Stop me if you've heard this before, but writing a novel is a little like having sex. No two people do it alike, and there's only so much you want to know about other people's approaches. Nevertheless, I have a few times been asked — usually by very young people — what methods I recommend (for writing). I have published five novels, and my best answer has always been an abashed shrug. Whatever works. For me, every time is the first time.
But like all relationships, all novels have to start somewhere, and The Irresistible Henry House began with a photograph. It was black-and-white. It was part of a Cornell University online exhibit. I found it almost by accident, and I couldn't get it out of my mind.
The photograph showed an infant with an impish, irresistible grin. He was lying, bare-bottomed, on a fluffy-looking blanket, just holding himself up on his two chubby arms. Bobby Domecon, I learned (his last name was a mash-up of "domestic" and "economics"), had arrived at Cornell in 1920. He became what was known as a "practice baby," an infant who came from a local orphanage to live — usually for at least a year — in a "practice apartment" and be cared for by "practice mothers." Bobby was part of an utterly sober, well-intentioned home economics program in which learning general household skills included learning childcare. The student mothers would come and go. The baby would be scrupulously fed, diapered, measured, observed, held, hushed, and sung to, but all in rotating shifts.
Both the journalist in me and the novelist in me had to know: Whatever happened to Bobby Domecon? To any of the children in this and similar programs that were offered all over the country?
The journalist in me and the novelist in me squabbled over who would pursue that question. The journalist quickly lost, because in the realm of nonfiction, the answer was simple and not all that promising: After the babies' time in these programs, they were sent back to their orphanages and put up for adoption, just like any others. In the realm of fiction, however, the answer could be more complex. The answer is what my novel's about.
It is also why writing this novel was so for me different from all the others. Because the practice baby programs were over by the end of the 1960s, figuring out what happened to Bobby Domecon required me to enter the past. True, this wasn't Ancient Greece, but I am 13 years younger than my main character, and that meant trying my hand at historical fiction.
Different as each of my previous novels had been for me in the writing, they had all had contemporary settings and characters who usually had things in common with people I'd known or knew. This was a whole new challenge, and I found it exhilarating. I had done historical research in the past, co-editing two anthologies of letters, Letters of the Century and Women's Letters. I had actually been looking for a home ec letter for the women's book when I first met Bobby. But learning how to put facts to fictional use was different.
History gave me a marvelous chance to add texture and background and, to put it simply, cool stuff. About home economics, for example. I had always thought of it as the bastion of 1950s girls looking to land a husband while pretending to go to college. Turns out that it was often just the opposite. As I learned from reading the work of scholars like Sarah Stage and Julia Grant, home economics began as a discipline and a serious one. By teaching women (and the occasional man) how to do laundry, clean copper, cook meals, fix stoves, manage a budget, and balance a menu, home ec provided a thorough but largely occult path to the generally male provinces of chemistry, biology, engineering, and math. The bibliography of one scholarly collection led me to a page-turner called Household Equipment, in which I found complex diagrams of long-chimney burners (hand wheel, wick carrier, kerosene levels) and compression systems (Dalton's law of partial pressures of gases). Like many a student in household equipment classes, the students in my novel would have to disassemble and reassemble a refrigerator.
About childrearing, I learned that before Spock published Baby and Childcare in 1947, one prominent expert had recommended that parents greet young children with a handshake. Up until the 1950s, stiff celluloid cuffs were still used to deter thumb-suckers by making it impossible for them to bend their elbows and get their thumbs in their mouths. The tension between the old-school theories and the Spock acolytes became part of my book as well.
At the Disney Studios, the men generally worked in one building as artists and the women in another as inkers and painters. Turns out that a tunnel connected the two buildings so that artwork could be transferred from one to the other in bad weather. Turns out, too, that the tunnel was called the Tunnel of Love. You can't make this stuff up.
History pulled me along in another way: chronology gave me guideposts and to some extent shaped what my characters did. I knew, for example, that Henry was going to be an animator and that of all the Disney movies, the one I most wanted him to work on was Mary Poppins (who was the real mother?). Mary Poppins was released in 1964. That date became a major milestone in my novel, as did the dates of Kennedy's assassination and Disney's death, of the Free Speech Movement and the opening of Hair. These were milestones for Henry as a character and also a framework for me as a novelist. In a pursuit where everything can be made up and everything is a decision, it was oddly reassuring to know there were some things I couldn't change.
Frankly, if I were reading a novel that I was halfway enjoying, it wouldn't make a bit of difference to me whether Mary Poppins had been released in 1964 or 1965. I would either be interested in Henry or I wouldn't. But as a writer, I welcomed those facts. Part of my excitement came from the novelty of having a character who had to be in certain places at certain times. JFK was shot in November of 1963. Where would Henry be when he heard the news? Would he go to the March on Washington? Would he protest the Vietnam War? There was something comforting, compelling — even impelling — about having dates and facts to guide me.
Ultimately, though, what was most different for me about the way I wrote this novel was the history that had allowed me to create Henry in the first place. Without that photograph, and the odd, consequential upbringing it revealed, Henry would not have been Henry. As it is, all of his main traits as a character — his relationships with women, with art, and with himself — were shaped by the time and place and situation in which I found him and in which I hope readers will be happy to find him themselves.