NBA finalist Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women (Reviews, Feb. 2) follows several generations of women from the British suffrage movement through 1970s consciousness-raising to the age of Facebook as they struggle against oppression.
What inspired you to start the book with Dorothy Trevor Townsend, a woman who starves herself for suffrage?
I often write from an image, but I never had that image in mind. Really what started the book was the first line: “Mum starved herself for suffrage, Grandmother claiming it was just like Mum to take a cause too far.” I think this was six or seven years ago that I wrote that line. I kept circling that line because I really liked the voice. There was so much in that line that was puzzling to me. Just the use of the word “mum”—I knew I wasn't here, I knew I was in England. Already there's a dynamic of disapproval there between the mother and the grandmother. There was also a kind of coolness from the speaker herself, which made me wonder, what would be the reaction of the child for the mother abandoning her this way.
Did you research the history or put the story down first?
I find that if I really get involved in research I don't have any time left to get involved in fiction. If I know too much, it squelches the impulse. I have the most fun, I write the best lines, when it's completely coming out of my imagination. So I do research after to make sure I've got my facts right.
When the contemporary characters express discontent with their status, they do it on blogs and Facebook. Why did you choose that mode of expression?
Once I realized that this was not just going to be at the turn of the century and that I would take it into the contemporary, I was beginning to see that some of the feelings of the early characters would be repeated in the later characters. The earlier discourse from the original Dorothy is the black and white discourse of protest. What I learned from writing the book is that there is still the desire to articulate this feeling that has no name. Today with so much expression relegated to blogs, online communication and through e-mail, it's a dissipated discourse. So of course the later Dorothy [great-niece to the suffragist] even in old age is going to attempt to find her voice, but do it on a blog, and the youngest Dorothy [great-great-niece] is going to do it on a Facebook page. The first Dorothy still haunts them in a way.