I felt like I heard a voice telling me, “They thought we didn’t matter.”
Uprising is the story of three immigrant girls in New York City at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. We might imagine such a storyline not to be desperately relevant today. We would be wrong. I asked author Margaret Peterson Haddix how she began thinking about turning this historical event into a novel for young readers.
[Margaret] Uprising was one of only two books I’ve ever written where the original idea was not my own. My editor, David Gale, suggested I write about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire because at the time (in the late 1990s) there weren’t any YA novels related to the fire, and he thought that was a huge oversight. He knew I was interested in history (it was one of my majors in college) and he thought I could bring out the drama of the story.
In the beginning, I agreed that a YA novel about the fire was a good idea, but I didn’t think I was the right author to write it. Partly, it just seemed like such a depressing story—I knew there was hopefulness in the way laws were changed because of the fire, but I didn’t think that provided much consolation for the dead.
The tale of the fire also seemed like such a New York City story, and I’m not a New Yorker; I grew up as a Midwestern farm girl, and I currently live in Ohio. I’m also not Jewish or Catholic, and my ancestors weren’t Italian or Eastern European, as so many of the girls in the fire would have been. So initially I felt that this was not my story to tell. There’s been a lot more attention and focus on cultural appropriation recently than there was in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but it was still something I was concerned about.
The turning point came for me after I did a little research. I was thinking about the victims of the fire one Sunday morning, and I felt like I heard a voice telling me, “They thought we didn’t matter.” I happened to be sitting in church at the time, so I could make this into some mystical tale of how I had divine inspiration, or felt like I’d gotten permission from the spirit of one of the dead girls to tell her story, even if I wasn’t like her. I’m not sure I want to go that far with it, but that voice and that one sentence changed my perspective. Before, I’d been thinking mostly about how the workers’ deaths mattered. But afterward, I felt strongly that if I wrote the book, my focus would be on how much their lives were worth, too. That, I decided, meant I would also have to tell the story of the shirtwaist strike that occurred shortly before the fire, and the story of the rich women working for the right to vote who joined forces with poor female immigrants during that strike. It was a lot to link together, and I wasn’t sure I could carry it off, but I saw those connections as essential.
I also stopped thinking about how I was different from the workers and started thinking instead about how much I had in common with them. Even now, anytime I go to New York City I’m simultaneously awestruck and humbled, and there’s a little voice in the back of my head whispering, “You’re just a nobody from nowhere. You don’t belong here.” I have to believe a lot of the Triangle workers felt that way, too. Many if not most of them weren’t native New Yorkers, either—they were immigrants from poor, rural areas. I could understand that.
So I had a way in to the story and an idea of the characters and scenes I wanted to depict. But because I was writing other books, it was another six or seven years before I started diving intensively into the work.
[Uma] How much research did you have to do? What were your sources?
[Margaret] I did more research for this book than for anything else I’ve ever written. I list twenty different reference books in my author’s note, but that was only a fraction of what I read. In an attempt to make my depictions of Yetta and Bella as accurate as possible, I read about what Eastern European and Italian immigrants’ lives would have been like in their homelands and once they arrived in America. To depict Jane’s life, I read about the suffrage movement between 1909 and 1911 and the lives of upper class young women in New York City at the time. I studied Jacob Riis’s pictures of tenement life and portraits of Vanderbilts dressed up for extravagant balls. And I read so much analysis of the fire itself that I completely desensitized myself for a while, until I was actually writing those scenes and putting my beloved characters in that horrible spot, and then it became real to me again, and more horrifying than ever.
I read newspaper accounts from the era, not just about the fire, but about other things going on that Bella, Yetta, and Jane would have been aware of, such as the first airplane flight in New York City. I was fortunate that my local library had just made a database of New York Times articles available, dating back to that era. Cornell University also has an amazing website related to the fire that was extremely useful.
I also went to New York City to do research, so I could go to the tenement museum there and walk around the area where my main characters would have lived. Because the building where the fire occurred is still standing (it’s now part of New York University) I got special permission to go in and gaze out the windows on the eighth floor that some of the workers jumped from. I also went up to the roof of the building, which helped me to imagine how some of the workers who survived the fire would have climbed up a ladder through smoke and flames to one of the buildings next door. Being there made a difference.
[Uma] How did you balance big historical realities with a sharper, closer look at the journeys of your young characters?
[Margaret] I saw the big, historical realities as a framework I had to work within. It actually helped me to have that framework, because then I knew what shaped my characters.
[Uma] Assuming that every book teaches a writer something, what did writing this book teach you?
[Margaret] I’m torn between, “Challenges are good for you, even when you think they’re going to kill you,” and “Sometimes the only way to accomplish something hard is being too stupid to know that it’s actually impossible.”
[Uma] What were some obstacles you encountered?
I already mentioned the doubts I had about whether I was the right person to write the story. I also had trouble finding as much information as I wanted about Italian immigrants. Because I wanted to represent the perspective of the three girls equally, I struggle to make sure the story arc for each of them was equally compelling throughout the book. Most of my previous books had been from only one perspective, and I’d considered myself radical and brave for alternating between a brother and sister’s perspective in one of my earlier books, Takeoffs and Landings. So I really questioned if I could carry off giving three main characters a voice every third chapter.
I also knew I was going to have to let at least one of my main characters die. Not doing that, I thought, would be dishonest. But by the time I wrote those scenes, I was heavily invested emotionally in all three characters. I ended up crying as I wrote.
And finally, I faced a problem that often comes up with historical fiction. The early 1900s contained a horrifying amount of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. And all of those things were common, casual, and, in many cases, viewed as merely accepted wisdom, not anything controversial. Painting my favored characters as somehow being above that seemed, again, dishonest, as well as dangerously inaccurate to the time period. But I very much did not want to give readers the impression that I as the author approved of those racist, sexist, bigoted attitudes.
[Uma] Why do you think historical fiction matters? (OK, so pay attention to her replies here, because if you think this stuff mattered before 2017….)
[Margaret] Where to start on this one?
Because history matters.
Because history repeats itself, and one of the only ways we can avoid just repeating the same mistakes again and again is to learn about and learn from the mistakes of the past.
Because it’s hard to know who we are without knowing where we came from.
Because history gives perspective, and can help us understand and appreciate the present.
Because history is full of amazing stories.
All of that speaks largely about why history matters, not necessarily historical fiction. But I think historical fiction is an excellent way in to discovering history. And just as fiction in general can show truths that may be too slippery or remote to appear clearly in non-fiction, historical fiction can bring aspects of history to light that don’t show up so clearly in textbook recounting of what is known about the past.
Also, as many others have pointed out, the history most people learn is largely from the white male perspective, because that’s who has had power. In many instances, women and people of color were considered so unimportant that their histories weren’t even recorded or kept, so there’s little way to recover it. Historical fiction, based on what can be known, can serve an important function in filling in the gaps.
And finally, when we read straight history, there’s a sense of inevitability. We know who won the Revolutionary War; we know Hitler ultimately lost World War II; we know the Cuban Missile Crisis ended without anyone resorting to using nuclear weapons. Good historical fiction puts readers back in the moment when outcomes seemed uncertain, and fear and hope and dread and resolve mix equally.
Talk about the work you did in revising the novel. How did revision make the work grow? Change? Deepen? How did it surprise you?
[Margaret] I am always surprised, revising, when I see how tentatively I understood my characters in the first draft. I am so much more decisive going back through the manuscript changing dialogue that my characters would never say, or actions they would never do. I can’t think of any specific examples of this from Uprising, unfortunately.
I agonized as I was writing that the book was just going to be too long, and I even toyed with the notion at one point of splitting it into two books—one going through the end of the strike, and one focused more on the fire. But I felt strongly that both events had to be in the same book, so I discarded that idea pretty quickly.
A lot of my focus during the revision was on accuracy. I went back and re-consulted a lot of the resources I’d used initially, and that was definitely a necessary step, since my memories had shifted. I got help from an Italian-Canadian friend with all the Italian language references, and from a professor for all the Yiddish. I recruited my kids, then in middle school, to help me track down pesky details like whether cars in 1909 would have locks on the doors. For months after writing the book, I’d see random references to something that happened after 1911 and panic: Oh, wow, crossword puzzles weren’t invented until 1913? Did I put any crossword puzzles in the book and accidentally make it anachronistic? I never found anything like that that I’d done wrong, but I certainly fretted about it a lot.
[Uma] Anything else you’d like readers to know?
[Margaret] One of the awful things about researching Uprising was my constant sense that we’re still still grappling with a lot of the same issues now that Americans were arguing about back in the early 1900s. The worries about the gap between the wealthy and the poor now echo concerns from the early 1900s. And you could take a discussion of immigration issues from, say, 1909, substitute the word, “Mexican,” for “Italian” and “Muslim” for “Jewish,” and it would be pretty much identical to the arguments we’re having now. I found that really depressing. How could we not have made more progress in the past century?
The thing I kept holding onto was the idea that at least women can vote now. Women’s lives and viewpoints have definitely changed in the past hundred years, and that’s important to remember.
The other thing that struck me, again and again, was how amazing the ordinary female factory workers were in 1909. Many of them had come to the United States all alone without speaking English or even, in some cases, knowing how to read. They found jobs, they worked ungodly hours for pitiful wages, they struggled against incredible odds and brutal discrimination—and yet many of them not only survived but summoned the will to stand up for their rights and the rights of their fellow workers. I felt extremely wimpy complaining about any problem in my life while I was doing that research. And that became one of the major reasons I wanted to tell those girls’ stories.
[Uma] I used Uprising as a sample text in my January 2017 lecture at VCFA. It gave us a lot to talk about. Thank you Margaret!