Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Interview with Erica Eisdorfer, author of The Wet Nurse's Tale

One of the perks of being a librarian is that I get to read about books way in advance of publication and sometimes people are kind enough to send me galleys to review. I'd like to think I'm on top of what's going on in the book world, but I totally missed that Erica Eisdorfer had written a book about wet nurses that was in the to 10 of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. I only found out about it because of a blurb in this month's Library Journal.

The book sounded so intriguing to me that I immediately contacted Erica for an interview, which she was kind enough to grant and which I've posted below.

Photo by Carrboro Citizen
Blacktating: Did you breastfeed your kids? If so, how many and for how long?
Erica Eisdorfer: I did indeed breastfeed both my children. I
nursed my first daughter for 2 years and my second until she was five.

B:What was your breastfeeding experience like?
EE: For me it was a rite of passage. And I loved all the things there are to love about it. I singly mothered my first daughter and I had to go back to work when she was tiny. I was lucky that the woman who ran the day care was a member of La Leche League, and thus did all she could to help me continue to nurse. When I had my second baby, I promised both my daughter and my husband that they'd be able to feed her (breast milk) out of a bottle, but the baby shunned the bottle and so, despite the fact that I pumped twice a day in the bathroom of the bookstore I work in, no one could ever feed her but me.

B:What inspired you to write this book? What was intriguing to you about wet nursing?
EE: Wet nursing was basic women's work for millennia! I think it must've been the second oldest profession, you know? When I thought about those women sitting still for so long, listening to the households around them--to the family dramas, the gossip--I thought whoa, what a hook for a novel. I've always liked the servant's point of view--maybe it's because for lo these many years I've worked in a bookstore on a college campus where the professors like their crusts cut just so. Anyhow, most servants are downstairs--under stairs--but wet nurses now, they were upstairs, privy to all the secrets of the household.

B: Is your main character based on anyone?
EE: Nope, not really. She's pretty much her own person.

B:What research did you do in order to maintain the historical accuracy of the novel? Was it difficult to find this information? Did you uncover anything especially interesting or surprising?
EE: I did a lot of research, lots and lots. There's a great library here on the University of North Carolina campus and I lived in the stacks. There aren't many books about wet nursing--just a couple by Valerie Fildes, very scholarly--but I sucked them up. (Oh. Sorry.) I had no idea, for example, that so many wet nurses' babies died for want of their mothers (their mothers having gone out to nurse in order to feed their other children) that the French parliament actually passed a law to keep the new mothers home until the babies were "set".

B: Were you surprised at the response to your book on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition?
EE: I was delighted. I was thrilled. I gave a deep long sigh when I heard that some people had avoided the book because the idea of a wet nurse was sorta, well, "icky." But that's not what you asked. I was surprised on some days and other days I was like, well, finally! I've been writing novels for a long time and sticking them under my bed--sort of crappy autobiographical novels--and this was the first book which came really straight from my imagination. And it was so liberating to write it! And as I was writing it I kept thinking, that's the way! That's it! I guess I'm trying to say that though my confidence is generally at sort of a low ebb, I had real faith in Wet Nurse.

B: Are you surprised at all of the publicity cross-nursing has been receiving in the mainstream media lately?
EE: I say it's about dang time. There are a lot of working mothers out there and we need to help each other out. One of my favorite scenes in my novel is when Susan, the wet nurse, takes a coach ride with a lady who has two infants--an older one and a tiny infant. She sees the lady's need and jumps in to help. I like the sisterhood aspect of that. I cross-nursed an adopted baby for a bit; it was a lovely thing to be able to do for her fathers but she was mainly a bottle-fed baby and she didn't take to the breast. They were sweet and nervous and they didn't want her to cry but when they gently relieved me of my duties, I was sad!

How amazing is Erica?! As soon as I get a copy of her book in my hot hands, I'll read and review it. Here is the publisher's synopsis of the novel:

Susan Rose isn’t the average protagonist: she’s scheming, promiscuous, plump, and she is also smart, funny, tender, and entirely lovable. Like many lower-class women of Victorian England, she was born into a world that offered very few opportunities for the poor and unlovely. But Susan is the kind of plucky heroine who seeks her fortune, and finds it . . . with some help from, well, her breasts. Susan, you see, is a professional wet nurse; she breast-feeds the children of wealthy women who can’t or won’t nurse their own babies.

But when her own child is sold by her father and sent to a London lady who had recently lost a baby, Susan manages to convince his new foster mother, Mrs. Norbert, to hire her as a wet nurse. Once reunited with her son, Susan discovers the Norbert home to be a much more sinister place than she’d ever expected. Dark and full of secrets, its master is in India, and the first baby who died there did so under very mysterious circumstances. Susan embarks on a terrifying journey to rescue her son before he meets the same fate.

The book will be released in August and of course you can order it pre-pub at Amazon. I'd love to hear your thoughts about the book. Are you excited as I am to read it?

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