Scribbling Women: true tales from astonishing lives / Marthe Jocelyn
Toronto: Tundra Books, c2011.
This post is part of a blog tour for Marthe Jocelyn's latest book. Today is the final and fifth day of the tour, which has been going on all of this week. A list of all the participating blogs can be found at Tundra Books -- check out all the posts for many perspectives on this book and various interviews and special features by the bloggers involved.
To summarize this book quickly, it is a collection of eleven biographies of women who wrote, sometimes for publication and sometimes simply in private. The key connecting factor is that their writing was saved for future generations -- us -- to be able to read and feel that perhaps we now know a little more about the women of our collective past. It is aimed at middle grade/high school readers, and the level of detail and writing style are perfectly matched to this audience. I'd easily give it to any girl I know; actually, for that matter, any boy as well, because why should girls be the only ones to be interested in women's lives? I think opening our eyes to other lives and other ways of living is vital for both genders, at all ages.
The title comes from a dismissive comment made by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1855, at a time when many women were making their meagre livings by writing for papers and magazines -- he refers to them as a horde of scribbling women, interfering with the potential popularity of his own works. As another blogger suggested earlier in the week, perhaps it was sour grapes?
In any case, this book is a delight to read. Jocelyn explores the lives of women of many cultures and many eras. It is organized chronologically, which works well, and begins in distant Japan with Sei Shonagon, famous list maker. It moves through women who were journal keepers, letter writers, journalists, a slave making a record of her life, adventurers and writers of fiction and facts. Although I found all of the very different women's stories fascinating, I was most engaged personally by Isabella Beeton's story. Isabella (1836-1865) was an amazingly energetic woman, who grew up in a very unconventional setting -- a very large blended family whose stepfather moved them all in to his workplace at the Epsom Racetrack. They lived in the racetrack buildings, offices and halls. At a fairly young age she married and became the business equal of her husband, a magazine publisher who did alright in business but better once Isabella came along. She industriously wrote pieces for all of his papers. She also solicited and edited pieces and eventually created her masterpiece, Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. She edited this collection of columns from the magazine pieces they had published, and created a book the likes of which had never been seen before, a true compendium of household wisdom for new household managers (ie: young, unprepared newly married women). It included cooking advice from very basic on up, recipes for serving invalids, cleaning and household maintenance advice and much more. It was also a bestseller. Isabella was a genius at the modern advice offered to writers to "repurpose your content"! She used. rewrote and reused much of her work to profit from it in multiple ways. Sadly, she met the fate of many women of the era, clever and industrious and successful as they might be. She died of puerperal fever after giving birth to a fourth son, at the young age of 28.
There are thrilling lives outlined in this book, with just enough information given to whet the appetite. It won't overwhelm younger readers, and will hopefully inspire older readers to search out more information on many of these intriguing women. I really enjoyed reading this and found it illuminating both for the factual lives of these women and for the recognition of lesser known lives. The respect given to women's daily life shines through in Jocelyn's writing and is much appreciated.
I also had the chance to talk to Marthe about her own life as a "Scribbling Woman" -- the conversation follows:
ME: Something I found very appealing about your book was the wide variety of women you highlighted. There are both women who wrote in personal forms like letters or journals, and women who made their living by their words. This made me wonder, what inspired you to make a career as a "Scribbling Woman"? Can you give us a sense of how your career developed?
MJ: From when I was about 25 until I was a little past 40, I had a small business designing and making toys and children's clothing. Choosing fabrics and combining odd patterns was part of that, as well as creating characters whose facial expressions changed with the tilt of a needle and thread. This was all background for when I had my own daughters and began to read them the stories I'd loved a kid, alongside the many brilliant new ones published in the intervening years. I was re-hooked on children's books, with the tickle of a thought that I might be able to write one. (That's a common thought, by the way, amongst people who become parents, but the truth is that children's books are VERY hard to write!) My toys were seen by an art director at Dutton who thought that the 'handmade' style would translate to illustration. I submitted a version of my collaged picture book, Hannah and the Seven Dresses, at about the same time I began work on a chapter book called The Invisible Day. The idea for that one came in response to my daughter's wish to walk to school alone in New York City. "Ha ha!" I said. "You'd have to be invisible!" And ping! That teeny idea grew into a story. Both books were bought by Dutton eventually, and I was on my way...
ME: I especially enjoyed the story of Isabella Beeton, who was a real powerhouse, equal to her husband in his publishing business. Did you come to have favourites among the women you profiled, or are all the women included some of your favourites among all the subjects you must have researched originally? How did you go about researching all of these varied lives?
MJ: The one question I dreaded most on this blog tour was that I'd likely be asked to choose a favourite. But, as you suggest, these eleven were all favourites, winnowed out of a field of about forty considerations. I didn't necessarily 'like' all these women, or want them as friends, but something about their stories I already knew of the more renowned women - Nellie Bly, Harriet Jacobs, Isabella Beeton - but as soon as my radar was turned on to receive signals about obscure women writers, I began to get recommendations from friends and friends-of-friends for possible subjects. I also made a point of seeking out odd documents in historical societies and places that might have been ignored by most other children's writers so far.
ME: I think you created a really great mix of women's lives in this book - have you ever considered creating a second volume with more of the women you have looked at during your research?
MJ: YES, I'd love to do a follow-up volume. I have many more women & girls deserving attention.
ME: I have a particular interest in both letter writing and journaling. Considering that some of the Scribbling Women in this book were journalers, and that your teen novel "Mable Riley" is a fictional diary set in our own town of Stratford, I am guessing that you find journals interesting as well. Do you keep a journal, and if so, how important is it to a writer to have such a resource?
MJ: I have kept a diary at a couple of points in my life, both times when starting a new chapter - moving to a new place - but each time I soon felt self-conscious and lost interest, finding that it took too long to put into words the fleeting and intangible sensations I was having. Point-form lists of impressions were more lasting for me, even re-reading later. What I could see from a train window, for instance, or the foods offered for breakfast in a foreign city. Maybe that's why Sei Shonagon's lists appealed to me so much, in her collection called The Pillow Book. Even her list headings are evocative: Repulsive things, Elegant things, Things that make me happy, Things that cannot be compared... I do keep a "writer's notebook" which is a little different from a personal journal. It contains lists - from shopping lists and to-do lists to the 'impression' lists I mentioned before, as well as snatches of overheard conversation, the occasional drawing, notes scribbled down when I attend talks by other writers, and random snatches of stories I'm working on. So, it's a record of sorts, but mostly of the disarray of my own thoughts.
ME: You've written many different kinds of books, from picture books to juvenile and teen novels to nonfiction books such as this one, and they are all equally impressive. How do you approach each kind of writing project -- is there a difference in how you create each kind of book?
MJ: Yes, every book is different of course, even within the same genre. And as you say, I like to try many types of books, usually more than one at a time. It is hard to work on one thing for more than two or three hours a day because the brain gets tired. I find if I have a novel unfolding alongside a picture book where I'm working on illustrations, I can go back and forth easily, mulling one subconsciously while working on the other and doubling my work day.
ME: Do you have any specific writing 'rituals' that you are superstitious about, or that help you get your writing done, besides having more than one project underway at a time?
MJ: I'm not really superstitious - except of course believing that if I don't write then nothing will get written. I often try to set a daily word count or a number of hours or a certain section to finish, just so it feels like a do-able amount and not a whole book! I tend to drink tea while I work, but I know it's just tea and not a magic potion...
ME: Well, I'm not sure I can totally agree with the idea that tea isn't a magical potion! It is certainly one of the necessities of my bookish days as well.
You conclude this book by making a Sei Shonagon inspired list of Things I Want To Learn More About (which, as a librarian & research addict, I loved!) Is this kind of curiosity vital to being a writer? Or are there other traits or habits that you think are essential for writers to have?
MJ: Hmm, I think curiosity IS essential, especially for a non-fiction writer. And I think we have to be good listeners, not always concerned with telling our own story but caring more about hearing what other stories are unfolding around us.
ME: I love the idea of listening to the other stories unfolding around us. That is kind of what we do as readers as well, don't you think? Thanks, Marthe, for answering a few questions and giving us a glimpse of your own writing life.
Marthe Jocelyn is a Stratford based writer and illustrator whose latest book is on "tour" of many blogs this week. Don't forget to check out Tundra's great contest to win a copy of each of Marthe's 28 books -- just leave a comment on this post or on any other Scribbling Women post that's been part of the tour. (details here)
I can personally recommend Earthly Astonishments, Mable Riley, and Folly... three of her teen novels that I really, really enjoyed! And her picture books are great fun as well :)
Don't forget to follow the blog tour on to the next stop, at The Nervous Marigold.