In Benton’s debut novel, Lilli de Jong (Doubleday/Talese, May), an unwed mother chooses a life of heartache and thankless labor in order to keep her infant daughter and her own principles in late-19th-century Philadelphia.
How did you balance the act of writing with the exhaustive research necessary to uncover the experiences of women history has largely overlooked?
Resources are readily available, actually, though it’s not surprising that it seems they wouldn’t be. If the history of the United States were a table, men’s history (mostly white men’s) would be the tablecloth. Many adults were taught only that content when young. Many today still propagate this narrowed vision. But 19th-century American women’s history is right beneath that tablecloth—and, increasingly, woven into it, thanks to historians, curators, archivists, teachers, authors, and others. Women are and always have been crucial to the world’s surviving and thriving. Though our deeds are regularly erased, leaving us to reinvent our narratives of effectiveness again and again, we continue to rise.
How did the story you set out to tell change and shift as you found information—or the lack thereof?
Because a historian friend pointed me to a definitive book early on, my ideas took the proper shape. And I researched while writing, so I only veered off course in minor ways. But my commitment grew as I learned more about the terrible costs mothers around the world paid and still pay while bearing and raising children.
How did you use your own experiences as a mother when writing?
When writing in Lilli’s voice, I was like an actor immersed in a role; her circumstances were not mine. But I drew on observations stored up when my daughter was an infant—of her precious face as she nursed, my sensations and emotions, her urge to develop. I also drew on my love for her, my mother’s love for me, and my decades of finding companionship in a diary.
You wrote the book when you yourself had a small child. What was most notable about starting the book at that point in your life? What advice would you share with fellow moms pursuing their own creative passions?
I’m glad you say “starting this book,” because I did accomplish that as a new mother. But my time apart from mothering and sleeping was needed for paying work, so I wrote only a pile of scraps and research notes. Later, I traded pages with other writers; those deadlines made me do it! My advice to creative people is to choose a project that moves you deeply. In spite of the many real barriers, do it anyway, in tiny amounts, until more becomes possible. Believe in the power of what you care about. Your knowledge and your work matter.