I like helping my kids with their homework. It’s not because I’m a helicopter mama which I am compared to some and am not compared to others. It’s because I like learning things. I liked learning about tectonic plates. How can you not be moved by the idea of the birth of a mountain? It seemed exactly metaphorical for a character in my last book—a person who’s sort of killed on the inside but yet lives. She looks at a mountain view and, rather than feeling the peace of the blue ridge view, she thinks about what it might sound like when plates collide.
I love the research angle of the business of writing novels. For Wet Nurse, I read about the lives of the lower classes in the early 19th century: their floors were dirt, they were illiterate, they ate the same thing every day of their lives. When I was younger, I was sort of taken in by that English country garden stuff. Then I grew up. There never has been and never will be a happy peasant in just the same way that there never was a happy slave. Those black mammies nursing white babies? They didn’t love those babies, nunh-unh. They weren’t wet nurses, either. They were slaves. Wet nurses got paid. Slaves didn’t.
For my last book, I read about Truman Capote and the Brooklyn Dodgers in Japan in 1956. 1956 wasn’t long after the end of WWII. The Dodgers—PeeWee Reece, Jackie Robinson—went on a goodwill trip. They played baseball all over Japan. Truman Capote went to write about Marlon Brando who was playing in Sayonara. Capote wrote an article about it in The New Yorker. Can you imagine the guys who brought the room service? What did they think about Capote? What did they think of Jackie Robinson?
For the book I’m writing now, I’m looking into utopian communities. Holy. Cow. The Shakers: what the hell? They shook all night in order to not have sex. Brothers and sisters weren’t allowed to pass each other on the stairs lest they get all, uh, bothered. Some of the communities I read about—religion based—were enough to make you simply blush. Here’s what I figure: very strict rules about sex constitute a dead giveaway as to how much, how often, how much energy is put into thinking about sex. In other words, primness is dirty-minded. Perfect for a Victorian novel.