Inspiration for Characters
Inspiration for Ma
When I first started research for the novel, I read a book of interviews with Pennsylvania coal miners. In one of those interviews, an old miner mentioned that when he was a young child his mother died and his father remarried. Shortly after the marriage, his new stepmother sent his sister to an orphanage and he never heard from his sister again. That miner, in his eighties at the time of the interview, cried when he talked about his sister. I’d say it was exactly at that moment that the character of Ma was conceived.
My great grandmother had been sent to an orphanage by her father shortly after her mother died, which I think made me especially sensitive to the story of the old miner’s sister. Did that young girl know where she was being sent? What was her last moment at home like? Years later, what was she able to remember of her family? Who did she become as an adult?
Out of all those questions Ma was born. She is the character I empathize with the most and like the least. . .and she is still very much alive in my imagination. I could easily envision writing another book with her.
My maternal grandmother taught me Longfellow and Wordsworth and spoke what she called The King’s English. In most ways, she was radically different from Gram, yet it was only through thinking about her that Gram came to life.
My grandmother dropped out of high school to help support her family and years later (after separating from my grandfather), went to night school to learn speed writing, bought a house, worked full time and raised my mother alone. She did most of the house maintenance and repairs herself, was fiercely opinionated and fiercely Catholic, and prided herself on always being a lady.
Gram’s strength, wisdom and ingenuity are a tribute to my grandmother. However, Gram’s way of speaking and gossiping came from my paternal grandfather’s neighbor in the Pocono’s. It was her stories about the underwear mill where she worked that inspired the friendships and fights that Gram had at the fictional underwear mill in Barrendale.
I grew up in a very loving home, but I always wondered what my life would have been like if I had not. Two of my close friends came from broken homes. One had a neglectful mother and one had an abusive one, and I often imagined what it would be like to switch places with them. As my friends grew older and struggled to come to terms with who their mothers were, they passed through stages of anger and hurt, but ultimately came to accept and forgive their mothers.
The journey Brigid undergoes with her parents, with Ma in particular, is inspired by the journeys my friends underwent with their mothers. I’d like to think that I could do as well as Brigid does coping with a mother like Ma, but I doubt I could. Brigid is a character I deeply admire.