It’s 1977 and Cassie Lyman, a graduate student in women’s history, is struggling to find a topic for her doctoral dissertation. When she discovers a trove of drawings, suffrage cartoons, letters and diaries at Smith College belonging to Kate Easton, founder of the Birth Control League of Massachusetts in 1916, she believes she has located her subject.
Digging deeper into Kate’s life, Cassie learns that she and Kate are related, and actually very closely. Driven to understand why her family has never spoken of Kate, Cassie travels to Cape Ann to attend her sister’s shotgun wedding, where she questions her female relatives about Kate; only to find herself soon afterward in the same challenging situation Kate faced.
We at BookTrib decided to dig even deeper by asking the author, Ames Sheldon, some questions about her book Lemons in the Garden of Love. It’s a work that begs many questions and piques your curiosity about the creator, so hearing all about the research and process was definitely intriguing.
Q: What was your inspiration to write this poignant historical novel?
A: In the late 1970s while I was working on a reference book of primary source collections documenting women’s history in the United States, I came upon information about Blanche Ames, a suffrage cartoonist and cofounder of the Birth Control League of Massachusetts. I’d never heard of her but soon learned that she was my grandmother’s aunt. Then I started dreaming about Blanche, and in one dream she told me to write her autobiography. I didn’t know how to write the autobiography of someone I’d never met, but I started to work on a historical novel with a central character who was inspired by Blanche. Lemons in the Garden of Love was the final result.
Q: It seems like there must have been a lot of research necessary to write this book. How challenging was it? Did you enjoy it? What surprised you the most?
A: I did a huge amount of research for this novel, starting with three separate trips to the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, where the Ames Family Papers are housed, so I could peruse letters, cartoons, speeches, newspaper and magazine articles, academic papers, Birth Control League meeting minutes and notes. I read about suffrage and birth control activists. I also studied books and periodicals like Ms. magazine from the 1970s. One of the challenges was that the primary source materials were in Massachusetts and I live in Minnesota; nevertheless, I enjoyed the research a great deal. I was most surprised to find letters in which Blanche leaves her husband Oakes.
Q: What is your writing process like?
A: Before I retired, I would write for a couple of hours on weekday mornings until my daughter woke up, and then I’d take her to school and go on to my job. Since I retired in 2013, I have been able to focus on writing every morning. After lunch I do research and work on marketing. When I’m in the thick of working on a novel, I love the way the characters inhabit my brain no matter what I’m doing. They will wake me up in the middle of the night with lines of dialogue or they’ll whisper words and comments while I’m in the shower or driving. That’s so much fun! That’s when I know my characters have taken on lives of their own.
Q: This book deals with a lot of important women’s issues. Did you feel like you were taking on a level of responsibility? In what ways?
A: Yes, I did feel like I was taking on some responsibility around women’s rights when I wrote Lemons in the Garden of Love. I want readers to understand how hard our ancestors fought to make birth control and abortion accessible to women so we don’t take reproductive rights for granted, especially now when a woman’s right to abortion is being attacked in many states. This fall, the Supreme Court will take up a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade – a Mississippi ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. With Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court now, reproductive rights could face its gravest threat in years.
Q: These are multifaceted and complex characters. Do you share any of their traits, struggles or successes?
A: In many ways, Lemons in the Garden of Love is the most autobiographical and most political of my three historical novels. I share a number of Cassie’s traits: the arc of her story in discovering Kate for her dissertation is much like my finding Blanche and being inspired to write this novel. Kate’s experience in the suffrage association resonates with my time working on the women’s history reference book. Like Liz, I can be bossy and controlling. Like Nanny, who marched for birth control, I have marched for the Equal Rights Amendment and for Planned Parenthood. I have also been through a divorce.
Q: What is your next project?
A: I’m thinking about writing several linked short stories about a magic fertility stone that enables seven women who’ve been struggling with infertility to get pregnant. But who knows? Ask me what I’m working on in six months!