Evidence of V
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Sheila O’Connor considers Evidence of V from Rose Metal Press in a conversation with Meghan Maloney-Vinz.
Refusing to Conform: Talking Research and Writing with Sheila O’Connor
Meghan Maloney-Vinz: I’ve had the pleasure of reading all of your books, but Evidence of V is your first hybrid text that combines fact and fiction, and also makes use of historical research that had mostly been lost. Which came first, the imagined story of V or an actual document/ family artifact? The mystery or an answer? When did the narrative first emerge?
Sheila O’Connor: I had been haunted by the absence of V since I was a teenager and first learned she’d existed. Up until that time, I had no idea my mother was adopted, or that there’d been a maternal grandmother whose name I’d never heard. The silence surrounding V was what followed me, all that I didn’t know and could never know. I’d tried to write into that void so many times, in so many ways, and always failed. It wasn’t until decades later, when my mother and I petitioned the court to have her documents unsealed that I uncovered three significant facts about V: She was a fifteen-year-old nightclub entertainer. She was sentenced to six years at a state reformatory while pregnant with my mother. For the first three months of my mother’s life she was an infant held in that juvenile detention facility and breastfed. I was devastated and confounded by the six-year sentence, but I was also determined to understand how such a thing could happen. It took me years to answer that mystery, and many more years to understand the realities of the incarceration V would have endured. I guess the mystery and the answer always co-existed together, and continue to co-exist, but it wasn’t until I found historical documents to give context to all that she endured that a workable narrative finally emerged.
Meghan Maloney-Vinz: What piece of evidence or documentation was the game-changer or led you to see a clearer picture of your grandmother in the character of V?
Because I’m a fiction writer, and because V is imagined, I always felt capable of creating the character of a fifteen-year-old girl in the 1930’s. What eluded me was the historical context of this particular institution, the Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and in particular the laws that made the injustice against V and my mother possible. There was so little known about this place, as someone recently said to me, “People knew it existed, but no one talked about it.” It wasn’t until I found a very old report on the school within Handbook of American Institutions for Juvenile Delinquents, published in 1938, that I was able to locate a primary source that documented the reality of the institution at that time. I will be eternally grateful to the Osborne Association, an organization that still exists and remains committed to prison justice, for setting out across America to investigate and record what was happening in juvenile detention facilities during V’s time.
Meghan Maloney-Vinz: There are three major components at work in V: the narrative, the found documents, and the format/structure of the book itself. Could you talk about the process of merging these parts of the project?
The book was built from fragments, from puzzle pieces of evidence, from the little that could be gleaned from V’s file, my mother’s adoption file, the research artifacts, the laws. And within those documents, there was so little that could be trusted. At the same time, my imagination also moved toward fragments: I could imagine this moment, this scene, this encounter, but I didn’t have a traditional narrative emerging, and I realized I didn’t need one. I’ve always been a writer who believes “form follows function” and in this case the form not only mirrored my experience as the creator, but the reader’s experience as the witness. Beyond that, I wanted a narrative that refused to conform, just as V refused to conform.
Meghan Maloney-Vinz: There is an element of research in any writing, but this is clearly more personal. The documents and accounts you are unearthing are tied to a human relative, your maternal grandmother. What kind of emotional distance, if any, were you able to, or did you have to assume in order to have the critical lens necessary to use this in the narrative?
Sheila O’Connor: I didn’t know my maternal grandmother, and I realized there was no one alive who knew her intimately in 1935, or who could have known the private details of her life at that time, her friendships, her loves. No one who’d lived insider her skin the day that she was sentenced, or the moment she arrived at the institution, no one who was with her during the three long years of incarceration, or when she was paroled at eighteen as a house servant. My maternal grandmother, the unknown fifteen-year-old dancer who gave birth to my mother, is the inspiration for the book, and in many ways for the character of V, but V is very much her own person, and I tried to give her all the agency any character deserves. She’s flawed, and powerful, full of dreams and courage, and determined to survive.