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Serena Burdick Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Serena Burdick

Serena Burdick

An interview with Serena Burdick

Serena Burdick discusses the challenges of researching, and writing, historical novels.

How did you first come up with the idea for The Girls with No Names?

I was listening to a BBC news report on the Irish Magdalene Laundries and became intrigued with the topic. Originally I planned to set the book in Ireland, but when I started my research I discovered similar laundries all over the world. It felt important to write about the House of Mercy as it was close to home and a place many people had no idea existed.

How did you go about your research?

I used annual reports from the House of Mercy that I found at the New York Public Library. These gave me the basics of how the house was run, but the real stories of what happened to these women inside the House of Mercy came from articles I found in the New York Times, New York Tribune and Brooklyn Daily Mail. They were accounts of women who had escaped as well as court records on convictions.

Was the story fully planned out, or did it come to you as you worked?

I only had a rough idea of Effie and Luella's story. Mable was never part of the original plan. Her story was one of those magical moments for a writer when a character appears out of nowhere and suddenly takes over. I'd never experienced it before, but her voice was so clear and strong, it was as if she was standing over my shoulder. I wrote her story as one whole piece, and then had to figure out how to work it into the body of the book.

Did you know how you were going to end the story when you started out?

I had no idea. I just kept writing and it worked itself out.

What was the most challenging thing for writing about this period?

So much was changing at the beginning of the twentieth century that in order to write accurately about simple daily life, I had to do a lot more research than I had when writing a book set in the nineteenth century. Whether a person had electric lights, gas lights or candles, whether they had access to running water, hot water or an inside bathroom all depended on where they lived and their income level. I'd be writing away and suddenly realize I had no idea what New York City fire engines looked like in 1911, only to discover that they were still drawn by horses. Things changed so quickly from year to year I had to be very accurate with dates and details.

Why this story? What do you hope to give your readers?

My goal in telling any story is to give my readers a world they don't want look up from, a tale of heartache and sorrow and joy they feel in every bone of their body. If The Girls with No Names manages to give voice to those whose stories have never been told, to expose a history of women unjustly institutionalized while giving my readers pure entertainment, I have done my job.

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.

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