Linda Keane, on The House on Lowell Street, and Her Fiction Writing Journey


By Nancie Carmichael

I was delighted to see Linda A. Keane’s novel, The House on Lowell Street, in print. It is always satisfying for us on the publishing end to see a writer’s finished product, but as I had read Linda’s book earlier during the DRB contest, it was especially good to see Linda’s book based upon the true event of the 1912 strike of the Kalamazoo corset workers.
I caught up with Linda recently to ask her about the writing process.

NC: First, congratulations on a beautiful book! What has the experience of writing your book been like for you?

LK: When I left the structured world of corporate communications and a regular paycheck to write fiction, it was a drastic change in lifestyle and income. Although I had earned my living as a writer, I had never written fiction, and I wasn’t at all sure I was up to the job. My first step was to begin honing my fiction writing skills in classes and writing workshops, but I had yet to find a subject. Then one summer, on a chance visit to a new museum in my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, I spotted a grainy photograph of women demonstrating in front of a corset factory in 1912. Who were these stern-faced women who dared to challenge the largest employer in town?

Turning that photo into a novel required some research. Fortunately, I loved poring over old newspapers which carried a blow-by-blow account of the three-month strike. I also found two scholarly papers analyzing the strike written by historians at Western Michigan University. But no one had incorporated the strike into a work of fiction. My weary eyes lit up. With the help of my weekly writing group back in Chicago, I began to draft the novel. I’ve lost track of how many revisions I wrote over the years, creating new characters, deleting others, adding new chapters and searching for a perfect ending.

The past year has been the payoff, beginning with the news that my novel had been awarded the grand prize in DRB’s book contest. The next months went by quickly as the manuscript was finalized. I found the DRB staff to be professional, yet always willing to listen to my thoughts and concerns. In the last few weeks since the book has been available for sale, I’ve been amazed and relieved that the book has been well-received at book signing events.

NC: Although your story is based on historical events of 1912, do you believe it has a message for women today? What can we learn from these courageous women who addressed injustice and hardship?

LK: I hope women today who read the book (and men, too!) will take heart from examples like the corset workers of 1912 who came together and persevered when all odds were against them. Change is slow. The right to earn a living wage and to work without harassment from supervisors are still issues in the current workplace, although some of the extremes are gone. In 1912, women who lived at home were paid less than women who had to pay for their room and board. What women today can learn from the corset workers is to be vigilant, to be fearless in protecting their rights, and to be supportive of one another.

NC: What spiritual lessons do we learn from Rose’s story?

LK: Like Rose, I’ve sometimes questioned the value of prayer when God doesn’t seem to answer. In searching for an explanation, it occurred to me that God has different ways of answering prayers and it is up to us to deepen our understanding of prayer in order to experience its full power.

NC: Are there any parts of your own life in this book?

LK: I worked for a union as editor of their newsletter for a few years in the ’80s. The union represented retail workers. What I observed was that women were more fearful of challenging their employer even when there were obvious contract violations. The union did perform a needed service in those situations. As union membership is on the decline, there is greater need for women to band together to assert their rights for equal pay and advancement. I also have been influenced by my mother who was a very independent woman who owned and ran her own insurance agency during years when this was quite unusual.

NC: Do you have any plans for a sequel, or another book?

LK: Yes, I’d like to see Rose continue to develop as an independent woman. Women’s suffrage was a major social and political issue in the teens. What role will Rose play? Will she become an activist? Or does she meet someone who persuades her to return to the predictability of her life on Lowell Street?

NC: You’ve mentioned your writers’ group. How important was that for you?

LK: Very! Getting feedback from other writers whose opinions you trust is invaluable. The process of writing a novel is lengthy but honest feedback can shorten the time spent on a narrative that may be confusing to the reader, characters who lack depth, or dialogue that doesn’t ring true. We usually had a book on craft that we were reading, and discussion. Then we turned to our own writing, which had been submitted to the group earlier in the week. (As an aside, we were together for about ten years. One person died, but the remaining three of us have now published our books; two of us with Deep River Books. Lois Roelofs published her memoir, Caring Lessons, in 2010. Her positive experience with DRB influenced my decision.)

NC: What are you doing for fun this summer? Any plans?

LK: This summer I intend to come out of self-imposed seclusion and enjoy the many cultural activities in Chicago. I’ll also make my annual trip to Kalamazoo and try for some book signings.

About The House on Lowell Street:
Rose Morrison’s comfortable life as a banker’s wife is upended when her husband dies suddenly. His secret and formidable debts are now hers to somehow pay. To support herself and her son, Rose takes in boarders—but only women with impeccable references. Eventually though, she reluctantly lowers her standards and boards two seamstresses from the corset factory, who help her clean.

Trouble is brewing at the factory where a union contract is about to expire. A charismatic organizer arrives from New York to lead the talks and draws Rose into the conflict between the workers and a factory owner bent on killing the union. As Rose’s affection and sympathy grow for her boarders, she is confronted with confusing moral choices. It is not enough to care; one must also act. Based on a true event—the strike of the Kalamazoo corset workers in 1912.