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Interview: April 1, 2011

Rae Meadows is the author of MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS, the riveting tale of a new mom who discovers a whole host of buried secrets after receiving a box of her mother's belongings, which forces her to face a few of her own. In this interview with's Jamie Layton, Meadows talks about the events that inspired her latest novel, elaborating on how she first heard about orphan trains and how her experiences as a mother helped shape the course of Sam's story. She also muses on the forces that made the Orphan Train Movement necessary, speculates on the nature of parent/child relationships, and reveals plans for her next historical novel. What was your inspiration for MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS?

Rae Meadows: I wanted to write a novel from three perspectives, and when I learned about the orphan trains, I immediately knew that I wanted to have a character who boards a train in New York City, as a young girl 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.

BRC: I was a history major, yet I had never heard of the Orphan Train Movement. When and how did you first hear about it? Is knowledge of it more common in New York City and the Midwest than in other parts of the country?

RM: My mom happened to mention the orphan trains to me a few years ago, and I couldn't believe I'd never heard of them. What a fascinating, yet seemingly little known part of our history! The belief that a child could be simply uprooted and transplanted is so quintessentially American. It could be that the Orphan Train Movement is more known in the Midwest because of all of the riders who settled here and their descendents, but most people whom I've told about the book have never heard of the trains either.

BRC: The Orphan Train Movement lasted for almost 70 years. What led to the prevalence of orphans that made this operation necessary? Can it be pinned on any one thing, like immigration or the Industrial Revolution, or was it the result of multiple factors?

RM: In the mid-19th century, New York City was teeming with poverty, and tens of thousands of children roamed the streets --- neglected, orphaned, or delinquent. You hit on the two main reasons for this, the Industrial Revolution and immigration, which both led to huge population growth. Disease flourished in overcrowded tenements, working conditions were deplorable, and almshouses, orphanages and homes for destitute children overflowed. Many of the children who were put on the orphan trains, like Violet in the book, were not orphans, but their parents could no longer care for them, or they thought they were giving their children a chance at a better life.

BRC: Your book focuses on three generations of mothers and daughters. For some of the women, fierce, instinctual motherly love seems to come naturally. For others, it seems almost absent, or it is definitely not one of their stronger parental skills. Do you lean one way or another in the "nature versus nurture" debate?

RM: Before I had children, I would have put myself in the not-instinctually-maternal camp, and then I became a fiercely attached, overprotective mother, as if by biological imperative. It's hard to imagine how other mothers don't feel this kind of blinding love, but I know not everyone does. I think there is a range of motherhood experiences, shaped by both nature and nurture, and I wanted to explore this in the novel.

BRC: Do you think a child like Violet, who is raised without constant and unconditional love, can become a consistently loving parent? Or will such children always be haunted by an inability to connect?

RM: One of the reasons the Orphan Train Movement came into being is that children raised in institutions, without the consistent love of a parental figure, failed outside of them. "Placing out" children into families seemed like a model that would give them a better chance as adults. In the same vein, it must be incredibly tough to overcome a childhood that lacks a sense of security and love and become a parent when you have no good model. Violet's loss had an effect on how she mothered Iris, which in turn had an effect on how Iris mothered Sam --- a legacy of disconnection.

BRC: Sam is completely absorbed and in love with her baby, Ella. Yet, at the same time, she seems to exhibit a lot of depression symptoms as well. Which emotive side do you think has more control over Sam?

RM: Sam is overwhelmed by both obsessive love for Ella and depression, but I think the love tips the scale. My hope for Sam is that the depression will recede, and that it will take some of her anxiety along with it.

BRC: In the book, it seems that daughters are always remiss about questions they never asked of their mothers. In fact, at the end of her life, Iris even thinks about how she wishes she could know her mother "now." Can one ever really know their parents? Can the parent/child dynamics ever be set aside and develop into an adult-to-adult relationship? Can certain secrets ever be told from child to parent, and vice versa?

RM: You bring up such good questions. I'm not sure we can ever really know our parents outside the paradigm of the parent/child relationship, even if we develop adult relationships with them. I think we both want to know more and are fearful of knowing more about our parents, afraid of seeing their fallibility and fragility. As sons and daughters, even as adults, we still don't want to disappoint our parents, do we? So I think secrets tend to remain secrets, because, especially as we age, we start to think, to what end does revealing them serve?

BRC: Do you think modern parents are more open with their personal histories, thoughts, wants and needs? Do you think this openness results in a higher level of understanding between parents and children, or does it burden our children with the details of our humanity, exposing our weaknesses and flaws?

RM: I don't really know, but, anecdotally, I think that modern parents are more open in general than their parents were, which is probably a good thing. But there is a fine line between talking openly with our children and over-sharing. I come from an incredibly loving family, but no one talked about their feelings. I have come to see this as partly the result of my parents' wish not to burden us with their sadness, doubt, or pain. A higher level of understanding between parents and children comes at a cost.

BRC: You tackle the touchy subject of genetic testing with Sam's first pregnancy. Do you think this science sometimes robs parents (and society at large) of the very individuals who would bring out the best in them? If everyone within our world was capable and, for want of a better word, "perfect," would we still be able to learn and practice empathy and compassion?

RM: You bring up a great point about the danger of science being able to tell us too much about our unborn children, and how we then make decisions based on a hierarchy of a child's potential capabilities. I grappled with whether to do genetic testing, and when you start thinking about the "what ifs," it goes to the very heart of your (and your partner's) beliefs. With the character of Sam, I wanted to show how we assign moral value to our choices, which allows us to accept them, but not always comfortably. Sam is haunted by her decision, and I think this, in turn, has an effect on what kind of mother she is. How different would her life have looked if she had not had the test? Might she even have been happier?

BRC: How and where did you conduct your research for MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS? What was the most valuable resource you found to assist you in painting an accurate picture of turn-of-the-century New York, which was awfully bleak?

RM: I loved researching this book. I utilized resources at the Wisconsin Historical Society, and spent time online looking at photographs and visiting sites dedicated to orphan train riders and their descendents. I also did a lot of reading, of both first-hand accounts of orphan train riders and books about the history of social welfare in this country. For the atmosphere of New York City, I turned to social histories written during the period, which often chronicled women doing work on behalf of the church. And I looked at a lot of photographs, which gave me windows into what life looked like in lower Manhattan in 1900.

BRC: As a mother and an author, how did the birth of your first child affect your creativity? So many mothers complain of having nothing left over at the end of the day to devote to anything else. Did you experience this feeling? Do you think people with creative careers have more trouble adjusting to life with children because there is nothing left for the creative thought process?

RM: It was shocking to me how much my creativity was affected by having a child. I felt sucked dry, with no internal life, and I basically didn't write for a year. I do think it's difficult to resume creative careers after parenthood, because there is no autopilot. I had to learn a new way to write, making use of small increments of time, and create space for both my mother and writer roles. But, on the other hand, motherhood has broadened my view of life --- my humanity --- which I think has made me a better writer.

BRC: What are you working on now? Can you tell us anything about it?

RM: I'd love to! I'm still in the very early idea stage, but I'm thinking about a novel tentatively titled THE GIRL IN THE PHOTOGRAPH. I'm envisioning a narrative with multiple points of view, part of which will take place during the Dust Bowl.

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