The ProsenPeople

Interview: Laura Amy Schlitz

Tuesday, February 09, 2016| Permalink

with Michal Hoschander Malen

Jewish Book Council and Laura Amy Schlitz sat down to talk about Laura’s young adult novel The Hired Girl, which recently won both the Sydney Taylor Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award, as part of a blog tour through the Association of Jewish Libraries

Michal Hoschander Malen: Joan is a character absolutely bursting with personality, charm, wit and exuberance. Did you model her on anyone in life or in literature?

Laura Amy Schlitz: No, I didn’t—in fact, I seldom base a major character on anyone I know. When I begin a novel, I know I’m going to spend a lot of time with the people in it, so I like to begin by not knowing them too well. That way, there are mysteries to solve. Curiosity helps me to keep writing.

MHM: Joan is remarkably free of prejudice, unusual in her time (and in any other). She is also very open to the world around her and able to learn from a variety of people and experiences, also a struggle for many young people. Joan develops these characteristics in spite of a singularly harsh youth. Do you think young readers can subtly learn something from this?

LAS: Now here I disagree with you: I think Joan shares many of the prejudices of her time. Joan is a girl of the early twentieth century, a time when religious prejudice and ethnic stereotypes were rife. Early in the book, for example, Joan takes pride in telling Malka that her forebears were Scottish and German, not Irish; she shares the widely held belief that the Irish were inferior. When she first meets Kitty, Anna’s Irish cook, she observes that her kitchen is spotless, and discards her belief that the Irish are dirty.

And while similar prejudices and stereotypes of the time make Joan’s love for David is truly forbidden and her friendship with the Rosenbachs is triumphant, Joan is largely insulated from antisemitism in the country. She lives in a very small world, and most of what she knows about the Jews--or thinks she knows--comes from Ivanhoe and the Bible. When she first meets the Rosenbachs, she’s dependent on them for a safe place to sleep. By the time she discovers that they’re Jewish, she has already been won over by Solly’s kindness and Mrs. Rosenbach’s elegance. The Rosenbachs are the kind of people Joan aspires to be: cultivated, literary, and—this is important to Joan—fashionably dressed.

If Joan is admirable, it’s because she thinks for herself. She has prejudices, but they aren’t deep-rooted, and she’s not psychologically driven to despise others. I try not to think didactically when I write a story, but I would be delighted if young readers sought to emulate Joan by seeing the world for themselves.

MHM: The diary format enables the reader to see much of what makes Joan tick. It also helps us appreciate her incredible sense of humor. Did you plan from the outset to use this format or did you consider telling the story in another way?

LAS: I intended to write the book as a diary from the very beginning. I was coming off another book, Splendors and Glooms, which had five protagonists and multiple points of view. I promised myself that if I ever escaped from Splendors and Glooms, I would write a book from a single point of view.

My decision coincided with a special gift from a student at the Park School, where I work. A child named Lance (he is a young man now) gave me a blank book as a Christmas present. It had a leather cover, thick creamy pages, and a ribbon marker. It was almost too beautiful to spoil with writing, but I thought, I’m going to write in it anyway; I’m going to write straight through. Writing in that book helped me remember that the story was a diary. I wrote easily and spontaneously. I think Joan’s humor is a reflection of my joy when the words came so quickly.

MHM: The history of the era comes vividly to life in the pages of the book, from Joan’s farm life to the vibrant Baltimore Jewish community of the time. What kinds of research did you do to make the period details feel so right?

LAS: I began the book knowing the period fairly well, because I set a previous novel, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, in 1909. I had general books on the period: books about houses and clothing and Victorian America. But I needed a lot of specific research—especially about domestic technology, because Joan does so much housework. Mrs. Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book was a great help to me in planning meals and figuring out how to keep the meat and milk dishes separate.

Daniel E. Sutherland’s Americans and Their Servants was helpful, because Americans differed from Englishmen in their view of domestic service—the very term “hired girl” is an American euphemism meant to distinguish the paid laborer from the slave. Another book that helped me with Joan’s place in the workforce was Nan Enstad’s Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.

For local history, I was greatly indebted to Isaac M. Fein’s The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920. I also used Gerald Sorin’s The Jewish People in America and Philip Kahn’s Uncommon Threads: Threads That Wove the Fabric of Baltimore Jewish Life. I was lucky enough to find a history book from 1910, The Jews of Baltimore, by Isador Blum.

I bought a sheaf of women’s magazines from 1900 at a yard sale—they were helpful for period details. I consulted my grandmother’s girlhood diary from 1912. One valuable resource was a facsimile 1908 catalog from Sears Roebuck, which told me what things cost—money is of course important to Joan, because before she joined the Rosenbach household, she never had any.

MHM: Can you tell us a bit more about the Jewish community you describe? Are any of the characters in the book from that community based on people who really lived there?

LAS: I first became aware of the Jewish community around Reservoir Hill when three of my friends—Hillary Jacobs, Julie Schwait, and Michelle Feller-Kopman—were researching a Centennial history of the Park School, where I’ve worked for 25 years. I knew that it had been founded as a progressive school for Jewish andChristian children, but I hadn’t known much about the founders. Many of them were German Jews, and some of them lived in Eutaw Place. As my three friends explored the archives, they showed me documents, letters, photographs, and ephemera. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and I took to driving around Eutaw Place in search of a house for Joan to clean.

This is as good a time as any to remind my readers that The Hired Girl is a work of fiction. I tried to make it as accurate as possible, but I took full advantage of the magical powers with which all storytellers are endowed. For example, I placed a park bench where I’m pretty sure there wasn’t one. I conjured up heat waves and thunderstorms without consulting the National Weather Service. And I created the Columbia Parnassus Touring Company with one stroke of my magic wand—though the Academy of Music was real. The Rosenbachs were not real people. But like the founders of the Park School, they were cultivated, intellectual, and forward thinking.

MHM: What do you think will happen to Joan as she continues her journey into the big, wide world and expands her education? Will her natural warmth lead her to toward establishing her own family?

LAS: At the end of every novel, I lead my characters up a hill where they can see down in every direction. From there, they can choose where to go next. If I’ve left them in a promising place, I feel I’ve done my job, and I bid them Godspeed.

Joan has some interesting possibilities to explore. After graduation, she could become a teacher or a librarian, two fields that were open to women at that time; she might go on to college; she may well become a writer—she certainly spends a lot of time scribbling. I don’t know whether she’ll marry or not. She’s ardent and romantic, but she also grew up seeing what a miserable business marriage can be. My guess is that if she marries, she’ll find her profession first.

I worry a little bit about my dear Rosenbachs, because World War I is on the way. The German heritage of which Mrs. Rosenbach is so proud is about to become a liability. I don’t want David or Solly to have to fight in the trenches, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to escape it. (I ought to have had more foresight and given them flat feet.) If David survives the war, he’ll probably become a pretty good society painter, though he might not be quite as talented as Joan thinks he is.

Mimi will definitely run the department store.

Michal Hoschander Malen is a retired librarian and editor of reference books. She is Jewish Book Council's editor on books for young readers.

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