When I moved back to the Philadelphia area about a year ago (time flies, right?) I didn’t know so many of my neighbors would be writers — but it seems to be true.
One such neighbor is Janet Benton, whom I had the pleasure of meeting not long after I arrived, and right before the publication of her debut novel, Lilli de Jong.
What I love about interviewing and talking to authors is how ever journey is unique, but when we’re fortunate, we all end up in the same place, one where we’re holding a published novel.
Please welcome Janet Benton to Women’s Fiction Writers. Tell us in the comments: do you know how many hours you’ve worked on your novel(s)? For me, that’s akin to book math, so I’m inclined to go with a lot. 😉
Interview: Janet Benton, Author of Lilli de Jong
Amy: Congratulations on Lilli de Jong, Janet! Your debut novel about an unmarried woman in 188os Philadelphia who wants to keep her baby has gotten rave reviews. What was the moment that sparked this idea for you?
Janet: Thank you! The novel was born when I began hearing a wet nurse’s voice while I was nursing my new baby. She was an unwed mother caring for a stranger’s baby to save money to lease a sewing machine and rent a room for herself and her baby. She railed against being shamed and burdened while her lover walked freely, his life path unaltered. She worried about her own baby, who was with a poorer wet nurse taking care of several infants.
The biological and emotional wallop I felt upon having my daughter was powerful. When my husband showed me a review by Joan Acocella in the New Yorker of a three-volume series called The History of the European Family, I became aware of many things that I hadn’t thought about.
At times, the rates of so-called illegitimacy in some parts of Europe was about 50 percent. What is the cost to an infant separated from its mother due to prejudice? Abandoned to the church, the foundling hospital, or the street, almost all of them died from starvation or disease. We’re talking about millions of babies.
I hadn’t known that there was no safe alternative to a mother’s milk for much of human history. The differences now, in most developed countries, are that milk is pasteurized (which kills bacteria), it can’t legally be diluted with water, and it is refrigerated in transit and in the home—and that we have relatively inexpensive formulas available.
The separation of mothers and infants is still common. In many cultures, including our own, women who become pregnant through any situation you can imagine are given the entire responsibility for it, shamed for it, and separated from their infants. I wanted to enable an unwed mother to tell her own story.
Amy: Can you share with us your publishing journey?
Janet: I worked on the novel for about 8,000 hours over the course of a decade. And I’ve been writing and studying fiction since I was young. So when I sent query letters to twelve agents (chosen via Publishers Marketplace and the acknowledgments pages of novels I love), I got quick interest and two offers within about two weeks. Then, when my agent sent out the novel to the twenty-one interested editors, within a couple of days we knew that several editors were going to make offers. About a week or so later, we got two offers.
Before the novel went out to market, 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 have been costs to that. But I’m relieved that, whatever else I accomplish in life, I’ve had my say in one book, at least and at last.
Amy: What was your writing schedule like when you were in the earlier drafts of Lilli de Jong? How did that differ further along?
Janet: I’ve rarely been able to have a regular writing schedule. Even in graduate school, I worked two to three jobs to pay my way. While writing Lilli de Jong, I set writing times aside in my calendar—blocking out hours—and kept to them when I could. But given the interruptions of parenting, self-employment, holidays, and illness, I couldn’t follow a set pattern for long. Eventually I started taking short trips alone so I could work several 15-hour days in a row—hard on the body but good for the manuscript. I’m self-employed as a writer/editor/teacher, so for the last several years of writing, I reduced my paid-work time to about half time.
Amy: Lilli de Jong helps us see societal norms in the 1880s, which can’t help but remind us of the struggles today for equal treatment. Did you set out to bring this comparison to light?
Janet: It’s hard to recall a time when women’s lack of equality didn’t make headlines and women’s work inside and outside the home wasn’t contested—not to mention our reproductive rights. The same was true in Lilli’s day. At least now, in the United States, we can take for granted that girls go to school, women vote, and married women own property and keep their wages. However, the work of mothers is still difficult and irreplaceable.
Children need loving care. Most mothers in the world must struggle far too hard to provide for their children. This country needs to create policies and paid-leave programs that support the fundamental, future-building work of parenting.
If anything, mothers may have a harder time doing this meaningful work now, since two incomes are necessary to support most families, and mothers who are single are the most likely to live in poverty with their children.
Women’s inequality and the lack of support for mothering are profoundly embedded in societies around the world. They are chronic wounds. Every single person confronts the effects of these wounds throughout our experiences of life continually, whether we realize it or not.
We have to take the blinders off. One of my intentions in this novel is to denormalize these wounds and the oppression of women—to make people feel deeply what it can mean to be a woman and a mother in unjust circumstances. I hope my novel will help to make its readers a kinder and more supportive toward the incredibly hard and fundamental work of mothers and toward the children who are the future.
Amy: What has been the most surprising element of your publishing experience?
Janet: I’ve been thrilled to see my manuscript turned into an actual book that others can read. And I love the cover!
Amy: What’s the best writing or publishing advice you’ve received that you’d like to pass onto others?
Janet: The best writing advice I’ve gotten came from my former professor Valerie Martin, and I’ve passed it along many times to those who work with me on their books. In one of the graduate-school workshops I took with Valerie, she said something like this: If someone tells you that a feature of your story isn’t believable or isn’t working, don’t assume you need to take that part out or alter it greatly. Instead, consider how you might do a better job of convincing the reader that it does fit and is necessary.
For instance, she said, people don’t read the first line of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and say, “I don’t believe Gregor Samsa woke up and discovered he was a cockroach.” Why don’t they say this? Because Kafka convinces us immediately in concrete ways: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes.” (Translation by Ian Johnston) As Valerie asked us, What’s not to believe?
Janet Benton’s debut novel, Lilli de Jong, was published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in May 2017. Benton’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Writers Digest, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. She has edited and co-written TV documentaries for The Great Experiment, a series on Philadelphia history. Benton holds an M.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a B. A. in religious studies from Oberlin College. She has taught writing at universities and in private workshops for over two decades. Through her business, The Word Studio (www.thewordstudio.us), she mentors writers. Her author website is www.janetbentonauthor.com.