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Kate Manning Offers a Deeper Look at "My Notorious Life"

My Notorious Life, an Amazon Editors' Pick for Fall, is the rambunctious tale of one Axie Muldoon -- orphan, Irish immigrant guttersnipe -- who, through pluck and naive nerve, rises to the top of 19th century New York shadow society as a midwife. A working class heroine if ever there was one, Axie's the creation of author Kate Manning, who spoke to us about how and why she wrote her second novel, and what she hopes it (and Axie) will mean to readers.

Kate Manning

Madame X, nee Axie Muldoon, is based at least partly on a real historical character. How did you come upon her story in the first place.

I didn't start by knowing about Axie, but I was really looking to write a good old-fashioned rip-roaring tale. Since I really love New York history, I knew the work of photographer Jacob Reiss. His pictures [of 19th century New York were] are so compelling, I just wanted to insert myself in the streets of old New York and see what that's like. And writing about that time gave me a chance to play with language in a way that you can't do in a modern, contemporary, white person voice.

Anyway, I came across a really intense picture of a young girl, and I started to write a story about this kid. I read some history and learned that there were 30,000 homeless kids on the streets of New York in the 19th century And nobody really knew what to do about them. So I imagined a child of Irish immigrants, a child who got swept up in the answer to the question: the orphan train movement, which was the system by which 250,000 kids, orphaned kids, were sent west on trains between 1850 and 1930. I began to imagine that girl I'd seen the picture of being involved in this. And then I started to read about Ann Lohman, [the real life midwife], and at first I just thought "That's a story I never heard of. I can't believe I've never heard of her because she was notorious in her day." But the more I thought of it, the more I realized that her story was really worth telling, or at least borrowing from. And I started thinking Axie could grow up into this woman.

Then, when I read that people thought Lohman eventually faked her own suicide and that some day she'd come back and tell her story, that she was alive somewhere and driving her fancy carriage through the streets of London -- and that she would someday spill the secrets of all of New York society, all the rich guys and the politicians whose mistresses and daughters and wives had used her services. . . and that she had substituted the body of one of her victims so that she could get away, I thought, "Well, what if she <em>did</em>?”

My Notorious Life

There's so much in this novel about Madame's run-ins with the era's police, both actual and social. Without meaning to, or even knowing the term, she emerges as a bit of a feminist hero, a protector of women. Was this your intent: to write a political novel?

I wanted it to be a gripping story where you care about what happens to the characters. This is a story about longing for family and for home. Will Axie find her mother, will she find her brother, will her husband stay with her, can she trust him?

I think the protagonist is drafted unwillingly into a battle for reproductive rights. She would never call it that, she is not a political person. She doesn't really want to be a standard bearer. She wants to help women. She's motivated by mercy, I think, and by her own experience as a mother and her own experience with other mothers and with her own mother. So she listens to the women who come to her door. She tries to help them. So if that's a feminist thing to do, then yes, it's about a feminist. But I did not set out to write a political novel.

People do not want to be lectured to, and I don't like to read books like that. I think, though that one thing this book can do, what any novel can do, is put you inside an individual story, an individual time, and provide a context and a platform for discussing things in the present. That said, I was astounded by the parallels of the times: the 1870s, and what's going on now. Much has changed, but I think women are still fighting for reproductive rights and are still scapegoated and trapped bythe political and religious forces that entrap these characters.

How did you go about creating Axie's world?

I read a lot of historical novels and old medical textbooks and a lot of Irish novels of the 19th century for the syntax and formality of the language. I loved those old words. I love to be able to say pultroon, or slumgallion or some of the other words we don't use. They're great words, and I like an excuse to use them. Unicule, cabbage-hearted weavil. I loved the euphemism, "He's doesn't have the baubles for that," instead of the one you know. Or, "He's a bungstarter" (a tool used to ream a hole in a wooden barrel.) I would find terms like that and put them in my notebook and save them. I'd think, "That's going in there somewhere."

It's hard not to take to Axie; she's so feisty but also sweet...

I'm fond of her because it was really fun to write somebody who was prickly, but I think she was prickly from a sense of hurt and she wasn't afraid to speak her mind. I started out imagining a young girl who was in bitter circumstances, somebody who had been dealt a poor hand by life and especially in her dealings with the authorities. And I felt this girl would have a couple of choices. She could be a victim, and suffer and say "Poor me." But I wasn't interested in that. I was interested in somebody who was going to fight back. So instead of having her say, "These kind philanthropists are helping me, I am just a poor orphan, I will be so grateful," instead of that she is angry and fighting. She demands people pay attention: "See me. Look at me. Don't you get it?"

You were a documentary filmmaker before you published your first novel. Do you feel like that work has influenced your life as a fiction writer?

Absolutely. I've always written fiction. But I think being a journalist or working in nonfiction was really good for me. I think what I mostly learned was how to hang a story on the bones of a fact. Always the best for me as a documentary filmmaker was to profile someone, to find a human person who could illustrate the kind of issues we were trying to discuss rather than trying to compile a lot of facts and figures and doing a report. It was good to show how something affected somebody. It was good training for figuring out when you've got the right details.

Writing scripts also teaches you to enter a scene right where you need to enter it; you don't waste a lot of time on background or development or telling things that you can just as easily show. That was excellent training. Whether you're creating novels or documentaries, you learn that people are going to change the channel if you can't keep them interested. They're going to tune out.

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