Before her appearance Friday, Nov. 11, at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center, “Modern Girls” author Jennifer S. Brown took time to answer a few questions about her intentions in writing her debut novel.
AJT: From the feel of living on the Lower East Side to the acceptance of smoking and drinking during pregnancy, you captured the essence of life in 1935. What informed your writing with such specific detail?
Brown: My research was really broad. I did a ton of reading. I read a lot of books that were actually written in the 1920s and ’30s. … I also read sources like the Forward, which had a column called the Bintel Brief. It was an advice column in the Yiddish paper that was primarily immigrants sending in questions on assimilation, religion — questions of just getting along. … So I was able to read these old letters, and it really gave a sense of what people were like.
I went to the Tenement Museum in New York to walk through the old apartments to see what it would have looked like when they came here. I spent a lot of time at the New York Public Library … and found an English-written socialist newspaper from the exact dates.
I rented movies that were made in the 1930s, and that showed the smoking and the drinking. … I bought a whole bunch of magazines on eBay from the 1930s, and there were often references to — they wouldn’t say “pregnant,” but they would say “women in a condition.” And also just talking to people, so the detail came from all over.
AJT: So you enjoyed writing historical fiction? Is research part of the allure for you?
Brown: Absolutely! I absolutely loved the research. When I’m writing, I put way more detail in, and then I just take out what isn’t necessary. The research to me is so exciting and occasionally very, very frustrating when there’s that one fact you can’t find. The reason I knew about Camp Eden is because it’s where my own grandparents met. I could not find any information on it specifically, and I thought I was going to have to make it up. I was so happy a few months later when I found this New Leader newspaper that wrote about Camp Eden. … I used so many different sources, and it all came together. I am absolutely enamored now with historical fiction and am really going to continue in that direction.
AJT: Why did you set the book in 1935?
Brown: I had heard some stories about women and pregnancy, and when I first heard about a woman having an abortion in the 1930s, I was very surprised. I started researching it, and I found that abortions during the Depression were very, very common. During the Depression, if you were a single woman and you were supporting your parents, if you got pregnant, you couldn’t have the baby and still support the family. Women were delaying marriage because, once you got married, jobs were for husbands.
So I started thinking about the unplanned pregnancy, and originally I only thought about it in terms of Dottie, and the reason I didn’t want to set the story today is because today, at least where I live outside of Boston, single mothers are all around us. … But in 1935, if you’re a 19-year-old girl and you’re not married and pregnant, the stakes are very, very high. So I wanted a time when the stakes were very high.
The feminist angle is something that is very near and dear to me, and there is nothing subtle about that when you’re dealing with a book about unplanned pregnancy. It was very, very important to me to have everyone make a decision that was right for her. That was something that meant a lot to me. One answer is not right for every individual, and I feel very strongly about that. It’s about personal choice.
Another reason I wanted to do the 1930s is I feel like so much of Jewish life, my upbringing in a very Jewish area of Miami Beach, was really dominated by the shadow of the Holocaust. I was intrigued by the idea of how interesting it would be to have characters who don’t have that. So that sort of played in my mind too, the idea of having it in their future as opposed to dominating their lives right then. We know what’s at stake for them, but they don’t know.
AJT: So you weren’t trying to make a point about American apathy toward the developing situation of Hitler’s rise to power in Europe?
Brown: I would say there was American apathy on a higher level. The people who knew what was going on were at a higher level, and they were apathetic. I think at a lower level there was ignorance. People just didn’t know. If it wasn’t in the papers or on the radio, how would you get your news? And that was Willie’s motivation for wanting to go to Europe to report, because he suspected. He knew the foreign journalists had already been expelled, and he knew there was more to the story.
AJT: Were you purposeful with your technique of using each day of the one month the book covers as a kind of date and time stamp, instead of using chapters?
Brown: Yes, I used the brief time frame and the daily date update to relay the sense of urgency created by Dottie’s situation.
AJT: In this brief one month of time, do you feel Dottie and Rose’s relationship evolves from mother-daughter to a more adult level where they are more like friends and peers?
Brown: I feel strongly that that’s universal. I think when you hit certain stages in life you start to appreciate the past and what your parents have done so much more. … You start to feel a lot more empathy, and I think that brings you a lot closer. And you find a nostalgia for things that, in the moment, you couldn’t wait to get away from.