My Notorious Life: a Q & A with Kate Manning

Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life, is a “big, fat, fierce” historical novel loosely based on the trials and triumphs of a midwife and abortionist in 19th century New York. Amazon chose the book as a September “Editors’ Pick,” calling it “compelling, assured and irresistible.”

Kate Manning spoke to the Narrator about her process of creation.

Your first novel, Whitegirl, is a modern story about race, violence and an interracial love affair gone wrong. My Notorious Life depicts the social and political controversies and contradictions of 19th century New York. Why did you make the leap to a completely different period and writing style?

After Whitegirl, I realized that writing from the point of view of modern white-bread middle-class narrators made it too easy to get stuck in a cynical sarcastic hip voice. Creating a character from the past was entirely liberating. A whole new vocabulary opened up, and a wonderful license to use words and syntax in a fresh ways.

The New York of 1800s is vividly evoked in the book – it’s clear you did a huge amount of research. How did you know when to stop?

Research can really boss the narrative. It was too easy to go down a rabbit-hole when I came across something interesting, like “swill-milk.” Dairy farmers in the 1800s were selling milk from diseased cows and watering down the milk with polluted water. Children sickened and died. I wrote a whole chapter with one of the children in the story drinking swill-milk, mostly because I liked the sound of the word and also because it reminded me of what was going on in China at the same time (melamine in the milk!). But that chapter went in the bin. I stopped and chopped whenever I realized that the research was in charge, not the story. Creating a credible sense of the past has more to do with the well-chosen detail and its strategic deployment than with making sure everything is absolutely correct and authentic.

The main character, Axie Muldoon, borrows from the life of Ann Trow Lohman, known in the newspapers as “the wickedest woman in New York.” Do you remember when you first came across an account of Lohman?

I didn’t start out with her in mind at all. I started with voice, with that wish to have a character who spoke in a fresh way. I didn’t want to write sci-fi or fantasy, so I shopped around in New York history, which I love. I’m mesmerized by the photographs taken by 19th century journalist Jacob Riis, who wrote How the Other Half Lives. I fixed on one Riis picture of a young girl holding an infant, and set out to write a story about her. I named her “Axie,” and decided she was Irish, responsible for two younger siblings. Then, maybe a year into it, I came across Lohman. I saw a newspaper lithograph depicting her as a hideous batwoman, devouring an infant. But the more I read about her, the less it seemed that she could possibly have been as evil and mercenary as the papers made her out to be. A warning voice kept telling me, “Don’t write about an abortionist.” I was afraid of getting bogged down in the politics and the sheer dire nature of the subject. But writing about Axie eking out a life on the New York streets, I found myself wondering what would become of this girl. Then I read about Lohman’s death. Many people thought she was so wicked that she’d faked her own suicide, was still alive, and would come back to tell her story, and I thought: well….what if she did? Axie was just right to tell such a story. As soon as I made the decision and steered Axie into becoming Lohman-like, the book took off.

Axie Muldoon has a distinctive way of speaking. How did you come up with her voice and can you hear it in your head?

I can talk in Axie’s voice now, but at first it was hard for me to get it come alive. I heard it as a cross between New Yorkese and Irish. I’ve spent a lot of time with Irish women, and have traveled to Ireland, and I hear a lot of similarity, believe it or not, between the harsh New Yawk ‘dese ‘dose and ‘dems, and the musical Irish speech. New Yorkers speak something like Irish English with all the beauty stamped out of it. The Irish–Is it goin’ to the store are yiz? might, in New York become: “So, are youse goin to da store?”

You once told me that you sometimes write in a closet, the better to free your imagination.

With three kids and a dog, I have been desperate for writing solitude for years. I’ve had fantasies of being in jail! For a while, the bedroom closet was the only option. It had doors I could shut. I took out two of hanging rods, put a chair and computer cart in there, and used the shelves for books. It was great for a while, especially because I could write on the walls, tack up pictures, chapter outlines, maps, and notes to myself.

But the truth is, the closet sucked. The air conditioner broke, so it was stifling. It had a shoe-smell. Black dust from an exhaust vent kept sifting down onto my papers. It was claustrophobic. I gave up and went back to work at a desk in the bedroom. Which was not ideal. People—family, guests–interrupt on the way to take a shower or get their sneakers and read over your shoulder. They pick up pieces of paper and look at them before they’re ready to be looked at. But my kids are grown now, and I have a real office, which is actually a little too nice. I’d like to write on the walls, but refrain, out of respect for the paint job.

Do you have any inspiration-summoning techniques you’d like to share?

Turn off the internet. Muses never show up for writers who are online.