdays he collected stamps and tried (without success) to avoid impure thoughts. He prayed and whetted the knife blades of his righteousness, all the better to smite me and the likes of me, while listening to Bible stories at the knee of his adored mother. Poor Mother Comstock! She had ten children before she died from birthing the last one. Surely she turned in her grave to see the fat poltroon her little Tony became, how he waddled along, huffing like a locomotive and bragging about how he had driven fifteen people to SUICIDE—including MYSELF, his greatest conquest—as if he had attained some esteemed heights of accomplishment.
Many years later, on the Day of our Fateful Encounter, I myself noticed his asthma and panting as he marched me, his trophy, to the courthouse. Even as we drove downtown, his wheeze was pronounced. It is still a question as to whether Mr. Comstock’s heavy breathing was the result of excitement at all the smut he rounded up (to burn, he claimed), or whether it was the strain on his heart that came from carrying around so much of his own flesh.
—Madame DeBeausacq, he said, as he escorted me to jail, —I do the work of God.
—What a coincidence! I cried. —So do I!
—Yours is the devil’s occupation, he said, prim as a doily. —Mine is the Lord’s.
—Perhaps your God is a two-faced employer, says I, —for many’s the time I have been thanked in the name of that same Lord for rescuing his poor lost lambs, which is more than you can say, I am quite sure.
—Your evil practice has come to an end, said he.
At this point, I offered him thirty thousand dollars. —Or more, I said, —if you wish.
He did not condescend to glance at me, but the bristles of his walrus mustache stood on end, while fire and brimstone came from his ears. —Madame DeBeausacq, as you call yourself, I will have you down for bribery.
I will have you down for a yellow-bellied sapsucker, you imbecile, I thought. I stared straight ahead at the liveried back of my coachman John Hatchet, listening to the hoof clop of my dappled team of grays, and adjusted the velvet cape around my shoulders with a laugh. My backbone was a ramrod, the diamonds in my earlobes sparkled in the winter sunlight, and the plumes of the ostrich feathers on my hat waved merrily in the breeze.
—The Tombs, John, and hurry, I said to my driver. —Mr. Comstock is eager to show off his prize.
It did not escape my attention that, as we traveled downtown together to meet my fate, we passed directly in front of Number 100 Chatham, the former Evans abode, with its dirty white paint and sagging roofline. It presented a dreary and unassuming façade, what our Mr. Brace might call a DREADFUL ROOKERY OF THE POOR. But I knew it once long ago as home, as the very place where I was apprenticed, and where I became the one the papers called the Notorious Madame X.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for My Notorious Life includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kate Manning. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Axie’s story begins on the unforgiving streets of 1860s New York. The impoverished child of Irish immigrants, she grows up to become one of the wealthiest and most controversial women of her day. In a vivid voice, Axie recounts how she is forcibly separated from her mother and siblings, apprenticed to a doctor, and how she and her husband parlay the sale of a few bottles of “Lunar Tonic for Female Complaint” into a thriving midwifery business. Defying the law in the name of women’s reproductive rights, Axie rises from grim tenement rooms to the splendor of a mansion on Fifth Avenue. When her services attract outraged headlines, Axie finds herself on a collision course with a crusading official. It takes all of Axie’s cunning and power to outwit him in the fight to preserve everything she holds dear.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the structure of My Notorious Life. Why do you think the author chose to present the story as long lost memoir, discovered by Axie’s great-great-granddaughter, Teresa Smithhurst-O’Rourke? How does Teresa’s introduction to the memoir help frame the story? Did it influence the way that you read it? If so, how?
2. Axie’s narration in My Notorious Life begins with the description of a suicide. When you finally learned whose body is in the tub, were you surprised? Why or why not? What did you think of Axie’s decision to switch identities with the deceased?
3. Compare the experiences of Axie, Dutch, and Joe after their journy on the Orphan Train. How do you imagine Joe’s and Dutchie’s stories differed from Axie’s experience with Mrs. Temple? Discuss ninteenth century attitudes toward children as illustrated by My Notorious Life.
4. When Axie returns to 127 Cherry Street, she says, “I was home, with a taste of dread like chalk in my mouth.” (p. 54). Why do you think Axie is worried about coming home? How do the changes at 127 Cherry Street while Axie has been away also change Axie?
5. When Adelaide, one of Mrs. Evans’ patients, tells Axie, “Don’t ever trust a man who says trust me” (p. 89) Axie takes her advice as a personal motto. Discuss instances in Axie’s life where the motto is proven to be sound–or fails her. Why is the question of trust so important to Axie? What moral values does she live by?
6. When Axie is a child, her mother corrects her “savage grammar.” Axie says, “We children had poor mouths, she was forever telling us.” (p. 14) Later, when Axie is older, Charlie also corrects Axie, telling her, “ISn’t not AIN’T. Listen to me, Student, speak like the upper crust.” (p. 121) How does Axie’s language change as she recounts her story? What does language mean to Axie and Charlie in terms of social class and American self-invention?
7. Mrs. Browder says of the adult Charlie, “He’s a bounder…. Once a man of the streets, always a man of the streets,” (p. 170) and Greta says he’s “He’s one of those danglers and he’ll dangle you.” (p. 119) Do you agree with Mrs. Browder and Greta about Charlie’s character? What are your initial impressions of him? Do they change during the course of My Notorious Life?
8. Mrs. Evans tells Axie “till you have a child of your own, no woman will accept you for a midwife.” (p. 157) How do Axie’s own experiences as a woman and mother inform her work and attitudes toward the women she helps?
9. When Axie and Charlie are first married, she says, “Before we had wanted the same thing, to not be orphans no more.” (p. 169) Discuss their relationship. How does their shared background affect the way they relate to each other?
10. During an argument, Axie tells Charlie, “Free Love?... For sure, it’s not free at all.” (p. 171) What are the costs of love, as illustrated by Adelaide, Frances, Beatrice, Greta and Cordelia?
11. When Axie is put on trial, Dr. Gunning testifies against her. (p. 324) What are his motivations? How is his testimony indicative of the medical profession’s attitude toward midwifery?
12. Axie notes that the majority of the women who order Madame DeBeausacq’s Female Remedy “seemed to be married, mothers already, anxious to prevent another confinement. They was all of them desperate.” (p. 202). Were you surprised to learn that many of Axie’s clients were married? Why? Discuss the letters that Axie receives from these women.
13. Mrs. Evans tells Axie, “a midwife must also keep comfortable with the complexities. What I call the lesser evil. You will learn not to judge too harsh on others. If you don’t learn this, you’re not suited to the work.” (p. 153) What does Mrs. Evans mean by “complexities”? What are her reasons for assisting with “premature deliveries” and why does she call them the “lesser evil”?
14. Axie says, “What is a name? It’s nothing,” (p. 412). But is it? During the course of My Notorious Life, Axie is also called Annie, Mrs. Jones, “Chickenheart,” Mother, Mme. DeBeausacq, Madame X. “Hag of Misery,” and “Modern Thug of Civilized Society.” What do each of these names indicate about Axie and how she is seen by others, and by herself?
15. Anthony Comstock is a crusader against “vice.” Is Axie a crusader? Discuss and compare their apparent motivations. Comstock invites reporters along when he arrests Axie, and the press is also involved in organizing a riot against her, as well as policing that protest. How does Axie respond to the press? What was the role of the press in her life?
16. Mrs. Browder tells Axie, “Men have war to bring them their sorrows and pain…we females have our own physiology.” (p. 137) Explain what Mrs. Browder means by this statement. Do you think that Mrs. Browder’s statement helps Axie to understand Mrs. Evans’s work?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Axie and her siblings are placed in the care of the Children’s Aid Society where they are sent to the Midwest in the hopes that they’ll be adopted. Of the train ride west Axie says, “There was only going forward on the train, the fear and the panic and the boredom.” (p. 29). To learn more about the Orphan Train movement, visit the official site of the Children’s Aid Society at http://www.childrensaidsociety.org/about/history/orphan-trains. Then, read the stories of other Orphan Train riders on the Orphan Train Depot Complex http://orphantraindepot.org/orphan-train-rider-stories/ and discuss how the stories on the site compare to that of Axie and her siblings.
2. While Frances Harkness, one of Mrs. Evans’s patients, is recovering, she asks Axie to read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” with her. Axie is deeply moved by the sonnets, saying “all my life I remembered Love’s Sake Only, and Mrs. Browning’s poetical lines. One in particular tormented me, where she wrote, Behold and see What a great heap of grief lay hid In me, And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn Through the ashen grayness.” (p. 109) Read Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” paying particular attention to “I lift my heavy heart up solemnly” and “Love’s Sake Only.” Discuss why these poems would haunt Axie.
3. Axie makes a fortune selling “Lunar Tablets for Female Complaint,” and Charlie ultimately expands their customer base through advertising. Read this article about Patent Medicine from The Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2198086/Victorian-adverts-health-remedies-laden-cocaine-morphine-alcohol.html and compare Charlie’s advertisements with those that are pictured.
4. The women who write to Axie are drawn from the women who wrote to Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. To read those letters, visit: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5083/
To learn more about the research that went into My Notorious Life and connect with Kate Manning online, visit her official site at http://katemanningauthor.com/
A Conversation with Kate Manning
My Notorious Life is based on Ann Trow Lohman, an early nineteenth-century abortionist figure, known as Madame Restell. What inspired you to create a character based on her?
I didn’t begin with Madame Restell. The story was first about a child on the New York streets in the 1850s. As Axie met misfortunes and got swept up in the social reform of the era, I wondered what would become of her. In the course of figuring it out, reading history, I stumbled on the story of Ann Lohman, and was flabbergasted—why had I never heard of her? She was in the headlines for decades. The more I thought about her, the more I realized that it made perfect sense that Axie, a little girl who had seen so much tragedy befall women and children, would grow up to share Lohman’s profession. Axie already seemed to have the fierceness of spirit that would give her the courage to stand up to authority. I liked the challenge and risk of exploring this charged and difficult material.
Axie Muldoon has a truly distinctive voice. Marisa Silver has lauded her “as fierce and alive a character as I have read in recent fiction.” How did you capture her unique speech and attitude?
Since voice is the first thing that compels me to read a novel, I set out to learn from the ones I like best, which are as diverse as Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, or Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurstson. To get the voice I was after, I wanted to mix the syntax and rhythms of New York and the phrasing and lilt of Ireland into Axie’s speech. I used slang dictionaries, such as The Secret Language of Crime, published in 1859 by NYC police chief George Matsell. My notebook is full of expressions and words from old manuals like The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Marie Child, and novels like Stephen Crane’s Maggie, a Girl of the Streets. A few favorites from my notebook: “savage as a meat ax,” “dumb as a haddock on Friday.” But really, what animated Axie’s voice for me was emotion. Her anger and mercy and longing for a family. A strong voice has to have need at its core, I think.
In your author’s note, you say that although My Notorious Life is based on historical facts, you have “reconfigured events…when such changes suited the story” (p. 435) What liberties did you take for the sake of the story?
Probably too many to count. I hate to describe them, for fear of breaking the illusion created by a fictional world and turning it into a detective hunt for what’s “true” in the book. That said, a curious reader could easily discover which newspaper articles in the book were really written about Ann Lohman, or which ads for “remedies” were the real ones from that time period.
More generally, abortion laws were undergoing big changes in the nineteenth century. I purposely stayed obtuse about their exact chronological evolution—in order to fit Axie’s story into a period between 1850 and 1880. It seemed sufficient for the purposes of a novel just to evoke the general idea that the tide was shifting.
Emma Donoghue calls My Notorious Life “a gripping docu-drama.” Did your background as documentary television producer help as you researched the book? How so? Can you talk about your writing process?
Emma Donoghue knows a thing or two about writing good drama, so her comment means a lot to me. And it’s true that my background in television and journalism taught me a great deal–in terms of research, certainly. But most importantly, it made me focus on dramatic structure. On television, you have to keep things interesting. You want people to come back to the news after the commercial, come back to the show for the next installment. So you must choose only scenes that tell the story most compellingly. You are always cutting, to fit to an allotted time slot. Nonfiction writing also teaches a novelist how to “find the story,” and then hang it on the bones of fact. Straight facts are not memorable. Stories are. And that’s because stories are colored by emotion and human detail.
As for “writing process.” That sounds as if I could flip a series of switches and Poof! A book. But the process, if it is one, is one of fits and starts, epiphanies followed by fog. There’s a lot of drifting around and looking in the refrigerator, a sudden need to walk the dog. In an ideal world, this “writing” would happen every day, though it never does. Life interrupts, often for weeks and months at a time. In a good stretch, I sit down early in the morning and don’t stop till late afternoon. Getting it right is a slog. It’s laying tile. Some days I forge ahead—a new scene, a new bit of dialogue. Many, many days I rework the prose, shaping, trimming, moving passages. I ditch at least as much material as ends up in the book. Bits from the middle wind up at the beginning, and vice versa. Sometimes I can drudge on for hours and not even be sure what I accomplished. Maybe I moved a comma.
While researching My Notorious Life, were there any discoveries you made about Ann Trow Lohman or her contemporaries that were particularly surprising to you? If so, what were they?
What was quite surprising was how she seemed to have a rather equal partnership with her husband Charles Lohman. They were quite free-thinking compared to how we usually imagine the Victorians. Another thing that struck me was the degree to which Lohman—“Madame Restell,” was extraordinarily competitive with other so-called “females” physicians’ of the day, running counter-ads disparaging her rivals—Mrs. Bird and Mrs. Costello—calling them frauds and imposters. Was she motivated by greed? by politics? by a sense of injustice? Very little is known about her in that regard.
Most shocking to learn was that in the 1800s, there were some 30,000 homeless children living on New York City streets. Some of these kids were as young as two—shoeless and sleeping on steam grates. It was astonishing to see that when the kids were shipped away on the Orphan Trains, the Childrens Aid Society didn’t keep records on adoptions for some time. Child welfare is better in many respects now, though it’s discouraging that in New York in 2013, there are still some 25,000 homeless children living in shelters, and some older children still live on the street.
My Notorious Life tackles the issue of women’s reproductive rights head on. What would you like readers to take away from My Notorious Life in their consideration of women’s rights?
I hope that this novel is nuanced enough to provide a long view of current social issues. Women have had to fight for birth control and reproductive rights for a long time, and are still doing so, with the same arguments as in our great-great-grandmothers’ day, only now informed by technology and advanced medicine and changes in womens’ roles and power. I would hope readers take away the idea that, as Mrs. Evans says to Axie, we must all grapple with the “complexities” but also bear in mind where we have come from, as women, and as a society, and how our understanding evolved, and is evolving.
How did the writing of My Notorious Life compare to that of Whitegirl, your critically acclaimed debut novel?
When I wrote Whitegirl, I’d never written a novel before. I had to learn on the job. And what’s more, I was terrified to be writing not just as a novice novelist, but about race, specifically whiteness, telling a love story and psychological mystery about a white woman and a black man. This was, and still is, a storyline that raises eyebrows not to mention hackles in some quarters.
With My Notorious Life, the work was both easier and harder. Easier because I understood myself as a novelist. But it was harder, too, because I had to research everything. Axie could not walk the streets or do her chores or become a midwife without me having to run to the annals of history to figure out what that was like. Writing, though, never really gets easier. Each novel has a great deal to teach the writer. Each story has its own problems and obstacles in the telling. And the next one will be—is—just as challenging in its way as the others.
What writers inspire you?
So many! Here’s a partial list: Edna O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, Wallace Stevens, Grace Paley, ZZ Packer, Virginia Woolf, Emma Donoghue, Annie Proulx, Sebastian Barry, Roddy Doyle, Alice Walker, Gunter Grass, E.L. Doctorow, Roald Dahl, Sapphire, Phillip Pullman, Peter Carey, Vladimir Nabokov, Charles Johnson, Marisa Silver, Kate Atkinson, Colum McCann, Whitney Otto, Margaret Atwood, Charles Dickens, Keri Hulme, M.S. Bell, Mary Karr, Kate Summerscale, Sarah Waters, Russell Banks, David Schickler, Colm Toibin, Amy Wilentz, Mother Jones, Cornelius Eady, Norman Rush, Louise Erdrich, George Saunders... I could keep going. I have left important ones out. Shakespeare, for example.
As both a writer and teacher of creative writing, is there any advice that you can offer aspiring authors?
Don’t only aspire. Do the work. Put the words down.
Edit, trim: Invest in a scalpel and a pair of shears.
Avoid sentimentality. Avoid cliche.
Sharpen your senses: really notice the world around you and describe it to yourself or to a notebook as you go around. This is a good habit, even for non-writers. Those who practice it will never be bored, and at the very least you’ll have a memoir for the ages.