A conversation with Anna Solomon, author of
LEAVING LUCY PEAR
How did you come to this story?
I grew up in Gloucester, where Leaving Lucy Pear is set. Our house was in the woods at the end of a long dirt driveway, and below our house was a big field with a few pear trees in it, and for a number of years during my childhood it seemed that as soon as the pears were near ripe, they would disappear—we would just wake up one morning and they’d be gone. My dad liked to joke about giraffes coming in the night, but then he also had an idea about another family, one who really needed those pears, for food, or to sell, or for some other purpose. The mystery of that stayed with me. It was ripe, you could say, for a writer’s picking.
Then a few years ago my step-father handed me a copy of an old history book called The Saga of Cape Ann, and in it was an anecdote, reported in a funny, stiff style, about a Boston woman who was summering in Gloucester while suffering from a “nervous ailment,” which was aggravated by a new whistle buoy that had been installed off Eastern Point to help guide fishermen into port. And this woman used her connections with the Secretary of the Navy to get the buoy taken out. The following year, she had gotten married, was feeling much better, and allowed the buoy to be put back in the water. A lot of things about this scenario compelled me: the nervous ailment, the idea that getting married fixed it, but also, on a plot level, this whistle buoy. What if, during the time the whistle buoy was out of the water, there was a consequence? A disaster? One that this woman would be responsible for?
This got my wheels churning, and somehow in my mind it met up with the pear trees—along with a drink called perry, which I was introduced to a long time ago in England—and Lucy Pear’s story began to take root.
This book paints a very rich picture of Prohibition-era America, particularly New England. What kinds of research did you do to capture the feel of the time and place?
I spent a lot of time with the usual suspects—official histories, old newspaper records, popular songs, advertisements, photographs, novels—but to me the richest material came from talking with real live people. I spoke with a bootlegger’s grandson, a woman who had been a child when the granite quarries were still booming (she passed away, sadly, before I could show her my manuscript), an archivist at one of New England’s most renowned mental hospitals. Some of the most fun I had was talking with a fishing historian in Gloucester about a plot problem I had: how to send one of my characters on a fishing trip for ten weeks when I’d discovered that the boats wouldn’t have gone out for that long at once. (The ship’s ice would melt, for one thing.) At first he was reluctant to help me—he isn’t used to thinking speculatively about history—but then I got him playing along and he led me to a solution that worked on every level and even added a fruitful tension to that character’s arc. I also learned a lot about fishing history from him, including the word kedge, which has become one of my all-time favorites.
The U.S. during Prohibition is often perceived as very glamorous, but this novel exposes some of its dark underbelly, including the period’s xenophobia, economic turbulence, and sometimes-violent instability. Can you talk about this?
A large part of what draws me to the 1920’s is the divide between its glamorous surface and its harsher reality. Yes, there were a lot of parties with big bands playing, alcohol flowing, and flappers dancing. The Harlem Renaissance was at its height. Modernist painters and writers were pushing the boundaries of their forms. In certain arenas—fashion, for one—there was a loosening of Victorian constraints.
But this was also a decade of virulent bigotry in the U.S. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan skyrocketed. Nativism flourished in the wake of World War One, along with an anti-communist hysteria, and white supremacists managed to stir up a widespread mistrust of immigrants and anyone else whose color or politics did not match their own. In one infamous case, which features in the novel, two Italian-American anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were tried, imprisoned for seven years, and finally executed for murder, despite any solid evidence against them. At Harvard during this time—this plays a part in the book, too—a “secret court” was held to expose and expel homosexual students. And all this was going on as temperance fanatics (often in the name of religion) attempted to enforce a law more puritanical than anything even the Puritans might have dreamed up.
So, it was a time of extremes. It’s difficult not to perceive a certain resonance with the time we’re living in now.
LEAVING LUCY PEAR is very much about what it means to be a mother—or not to be one. You are also the co-editor of an anthology about birth stories (Labor Day), also focused on the moment of becoming a mother. Can you talk about your interest in motherhood as a theme?
Motherhood, to me, is like war must be for other writers. It’s an endlessly fascinating, essential subject that allows me to go anywhere—across time, place, culture—and explore human connection and conflict at its most basic and profound. People have been becoming mothers since people existed, yet becoming a mother is still in many ways a radical experience, and this cuts across demographics: it’s physically, financially, emotionally, and psychologically life-altering. A growing body of evidence, for instance, is showing just how common postpartum depression is, and how debilitating it can be. Although mothering can bring a great deal of joy it can also bring on a whole lot of ambivalence. I didn’t abandon my own kids, like my character Bea does, nor do I have any plans to do so, but do I want at times to run away, to escape? Do I feel my own selfhood threatened in certain ways by motherhood? I write about this because I’m compelled by it, and also because it’s one of many things that women often feel but are afraid to express—even to those closest to them.
I’m also interested in women who either choose not to become mothers, or who can’t, for a variety of reasons. For every birth story I’ve been lucky enough to hear, there are so many other stories that go untold. I myself had three miscarriages between my two kids, and got just a taste of the heartbreak and rage that comes with having so little control over such an intimate, seemingly natural process. Yes, there’s IVF now, and lots of other advancements, but these are by no means guarantees. In some ways I think the more advanced our medicine gets, the harder it is for us to accept mystery, and disappointment. And there is still a lot of stigma attached to infertility and loss in our society, however much we like to think we’ve gotten beyond that.
More broadly, LEAVING LUCY PEAR is also about several very different women, and about the pressures and struggles they face. In some ways, their situations feel very historically settled, and in other ways they feel shockingly modern. Do you think women and girls are still dealing with many of the same challenges today that they were in the 1920s?
Yes! I do. Of course there have been huge advances—legal and social changes that have allowed women to do and be almost anything, things that would have been hard to imagine in the 1920s. But in many ways, girls growing up today still see women playing the same roles they played a hundred years ago. If you look at teachers and nurses—two of the most traditionally popular professions for women—those jobs are still filled mostly by women. Lawmakers, CEOs, the most successful chefs and filmmakers—they are still predominately men. Women still earn significantly less than men, 79 cents to the dollar on average, and that number is worse for women of color. Then there’s the fact that almost every aspect of women’s private lives is still subject to public scrutiny. Our sex lives, our right to have an abortion, whether we breastfeed, whether we choose to work while raising children, never mind whether we choose not to get married or have children at all—can you imagine men’s bodies and personal decisions being governed in such a way?
Beyond the statistics, though:
Just last week I heard my eight-year-old daughter talking about how a boy in her class was trying to make the girls like him by saying he had a lot of allowance money. I asked why that would make them like him. And she said, matter-of-factly, despite all manner of feminist propaganda I’ve been showering on her since she could talk: “Because girls want to marry rich men!” My stomach dropped. My instinct is to blame outside influences—movies, magazines, advertising—and I do think all that is to blame. But I also have to look at my own life. It’s 2016. I was raised in the 1970s, during the second wave feminist movement. I went to a hippy summer camp where there were construction signs that said “Women at Work” (and there really were women, doing all the work). And yet I’ve made a marriage in which I do the bulk of the cooking, the household management, the picking up and dropping off of kids. I work full-time, but I only get paid for probably half that work. Many women—in the U.S. and globally—get paid for none of their work, and they work longer hours than men do. I’m privileged. I could have built a career in which I’d be making a comparable living to my husband, and paying other women to do more of my childcare work. But I chose not to—or at least I’ve made choices, however unconscious, that led me to the arrangement I have.
Many of my women friends are in similar situations, and there are countless articles arguing about why this is and whether it’s good or bad. I’m less interested in arguing about it. I think women need less pressure, not more. I’m living it, observing, writing about it. It’s a tough thing to talk with my daughter about: to tell her she can be and do everything, that she doesn’t need a prince, even though I haven’t entirely walked that talk. What she sees every day, in other words, is not what I tell her is possible for her. I guess my hope for my daughter—and I wish it for Lucy Pear, too—is that she can choose which compromises she’s willing to make, face them squarely, and build a life that feels true to her.
Beyond the main characters, you explore the lives and desires of many secondary characters, from the gay man to whom Bea is married to the rum-running quarry manager Josiah Story. Why create this panorama of characters? Was this a conscious decision you made, or did it emerge as you wrote?
From the beginning, I knew I needed an omniscient narrator to tell this story, but I didn’t necessarily know why. In part it was a technical challenge that I wanted to take on, as an artist. I also knew I wanted for my readers to experience that ah-ha! moment when you suddenly see a back-stage character up close, and made three dimensional. Only as I wrote, and rewrote, and scrutinized everything, including the point-of-view, did I come to understand that the impulse toward omniscience fit the story itself, because while Lucy Pear is at the center of the book, the story is really about the impact she has on this large cast of characters—some very close to her, and some more removed. For her biological mother, Bea, Lucy is as much an absence as a presence; for others, she is a child they meet glancingly but who nevertheless leaves a mark. She is like a pebble dropped into a pond. Of course the ripples she makes, in the end, return to her. So does the story.
What were the biggest challenges you encountered in the writing of this novel? The biggest pleasures?
This is tied to the roving point-of-view. While I found it thrilling to take on that Dickensian authority, in early drafts I also went a little crazy with it. I wrote whole sections from the points-of-view of characters whose perspectives were not in fact necessary to telling the story. I had to do a lot of cutting, often of material I loved. Related to this, I wrote chapters and chapters of Bea’s backstory—long scenes in the mental institution, in particular—that just didn’t serve the book. The good thing is, all that material that got cut, even if it wasn’t necessary for readers to see, helped deepen my own understanding of my characters. And making cuts helped me fine-tune and focus the plot, which was important for a story with as many twists and turns as this one.
There were many drafts. Thankfully, I had great readers, and an amazing editor, and no matter how many times I had to rethink and rework it, I found it really fun to tell a story in which the stakes were so high, both emotionally and dramatically. That was definitely the greatest pleasure.
Thanks to Viking/Penguin books I have a copy of Leaving Lucy Pear to give away to a lucky reader. You must be at least 13 years old and have a US address to enter. Please read our giveaway policy before entering.