Deborah Hopkinson: It was actually the other way around! In the middle of researching Hear My Sorrow, I realized I had enough material for a nonfiction book as well. So I asked my editor about doing another book. Shutting Out the Sky is the result! As it turned out, even though I wrote the first drafts of both books during a similar time period, Hear My Sorrow appeared a year after Shutting Out the Sky.
RFA & EST: This is your first novel written in the diary format. Did you enjoy working in this format? What special challenges does it present?
DH: I think the hardest part of writing in diary format is to use dialogue well. In novels, we get to “hear” people speak. We can become part of the drama and conflict. I tried as much as possible to do that in Hear My Sorrow, but still keep it natural. I was lucky to get very good advice from other writers, such as Susan Campbell Bartoletti, whose Dear America diary, A Coal Miner’s Bride, is one of my personal favorites in the series.
RFA & EST: In doing the research on the shirtwaist strikes and the Triangle Waist Company fire, what was the most interesting thing you discovered?
DH: I learned so much about this! One of the most interesting things was the fact that, over the years, in part because of Leon Stein’s book, people have come to call the factory the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. But it was never referred to that way in any contemporary newspaper accounts. When I queried the excellent library staff at Cornell’s Kheel Center , which has a wonderful Triangle website, they were able to confirm the correct name of the factory as Triangle Waist Company (and I think they corrected their own website!). I guess the lesson for me here is that you can always discover new things when you take the time to check the details.
RFA & EST: If you could have only two of three words to describe your heroine, Angela Denoto, what words would you choose?
DH: I would describe Angela as thoughtful, open, and a keen observer.
RFA & EST: Although the Denoto family is close-knit, they often don’t seem to communicate. Why doesn’t Angela ask her father and mother about their labor activities in Italy ? Why do Angela and her sister Luisa seem so distant and uncommunicative?
DH: One fascinating thing about doing this research was the help I got from two professors. Dr. Donna Gabacciaof the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of several books about Italian immigrants. After reading the first draft of Hear My Sorrow, Dr. Gabaccia sent me an article by a young professor named Dr. Jennifer Guglielmo, of Smith College. Jennifer has done a lot of work on Italian women in the early labor movements, and she read the second draft of the book. Through their help I learned so much! They helped me understand how complicated a period this really was. And they helped me imagine the tension that might have existed in an Italian family at the time, had one of the daughters, like Angela, become involved in the strike. At the same time, I got the sense from their work that the open communication between generations that we might see today would have been different. Between Angela and Luisa, I think we see the strain of Americanization and the differences between Luisa’s experience as the eldest child who had to work immediately after coming to New York , and Angela, who is able to learn English.
RFA & EST: Is Hear My Sorrow more a story about groups — unions, women, Italians, Jews — or individuals like Audenzio, Luisa, Rosa, and Sarah?
DH: Hopefully, it is both. I did all the photo research for Shutting Out the Sky myself, and was constantly curious about the individuals in those crowd shots of the markets on the Lower East Side . In one scene in Hear My Sorrow, Angela herself spies a photographer and imagines herself writing her own name above her picture. That is, in part, what I wanted to do in this story — show readers the big issues, like the strike and Triangle fire, but also help us see what that experience might have been like for one girl and her family.
RFA & EST: Time and again in Angela’s diary, young readers see extended family members and friends helping others less fortunate. Do you think 21st century Americans have lost that selflessness?
DH: I don’t entirely think so, but I do believe that with the loss of extended families, many of us are searching for smaller communities where we can live with family and friends and create and work together.
RFA & EST: What advice would you offer young readers who dream of becoming successful authors?
DH: Read, read, read, and write, write, write! And most important, don’t give up. I didn’t begin writing until I was grown up with a small child. I wish I had started earlier!
RFA & EST: If you could ask youngsters who have read Hear My Sorrow: The Diary of Angela Denoto, a Shirtwaist Worker one question, what would that question be?
DH: I think the question I would have young readers ask is, “Since this book is historical fiction, how can I find out what REALLY happened?” To me the best part of historical fiction is realizing that it is like opening a door into the past. There is so much more to learn, and the more that you read and discover, the more you visit museums like the Lower East Tenement Museum, or even search on the web to read stories of real people who lived through the Triangle fire, the more we begin to understand what this all meant. I once read that since the Triangle fire, one thing has changed totally — doors in buildings now open outwards. The next time my readers are in a movie theatre, store, or big office building, I hope they look at the door, and appreciate that events like the Triangle fire — and the efforts of real girls like Angela — can bring about changes in society.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.