A Conversation with Kathy Leonard Czepiel

Congratulations on your first novel! What has been the most exciting part of the process so far? 

The most exciting moment occurred on the November afternoon in 2010 when my agent first called, saying she was interested in representing my novel. The whole process of pitching and selling, revising, proofreading, publicizing and marketing has been interesting to learn. There’s a steep learning curve the first time around, but that makes it exciting.

How did you come to be a writer? Who are some of your favorite writers? 

I’ve always loved writing. Even before I could write, I would dictate stories to my mother, and she would copy them into little stapled booklets for me to illustrate. I grew up in a family that valued reading and writing. I was probably the only kid in my school who had a typewriter in her bedroom.

That question about favorite writers opens the floodgates, but I’ll try to keep it simple. A page of “Books I Love” is included on my website. In general, I tend toward American literature, and most of the contemporary fiction writers I read are women, though not by design. I’m just more drawn to their stories. If I had to choose just a few writers to read for the rest of my life, I’d probably pick Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, and of course Shakespeare, who covers all the emotional ground of human experience. That’s a crazy list with huge gaps. Ask me tomorrow, and it will be different.

You are a native of New York’s mid-Hudson valley. What was it like growing up there for you? Did your familiarity with the area influence the setting of the novel? 

Like many people, I didn’t really appreciate the beauty of my hometown until I left. Now I know that the Hudson Valley is among the most beautiful places in the country, and though I don’t live there today, it still feels like home when I return. I grew up in a small town where we thought life was pretty boring when we were teenagers, and we really only paid attention to the river when we crossed it to go shopping at the mall. The Hudson River is cleaner now than it was when I was a kid, thanks to a number of wonderful environmental organizations, including Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. I once sailed on their historic sloop for a week as a volunteer and really got to be on the river—a thrill! I think it’s pretty common for first novels to be set in a place that has deeply imprinted itself on the writer’s life. The Hudson Valley is that place for me.

What inspired you to write A Violet Season

I returned home a year or so after college to work for the local weekly newspaper, and that’s when I learned that the area where I’d grown up had once been known as “The Violet Capital of the World.” How is it possible that I never knew this before? In fact, most evidence of that once booming industry has disappeared. That was the seed for the novel, but I didn’t know it right away. I had to do a lot more writing and living before I was ready to tackle a novel, and then the violets came back to me. I knew I would be working on the novel for a long time, so the subject had to be something really compelling to me. I thought the violets would be intriguing to readers as well.

What kind of research did you do for the novel? Did you know a lot about violet farming and wet nursing before you started writing? 

I knew nothing about violet farming. Almost all of the research on the violets came from a single, fat file at the Museum of Rhinebeck History. I found other sources, but all of them led back to Rhinebeck. Then I visited a farmer named Fred Battenfeld in nearby Red Hook . His family once grew violets, and his father had been interviewed by someone at the museum. That interview became my most valuable written source. Fred has one bed of violets left, but his primary crops today are anemones and Christmas trees. He showed me around his greenhouses, which gave me the visuals, the smells, the feel of things. Then he answered a bunch of later e-mails as I ran into more questions, and he read pages and fact-checked the violet passages for me. The novel couldn’t have been written without his help.

The wet nursing was easier to research. There are lots of good books out there on the history of wet nursing, and I had nursed both of my own babies. That experience hasn’t changed much over time, so it was easy for me to write about Ida nursing, even though the babies weren’t her own.

The contrasts between how women are treated in contemporary society and how they were treated at the turn of the century are striking. Was highlighting the differences, the struggles women faced then, a vital component to the story you wanted to tell? Is there anything surprising you discovered while doing so? 

I didn’t set out to write a novel about women’s work or the struggles they faced at the turn of the twentieth century, but it was inevitable that that theme would surface. I did have some surprises. I knew that women’s work was physical and unrelenting, but I was struck by how backbreaking the weekly job of laundering was, which is why I took the time to tell about the process of doing laundry in detail. I was also surprised by some of the things I learned about life in the brothels, particularly that there was often real camaraderie among the “girls”—a sort of “sisterhood” —and that many of them had actually chosen that life. What this really tells us is how horribly limited their other options were. But for some women—those working in the more expensive brothels who made enough money to live quite comfortably—prostitution did seem to be, in their minds, an acceptable alternative. I tried to demonstrate that in my portrayal of the day-to-day life at Mrs. Hargrave’s without minimizing the very real perils of their existence, including disease, drug and alcohol addiction, and of course rape. It was a very fine line to walk, and I hope I did that part of the novel justice.

We understand that the love letters between Alice and Joe were inspired by actual love letters written by your own family members. Did you discover them while you were writing the novel? 

In 1890-91, during their engagement, my great-grandparents wrote a series of letters to one another. She was living in Nyack, New York and he was in Newark, New Jersey. My father had transcribed the letters, since their handwriting was difficult to read, and I asked him for a copy of that transcription. Though its subject matter was entirely different, my great-grandparents’ correspondence helped me get the voices right in the letters between Alice and Joe. I borrowed directly from my great-grandfather, whose name was also Joe, the closing to some of his letters, which I found quite touching: “I remain yours, Joe.” Fortunately, the outcome for my great-grandparents was better than it was for Alice and Joe. They were married for forty years until my great-grandfather’s death and had five children, the fourth of which was my grandfather.

Are there still violet farms in existence today? What about wet nurses? 

As far as I know, the only farm still cultivating violets in the northeast is the Battenfelds’ farm, but there may be others. These violets (sweet violets, Parma violets) are different from African violets, which you can find at many garden shops, but don’t ask me to explain the taxonomy of the plants–that is not something I’ve learned! In the northeast, we find a relative of the sweet violets growing wild in our lawns, but people often eradicate them as weeds in favor of keeping their grass pristine. Why not let the violets grow and enjoy them?

You can still find wet nurses, if you know whom to ask and where to look, though they work very quietly, partly because our society finds it taboo for one woman to nurse another’s baby. We can only afford to have that attitude today because we have other alternatives for feeding our infants. Fortunately, that taboo doesn’t extend to the milk itself. There are milk banks across the country where women who have an abundant supply of breast milk can donate their milk for infants who need it. The FDA advocates the use of milk banks that have screened their donors and ensured the safety of their milk over the use of a wet nurse.

Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Do you identify with any of the characters in A Violet Season

I would like to think of myself as a Mrs. Schreiber or a Mrs. Brinckerhoff, strong women able to see beyond their own time, working for change and helping other women. Truthfully, there’s probably a lot of me in Ida. One character trait of hers that I recognize in myself is her no-nonsense practicality. But I didn’t intentionally write myself into any of my characters. If anything, I usually work against that notion. Otherwise things tend to get boring pretty quickly, both for me and probably for the reader.

What are you currently reading? 

I’m always reading more than one thing at a time. It’s probably a bad habit. I’m currently in the middle of Nicole Krauss’s novel Great House (her novel The History of Love is one of my all-time favorites), and I’m about to start Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I try to stick close to the classics, as well. Next on deck will be some American writers of the 1920s and ’40s since that’s the period I’m writing about now. There’s also a teetering pile of literary journals on the floor next to my bed. My current favorites are Tin House, The Missouri Review and One Story. This makes it sound as if I read a lot, but really I spend much less time reading than I would like. I spend more time reading my students’ papers than anything else.

What are you working on now? 

I’m working on another historical novel, this one set in the early twentieth century just before the Depression and just after the Second World War. Instead of violets, it is centered on a photography studio. I also have to learn how to build a house.

I’m also working on a collection of linked stories. And I have a non-fiction project that I’m beginning to toy with as well. I’m lucky that I’ve never experienced writer’s block. I always have more ideas than I have time!

One last question (we have to ask): How do you pronounce your last name? 

First of all, the Z is silent. There are lots of tricks my family uses to help people pronounce it. One of them is that it’s what you do with an orange: see it, peel it. See-peel. Some people think I was crazy to take my husband’s name and give up “Leonard,” but I like having a quirky name. And I don’t mind if you pronounce it wrong. You couldn’t possibly come up with a pronunciation I haven’t heard before!