Interview with Jill Lepore, 2013 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction

Jill Lepore

Book of Ages by Jill Lepore Jill Lepore
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

Alfred A. Knopf/Random House
Photo credit: Dari Michele

Interview by Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale: You are telling the story of a life that was recorded as much in objects as in the letters and diaries often used by biographers. What did you find that you didn't expect to find? Is there something in particular that you mourn for its loss?

Jill Lepore: Benjamin Franklin wrote more letters to his sisters than he wrote to anyone else. For the first three decades, Jane's side of the correspondence is lost. That was the biggest hurdle in writing a biography of her. But it was also, in the end, the greatest gift. If I'd had her letters for those thirty years, I'd have just quoted them, and never gone digging for all the marvelous stuff I did find—other women's poems about childbirth, for instance, or the account books of men to whom Jane's husband owed money, the debts that sent him to debtors' prison. For all I know, Jane might have hidden from her brother that her husband had fallen so far into debt. If her letters had survived, I might never have found that out.

ST: There must be many Jane Franklins in the world still. What does this seemingly distant life tell us about the nature of sexism and the lives of women today?

JLP: Girls all over the world are still denied an education; there are all kinds of ways that girls are stunted. But I have also been truly staggered by how much readers of the book see their own mothers in Jane, women who sacrificed their education or their art to raise their children. Readers appreciate the great distance between our era and Jane's but they see, too, the persistence of inequality—and of love.

ST: You are writing about the danger and power of literacy. This is a fear still with us today; attempts to control and limit education and access to books are widespread. Is it the same fear as in Jane's time? Is there a common thread?

JLP: All of my scholarship has been about the danger and power of literacy, actually. The first article I ever published was called ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’ and it was about the fatal consequences of literacy. My grandmother could neither read nor write. Neither could my uncle. He was the janitor at my elementary school. I remember once when I was filling out a call slip at the school library—he had let me in, over the weekend, to get some books - how much he marveled. ‘You write so fast!’ he said. What really fascinates me, though, is how the unevenness of literacy produces an asymmetrical historical record that itself is used to justify forms of social, political and economic inequality. If historians want to study inequality, we have to think harder about illiteracy.

SP: Can you imagine your own life and character had you been denied education—if your life had been "to knit, to spin, to sew, to scrub"?

JLP: You bet. As a girl, I was taught to do all of those things, to knit, to spin, to sew, and to scrub. And to type, very fast—‘so you can be a secretary.’ My mother always wanted me to get away and if she hadn't been forever pushing me I'm not sure I ever would have. I was incredibly reluctant to go to college, for instance. I resented it—the absurdity, the impossibility, of the cost. Saving for it required working endless hours, starting when I was a pretty little kid, actually. I spent a whole lot of my childhood scrubbing pots in restaurants and scrubbing sheets in hotels. From the age of ten, I had some god-awful, miserable jobs. My father once faked my age on a work permit so I could sell shoes in a department store. I'd hide my books in the shoeboxes. ‘I Read as much as I Dare,’ Jane once wrote. I get that. I so get that. That was my girlhood.

Sallie Tisdale is the author of seven books, including The Best Thing I Ever Tasted (Riverhead, 2000), a finalist for the James Beard Award for Writing, and Talk Dirty to Me (Doubleday, 1994), which will be reissued later this fall. She was a National Book Awards nonfiction judge in 2010.