Friday, April 19, 2024

Q&A with Ellen Baker



Ellen Baker is the author of the new novel The Hidden Life of Cecily Larson. Her other books include Keeping the House. She lives in Maine.


Q: What inspired you to write The Hidden Life of Cecily Larson, and how did you create your character Cecily?


A: I thought a lost first love, a lost child, and a childhood in the circus would be pretty interesting secrets for a woman to have kept. But really, Cecily just felt real to me from the start, so writing her story felt simply like writing about something that had already happened.


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I researched this novel mostly by sitting at my desk and Googling, and reading a ton of information online.


I also read a number of books (notably Bad Girls at Samarcand by Karen L. Zipf, to learn about life at a reformatory for "wayward" girls in the 1930s) and watched documentaries on subjects ranging from life in a TB sanitorium in the 1930s to the hurricane of 1938 (I had a whole story for Cecily around that event that did not make it into the book).


I wanted the circus scenes to feel very real, so I researched circus life in depth by reading articles and first-person accounts of people who had been in the circus during the same time period that Cecily had.


I also looked at a lot of photographs and watched what videos were available online to try to get details of costuming and such things right. 


Although I'd read previously about how "wayward girls" were treated, I think it did surprise me to learn the depths of the punishments they endured, and how often they were labeled "feeble-minded" and given over to the control of the state, even when, in many cases, being victims of violence was what had gotten them into trouble in the first place. 


Q: What do you think the novel says about family secrets?


A: I don't know that I was trying to say anything about family secrets in the novel, other than that they usually exist, and they can often be challenging to deal with. I do think they make for good drama, so, for the sake of fiction, they are wonderful fodder and inspiration. 


Q: The writer Kristin Harmel said of the book, “Ellen Baker weaves the intricacies of family dynamics into the complicated fabric of early 20th-century America, deftly tackling issues of race, identity, loss, and trauma through the story of a family you'll be rooting for with all your heart.”  What do you think of that description?


A: I think it's wonderful! I love it. I'm tremendously grateful to Kristin for reading my book and for so generously and succinctly describing what it's really about. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm always drawn to telling stories of remarkable women, so I'm working on a few ideas in this vein. I haven't quite decided which is the right one to focus on at this time.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I'm really grateful to my amazing publishing team at Mariner Books and to my wonderful agent Deborah Schneider for their belief in this book and all their hard work on its behalf, as well as to all the salespeople, early readers and reviewers, librarians, and independent booksellers who work so tirelessly to get the word out about new books. Including you, Deborah -- thank you!  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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