Q: What inspired you to write COUNTING ON GRACE?
A: It all started with a simple black and white photograph taken by Lewis Hine, the great child labor photographer. The 12 year old mill girl’s name was Addie I found out later, but Hine’s caption read simply: “Anemic little spinner in North Pownal Cotton Mill, 1910.” For once the words meant little to me. It was the girl’s eyes. They are simply unforgettable. I felt that she was begging me to tell her story.
Q: So you decided to write a book about Addie?
A: No, I didn’t know anything about Addie herself. I invented an entire life for her. I named the girl Grace Forcier, I made her French-Canadian as so many of the mill families in New England came down from Canada. Then I researched mills and Lewis Hine and photography and living conditions in Vermont towns and French Canadian music. And finally, I imagined what might have happened the day Hine walked into that mill. What might he and Grace have said to one another? How might each have changed the other’s life?
Q. What’s the most interesting relationship in the book?
A: The connection between Grace and her mother. Imagine if at the age of 12, you had to get up every morning to go to the mill with your mother and take the bobbins off the six spinning frames she runs. And every extra minute you take to “doff” those bobbins, your mother doesn’t get paid. So she’s yelling at you all day long to hurry up. And what if you’re left handed so you can’t work as fast as your older sister? If you drop something or slice a thread, the whole machine goes down and it takes hours to get it running again. What incredible pressure that puts on a child.
Q: So that’s the meaning of the title, COUNTING ON GRACE?
A: That’s one of them. Grace’s mother, in fact her whole family, counts on her. Grace is good at math so there’s another. Grace is horrified when she learns that no mother “counts” on her children until they reach the age of ten because so many of their babies died. There’s another twist on the title. And then, of course, there’s the connection to spiritual grace. That kind of grace walks into the mill in the form of Lewis Hine. I love titles that resonate in a number of ways. At one point in the book, Grace tells us that “Grace a Dieu, means “thanks be to God.” That’s what her name means… thanks be. .
Q: Is it true that you found the actual girl in the photograph?
A: Yes. That little girl actually lived to the age of 94 which seems incredible considering how thin and ill she looks in Hine’s photograph. I met recently with two of her descendants who didn’t know that Addie’s picture had appeared on a $.32 postage stamp in 1998 one hundred years after her birth. They didn’t know that her photograph has been reproduced hundreds of times. It was even used in a Reebok ad condemning child labor in Pakistan. One of Addie’s great granddaughters works in the dental office where another of Addie’s granddaughters is a patient. And each didn’t know about the other. Until I walked into their lives.
Q: Did Addie know that her photograph had become a part of American history?
A: No, Addie knew nothing. Just think. If she’d lived five more years she might have walked into a post office to buy a stamp and paid thirty two cents for that picture of herself. Wouldn’t that have been incredible?
Q: What do you think Addie would have thought of the character Grace?
A: I like to think they would have been friends. From what I can tell, they were both loving, but scrappy. Determined to survive and triumph no matter how the odds were stacked against them. I thought I had imagined a really difficult life for my character, Grace. She was furious with her mother and fought with her and even ran away, but at least Grace had a mother. Addie lost hers when she was two years old and then her father abandoned her and her sister. Addie’s little cousin Rose burned herself up when she was playing with matches at the age of three. Addie’s life was even tougher than the one I had imagined for her.
Q: How did you find all this information about Addie?
A: I started with the 1910 census. That gave me her real last name because nobody knew it. Then I spent hours in the local clerk’s office going through lists of names and dates. When Addie got married, I lost the trail for a while and then picked it up again. And I hired a researcher who was dogged. We saw ourselves as historical archaeologists, digging through old records for the bones of a person’s life. And all the time we felt as if Addie was calling to us like a child in a hide and seek game…”Yoo hoo, over this way… here I am.”
Q: What made you work so hard to find Addie?
A: Maybe it was because she had worked so hard from such an early age. She was put in that mill when she was eight years old. She had to stand up on a soap box to reach the bobbins. All that hard sad wisdom is right there in her face in Hine’s picture. I couldn’t bear for her to be forgotten. Her picture had become a symbol, but I wanted to know who SHE was. Lewis Hine, the photographer, felt the same way. He once said he was more interested in persons than in people. Me too. That’s the way a novelist thinks.
Q: Did you know that you always wanted to be a writer?
A: Ever since I was about twelve. I grew up in Washington, DC., the middle child and only girl, surrounded by five brothers. Storytelling was a kind of defense for me. It helped me survive. Also, my father was a famous journalist, Stewart Alsop. His column appeared every week on the back page of Newsweek Magazine so I thought writing was just a regular, everyday profession like selling shoes or building houses. When I came home after school, my father was typing away in his office and I could hear the banging of the keys the moment I opened the kitchen door. He pulled words out of the air and wrote them down and there was food on the table and shoes on our feet. Writing didn’t seem like a huge deal. I only realized how hard it truly is after I tried doing it myself.
Q: What sort of process do you go through to write a novel?
A: It’s different for every book. I keep thinking it will get easier but then I set the bar higher to challenge myself. But what never changes is that I have to know the character well in order to get the plot moving and that’s the hardest part. Creating a living, breathing character from nothing but a photograph, for example, is like trying to make a snowman when the snow is dry and doesn’t pack well and keeps blowing away in the wind. Once the character speaks to me, well then the fun begins.