Thursday, May 23, 2019

Think it's difficult to raise a child today? Therese O'Neill talks about her hilarious, smart book, UNGOVERNABLE: The Victorian Parents' Guide to Raising Flawless Children.

Therese Oneill is absolute one of the most hilarious people on the planet, and this compendium of terrifyingly odd parenting tips from the Victorian era is a book you want to buy extra copies of because your friends NEED this book. Therese is also the author of another fabulous book: Ummentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners. Thank you so much for being here!

I love this book so much I want to marry it. How did you ever think to write about this? What was the why now moment?

First of all, thanks, Caroline. The book is too young to consider your offer of marriage but yet you honor our family name with your proposal.

I had this idea the day I signed the contract for my first book “Unmentionable.” I thought a “what to expect when you’re expecting VICTORIAN STYLE!” would be a natural follow up to a book about how to be a tidy Victorian lady.  Let me loop your next question about the research being hilarious/horrifying in here.


Which my very supportive agent and editor (Jessica Papin and Jean Garnett respectively) would not allow. I am from Oregon and New York ladies just terrify me. Manhattan needs more weed and Birkenstocks.  

I thought it would be hilarious. But I began my research by looking in my own collection of “Mother’s Books” of the era. And it was page after page of “how to keep your baby from dying from mumps. From malaria. From coughing too hard. From a bad a cold. From a frickin’ splinter that turned a whole leg gangrenous…”

It took twice as long to write as LB had hoped…because the research had to be circumnavigated around the absolute horror of being a child in the 19th century. Worse than even older centuries…Industrial Revolution and Westward Expansion tripling the dangers of the poor mites.

I dipped, dipped into the bleakness, it would have been just too blithe and disrespectful not to, whenever it couldn’t be avoided, particularly the story of how child abuse became against the law.  

So in short, there is so much I didn’t use that I could write a whole ‘nother book about it. But I’m not going too.

Obviously, parenting is going to change yet again, and the helicopter parenting of now will probably give way to all of us raising our kids like wolves. But is there anything that you think will stay consistent? 

You ask freakin’ smart questions and I love you for that. Well, I figure it’s like this. Almost other the Mother’s Books of the era, written by both respected women and doctors, would recommend never picking up a baby just because it was crying. That it must learn to self soothe if it is not it’s designated feeding time. That’s so wrong by our standards. We can take away that little innocent’s pain by just holding her, and “designated feeding time”? That’s crap! They got teeny bellies!

But there is a reason “experts” recommended that back then. Mother had three meals to cook, at least one of which involved chasing down a live animal and slaughtering it, which stoking a fire that might at any second catch the house alight while teaching the five year old to read while doing her part for the church charity committee for the new widow in town…she wanted to pick up that little bundle, as bad as any mom does. But if she did…she’d have a child who could only find comfort in her arms. And she did not have enough arms.

The environment demanded a certain sort of loving parental care. Tough love, we’d call it. She was nipping the babies suffering in the bud.

The thing that remains constant therefore, is we freakin love those little goobers. We want them to thrive, for their path to be trouble free, for them to supercede up in all things. The environment we live in dictates how we’ll do that. And if we get to the point they get to run around like wolves, hurrah for civilization, because that means we believe our children to be safe and strong.

This book could have been written in a number of ways, but I loved the quirky tone you used, and the hilarious captions of the illustrations. Did you know it was going to be that way from the get go?

I have to be a smart ass when I write. Or bare bones tragic. I prefer smartass. My first book was image heavy because so many of these forgotten things need to be SEEN to be understood. And also…heh…I love inappropriate captions. Too much Far-Side and Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a kid. The q&a format was something I hadn’t planned…but it evolved naturally. Most parenting books are q&a…plus I wanted to give all the readers who thought my “voice” (brothel madam crossed with dowager countess?) of my first book was too condescending to have a chance to argue with me. It kept the satire from becoming bitter, and I didn’t want it bitter. That’s why I die inside every time a reviewer uses the word “snark.” I am not snarky. I’m satirical. There’s a pronounced difference, the bastards. (don’t quote that);                                                                               

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Lane Bryant catalogs from past decades. The women in my family have relied on them for the entirety of Ms. Bryant’s reign, over 100 years now. In the 90’s, some sort of revolution happened where fat-girl clothes because…PEOPLE clothes. Now I can literally find anything I want in size “fat” (I never owned a pair of jeans til college when they figured out to put some stretchy spandex in with the denim…it was rough going for a kid and teen) but the journey was agonizing, mystifying. All of Lane Bryant’s pre-1990 models, for instance, are size 2. I just received a catalog from the 60’s I want to dive into…I wonder how much the world would like to learn about fat chicks. Why did we hate them? Why was an ultimate sign of failure? Why did it change? Why do 1980s models look at you like they wish you’d fall off their yacht while this centuries models grin and hold their arms out to welcome you to the party? I hear you’re good at stuff like this, whaddya you think?

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

“What took you so long, you turd?” You shoulda asked that. I deserved that. I am sorry for the delay. The timing was insurmountable because like I said…Oregonian. Thank you so much for the opportunity to overload you with information. I’m really proud you liked the book. And thank you for your time and attention.

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