In the 1930s-set All Waiting Is Long, Scranton, Penn.-based author Barbara J. Taylor returns to the Morgan sisters, Lily and Violet, from her debut novel. Seventeen years have passed and the sisters find themselves bound by a secret. An illegitimate baby changes both of their lives, though not in the ways they could have imagined. But the Morgans have long been been haunted by tragedy and duty — elder sibling Violet witnessed the tragic death of her big sister in Taylor’s first book. As Violet and Lily navigate marriage and family during the Great Depression, they also face issues of mining strikes, poverty, discrimination and forced sterilization.
Taylor will present All Waiting Is Long, in a discussion with J. Patrick Redmond at Malaprop’s on Wednesday, Aug. 3, at 7 p.m.
Mountain Xpress: How soon did you start writing All Waiting Is Long after completing Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night, and was it challenging get back into the minds of your characters?
Barbara J. Taylor: Believe it or not, I started writing All Waiting Is Long in between drafts of Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night. My agent sent Sing out to 20 or 30 publishers, who rejected it, so I put it in a drawer and started the next book. Once I completed the first draft of All Waiting Is Long, Kaylie Jones, my mentor from Wilkes University, suggested I revise Sing one more time. I completely rewrote the book and sold it soon after. Since I was going back and forth between both novels, I never had to worry about getting into the minds of my characters. They were living in my head for years.
Beyond your discovery of the materials advocating “practical eugenics” in the 1920s and 30s, were there other things that came out in your research of the time period that surprised you? Were there events/attitudes taking place in history at that time from which you might have shied away had you not decided to follow the trajectory of the Morgan sisters?
Eugenics was the real surprise for me. I knew All Waiting Is Long was going to open at the Good Shepherd Infant Asylum, a home for pregnant unwed girls, so I started doing medical research in preparation for the births in the novel. I only use primary materials when I’m researching, so I read medical books from that time period. Along the way, I noticed that most of those books were published by the American Eugenics Society, or groups with similar interests. As I delved into eugenics, I found that Hitler and his men were piggybacking off of our efforts to create a better race, including the sterilization of women deemed wanton or defective. And America’s eugenics movement extended beyond science. Ministers preached about bloodlines and God’s plan for the white race. County fairs held contests for “fitter families,” who exemplified the white ideal.
Was it challenging for you, a woman living in the 21st century, to allow your characters to be part of a time and society that was so restrictive toward women? Is there a desire, as a writer, to make a character in a period piece be ahead of her time and not so accepting of old-fashioned ideas?
I never write historical fiction with an agenda in mind, modern or otherwise. I simply sit down to write what I hope will be a good story. That said, given the current political climate and the seeming need of politicians to legislate women’s bodies, it wasn’t a far stretch for me to write about a society that restricted women. As for creating characters who are ahead of their time, that’s a slippery slope. In traditional historical fiction, it’s important for writers to appeal to modern readers, but it’s also critical to avoid anachronistic characters in the attempt. It’s a constant challenge, but in the end, it’s all about balance.
What social constructs or attitudes from All Waiting Is Long struck you as still relevant to today?
For as much progress as we’ve made as women, we still have a long way to go. Prior to the Tim Kaine announcement, my friends and I were speculating on Hillary Clinton’s choice for Vice President. When someone in the group mentioned Elizabeth Warren, several people wondered aloud about having two women on the ticket. Do we ever do that when two men are running for office? Look how many magazines ask if women who are mothers and work outside the home can have it all. Do we ever ask that of men? We shame women for choosing to stay at home. We shame women for putting their kids in daycare. We shame women for having too many children or none at all. I can go on, but suffice it to say, many of the attitudes shown toward women in my novel are still relevant today.
How did you get involved with Akashic Books?
I wrote my first novel, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night, while earning my MFA at Wilkes University. Around the time I finished revising that novel, Kaylie Jones started an imprint under the aegis of Akashic Books. She selected two novels for publication that year, and Sing was one of them.
Can you imagine writing the next chapter of the Morgan family?
I actually started working on the third book in this trilogy while on the road for All Waiting Is Long. The books are about 20 years apart, so the third one will take place in the fifties. While all of the novels revolve around the Morgan family, they are stand-alone books and can be read in any order.