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Mothers and Daughters

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Q&A With Rae Meadows

Rae Meadows, author of Mothers and Daughters

What was your inspiration for Mothers and Daughters?

I wanted to write a novel from three perspectives, and when I learned of the orphan trains, which ran from 1854 to 1929, I knew immediately that one of the characters would be eleven-year-old Violet at the turn of the century. At the time I thought I would write the whole novel as historical fiction, and I set out researching the Wisconsin Insane Asylum and the Civil War. But then I became a mother and everything changed. Motherhood became the lens, and the multi-generational story fell into place.

Tell us about the orphan trains and how you first learned about this little known slice of American history.

My mom first told me about the orphan trains, and I was amazed I hadn't heard about them before. In the mid-nineteenth century, tens of thousand of children roamed the streets of New York City. Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children's Aid Society, decided to put them on trains and send them to new Christian homes in rural America. People could just show up at a destination and take a child, no questions asked. What a fascinating, yet seemingly little known part of our history. I think of the orphan train riders (an estimated 150,000-200,000 of them) as part of a quiet diaspora, deposited in new places without any prior arrangements or oversight. The belief that a child could be simply uprooted and transplanted seemed quintessentially American.

How did you research the Orphan Train Movement?

I spent time online looking at photographs and visiting sites dedicated to orphan train riders and their descendents. I also did a lot of reading, both of first-hand accounts and about the history of social welfare in this country. The Orphan Train Movement was the first to "place out" children—as opposed to the giant warehousing of children in institutions. This was the forerunner to foster care.

How did your own entry into motherhood affect your novel and your characters?

It was huge. This idea of displacement that motherhood brings was certainly something I experienced. You engage with the world one way and then all of a sudden you make a dramatic shift to focusing on the well being of your child. I wasn't sure where the writer part of me fit in anymore. The three characters in the novel deal with their recalibrations of self in their own ways.

Can you tell us a little bit about how Violet, Iris, and Sam each balance the tension between being a mother and being a daughter?

Each of the women struggles with her relationship to her own mother, both wanting to break free and wanting to be mothered, and this manifests itself in how they themselves mother. I wanted to explore this theme because I turned out to be a very different kind of mother than I thought I would be, and in so being, I have come to understand my own mother in a more profound way. In Mothers and Daughters, there is an intangible legacy of this tension that is passed down from Lilibeth to Violet to Iris to Sam.

Tell us about your stylistic choice to weave the three storylines together moving in and out through time and perspective. 

Memory is rarely linear. A smell can take you back thirty years in an instant. I wanted the juxtaposition of perspectives and time periods to have a kaleidoscopic effect, particularly since memory is such a big part of the novel. I wanted to show how the stories of Violet, Iris, and Sam are inextricably interconnected. I also liked the challenge that interweaving these stories posed to me as a writer. I had to make sure the jumping around worked thematically and rhythmically, and didn't leave a reader feeling lost.

A family recipe for pound cake unites the women across generations and three converging storylines. What other devices did you use to bring the narratives together and have you made that pound cake?

Some of the devices were thematic, such as migration, longing, and loss, and how the effects of a choice Lilibeth makes as a mother reverberate across a hundred years. Others were more tangible, like the sweaters and blankets knit by Violet for Sam and the pound cake recipe. I have, in fact, made that cake. It turned out kind of like it did for Sam in the book, a leaden, buttery brick. But it was delicious. Neither my daughter nor my husband could eat it because of various food allergies so I polished off the whole cake by myself.

What's next for you?

I am currently a stay-at-home mom with a new baby and a three-year-old, so I decided to take a little time away from writing. But I'm thinking about my next novel, tentatively titled The Girl in the Photograph. I'm envisioning a multi-point-of-view novel, part of which takes place during the Dust Bowl.

It sounds like you're enjoying writing historical fiction, which is a departure from your first two novels.  What attracts you to this genre?

I never imagined myself a historical fiction writer, but I really did enjoy doing research for Mothers and Daughters. I loved delving into historical sources and then recreating the world I read about as a fictional landscape. There is such rich fodder for novelists in history. I happened to be curious about the Dust Bowl, not thinking about it as novel material. But after reading about it, I couldn't pass it up!