Ann Leary’s first book was 2004’s ‘An Innocent, A Broad’ about the (mostly) comedic hardships she and husband Denis Leary endured when a short trip to London lasted five months while Leary was pregnant with their first child.
Since then, Leary has published five novels, which generally focus on family, small communities, interesting work opportunities and romance. His 2012 bestseller, “The Good House,” has been made into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline that will screen this month at the Tribeca Film Festival and in theaters this fall.
Ann Leary’s latest novel, “The Foundling” (Marysue Rucci Books, 2022), is the vivid, often alarming story of a young woman named Mary who works at Nettleton State Village for deficient women of childbearing age. set in the 1920s. The Asylum is fictional but based on the work of Leary’s grandmother. The novel is the result of years of research into mental health treatments in the early 20th century. The book also discusses racism and sexism at that time, as well as the controversial eugenics movement, the goal of which was to eliminate unwanted genetic traits in humans through selective breeding.
Ann Leary is signing and discussing “The Foundling” at four different Connecticut locations over the next two weeks: Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Elm Street Books in New Canaan, Friday at 7 p.m. at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Saturday at 3 p.m. h. p.m. at The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, and June 28 at 7 p.m. at Athena Books in Old Greenwich.
Mark Twain’s House and Hickory Stick appearances will also feature Leary’s husband, the creator and star of the TV series ‘Rescue Me,’ ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’ and ‘The Job,’ who is also a actor and a famous film. actor.
The Courant spoke to Ann Leary, who recently moved to Westchester County in New York after living in Litchfield County for 20 years, about Connecticut, the dark side of the 1920s and how a discussion of a book with Denis Leary could unfold.
Do you and your husband have a plan for what you will do at the Mark Twain House?
Nope! Denis tweeted the cutest thing: “For the first time I can interview Ann Leary.” We haven’t really talked about it. What can he ask of me that he doesn’t know? But Denis has always been the biggest fan of my books. This book, in particular, he loved the first draft. He produced several series, and he always saw this book becoming maybe a limited series for television. I decided my husband knew what he was doing, and I want him to produce this adaptation. So not only is he interviewing me because he knows the book, but he’s also very involved in the future of this book. Maybe we’ll talk about that a bit.
How long have you been together?
I met Denis in 1982. Since then, we have lived together. I moved to Boston in ’82. I went to Bennington College for a few years, then I transferred to Emerson in Boston and met Denis, who was teaching that comedy writing workshop. I took the course and it was really fun. Denis was 25, I was 20. Once the semester was over, we went out for a beer. We started seeing each other, then one night he stayed and he never left.
“The Foundling” is new territory for you. You have made multigenerational novels but not a historical novel.
I really liked it, actually, because I’ve always loved research and history, especially American history, and my favorite period was always the 1920s. I had always thought of it as that decadent, swinging, carefree era of Zelda Fitzgerald. I thought that was when restrictions on women were eased and morals were relaxed, and they were. If you were rich in the 1920s and you were a woman, you got drunk even though there was a ban. You could have sex outside of marriage. If you weren’t wealthy, engaging in the exact same behaviors made you a threat to society and you would likely be institutionalized. This [was] very much a class thing.
You write a lot about subcultures, including a work culture in this one.
The book is a novel, it’s actually fiction although it’s loosely based on my grandmother. “The Foundling” is about two young women who grew up in the same orphanage in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and met years later in a different kind of institution. Mary was the secretary to the very charismatic female doctor who ran the place, and Lilian was what they called one of the inmates, who was locked up there against her will. It turns out that it was a eugenics asylum, the purpose of which was to prevent women of childbearing age from having children because they were “weak-minded”. At that time, “feeble-minded” was not an insult, it was a clinical term.
I also found women in these asylums who were, and this is still the clinical term, degenerate women. They were “morally weak-minded”. They were bad girls or – and I found this very appalling – it could be a 13-year-old girl who accused her stepfather of molesting her or a woman whose husband was fed up with her, and at that time it was difficult to get a divorce. . You could easily end up in an asylum like this, and the “childbearing age” part is actually more offensive than the “feeble-minded” part of the title because if you went there, if you were 12 or 25, didn’t you whatever, you couldn’t leave until you were menopausal. We didn’t send you there to be educated, to get help, we sent you there to prevent you from having children.
You use words like “stupid” and “confused” and other offensive words, but they come out of the characters.
It was a real challenge. By the time I started writing it, it was just that jargon I was used to. So yes, a doctor, the head of a world-renowned institution for so-called intellectual disabilities, could refer to the number of idiots he had compared to imbeciles or morons. Plus, the racism is so overt. There were no dog whistles. I was shocked by the headlines in the newspapers, the words used. The horrible racism, anti-Semitism, outright sexism of that time was shocking.
Our picks of activities and places to visit this weekend
So when I was writing, I was getting early feedback, especially from young editorial assistants saying, “That’s not OK. Why doesn’t Mary fight him? Why didn’t she leave? I realized I needed an author’s note at the beginning of the book because people seemed to think from the earliest drafts that the eugenics movement was a hate group, and it wasn’t. It was the law, a racial ideology championed by everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Winston Churchill to George Bernard Shaw, Alexander Graham Bell, Margaret Sanger. Many people have embraced eugenics. So I had to write that into the narrative, and it was difficult because I wanted people to not hate Mary. I didn’t want to make her a woman of today because women then weren’t what they are today. They did not have all the rights of citizens. They had the right to vote in the 1920s, but very few other men had that right.
I loved writing this book. I hope people can put it into context over time. I really can’t stand anachronistic writing. I had to make the characters be people of that time, and then within those limits, sort of enact changes if they could.
Christopher Arnott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.