Leaving Lucy Pear is the heartbreaking story of Lucy Pear, a daring girl who was birthed by one woman and raised by another. But it is not only Lucy’s story; it is the story of both Lucy’s mothers and their families, and the 1920s New England town they live in.
Lyrical, emotionally gripping and panoramic, Leaving Lucy Pear illustrates the difficult choices women of all segments of society often encounter on their path to motherhood and marriage.
We are delighted to have Anna Solomon here to discuss her moving and insightful second novel.
Kelly Sarabyn: Leaving Lucy Pear is set in 1920s New England. How hard was it to immerse yourself in a different era? It seems straightforward to find out the general trends, innovations and significant events of a historical time period, but it seems more difficult to understand the nuances of day-to-day life—the social and cultural sensibilities that are floating in the air of any given time period and dominate people’s day-to-day lives. How did you do this? Did you find immersing yourself in a different time period gave you any new insights into contemporary times and our mores?
Anna Solomon: You’re right, that the nuances are the trickiest part. Primary sources are invaluable. Newspaper articles, advertisements, silent films, popular novels, anything that reflects a culture’s obsessions and sentiments. But I also find that talking with people is a great way to get to some of the more subtle, sensory details that make up what it means to live during a given time. So I spoke with the grandson of a bootlegger, for instance, who remembered seeing booze stored in caves in the walls of the old quarries. And a woman who was a child when the granite quarries were still operational and told me what it felt like to walk barefoot in the granite dust. And others as well. I have found that people are very generous with their experience and willing to go out of their way to share their stories and perspectives.
I don’t know how much insight I gained into our present time, except that our present time looks in certain ways like the 1920s. We think of the 20s as a glamorous decade, and in many ways it was, in terms of art and music and fashion and the stretching of Victorian social constraints in exciting ways. But the U.S. was also very divided. Following World War I, nativism and white supremacism flourished, along with an anti-communist hysteria. The Ku Klux Klan saw a huge increase in its membership. The notoriously corrupt trial and execution of Italian-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti took place during this time. The 1924 Democratic National Convention was a complete mess—way messier than the RNC convention this year. It was a time of extremes. It’s hard not to perceive a bit of resonance with the moment we’re living in now.
KS: You used the omniscient point of view in this book, which allowed us to see how Lucy’s birth and adoption affected both her birth family and adopted family, as well as how different segments of society fared in 1920s New England. I feel like writing from that point of view is much more difficult because the material you have to curate from is almost endless. Did you find it to be more difficult? Why do you think this point of view is used less frequently in contemporary literature? I once heard a writer claim it was arrogant to use a “God like” perspective, which made me wonder if our cultural emphasis on respecting individual voices and differences makes writers reluctant to take on the omniscient point of view. Do you have any theories on why it is less common than it once was?
AS: This is a good question. I certainly think it has something to do with Modernism, though of course that goes back about a century at this point. But omniscience has never gone away, even if it’s less popular. I find it thrilling, and many of my favorite novels do take on that “God” stance. A contemporary example would be Edward P. Jones’s The Known World. Such an extraordinary book. For me, omniscient narration has always felt like a very male thing to do, which may have been one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I found that getting up the confidence to create that all-knowing voice required me to sort of put on a costume. But then I got comfortable in the costume. And it allowed me to tell the story I wanted in the way I wanted to tell it. Probably my favorite spot of praise so far came from my Kirkus Review, which said the book “has the capacious feel of a Victorian novel.” I couldn’t have been more pleased.
KS: One theme in the book seemed to be the way women often secretly struggle with reproduction, motherhood and marriage. There was the shame and secrecy around Bea’s teenage pregnancy. Emma uses birth control without telling her husband to avoid having another child, and she has an affair to temporarily escape her unhappy marriage. Bea chooses a gay husband as a way of avoiding a traditional marriage, but still seeming to conform to society’s expectations. Susannah quietly endures multiple miscarriages. It struck me that society’s harsh judgments about these matters—teenage pregnancy, birth control, marriage, divorce—drove those who wanted different things underground rather than “fixing” them. Is secrecy and struggle in the face of societal judgments something that interests you? How far do you think we’ve come as a society in embracing different choices for women in these domains? Is there still a certain amount of quiet struggle around some of these choices?
AS: Women’s choices about the most intimate aspects of our lives (sex, fertility, marriage) are still subject to public scrutiny and control to a shocking, disturbing degree. Look at where we are with abortion. Campaigns for abstinence versus good sexual education. Shame around singleness. Shame around infertility. All of that continues to create secrecy, which then creates more shame, as well as damage to women’s bodies and women’s lives. This said, the conversation has certainly changed. Women can now join in open conversations around many once-taboo topics. A psychologist named Jessica Zucker has been on a brilliant campaign to open up conversation around miscarriage. Others have done the same with abortion. Kate Bolick published a fantastic book called Spinster last year, which I think my character Rose would have found really helpful. This is all important work, because it talks about life as it it’s actually lived, not as some kind of fantasy, and lets women know they are not alone.
KS: Bea leaves Lucy Pear when she is a newborn. As she grows, she looks very much like her biological mother, and nothing like her adoptive family. Which family her personality resembles is tougher to say, in part because Bea was so traumatized by leaving Lucy, her personality seems to have shifted at that point. In your mind, did Lucy’s personality—observant, independent, and, ultimately, daring—favor her genes or her adoptive family, or was it some indiscernible combination? Did you ever imagine how Lucy would have been different had she been raised by Bea?
AS: I think it’s impossible with anyone to parse what’s nature and what’s nurture. It’s so tangled up. I have wondered about Lucy. And I have to say, I am certain that she is better off having been raised by Emma, in the Murphy household. Sure, they don’t have much in the way of resources, but there is so much life there, and love, and joy. You see pretty clearly in the book how Bea herself was raised. You get to know her mother, Lillian, who is one of my favorite characters but not at all someone I would have wanted to be my mother. If you imagine Bea, already messed up by Lillian, raising an illegitimate child against her parents’ wishes, you can pretty easily see that Lucy would have been the object of a crazy amount of resentment and pressure. She would’ve had to be redeeming herself, in a sense, from the second she was born.
KS: It is difficult to fathom giving a baby up for adoption, even if it was for the best given the circumstances. Your portrayal of the aftershocks of this decision was heart wrenching. What drew you to the subject of giving up a baby?
AS: Does motherhood sound like a weird answer? I have no desire to abandon my children, but I certainly have moments where I feel my very selfhood being threatened or subsumed by parenting. I felt this most acutely after I had my first baby. I found the transition to becoming a mother a shocking and in many ways traumatic experience, even though it was also the richest, most awe-inspiring experience of my life. I was not consciously exploring this tension when I set out to write Leaving Lucy Pear but I am sure that this feeling of struggle and ambivalence fed into the story. Often in my fiction I wind up taking a feeling I’ve had and blowing it up, exaggerating it, into dramatic action. That’s what’s going on here. On the one hand, I can’t imagine ever leaving my children. On the other, I had to imagine it, in order to write this book.
KS: The relationship between Lucy Pear and her adopted father Roland is tense and fraught. Especially as she grows older and her differences from the rest of the family become more glaring, Roland treats her in a way that is slyly menacing. As a reader, I couldn’t quite tell the extent or nature of his feelings for Lucy—whether there was a sexual element to them, why exactly he wanted to dominate her in some way. Was his menace supposed to be somewhat obscure, perhaps even to him? Did you, as the author, know the full picture of his feelings for her?
AS: I think you are right in suspecting that Roland himself does not know exactly what he is feeling toward Lucy, or why he treats her in such a strange, menacing way. It’s definitely sexual, though not consciously so. It’s mostly about power, I think, and his sense on many levels—financially, emotionally, sexually (Emma has started using a diaphragm, which he must know even though he doesn’t know it)—that he is no longer the one in control of his family. He is experiencing impotence in a profound way, which only gets worse later in the book (though I won’t tell why here, so as not to spoil that turn in the plot). And his attempt to punish Lucy is I think a way of punishing himself. As far as what I myself know about Roland’s internal workings? Of course I know. I am playing God, remember?
KS: Your first novel was set in 1880s South Dakota. What do you find compelling about writing historical fiction? Do you think you will continue to place your stories in the past? Can you recommend your favorite works of historical fiction?
AS: I never set out to write “historical fiction,” I have to admit. The whole time I was writing my first book, The Little Bride, I thought I was simply writing a story that happened to take place in a different time period. Now, of course, I am less naïve. I understand the categories better, both on a literary and marketing level. I think I am drawn to the past in part because it is so distant from my own life that it allows me on a dramatic level to go big and be brave. I can’t explain exactly why this is. A few of my favorites: Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, The Known World (yeah, I’ll mention it again), Euphoria by Lily King, Georgia by Dawn Tripp. That last one just come out this year and is a gorgeous novel about Georgia O’Keeffe.
KS: You got your MFA from the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop. How do you feel like those years influenced the development and nature of your writing? Would you recommend an MFA to aspiring writers? What role do you think an MFA, especially from a well-regarded school, plays in publication and the ability to make a living as a writer?
AS: I loved my years at Iowa. I had supportive, smart peers, and excellent teachers. A ton of time to write. And going out there (I left a job in radio journalism) was for me a declaration, to myself and my friends and family, that I was going to write. I had been writing all along, but moving for it, building a life around it, felt scary, and was also critical to my confidence as a writer. Workshops also forced me to be more confident, and to claim my space—I had to learn how to listen to criticism without losing the core of my intentions. Certainly there are professional advantages to having an MFA from a well-regarded program. Connections to agents, editors, etc. To me the most important thing you get from it is a community of writers, and hopefully two or three readers who will be with you for the long haul. That said, I only recommend getting an MFA if you can get it funded. Going into debt for one is risky, given that teaching jobs are scarce and very few writers—even many well-known writers—are able to make a living from their books alone. I don’t mean to be discouraging, just realistic. Thankfully, more and more programs have great funding these days, so there are plenty of opportunities out there. Go for it!
Anna Solomon is the author of The Little Bride and a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in publications including The New York Times Magazine, One Story, Ploughshares, Slate, and More. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and two children. You can buy her book here.