Zibby Owens: I'm here today with Serena Burdick who's the author of The Girls with No Names and Girl in the Afternoon. She's the 2017 International Book Award winner for historical fiction. She studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence, holds a bachelor of arts from Brooklyn College in English literature and an associate's of arts from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in theater. She currently lives in Massachusetts with her family.
Welcome, Serena. Thanks so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books."
Serena Burdick: Thank you so much for having me.
Zibby: I really enjoyed The Girls With no Names, so good, really enjoyed. I'm really excited to talk to you. Could you please tell listeners what this book is about?
Serena: It's ultimately the story of two sisters. They're preteens. It takes place in New York City in 1913. It's the story about them breaking away from Victorian conventions that they grew up in. They find a band of Romani people living near their very wealthy home. One of the sisters ends up disappearing. Her younger sister thinks that her father has put her in the House of Mercy, which was a home for wayward girls and women who were not virtuous or acting properly. The younger sister seeks to find her and commits herself to the House of Mercy in hopes that her sister is there. That's the premise of it.
Zibby: Before I started reading it, I didn't realize how privileged the girls' family was. I thought, oh, a girl who was going to a band of gypsies, and who was the family to begin with? But then you have all these references to the theater and playing tennis and their affluent lifestyle. Then it made it even more of a contrast. Why on earth would they end up -- your opening scene, she's on her face basically in the dark. Not that it would make it okay to be from a less-wealthy family, but just the contrast was so much greater than I originally thought when I started reading it.
Serena: I set out to do that. One of the reasons, I liked the idea of the contrast between also the Romani lifestyle for them that was so foreign and exotic in this way that was nothing that they had grown up in. It is true that the House of Mercy was not a place that wealthy girls would generally go to. It was a home for destitute girls, ultimately.
Zibby: Tell me about why you started researching the House of Mercy and places like it. What happened in your real life that set you off on this trail of research?
Serena: I heard a news report on the BBC one morning from Ireland. It was about the Irish Magdalene Laundries. I had never heard of them. I became really intrigued with that, mostly shocked because they didn't close until the 1990s.
Serena: Women were really upset. They were seeking restitution from the government, wanting to find their children, and wanting money for the years of labor that they did. I kind of went down that rabbit hole thinking I would write something that took place in Ireland. Doing my research, I discovered that the laundries existed here. I had never heard of them here. They were all over world. There were many in Australia. Then that became a far more intriguing topic to write about, something that was right in my backyard and that I didn't have any idea existed and no one had ever talked about before.
Zibby: The laundries were places where girls literally lived. They were forced to do the laundry?
Serena: Correct, yes. They were religious-run institutions. This one in New York was Protestant Episcopalian. They were considered charitable organizations to help take in girls who had nowhere else to go, but girls were committed for nothing, really. It was at a time when women were still property of men and were completely dependent on men. If your husband or father didn't think that you were behaving correctly, they would send you to this place to be reformed. Within that, you were made to work every day as part of your -- [laughs]. The church made millions of dollars. They were services for the wealthy who dropped off their laundry and had their laundry done. These girls worked in these conditions.
Zibby: Did people know that the girls were doing the laundry?
Zibby: They were okay with that?
Serena: Well, yeah. At the time, it was fine. It was what these girls needed. I think people viewed them as charitable organizations because they were giving them a roof over their head and feeding them. They were taking in a lot of women off the streets who didn't want to go but were maybe actual prostitutes or just were being accused of being a prostitute. It could be because they had nowhere to go and they were just on the streets because no one was taking care of them. I've heard that they would raid brothels and take girls from them and commit them. It was a crime to be a prostitute, so any woman could be accused of that crime if she just had nowhere to go and was out on the street.
Zibby: Wow, have to watch what you wear. Can you imagine just having to deal with the fact that you could be plucked off the street and thrown in somewhere for, like maybe you had a racy dress on?
Serena: Absolutely. You look at a boy the wrong way, and someone thinks you're -- the way to behave in 1913 was still -- the twenties had not hit yet, so it was very proper, buttoned-up.
Zibby: We have all our societal issues today, but at least we don't have that particular issue. That's good. That's a blessing. [laughs] This is what's so interesting. What makes you a writer, and obviously a great writer, is you hear a story on the BBC and instead of just thinking, huh, that's interesting, which is what I might do when I hear a story like that, you create an entire fictious world and play out a family drama within in based on that. Have you always been like that? How did you know you were a fiction writer to begin with? Where did this all come from? Do you have any idea?
Serena: Yeah, I have written my whole life. I was an avid reader as a kid. I just lived in books. Then I would read the books out loud on tape. I would record myself reading them out loud. I loved fantasy and also just living in a totally different time. I did love history. I really wanted to be an actor. I wanted to play out all those roles and characters. I didn't think about being a writer even though I'd always written. It was just fun for me. I wrote short stories and poetry and didn't think much of it until late twenties, went back to college, was done with acting, and for fun decided to try to write a novel. I had an independent study with a professor.
Zibby: Because that's a blast. [laughs]
Serena: It just started as a hundred pages. I set myself small goals. For this thesis project with a professor, I was going to just write a hundred pages. That was all I had to do for my school part of it, but I knew that I was going to try to expand that into a full novel. Even in years of living in LA and acting, I would sort of hole up in my apartment and sit and write for eight hours a day, whatever, nothing. [laughs] It was my soothing therapeutic thing that I did on the side.
Zibby: Would you write fiction? Would you write about yourself?
Serena: Both. At the time, I wrote about myself, but it was in fiction form. It was in story form, so first-person accounts of things that were happening or had happened, past, present.
Zibby: Do you still have those?
Serena: I do. I've thought, sometime, of turning them into a series of short stories. They're all very personal, though, so I'd have to get there.
Zibby: We could pretend they weren’t about you. We won't tell anybody.
Serena: That’s true. [laughs]
Zibby: Your secret's safe with me and everybody who's listening. Tell me for two minutes about your acting life. What was that like? What did you end up doing? Tell me a little more about it.
Serena: I loved the theater. I went out to LA. I went to school at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, did a lot of theater. Then I left and did theater in Aspen for a summer and came to New York to do some theater. Here, I was here for two years just sludging away. I'm like, ugh, I don't want to do this anymore, trekking to auditions. You just end up going on a lot of really bad auditions. After a while I thought, I'm not actually doing any acting. I stopped and realized that everything I'd gone out for I didn't want to do anyway. You don't go out for great things when you're just trying to -- you go out for like vampire -- I remember I auditioned for a space lawyer on some other planet with aliens. I was like, this is not Jane Austen. Can't I be in one of those movies?
Zibby: Maybe you need a Sliding Doors type of book where you did become the space-rocket-law-whatever man and how your life would've gone had you gotten those roles.
Serena: That is an interesting point, if I continued on that path.
Zibby: We wouldn't probably be sitting here talking about this book.
Serena: Maybe not.
Zibby: A lot of this book, by the way, is about -- not by the way; obviously, you know this -- a relationship between two sisters, especially an older one who was born robust and talented, a ballerina and all the rest of it, and her younger sister who was born with a heart condition and was very frail and small and never really developed in contrast to her older sister. Despite that, the older sister is very caregiving until she leaves, sent away by the dad??? It's a lot about that and her trying to find each other again and their whole relationship. Do you have a sister? Where did this part come from?
Serena: I do. [laughs]
Zibby: I'm such a good detective.
Serena: Yeah, you're very good. It's funny, I didn't think about -- until you were recanting how many details of that do in similar ways reflect my relationship with my sister who is two years older. I have always admired her greatly. I certainly went through that phase where you're a scrawny preteen and your sister's blossoming into this beautiful woman two years older than you and you think you'll never catch up. Our relationship has always been really good, but there have been times where we've sort of fallen away. I didn't worry about physically losing her, but sort of emotionally losing her and then coming back to being -- She's definitely one of the closest people in my life to me. I do have a strong personal sister connection.
Zibby: Aw. You also told the book from the point of view of the mother and how it felt for Jean -- Jeanie? Jean?
Serena: Jean, yes.
Zibby: Jean to be caregiving a child who at birth they thought perhaps would not live very long and in fact ends up living throughout the book. Dealing with that kind of uncertainty hovering over her and how that affects her, I was wondering, do you -- not that this all has to be about you. [laughs] Health crisis moment with her daughter and all the doctors and all this, have you gone through something like that?
Serena: I haven't, no. Thank god I have not, no. I have quite healthy children. Some people have asked me too, where did you come up with the idea of giving her the heart condition? It's kind of a funny thing that I don't have a memory of a moment that I decided. She just came that way as the character. That was always my plan with her. It just put everything on edge a little bit.
Zibby: I also feel it's every mother's worst nightmare, is something incurable with your child. What do you do? How do you handle that?
Serena: I liked the idea too, when I had this incredible -- someone reviewed the book on Goodreads and said, "I was born with this heart condition, and it's made me look at my life very differently. Had I been born with it earlier, I wouldn't have lived." I was like, oh, wow. That was very touching and personal to have someone relate to that in that way.
Zibby: See, you might have missed this marketing opportunity. [laughter] You have a whole group of people with this specific heart condition.
Serena: It's a very curable thing now.
Zibby: You should go to the American Heart Association newsletter and stuff.
Serena: [laughs] That's interesting. I called a heart surgeon to get the information. I said very specifically, "This is what I need. I need something that would've been incurable in this time in history, and she could've lived or she could've died. What's out there? What would've been --" He knew immediately. He was like, "This would be the perfect disease for you to give her." I was like, great, done. Thank you.
Zibby: I have so much respect for doctors and all the knowledge that they just have at their fingertips about these things.
Serena: That's right. Well, after all that schooling.
Zibby: Still. I mean, I went to school for a long time and I can't pull anything out of my brain that quickly anymore. Tell me about actually writing the book. You said some of the characters came with physical features already. Tell me about writing it. Where and when did you write it? How long did it take? This is your second book.
Serena: It's my second book. With my first and second and third, that's written, I can write a book in about a year. I research for about four to six months. I try not to write when I'm researching. I just dive into the research process. I have the idea for the story percolating. I just let it sit there. Then I really like to put the research aside and try not to get too distracted with that when I start my book. If I've done my research well, then I can just dive into the story. I can get the first draft written in about ten to twelve months. Then it takes about a year to edit. This book, then from the point of selling it, it took two years for it to get published.
Serena: It's usually about a year and a half, unless you have -- my next book will luckily come out within a year, but that's only because we sold it on a partial. The process to get a book that's totally completed onto a shelf is a very long process, much longer than I thought when I embarked on it. I remember I got my first book deal and she's like, "It will come out in a year and a half." A year and a half? What are they doing? Why does it take so long? I started in 2016.
Zibby: What is your next book about? now that you've teased us.
Serena: My next book I'm really excited about it. It is about a real Cuban actress named Estelita Rodriguez. I know her daughter who's in her seventies who told me her mother's story many years ago. I always wanted to turn it into a book because it's an amazing story. It's actually the daughter and her mother's story. I went to just tell her mother's story, but she was such a part of it having given it to me from her perspective. Obviously in telling it, she was telling her side of things. I felt like I have to tell her side of things too. It doesn't have a title. We're working on the title. The working title was just Estelita.
Zibby: That's not bad.
Serena: I like it, but titles get changed. I feel like there are fads with titles. Right now, it's sentences for titles. Have you noticed that, like long?
Serena: The one I love is On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. I think that is the most beautiful title. Those types of titles are drawing people in right now.
Zibby: It's true, and curse words, I feel like, are all the rage.
Serena: What are?
Zibby: I feel like curse words in titles right now, not for fiction. All the self-help, there has to be a curse word. There has to be some sort of asterisk in some part of the word or else forget it. I just want to read this one passage. I'm totally jumping around here, but the psychological effects of being incarcerated, basically. Effie, who's the younger, heart condition daughter -- this is from the very beginning. You wrote, "It was a relief to escape into a different darkness." She's in the dark, but she's now closing her eyes. "It was a relief to escape into a different darkness. It made my fear less palpable. I could be anywhere behind my lids. I could go back. I could make another choice on that night when the simple, beautiful sound of a fiddle in another impenetrable darkness called to us. If only they hadn’t played or my sister and I hadn’t listened." That was so great. Tell me about starting it off that way and the feelings that go into being separated from your family, especially as a child.
Serena: That, I went back and rewrote because that is the prologue. I always tend to have some little bit of prologue in my books. It's bit of a habit I'm seeing I'm developing.
Zibby: You're accomplished enough now. You can say it's a habit.
Serena: I can have a habit?
Zibby: Yeah. I have a habit. I'm such a prolific novel. [laughs]
Serena: All of my books seem to start this way. I do write chronologically. I did write the beginning of the book. Then she gets put in the House of Mercy. Then I wrote the scene where's she's -- it's expanded on that. I just wanted to tease the reader. I wanted to give some beginning point to the psychological state that she gets to, especially because she is dying or thinks she might be dying or doesn't know. Her body is kind of breaking down in a way. That coupled with being trapped had different psychological effects, obviously, than other women in there who would think that they could get out. It just made the urgency of it all for her so much more prevalent because, I have to get out or someone has to get me because might not survive; then I'll never see my family again. Whereas I think other girls could think, three years is a lot and I want to see them. It does mess with you psychologically in a far more intense way for her to think that she might not live through it.
Zibby: It's like the ultimate separation anxiety.
Serena: That's right. [laughs] As bad as it can get.
Zibby: Today I feel like they would be throwing Zoloft under the door or something, like, here, try this.
Serena: They numb you.
Zibby: Yeah, numb you. Exactly. Have you thought about making this into a play?
Serena: I have never written a play. I think that'd be very challenging. I have thought of writing screenplays or trying to write a screenplay. That seems almost easier than staging something. I feel like you need to have a director's eye to stage something. Even though I was an actor, I never had a desire to be a director. I think you need to see the big picture on a stage in a very specific way, and even with screenwriting. I think it'd be fun to try it, but I don't know if I would be any good at it. I'm not sure. It's a skill. It's a totally skill to have, to see from this visual. I like to get deep psychologically. It's one of the reasons I decided to write novels versus, say, a screenplay because being an actor, that might have been my more natural go-to, which I considered for sure. Why not just write your own stuff? I really didn't know how to get into the -- you just are describing everything, dialogue and camera. The idea that you can go psychologically deep into your characters, that's what I liked to do as an actor. I get to do this in my character descriptions, which is very different than staging something.
Zibby: Interesting. But I'll just throw this out again, you could make it a play. Then you could be the mom. Then it could all...
Serena: [laughs] That sounds fantastic. A play is a really fun idea. I never even considered a play, to think of making it a play. That's a really fun idea. I like that idea.
Zibby: You stew on that one.
Serena: I'm going to stew on that idea.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?
Serena: I think that the biggest challenge authors have is completing their work. I feel like so many people start out, they want to do it. Then they get discouraged at some point and set it aside. My biggest advice would be that even if you feel discouraged and you think it's terrible, I think you should finish it. It probably is terrible. The first draft's always terrible. The first book I wrote, which is not published, five years I wrote it. Then I remember there was a single day where I deleted sixty pages in one day. It was five hundred pages. I was a mess. It was such a mess. I just kept going and kept going. Then you overwrite. Then you take it away. My advice, it's just to finish the work and to have something complete that you can work with, is I feel like the biggest advice I could give to a writer.
Zibby: That is good advice. Can't edit something that doesn't exist.
Serena: That's right.
Zibby: Not that you have to edit. Anyway, good advice. Thank you. Thanks for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books."
Serena: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.