An Interview with Janet Benton
Words By Dani Hedlund
I always like to begin with the single most clichéd question, which is, What was the origin of Lilli de Jong? Where did the idea come to life?
There were three major influences that let this idea come to me.
One was having an infant. I’d been spending a great deal of time thinking about being pregnant, and my mother and I are really close—it’s not like I didn’t know that these relationships were important. But the biological wallop you get when you have an infant was so powerful. And at that time, when I was nursing my daughter many, many hours a day, because she was a hyper-alert infant who was comforted only by nursing, and I was not sleeping very much as a result, my husband gave me a copy of the New Yorker in which there was a review of scholarship on the history of the European family. The reviewer, Joan Acocella, smartly summarized a lot of material, including things that I hadn’t thought about quite so deeply before, such as, What is the cost to an infant when it is separated from its mother due to prejudice? Often, the cost was death. As I had an infant nursing at me at the time, it hit me deeply that society interferes so fatally in that relationship, and the idea that a woman would be forced to give up her infant, who, at that time, had no safe alternative to a woman’s milk, affected me deeply.
Also, at times the rates of so-called illegitimacy in some countries in Europe approached 50 percent. In some cases, no doubt, people were able to figure out a way to keep their infant by pretending it was their mother’s baby or finding someone else in the family who wanted it. But often those infants were abandoned to the church, the orphanage, or the street. And if they were taken in by an institution, the vast majority of them, according to the records that are available, died.
Then there was another kind of death that threatened them, which occurred because some mothers either didn’t want to or were not allowed by their husbands to nurse because they believed it would disfigure their breasts. And also just because it was a lot of work. So people would send their babies off to wet nurses. When the babies were sent out to the country, one woman would be nursing multiple infants, and diseases circulated quickly—and, again, many babies who went out to nurse died. Just the fact that a mother’s milk was necessary for a child to literally survive was something I hadn’t considered. The difference now is that we have pasteurization and refrigeration, in some cases. Of course in many countries that still isn’t the case. I don’t know if you know that Nestlé was notorious for having promoted powdered formula overseas; the powder was being mixed with water that was unsafe to drink, and babies were dying because of that. So these women were perfectly able to nurse, and they were being convinced that it was superior to give them formula—and babies were dying. The more I’ve studied, the more I’ve learned that the separation of mothers and infants is very much alive today. There are many cultures, including our own, where women who have gotten pregnant through any situation you can imagine are given the entire responsibility for it and shamed for it and, again, separated from their infants.
I guess the other two pieces that inspired me were, one, I just love Victorian literature, and the voice of Lilli came to me in a way that felt convincing because many of my favorite novels were written in the 1800s. Even going forward into the twentieth century, people like Virginia Woolf still had that kind of Victorian style—the elaborate sentence structures and so on.
Then the other piece is that my mother was a very active feminist, and I learned through her how telling a story from a different point of view is very powerful. So I thought, Well, I don’t think that a wet nurse and an illegitimate mother has ever told her own story in a way that was sufficiently moving. It wasn’t a decision based on any perception of what other people might think. I just felt that it was something I could tell.
Talk to me about what the research was like. Did you read this article and think, “Okay, I can’t get away from this idea, it’s haunting me at night,” and then went to the library and checked out every single book you could? How did you go about that?
Well, I got lucky. I have a friend who was a historian, and I emailed her and said, “I’m really interested in learning more about nursing and unwed mothers in the 1800s in America.” And she told me about this book, which was an amazing resource for me: A Social History of Wet Nursing in America: From Breast to Bottle by Janet Golden. That book gave me a really solid start. If you were to look at my copy, every page has multiple notes on it. I read it several times—though if I made any mistakes, they’re my fault or my choice.
I also was lucky that a friend told me that Pennsylvania Hospital, which is the nation’s first hospital—Philadelphia is filled with firsts—has in its archives the records of several institutions that took care of new mothers. One of them was called the State Hospital for Women and Infants, and the Pennsylvania Hospital has their minute book from their board meetings. So cool! I learned so much more than I was able to use, but that archive also has their annual reports and so on, clippings from the newspapers showing the prejudice against the institution that it struggled against.
I cherished those things, along with lots of other resources, lots of other books on wet nursing and infant care and Philadelphia and everything you can imagine—what were the property laws, what railroad station was here—just endless amounts of stuff. How did they make toast? Were there cigars? You know, every moment you’re like, “Wait, he’s going to light a cigar. Are there matches?”
What was so amazing about those records at the Pennsylvania Hospital was that one or two people wrote a lot of their annual reports, and they gave such a vivid picture of the condition the women were in when they came to this place and the kinds of suffering they endured, the kinds of reasons they might have gotten pregnant. These things are so relevant today. You look at what’s happening in state legislatures right now, with women’s reproductive choice getting controlled by groups of men. Some of these men have been asked and have said they’ve never thought about why a woman might want an abortion. Giving a woman the entire responsibility for a pregnancy is insane. It’s just completely irrational. On the other hand, this idea that a man should have a right to determine whether a woman should have the baby is also incredibly offensive and frightening.
Studying history has made me see humans differently. Look at how we just keep working through these same issues over and over and over again. I hope, over time, that we make progress and that it gets harder to stifle rights, because people get used to having them. But I’m not sure.
In historical fiction, the tension between what really happened and what you want to happen can be the most difficult obstacle to overcome. For you, what was the experience like in fighting that, and where is the line between fact and fiction?
I think the great thing about this novel, as far as that question is concerned, is that Lilli is entirely invented. I was concerned with creating a plausible environment: a plausible social environment, a plausible physical environment, a plausible spiritual environment. That’s a lot, right? But she was a fake person going into what I tried to make a realistic container, if you will. It was fun.
I think it would be a lot more difficult to base a historical novel on an actual person, and I sometimes find that historical fiction based on actual people is wooden because people are making an effort to match the dialogue, say, to the written words of the person. One of the exceptions to that is Geraldine Brooks’s novel March, in which she’s bringing to life a fictional and real character—A. Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father and the model for the father in her novel Little Women.
On the subject of language, you referenced Virginia Woolf. I can see those kinds of tones coming out, which is really exceptional. It’s interesting because the language is also a plot element. You have a really beautiful moment where Lilli wants to write a letter to her future baby and the way that she uses language will identify her as a certain sect of society—specifically a Friend. Talk to me about what it was like to not only put your voice in that very distinct writing style but to also augment it further for this very small sect of society.
The use of Quaker speech was actually a thing that I stuck up for, to the point that it partly dictated the publisher I chose, because another publisher wanted that taken out. I can see how it could be an obstacle for some people, but to me there’s a lot of meaning in the fact that Lilli refers to people with the singular pronoun “thee,” and when she’s writing to her baby and speaking to loved ones, that’s when it comes forward. The meaning of that to Quakers is very profound. I hope that by the time the letter comes in, the reader will be accustomed to it enough that it doesn’t feel like an obstacle. But I recognize that this may not be the case. It may feel just strange and make it harder to get into the letter as a result.
I’m assuming that you did a great deal of research into these speech patterns. What was that like? Was that distracting to you as a writer, or did you really cling on in an effort to make the character come to life for you?
I think it really helped me to understand her as I was making her up. The more I learned about Quaker beliefs and practices, the more I felt I understood her. I’m sure that I have still failed, because as I communicate with Friends today—Quakers are also called Friends with a capital “f”—I see a level of kindness and softness toward one another that I know is not there in Lilli. I think Lilli is a bit more of a fiery character, and her father, too, and her mother. Of course there were fiery Quakers also—one amazing person was Lucretia Mott, who I read quite a lot about and kept in mind as I was thinking of these fiery people. Susan B. Anthony, also, was raised as a Quaker. Many great American feminists were Quakers. But I don’t know where her voice came from. I feel like it was this amalgam of the reading and studying that I did, my own voice, and Victorian novels that I read as a child and reread during the time that I was writing the novel.
Talk to me and our readers about what your life as a writer has been like. What have you done that has somehow given you this ability to write an incredible debut—an incredibly difficult one—very, very well?
Thank you! On the one hand, I’m tempted to say I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. On the other hand, I was, because anyone is who has a home and food and clothing and shelter and a relatively intact family and a relatively safe and secure upbringing. So I only mean that in relation to the fact of how much time it takes to write well. I have put a lot of time into studying writing. It is what I have wanted to be since I was a little kid. I have devoted my work life, so far, to the field of publishing. I’ve only worked as a writer and editor. Now I’m a mentor to writers, and I teach.
So I’ve kept my paid work in the field that I love; however, that is not the same as having the freedom to finish your own work. I’ve struggled with that over the years. I’ve finished things to the point that I could send them out, and then only sent them to the New Yorker and Granta and then—“Oh my god, I wasn’t accepted!” And another seven years would go by until I sent something out again. This is why this novel is perhaps more developed than others’ firsts might have been. I’ve spent a long time as a writer. I just haven’t had the literal eight thousand hours to produce something that would be at the level of quality that I wanted to put into the world. In some ways I feel that it’s not a bad thing that I’ve had to spend so many years working on this novel, because it has a lot more layers in it than it would have if I’d written it more quickly.
My prayer for the novel is, of course, that it will have the effect of creating more compassion for women like Lilli and babies like Charlotte around the world, and also that it will earn enough for me that I can write another novel more quickly. And that’s a very difficult fact of being a writer today. So many journalists and essayists talk about how, in 1970, they made a dollar a word. Now you’re extremely lucky to get a dollar a word. So to actually survive as a writer is hard. Even if you’re working, you’re not getting paid that well. And it’s true across the arts. My mother was just telling me last night that she used to give a workshop somewhere for two hours—this was in the early seventies—and she’d get $500. Now she does a workshop and she’s lucky to get $100. A lot of places don’t even want to pay that much. I think that’s a pretty serious situation for our society, when artists cannot afford to do their work.
The other piece of it is that things in my own life slowed me down. One of them is that I’m a singer. At times, with those bits of time I had outside of work, I was singing jazz instead. And I didn’t marry until I was in my mid-thirties, so I didn’t have anybody to share expenses with, and that’s a really practical factor. Being married, life is cheaper. And I say that not because I’m being supported by my husband, but because we are sharing the costs of life.
So how many years did it take you to finish this book from first idea to now?
I started it in 2003, and there were many years where it was just a little pile of scraps and books I was reading. I live near the book’s setting, so I would go to events and take notes. I’m a very organized person, though I struggle constantly against chaos, so I have tons of files with all my research and bookshelves filled with all the books and all kinds of stuff on my computer. I was building those resources. If I had had the time to write it forty hours a week, it would have taken me four to five years.
Since a lot of our readers are also writers, we’re always really curious about the publication process. So you finally have a draft of this book that you want to send out. Talk to me about the querying process and the publication process.
I had a Modern Love column published in the New York Times in 2013, and a couple of agents approached me then, and I signed with one of them. I asked for advice from a friend who was an experienced novelist, who said that it’s so hard to get an agent now—you just have to sign with someone. So I did, and I felt as though I had married the first guy I went on a date with. But the good part about having that agent for a year was that it allowed me to say to my husband, “There’s an agent waiting for my final draft.” Because at that point I had a mess. I had a first half that was in pretty good shape, and then I had a second half that was summary interspersed with scene.
When I felt that the novel was ready to go out, and it came time to start thinking about what editors to send it to, I was making a list and thinking to myself, “This agent, being a new agent, is not going to be able to send to these editors that I want my book to go to.” And just as a kind of pipe dream, I thought of Nan Talese. How could this person, for instance, ever contact Nan Talese? Because Nan is at the top of the pyramid, or the star on the Christmas tree. I asked the agent that, and she said, “You’re right, I wouldn’t have a direct way of getting in touch there, and I think maybe you don’t have confidence in me. Take a few days and think about it. If you want to say goodbye, that’s okay.” So, while it was a scary decision for me, we decided to part and did so in a friendly way.
Then I wrote a query letter and sent it to twelve agents. Ten of them wanted to see some of the manuscript, and within two weeks, I had two offers from agents. It was a similar process with the submitting of the book. It was sent to twenty people, and within a couple of days, there was an indication that a couple of people were going to make an offer. I guess in that sense, again, I really had myself together before I went out into the market. I think that it’s because I worked like a friggin’ dog for a long time. I worked way beyond my own capacity to work. I pushed myself through physical pain and exhaustion for years. When I had the time, I took it, and I had no mercy for myself. There are definitely costs to that, but I feel very relieved that whatever else I accomplish in life, I have one book that will be at least on some library shelves in the future.
I want to return, in closing, to this idea about timing for this book. More than a decade ago when you had this idea, you had no idea that the political climate—when your book would come out—would bring a lot of these issues to the globally relevant scale. In a terribly cynical way, it’s lucky in terms of marketing. But it’s very unlucky in terms of the fact that we are repeating history in the way you describe. What are your hopes for the way this book will color the modern landscape?
So many hopes. One is, I want people to understand that mothers and children are everyone. We all were children, and we all had mothers. That bond is fundamental to the health of human society. I recognize that there are many kinds of parents; I’m talking about mothers in particular here, and mothers who want to mother. For mothers who want to mother to have to struggle as much as they do to honor this bond, whether or not their child is a part of a couple, is to my mind a shame. We should be ashamed.
Consider the fact that most of us have no paid parental leave in this country. We are one of three countries in the world without this, and the other two are Papua New Guinea and Lesotho. We are a highly developed nation, and look how backward we are.
I feel the same about women’s right to choose when they want to have children and whether they want to have children. There was a man in the late sixties in New York state who was convicted of chopping up several women’s bodies and flushing them down the toilet because they had died on his table after coming to him for illegal abortions. They bled to death, and he was so afraid of what might happen to him that he chopped them up and flushed them down the toilet. This is the kind of environment that women can be in when abortion is not legal.
It’s not anyone’s place but a woman whose body is involved to decide whether or not she’s ready for the enormous responsibility of having a child. And to force a woman to have a child and give it up for adoption? I came to understand through the research I did for this book just how agonizing that is, life-long—for women who give up babies, and sometimes for adopted children, who may have tremendously deep bonds and probably usually do with their adoptive families. But there are some coming forward saying, “There’s a gap in me. I don’t really know who I am.”
So I think my primary hope would be for my book to encourage our society to honor the bond between mother and child.
I was in a church last year for a choir concert that my daughter was in, and up high on this huge arch was emblazoned this phrase: “To the Glory of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Where is the mother? Where is the daughter? To me, that’s a really fundamental problem with human society in places where that is the value system. I don’t know that—as women and children, as mothers and daughters—we can ever achieve equality as long as that belief system is in place. I’m not singling out one religion, because there are many patriarchal religions on earth, and not all patriarchal systems rely on religion to uphold them. That’s just one example of the kind of belief system that holds women and children down. It’s certainly not the invention of Christianity, obviously. Look around the world.
My book is certainly not going to topple patriarchy—I don’t know how we do that! But I’d like, at least, to bring more understanding and compassion to the lives of unwed mothers and their children who, by the way, in this country, are the most likely group to be living in poverty. And when we talk about poverty, we’re not talking about not having enough money to go out to Starbucks; we’re talking about not having enough money to eat. Our federal poverty level is an incredibly small amount of money.
Then, more broadly, I want to build more compassion and appreciation for what mothers do for their children—what all mothers are called to do: to uphold the responsibility that’s there when you have a child. And I hope that, in time, we’ll forge systems in this country that make mothers pay fewer costs for raising the next human generation.