Baggott’s newest novel is set partly at the Maryland
School for Feeble Minded Children — a name so
unapologetically pejorative, so Dickensian in its
evocation of ragamuffins starving on watered-down gruel,
that the hyper-imaginative author must surely have made
a real place," the 45-year-old Loyola University
graduate and author of more than 20 books says over the
phone, and then corrects the verb tense. "It was a
real place. It was located in the Owings Mills
first heard of the institution in a footnote to a
history she was reading of Towson’s Sheppard Pratt
psychiatric hospital. In 2000, she visited the former
School — which by then had been renamed the Rosewood
Center and was treating adult patients— and read the
1911 biennial report.
knew then that she’d mine that history in her
novel-in-progress, "Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book
was a pretty terrifying document," Baggott says.
had assumed I would be looking at photographs of
children who had Down syndrome or who were disabled in
some way. But, the children I was looking at appeared to
be quite normal and healthy. Maybe they had one small
the Great Depression, she said, children were left at
the institution because their parents no longer could
afford to feed them. But few eventually resumed normal
if nothing was wrong with them, the children were put
into one of three categories," she says,
"morons, idiots or imbeciles. They were considered
to be a possible criminal element and so shouldn’t be
reintroduced into society. There also was enforced
was shuttered by the State of Maryland in 2009.
Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders," which Baggott
describes as her "secret literary" novel, was
19 years in the making. It alternates between the voices
of four women from three generations: Harriet, who
begins life at the institution but grows up to become a
famous, reclusive writer; her daughter, Eleanor, who
channels her feelings of deprivation into a fierce
over-protectiveness, and Eleanor’s two grown
daughters, the rebellious Ruthie and the odd, outwardly
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
novel weaves together familiar local locations and bits
of Maryland history, notably the 1963 crash of Pan Am
flight 214 flight near Elkton — though in the novel,
the disaster is made to occur about 10 years earlier
than it did in real life.
grew up in Delaware, just east of the Maryland state
line. Though she only four spent years in Baltimore, the
city made a deep impression on her. She graduated from
Loyola in 1991 and, three years later, received her
master’s degree from the University of North Carolina
of the novels that she writes under her own name, as
well as the noms de plume of Bridget Asher and N.E.
Bode, are set in Baltimore.
is such a great town to write about because of its
industrial roots," she says.
has a lot of literary grit to it. Writing about New York
would be impossible, because so much of it is known.
There’s something about Baltimore that’s very iconic
for me, and it still has so many parts that haven’t
been touched. As a writer, you can make it your
is one of those writers who seems as much at home in
popular culture as she does in the circles of the
rarefied elite. Not surprisingly, she has fans in both
first novel, "Girl Talk," which came out in
2001, was a national best-seller. She has also published
children’s books, a young adult dystopian tribology
being considered for a television adaptation and three
volumes of poetry. She contributes essays to the New
York Times and even has written a book about baseball,
the novel, "The Prince of Fenway Park," which
was released in 2009.
the way, her prose has picked up plaudits by the likes
of Pulitzer Prize winners Elizabeth Strout and Robert
Olen Butler, and Man Booker Prize finalist Joshua
Ferris. While it’s not uncommon for writers to praise
other writers, the tone of some of the blurbs is
example, Butler describes "Pure," the first
novel in Baggott’s dystopian trilogy as "not just
the most extraordinary coming-of-age novel I’ve ever
read," but also "a beautiful and savage
metaphorical assessment of how all of us live in this
not to say that everything came easily for Baggott.
"Harriet Wolf" took nearly two decades to
write because Baggott suffered a crisis of confidence
when her third novel received a particularly caustic
review. "Madam" was based on the life of
Baggott’s grandmother, who grew up in a brothel. At
the time, it was her most ambitious novel.
harsh review really rattled me as a writer," she
says, and compared the effect on her to the problem that
bedeviled former catcher Mackey Sasser.
Mackey had too much time before a throw, he would double
clutch," she says. "He’d overthink and he
wouldn’t be able to throw the ball back to the
pitcher. Other times, he’d be fine."
all that a writer has is time, so I started
Baggott devised a work-around by relying on an elaborate
found all these ways to hide from myself the fact that I
was still writing," she says.
was OK to write poetry because I hadn’t trained as a
poet. I started to write for kids, and I started writing
under pen names. I create these areas where I’m not an
authority, so I can just play around and write."
Wolf’ is really me coming back and staking my literary
claim. If I go down in flames, that’s fine. I’m a
little tougher now."
Baggott’s prolific output, it’s tempting to think
that she writes day and night. In reality, she teaches
creative writing full-time at both the College of the
Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts and at Florida
State University in Tallahassee. She and her husband,
the writer David G.W. Scott, have four children aged 20,
18, 15 and 8.
in her career, she feared that the demands of family
life would diminish her output.
break-through came when she realized that days spent
changing diapers and doling out bowls of cereal wasn’t
depriving her of writing time. It was depriving her of
time for reflection.
kids had taken my musing time over, and I had to reclaim
it," she says.
I was chopping vegetables or taking a shower, I started
asking myself what my characters wanted and what they
feared. I would ask myself, ‘What would happen if her
kimono caught fire?’ and start to play out the scenes
the time I got to my writing desk, I was already four
drafts into the scene. My process got more portable, and
my writing got more visual. I think of it as efficient