Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Guest Blogger: Kathy Leonard Czepiel, Author of A Violet Season


The violet industry is booming in 1898, and a Hudson Valley farm owned by the Fletcher family is turning a generous profit for its two oldest brothers. But Ida Fletcher, married to the black sheep youngest brother, has taken up wet nursing to help pay the bills, and her daughter, Alice, has left school to work. As they risk losing their share of the farm, the two women make increasingly great sacrifices for their family’s survival, sacrifices that will set them against each other in a lifelong struggle for honesty and forgiveness. A Violet Season is the story of an unforgettable mother-daughter journey in a time when women were just waking to their own power and independence.

A Writer’s Surprises by Kathy Leonard Czepiel

One of the great pleasures of writing is the element of surprise. Writers often talk about this: the surprise of the story taking them someplace unexpected and greater than what they had imagined. But there is an additional layer of potential surprises in the writing of a historical novel. Not only do we find ourselves sometimes surprised by what our characters do or say, but we experience the surprises of research, the overturning of the history with which we began.

I experienced that kind of surprise while working on my novel, A Violet Season. The story is set on a violet farm at the turn of the twentieth century in New York State’s mid-Hudson Valley. Several small towns there supplied all of the violets for the eastern half of the United States at a time when violets were the most popular flower, much like roses today. It was interesting to learn directly from the last remaining violet farmer (who is really an anemone farmer with one bed of violets left for “old time’s sake”) how to grow and pick and ship violets, and what life on a violet farm might have been like at that time. But there were no particular surprises here, and no complications or dead ends in my research.

Not so for the other setting of the novel, a brothel on New York City’s Lower East Side. I imagined when I embarked on this project that there would be plenty of books out there on the topic of nineteenth-century prostitution, which surely had interested readers before me. Instead, I found myself pacing the edges of what I needed to know. Yes, there were public health statistics and maps. There was an excellent academic source, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918 by Ruth Rosen, which gave me some of the specific details I needed, but not a real inside look at life in the brothels. Another book, Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott, did get inside a particular brothel run by two sisters in Chicago at roughly the right time, but that brothel was too upscale for my story, and the city was wrong. No one source quite matched my needs. Instead, in order to tell my story convincingly and truthfully, I had to piece together these and many other sources. There were letters written by a woman named Maimie Pinzer, who worked sporadically as a prostitute on her own. These touched upon some of the emotional content I needed. I visited the excellent New York Tenement Museum twice for a firsthand look inside a building like the one about which I was writing. I consulted a digitized medical textbook from 1900 on the treatment of venereal diseases. I read Dorothy Richardson’s The Long Day: The Story of a New York Working Girl, a semi-autobiographical account of young women working in early twentieth-century New York factories. I even read an archaeological study on the excavation of a brothel privy. Like the archeologists’ potsherds, my sources were incomplete little pieces, which I arranged into a mosaic that I hoped would feel complete and bring my readers inside Mrs. Hargrave’s house on Eldridge Street.

That lack of sources was my first surprise, though it shouldn’t have been. Of course the women who worked as prostitutes didn’t leave a public record of their lives. The men who visited them didn’t, either. It’s no wonder I had to build that part of my novel from fragments. But there was a second surprise as well, which goes back to the title of Ruth Rosen’s book. I expected to read about unwanted pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, disease, and violence. What I did not expect was to learn that while prostitutes struggled with all those issues, there was also a “sisterhood” of sorts among them. They lived in close-knit groups and took care of one another. Some of them had even chosen that way of life over others—factory work, the laundries, abusive marriages. This tells us how limited their choices were. But I had not imagined choices. What I discovered in the course of my research was a much more complicated history than I had expected; those complications changed the story I told.

I am working now on my next novel, set between 1929 and 1946 with a woman photographer as my protagonist. I’m learning about developing photographs the old-fashioned way, in a darkroom; the lives of the women who took photographs for the WPA during the Great Depression; how to build a house and a reservoir; and the minutiae of daily life. I don’t know yet what the surprises will be this time around. But I can’t wait to find out.

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. 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 Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters. Learn more about Czepiel and her work at her website, http://kathyleonardczepiel.com.

New York Tenement Museum: http://www.tenement.org/

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