Summer Sale! Save 20% today and get access to all our member benefits.

Lisa Grunwald Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Lisa Grunwald
Photo: Jon LaPook

Lisa Grunwald

An interview with Lisa Grunwald

Lisa Grunwald discusses the shocking (and now outdated) practice that inspired her novel, The Irresistible Henry House - using real, orphaned babies to teach college classes on mothering.

When you talk to people who've read The Irresistible Henry House, what's the first question they usually ask?
It's almost always whether the story was actually based on a real practice, whether people actually used real babies to teach college classes on mothering. The answer is yes, but I've sent a lot of incredulous people to the Cornell University website where I first found the photograph that helped inspire the novel.

How did that discovery come about?
In 2005, I was doing research for an anthology of American women's letters. Specifically I was hoping to find a letter from a home economics student. There was an online exhibit at the Cornell website called "What Was Home Economics?" Among other photographs was this captivating image of a baby called "Bobby Domecon" - the last name a combination of "Domestic" and "Economics." (Historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg at Cornell told me that it's pronounced "Dough-me-con.") I quickly learned that at Cornell, from the 1920s through the 1960s, babies supplied by local orphanages were used to teach mothering skills to students, who would take turns bathing and feeding and dressing their charges. Last time I checked, the site was still up at www.cornell.edu, and it's well worth a look.

Did you ever think about tracking down some of the real children?
I certainly thought about it. Before I was a novelist, I was a journalist, and the reporter in me was really drawn to the idea of writing a nonfiction book. But two things changed my mind. First, I just loved the idea of the practice house as the premise for a novel and as the starting point for a fictional character. How would he ever learn to trust someone? How would he feel about women? How would he ever be able to draw a distinction between being loved and being used? And where might all that lead him - romantically, professionally? It was just - yes, irresistible to me to ponder these questions. And the second thing? Well, I suspected that it would be virtually impossible to find enough of those now-grownup children to make a nonfiction book complete. After their time in the practice houses, the babies were returned to their orphanages and adopted like any other children, or put into foster care. Very few records were kept.

Since the novel's publication, have you heard anything more about the practice?
I did find a series of articles about a case at Eastern Illinois State College, where the superintendent of the Child Welfare Division had objected to the practice. This didn't deter a home ec teacher named Ruth Schmalhausen, who passionately defended the practice. At the time - this was the mid-fifties - it was really very common. The program was available at some fifty colleges around the country. In relating the Schmalhausen controversy, Time magazine took what I thought was a somewhat snarky position about the superintendent's objections, writing "Heaven only knows how many neuroses little David might develop." It was one of those moments during the research when I really felt the distance we'd come in the way we think about childhood.

Some critics have compared Henry to Forest Gump and T. S. Garp. How accurate do you find those comparisons?
Those are extraordinarily memorable characters in fiction, and to think that Henry has been mentioned alongside them just thrills me. But certainly some of the comparison comes from the fact that all three novels are centered around young men whose stories coincide with, and in certain ways reflect, the changes that occurred in this country's social and cultural history.

Did you have to do research on those changes, too, or are you and Henry of the same generation?
I'm a half-generation younger than Henry. He was born in 1946, and I was born in 1959, so many of the cultural milestones he encounters are things I encountered, but from a much younger perspective. And I loved doing the research. As Henry grows up, we see the new childcare book by Benjamin Spock and the new magazine Playboy from Hugh Hefner. We hear music from Bing Crosby and the Beatles. We witness the March on Washington, the riots at Berkeley, the opening of Hair and the release of Yellow Submarine.

And ultimately what does all that have to do with Henry?
It's the chaotic but passionate backdrop against which he tries to find a place and a person with whom he feels authentic, trusting, and trustworthy. It's a journey.

And do you know how it ends? What happens after the last page?
If I know, I'm not telling.



Interview conducted by Random House Reader's Circle and is reproduced with permission.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Books by this Author

Books by Lisa Grunwald at BookBrowse
The Evolution of Annabel Craig jacket Time After Time jacket The Irresistible Henry House jacket
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Read-Alikes

All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Lisa Grunwald but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
How we choose readalikes

  • T.C. Boyle

    T.C. Boyle

    T.Coraghessan Boyle is the author of twenty-eight books of fiction, including, most recently, After the Plague (2001), Drop City (2003), The Inner Circle (2004), Tooth and Claw (2005), The Human Fly (2005), Talk Talk (2006), ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Irresistible Henry House

    Try:
    Drop City
    by T.C. Boyle

  • George Hagen

    George Hagen

    George Hagen was born in 1958 in Harare, Zimbabwe. His parents are from South Africa, and, like the itinerant family described in his novel, The Laments, they couldn't stay put anywhere. By 1964 he was living in the suburbs ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Irresistible Henry House

    Try:
    The Laments
    by George Hagen

We recommend 7 similar authors

View all 7 Read-Alikes

Non-members can see 2 results. Become a member
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Join our inner reading circle, go ad-free and get way more!

Find out more


Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: The Night of Baba Yaga
    The Night of Baba Yaga
    by Akira Otani, Sam Bett
    When Yoriko Shindo gets into a brawl on a busy street in 1970s Tokyo, she has no idea what the ...
  • Book Jacket: The Anthropologists
    The Anthropologists
    by Aysegül Savas
    A documentary filmmaker, Asya is interested in the "unremarkable grace" of daily life, "the slow and...
  • Book Jacket: Mood Swings
    Mood Swings
    by Frankie Barnet
    This book begins with a bombastic premise. Seemingly fed up with the heating planet, the world's ...
  • Book Jacket: The Ballad of Jacquotte Delahaye
    The Ballad of Jacquotte Delahaye
    by Briony Cameron
    Our titular heroine's story begins in Yáquimo, Santo Domingo. Jacquotte Delahaye is a young ...

BookBrowse Book Club

Book Jacket
The 1619 Project
by Nikole Hannah-Jones
An impactful expansion of groundbreaking journalism, The 1619 Project offers a revealing vision of America's past and present.
Who Said...

There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Wordplay

Solve this clue:

L T C O of the B

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.