Fascinating Photograph Inspires Lisa Grunwald

May 28, 2010
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Irrestible Henry House book cover
The Irrestible Henry House
Lisa Grunwald

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An exclusive Authorlink interview
with Lisa Grunwald,
author of The Irresistible Henry House

By Ellen Birkett Morris
June 2010

Lisa Grunwald was working on an anthology of women’s letters, searching the Cornell University web site for a letter related to home economics, when she came across the photograph that would inspire her most recent novel, The Irresistible Henry House.  

The photograph was of a baby with “a beguiling smile and roughish eyes” named Bobby Domecon. Bobby was a “practice baby.” Practice babies were children supplied by orphanages to Home Economics programs across the country that ran “practice houses,” where female students learned homemaking and child rearing by taking turns caring for live children. Cornell’s program first used a practice baby in 1919 and continued to do so until 1969.

“For me, my novels begin with a question I want to answer. . .”
—
Grunwald

“For me, my novels begin with a question I want to answer,” said Grunwald. She is the author of four other novels Summer, The Theory of Everything, New Year's Eve, and Whatever Makes You Happy, as well as the children's book Now, Soon, Later.

Grunwald has edited two best-selling anthologies: Letters of the Century and Women's Letters with her husband, BusinessWeek editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler. She has also been a full-time editor and writer at the magazines Esquire, Avenue, and Life, and has freelanced for many others.

Her first novel, Summer, grappled with the question of whether or not it is possible to ever let go of someone you love. Her fourth novel began with an inquiry into the nature of happiness. With a theme in mind, she sets out to create characters and situations that allow her to answer questions that intrigue her.

“For this novel the question was ‘Is it possible to transcend a childhood where there was no trust?’”said Grunwald.

Despite the number of practice houses that existed, it was difficult for Grunwald, “an inveterate researcher,” to track down participants and the practice babies, who went on to be adopted.

“There was remarkably little information out there, so I found that it would be more fruitful to make it up,” said Grunwald. She spent between three and four years writing the book.

When she spoke with friends, two married psychiatrists, about the impact of multiple mothers on developing children they immediately brought up “attachment disorder,” which is characterized by failure to bond with people and a predisposition toward manipulation and superficial communication.

At the center of the novel is Henry House, a charming yet detached child, who is adopted by Martha Gaines, a widowed woman who heads the Home Economics Program. Henry fails to bond with Gaines, his birth mother, and a succession of girls and women who are drawn to his charms.

The novel tracks Henry’s development as an artist and a person against the backdrop of the social, cultural and political changes of the 1950s and 1960s.

“The greatest challenge in writing the book was having that large a canvas in terms of space and time.”
—Grunwald

 

 

“The greatest challenge in writing the book was having that large a canvas in terms of space and time. It was a big journey for me. As a writer you have to be insanely organized and break the work down into manageable pieces. I wrote the London section almost as a short story,” Grunwald noted.

Grunwald, who wrote her first novel at 25 while working as a journalist for Avenue Magazine, loves the interplay between nonfiction and fiction and it shows. Benjamin Spock, Walt Disney, and The Beatles show up in the book and Henry has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, be it Disney’s California or The Beatle’s London during the making of the film Yellow Submarine.

She began by putting the inflexible house mother, Martha Gaines, face to face with Dr. Spock for a discussion about child rearing.

“Once I opened that door, I realized that I needed more cultural references. I saw that I could have Henry go anywhere and do anything. It gave me lots of choices but also gave me structure,” said Grunwald.

In order to track the story to cultural events of the time, she kept a calendar of what was going on in the book as a “graphic way to understand the architecture of the book.”

“This kept me mindful of events as they played out over time, helped me know when to introduce characters, and helped me track when certain characters needed to reappear,” said Grunwald.

She worked with Random House editors Frankie Jones and Kate Medina to finalize the book. Besides answering routine notes and questions, she worked on developing the relationship between Henry and his childhood friend Mary Jane and drawing out the ending a bit.

Grunwald’s writing routine varies depending on where she is in the development of a novel. When she is just starting out and struggling to find a character’s voice she sets a writing goal of a page a day. By the end of the book, when things are rolling along, she tries to complete as many as 5 pages a day. “When you are working on something as long as a novel there is always something more to do. You can work three to five hours a day and still not have a sense that you’ve done something. If you complete a page a day, in a year you have a good part of a manuscript,” said Grunwald.

“Thinking about writing is not nearly as useful as actually writing. So write as much as you can, and try to keep from editing yourself too much, at least while you write your first draft. Keeping a journal is a good way of honing your language skills,” advised Grunwald.

“Listen to the voice in your head that told you to write in the first place.”
—Grunwald

 

 

“Try not to pay too much attention to what other people are writing or how their careers are going. Listen to the voice in your head that told you to write in the first place. And if the voice wasn't in your head, but came from somebody else, make sure it's authentically become yours as well.”

Grunwald has no advice on breaking into the business given that her big break came 20 years ago and things have changed considerably. Grunwald had the good fortune of connecting with her agent, Liz Darhansoff, when she completed her first novel while working for Avenue. Barbara Lish, the art director of Avenue, showed the manuscript to her husband, editor/writer/teacher Gordon Lish, who recommended Darhansoff.

Grunwald ended Henry’s saga on an upbeat note. Henry draws a shape that looks like a house. “He’s beginning to know what he wants for himself. This shape of a house represents a choice and a hope.”

Grunwald is back at work nurturing her dual passions. She is currently at work on a new novel and a nonfiction anthology about marriage for Simon & Schuster, tentatively titled: The Marriage Book: Centuries of Advice, Inspiration, and Cautionary Tales.

About Lisa Grunwald

Lisa Grunwald is the author of the novels Summer, The Theory of Everything, New Year's Eve, and Whatever Makes You Happy, as well as the children's book Now, Soon, Later. With her husband, BusinessWeek editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler, she has edited two best-selling anthologies: Letters of the Century and Women's Letters. Grunwald has also been a full-time editor and writer at the magazines Esquire, Avenue, and Life, and has freelanced for many others. Grunwald and Adler have two children named Elizabeth and Jonathan, and live in New York City.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris