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The Hired Girl: Author Laura Amy Schlitz’s 2016 BGHB Fiction Honor Speech

hiredgirl_210x300Joan would be happy that I’m here. She’d be thrilled to find herself in the Athens of America: the city of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Candlewick Press.

I’m thrilled too, so gleeful that I’m going to share a secret, a truth not universally acknowledged in the writing world: Sometimes things go well.

Not always, not often. If you ask me, every writer is entitled to a martyr’s crown and palm. I expect to suffer when writing a novel, and I generally do.

But not always. Every now and then, a writer gets a break, and The Hired Girl was mine. The book was a joy to write, perhaps because I worked through part of it decades ago. It’s a historical novel, but part of Joan’s history is mine.

When I was Joan’s age, I, too, longed for the future. I was desperate to climb out of the Procrustean bed of adolescence. I hankered after culture and glamour. The latter proved elusive, but the former could be stalked: I battered my way through the classics; I kept a scrapbook of famous paintings; I mooned and swooned over Carmen and La Traviata. In high school, I was distinctly unpopular. I imagined myself as Marie Antoinette, rejected by a grubby populace; I tried to impersonate Oscar Wilde. None of this went over well.

It wasn’t funny; it really wasn’t. But when the time came to write about Joan, it all came back to me: all that yearning, all those desperate aspirations — and it was funny; it was hilarious and heroic. At some point in the past forty-some years, I’d forgiven myself, and my anguish had been transmuted into comedy.

So when I began to write The Hired Girl, it felt like opening a window and letting in the spring air. At first I worried that a story that came so painlessly couldn’t possibly be any good. Somewhere around page 120, my ancient car began to splutter and vibrate. I wrote my agent, Stephen Barbara: if the car broke down, did he think he could sell my half-written manuscript? Stephen is a miraculous creature, an agent who reads your work and gets back to you in a heartbeat. The heading of his email was, “Let the car break down!” He assured me that the story was viable, and encouraged me to keep writing.

The car stopped spluttering. (Sometimes things go well.) When I sent the finished manuscript to Candlewick Press, Karen Lotz emailed me on vacation and was lavish with her praise. My editor, Liz Bicknell, not only liked the story but was absolutely clear-headed about how it might be made stronger. The design team at Candlewick found a painting by a Baltimore-born artist, painted in 1910: presto! we had a gorgeous cover. When the book came out, there were stars.

Sometimes things go well.

I want to end by sharing a story that was told me by a friend, the artist Rick Shelley. Thirty years ago, Rick served as a stage manager at a senior center. One evening the star performer, an elderly woman, greeted him with the breathless intelligence that she needed all the coat racks he could get his hands on. Rick went to find the coat racks; the woman’s husband set up a record player; and the woman vanished into the ladies’ room.

When she emerged, she was looking very portly in a serape and sombrero. The lights went down. The phonograph played the “Mexican Hat Dance” while the woman sang along. Once the number was over, she ripped off her serape, revealing a German dirndl and a white apron. This time she sang a German folk tune, dancing friskily all the while. It was a Musical Tribute from Around the World. The audience loved it.

By the end of the show, the coat racks sagged with cast-off costumes, and the artiste had stripped down to a flowing Grecian robe. Her husband played “The Stars and Stripes Forever” while she put on a spiky crown. Gingerly she mounted a tall stool, brandishing a flashlight with a twist of red cellophane at one end. She was Lady Liberty, and she brought the house down. “The thing is,” Rick said thoughtfully, “she was kind of good. Okay, maybe she hit a few clunkers, but her voice was not unpleasant, and she was having such a great time up there.”

I feel a kinship with that woman. Whoever she was, she was an artist, a worker. Think about it: she learned all those songs and dances, made the costumes, and cajoled her husband into manning the record player. She hit her clunkers and she took her risks — she could have fallen off that stool; people could have laughed at her. But instead, for her industry and audacity, she was applauded. She did her work, and she loved her work, and her work was received with great generosity. She was lucky. And so am I. Thank you.

From the January/February 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB16.

Laura Amy Schlitz About Laura Amy Schlitz

Laura Amy Schlitz is the winner of a 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Honor Award for The Hired Girl (Candlewick).

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