By Leslie Lindsay
Spellbinding historical fiction spanning five generations, plenty of secrets, richly researched, and highly detailed, THE LATECOMERS is perfect for fans of J. Courtney Sullivan, Christina Baker Klein, and even Jenny Worth of CALL THE MIDWIFE.
Helen Klein Ross has outdone herself. Several years ago, I read her stunning and compelling WHAT WAS MINE and immediately fell in love; that story stuck with me and I raced to the climatic ending. THE LATECOMERS (Little, Brown November 2018) is a completely different kind of tale–but it’s just as good and showcases Klein-Ross’s historical writing–which absolutely shimmers. The author’s research is evident as much of the book features experiences of America and beyond through the years 1908-2018–and isn’t overdone.
We start off in 1908 Ireland–Bridey is 16 years old when she runs off with her beau, Thom to America. Thom dies suddenly of ship fever on their ocean crossing and Bridey finds herself alone and pregnant in NYC.
Forced to give the baby up for adoption, Bridey then takes a job as a housekeeper at a lavish estate, Hollingwood. But that child continues to haunt her every moment. So, too does Thom. She befriends her employer, and readers are given a glimpse into the privileged lives of Sarah and Edmund, even that of the child she gave up for adoption.
Much of THE LATECOMERS is told from multiple POVs traversing time periods, but we almost always come back to Bridey, whom I enjoyed very much. There’s love and longing, death and loss, orphans, illness, an old sprawling estate (which I adored) issues surrounding women and class, religion, and so much more. Each character is imbued with such authenticity, such gumption, that I felt closely connected to them; the author clearly shows empathy for all of them; even the less-favorable ones, leaving us to ponder: just how much can we bury the past?
THE LATECOMERS is a fabulous family saga that is not to be missed.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Helen Klein Ross back to the author interview series.
Helen, I was so swept away by this luminous tale. First, the research! Second, the setting of that old estate…and the characters! I think I read somewhere that this story was originally inspired by your new/old house you and your husband purchased and set out to restore. Can you tell us more?
Helen Klein Ross:
Thanks so much, Leslie. I’m very glad to be chatting with you again. Yes, the story of THE LATECOMERS started in the walls of an old house my husband and I were restoring in 2012. It was a falling down governor’s mansion built in 1853. When we saw it, it was such a wreck that most people in town had written it off as a tear-down. But I could see the bones of the grand dame she had been. And already I was hearing stories in its walls, behind the paint, the peeling wallpaper and mold. I was already imagining conversations that took place in the house the year the glass panes of the bookcase were etched—1860. Before the Civil War! I was already conjuring a family who lived there who had kitchen staff to answer the bell butler in our kitchen. Which still works! The bells are connected to each of the rooms where you can press a buzzer to call for the maid. Unfortunately, these days, I am the only help in the house available to answer. [You can see and read more about the restoration of Helen’s 1853 mansion here]
I really have at thing for old houses. A BIG thing! In fact, I am working on a novel of interlinked stories of our first home—not quite as old as Hollingwood—but still old. In many ways, THE LATECOMERS is a series of novellas. Can you talk about the structure a bit?
Helen Klein Ross:
Well, we certainly have that in common. I look forward to your novel, Leslie. Structure. That’s often the bugaboo about writing a novel, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s the last thing the writer figures out how to do. It took me a while to structure THE LATECOMERS. At first, I thought that the timeline would be linear. But that didn’t work—too much momentum was lost by the end. Then, I thought it would be, as you say, a series of novellas. But—I longed for too much interaction between characters. I finally settled on interweaving the timelines so that the narrative works no matter which chapter you read first. It’s almost as if the book can be shuffle played. Wherever you start, you can go backwards and forwards and still make sense of the story. But, I hope for readers to start at the beginning. I think most authors are with me on that.
Your characters are so delicately drawn, so authentic. What was your process like for developing them? Did you keep careful character sketches, or did you let them ‘come to life on the page?’ Tough question, but did you have one or two you felt particularly aligned with?
Helen Klein Ross:
I have to say—the character I feel closest to is the one who came to me first. Bridey. My great-grandparents came from Ireland and I loved hearing talk around dining room tables. One of my aunts was named Bridey and I was always intrigued by that name. My Bridey started with an image. Waking up one morning, still in a dream state, an image was of a teenage girl came to me. She lived in olden days and was lying on a very uncomfortable horsehair mattress. There was also straw in the mattress, I knew, because a piece of it was scratching her cheek. She shifted in the bed she was sharing with others, a common phenomenon in boardinghouses. You didn’t get a bed, you got a place in a bed. As the girl shifted, it changed her perspective of the bed’s headboard. The headboard was painted black with numbers crudely painted in white, from 1 to 4, denoting your assigned place. The girl’s number was 3, but now she saw that beneath the black paint, there were other numbers, painted in gold, not crudely, but in fancy calligraphy. There were only 3 calligraphed numbers and the girl longed for that other, more luxurious time, when there had been only three to the bed instead of four which would mean she wouldn’t have to crawl over someone to get to the loo. So from that visual, the character Bridey grew…and from Bridey came the entire novel.
My novel grew to accommodate a pretty big cast and I’m grateful to the software program Scrivener which helped me keep them straight. I created a folder for each character, with their names and dates. I filled the folders with Youtubes of old street scenes, fashion clips from magazines, slang of the day, news items about what was going on in the world during their formative years. For instance, Vincent was born in 1908 so Prohibition plays an important part in his coming of age. I created a sub-folder on Prohibition that included when the 18th Amendment went into effect, and how people got around the law. I discovered that the law didn’t really affect people of means who could afford to stock their basements before January 17, 1920 when the law took effect. Prohibition meant that it was illegal to buy liquor—wasn’t illegal to drink it. That surprised me.
I also created a Family Tree to help me keep track of characters and generations. I ended up sharing the Family Tree with readers. But I’m glad to hear that most don’t seem to need it. Many tell me they were able to keep characters straight because of voice, and the chapter headings.
If I recall from our earlier conversation [WHAT WAS MINE], you have some personal connection to adoption. Can you talk about that, please? It seems to be a theme in both books.
Helen Klein Ross:
When I was growing up, adoption was a subject nice people didn’t talk about. I had classmates and cousins who were adopted and this “secret” fact of their lives made them exotic to me. Who were their “real” parents, I’d wonder—but never asked, of course. Later, the notion that adopted children had “real” parents and “adoptive” parents felt offensive to me. I’m the oldest of eight “natural” children. A couple of my siblings adopted children and I’d become irritated on their behalf to overhear questions at family weddings or wakes, like “Is that your real child?” The question of who is and who isn’t a “real” mother or father is one of my issues. I didn’t adopt my daughters, but if I did, they’d be as much my daughters as they are now. Still—there is something about shared DNA, shared physical and personality attributes and this is an issue I explored in The Latecomers.
As she did in What Was Mine, Ross explores themes of motherhood and family origins in this multigenerational saga…This is a satisfying blend of historical and familial drama.
What do you hope others take away from this story?
Helen Klein Ross:
First and foremost, I hope readers enjoy the story. Beyond that, I hope the book is reminder of how hard it is to be an immigrant to this country, facing assumptions and prejudices and disregard for one’s language and country of origin. With all the recent talk about immigration, it seems that latecomers to this country face many of the same challenges as they did at the turn of the century.
I also hope people read it as a “feminist” novel—not a strident political tome, but a book that gently opens a window on aspects of childbirth, sex, love and work as gleaned from a female point of view. Alice Fishburn, a Financial Times editor, recently wrote about reading only women authors for a year. She discovered that one thing was very different. No one was trying to explain women to her. Part of what motivated me to write THE LATECOMERS, was the desire to parse American history through the eyes of ordinary women living through it.
There are a lot of obsessions in THE LATECOMERS. Bridey is obsessed with Thom and also the child she gave up for adoption. Vincent is obsessed with Trowbridge. Ruth and Emma are intrigued with those glass jars. What’s obsessing you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary. And what good do you think obsessions have? Because I think they can be quite powerful.
Helen Klein Ross:
I believe obsessions are what propel a novel! Surely your and my obsessions with old houses are proof of that, ha. Contrary to what many people believe, most novels, or most literary novels, don’t spiral out from a story. They spiral out from a writer’s obsessions. THE LATECOMERS grew out of several obsessions of mine: stately old houses, Irish in America, motherhood and class delineations (upstairs, downstairs.) If your writing doesn’t emanate from an obsession of some sort, you probably won’t be able to sustain the momentum for as long as it takes to finish it. I suspect this is why many novels stall midway. The author stops feeling obsessed by whatever compelled her to start it.
Helen, it’s been a pleasure, as always. What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?
Helen Klein Ross:
Leslie, thanks for a very thorough interview! One thing I’d like to touch on is the subject of creating the “world” of a story. My favorite novels are ones that I sink into so deeply I feel like I’m living in the narrative time and place. In an effort to add that dimension to the world of THE LATECOMERS, I created a Timeline Map for the novel. If you go to [my website] and scroll to the bottom of the page, you’ll be able to see New York City as the characters in THE LATECOMERS saw it at the turn of the other century. You can use this map to track where some scenes take place and see how those places have changed from Bridey’s time to today. Clicking on the pinpoints provides additional insight into characters and include a few passages that didn’t make it into the final book.
For more information, to connect with the author, or to purchase a copy of THE LATECOMERS, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Helen Klein Ross is the author of three novels. Her latest is The Latecomers from Little, Brown. She is the creator of The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, an anthology of new poems titled by old telegrams, from Red Hen Press. Her poetry and essays have appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times. She lives with her husband in New York City and Northwest Connecticut.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Little, Brown and used with permission. Interior staircase and exterior home retrieved from on 12.17.18. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L. Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @LeslieLindsay1].