Interview with Janet Benton & Lilli de Jong Giveaway

Hello Janet and welcome to Passages to the Past! Thanks so much for stopping by today to talk about Lilli de Jong!

To begin, can you please tell us a little about yourself and your novel Lilli de Jong?

I grew up in Connecticut, live in Pennsylvania, and lived lots of places in between. For my work, I mentor writers (helping them start and finish books) and teach writing workshops through my business, The Word Studio ( I also write fiction and essays and give lots of talks about my novel and writing. I was a religious studies major in college, and I have an MFA in English/fiction writing. I’m a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, an aunt . . .

What inspired you to write Lilli de Jong?

When I became pregnant and had a baby, I understood both how profound these realities are and how under-appreciated and unsupported the hard work of mothers often is. Then I came upon an article about unwed mothers in the European past, who in most cases were forced by prejudice to give up their babies and sometimes became wet nurses to earn a living despite their “stain.” I began reading about these women in the American past, and the voice of an unwed mother began coming into my head. She became Lilli de Jong, a young Quaker teacher, who becomes pregnant out of wedlock, gives birth at a charity for unwed mothers based on a real one, and becomes wet nurse to a wealthy family’s newborn. She’s trying to save up money to reclaim her baby girl. The novel is set in Philadelphia in 1883.

What type of research did you do for Lilli de Jong?

Oh, so much research! Years’ worth. To get the voice and sensibility right, I read works by and about American Quakers of the time, particularly ones in the Philadelphia region. I visited Quaker sites and did writing weekends at a Quaker center called Pendle Hill, which has a library of old books and a publishing company that has published and reprinted many important works. I read publications of the late 1800s, such as Harpers and the then-brand-new Ladies’ Home Journal, as well as books from the last third of the nineteenth century on social service, the poor, medical care, housekeeping, and on and on. And in the background were the Victorian novels I love, with their careful attention to language and their elegant tones. I also read newer works about Quakers of the past, including novels. I also researched and sought advice from historians about the ways Quakers in the Philadelphia region actually spoke.

Lilli is from Germantown, a neighborhood of Philadelphia. It was founded primarily by Dutch Quakers in the 1600s. The neighborhood holds so many historic sites, including a Quaker home that was a stop on the Underground Railroad, Johnson House; two Friends’ meetinghouses; and a home in which George and Martha Washington’s household lived, seeking to escape yellow fever epidemics in the late eighteenth century. To walk Germantown’s streets is to feel history rise through the cobblestones and emanate from the trees and from the buildings’ bricks and stones.

I also went to archives, including those of the charity for unwed mothers that Lilli is admitted to when she’s pregnant and homeless. The highlight of my research was reading the board minutes and annual reports of the State Hospital for Women and Infants. When it opened in 1874, it was the only charity for girls and women pregnant out of wedlock in Philadelphia. The board-meeting notes describe the great challenges of keeping the place running, including finding donors who would support this so-called shameful cause and responding to cruel articles in the press. The annual reports described the desperate condition the pregnant women were in when they applied for admission.

The opening third of the novel takes place in this charity, and the novel opens with a quote from its 1880 annual report: “Every other door . . . is closed to her who, unmarried, is about to become a mother. Deliberate, calculating villainy, fraud, outrage, burglary, or even murder with malice aforethought, seems to excite more sympathy, more helpful pity, more efforts for the reclamation of the transgressors than are shown towards those who, if not the victims of others, are at the worse but illustrations of human infirmity.”

Did you find anything in your research that was particularly fascinating or that helped shaped the novel?

Yes. I hadn’t understood that infants could not survive without a mother’s milk until pasteurization and refrigeration made cow’s milk a relatively safe substitute. This took place anywhere from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, depending on where one lived (and in some places in the world, this danger is still real). So this meant that most infants separated by prejudice from their mothers did not survive—a tragic aspect of history that most of us don’t know. I wrote this book partly to help people think about what women and babies of the past went through—and some still go through—because of prejudice, even if they were victims of rape, incest, ignorance, or abandonment.

What was your favorite scene to write?

The novel is in the form of Lilli’s diary. I think the most moving diary entry for me to write was the one right after her daughter, Charlotte, is born. I was able to express some of the amazement and love I felt when my own daughter was brand new.

What was the most difficult scene to write?

The one in which Lilli’s mother dies. I put that off till I was nearly done with everything else.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I started loving books very young, and I always wanted to give back—to create for others the kinds of wonderful experiences I had while reading books. I started storytelling before I could write, and I started keeping a diary when I was nine or ten. The realization that I am a writer—that is, someone who needs to write and who doesn’t feel good without writing—came on gradually. Writing has been very important to me for most of my life.

What was the first historical novel you read?

I think the first historical novel I read was Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. It’s a big, fat novel that hit me like a truck—it took over my life for weeks when I was eleven or twelve and taught me so much about the power a novel can have. Other historical novels that had a strong impact on me early in life were Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinback. I was also changed by The Diary of Anne Frank—not a novel, but by the time I read it, a historical document. These were stories of huge social forces affecting small numbers of people—to me, the best way to help people feel their impact.

What is the last historical novel you read?

My Notorious Life by Kate Manning. I thought it was very well done. I especially liked the narrator’s voice.

What are three things people may not know about you?

I used to sing jazz in restaurants and a hotel. Then my husband and I had a five-piece folk-rock band for eight years, playing mostly our originals. And I love to improvise when I cook.

What appeals to you most about your chosen genre?

To me, there’s no better way to create compassion than to tell a powerful story of someone striving against injustice. I think such stories can improve the human race.

What do you like to do when you aren't writing?

I enjoy reading, taking long walks, and spending time with my loved ones. I also love dancing, but I hardly ever get to do it!

Lastly, what are you working on next?

A novel set in New England that tells of a woman who’s up to her ears in motherhood after twenty years of it, has sacrificed too much, and is trying to reclaim some space and time for herself. I know a lot more, but it’s still in formation, so that’s good for now!

Wow, that novel sounds eerily like my life! Hahaha! Thank you so much for spending time with us today! Congratulations on the success of Lilli de Jong!

Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton

Paperback Publication Date: July 10, 2018
Anchor Books
Paperback; 352 Pages

Genre: Historical Fiction

Philadelphia, 1883. Twenty-three-year-old Lilli de Jong is pregnant and alone—abandoned by her lover and banished from her Quaker home. She gives birth at a charity for wronged women, planning to give up the baby. But the power of their bond sets her on a completely unexpected path. Unwed mothers in 1883 face staggering prejudice, yet Lilli refuses to give up her baby girl. Instead, she braves moral condemnation and financial ruin in a quest to keep the two of them alive.

Lilli confides this story to her diary as it unfolds, taking readers from a charity for unwed mothers to a wealthy family’s home and onto the streets of a burgeoning American city. Her story offers a rare and harrowing view into a time when a mother’s milk is crucial for infant survival. Written with startling intimacy and compassion, this accomplished novel is both a rich historical depiction and a testament to the saving force of a woman’s love.


NPR Best Books of 2017
Library Journal Best Historical Fiction 2017
Bustle The 17 Best Debut Novels by Woman in 2017
An Amazon Best Book of May 2017
Semifinalist in historical fiction, Goodreads Choice Awards, 2017
Finalist, David J. Langum Prize in Historical Fiction, 2017

Praise for Lilli de Jong

“A heartrending debut…Lilli’s inspiring power and touching determination are timeless.”—Publishers Weekly

“Powerful, authentic… A heart-smashing debut that completely satisfies.” —Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

“I loved this novel. It’s deeply moving and richly imagined, both tragic and joyous.”—Sandra Gulland, author of the internationally bestselling Josephine B. Trilogy

“Beautifully written, emotionally resonant, and psychologically astute…A gripping read.”—Christina Baker Kline, #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Piece of the World

“[A] gorgeously written debut . . . Devastatingly relevant and achingly beautiful.”—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow

“A captivating, page-turning, and well-researched novel about the power of a mother’s love.”—Library Journal (starred review)

“A confident debut . . . Sentence by carefully-crafted sentence, Benton ensnares the reader.”—The Millions

“Writing with a historical eye akin to Geraldine Brooks and incisive prose matching that of Anthony Doerr… Stunning!”—Pam Jenoff, New York Times bestselling author of The Kommandant’s Girl

“Benton combines rich, carefully researched detail with an imaginative boldness that is a joy to behold.” —Valerie Martin, author of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

“A stunning ode to motherhood.” —Sarah McCoy, New York Times bestselling author of The Mapmaker’s Children

“A new feminist classic…Benton’s writing is shrewd and beautiful.”—Philly Voice

“Eloquent and powerful.”—HuffPost Books

“This is both a super lush historical novel and an amazing feminist manifesto…Buy it for everyone.”—Book Riot

“You would be hard-pressed to find a more intimate—even revolutionary—depiction of the emotional and sensory experiences of motherhood.”—UMass Magazine

“A brilliantly quiet novel with a spine of steel.”—Read It Forward

“[What a] monumental accomplishment the novel achieves. . . . Benton holds a mirror up to the past and in doing so, illustrates how far we have come as well as how far we have yet to go.”—Kirkus Reviews

About the Author

JANET BENTON’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Glimmer Train, and many other publications. She has cowritten and edited historical documentaries for television. She holds a B.A. in religious studies from Oberlin College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. For decades she has taught writing at universities and privately and has helped individuals and organizations craft their stories. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter. Lilli de Jong is her first novel.

Visit for more information. You can also find Janet on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, August 13
Review at Pursuing Stacie

Wednesday, August 15
Review at Cup of Sensibility

Friday, August 17
Feature at The Lit Bitch

Monday, August 20
Feature at Clarissa Reads it All

Thursday, August 23
Feature at Beth's Book Nook Blog
Feature at What Is That Book About

Tuesday, August 28
Review at Dressed to Read

Friday, August 31
Guest Post at Passages to the Past

Monday, September 3
Review at Oh, October

Friday, September 7
Review at The Book Mind

Tuesday, September 11
Review at Jorie Loves a Story

Wednesday, September 12
Feature at CelticLady's Reviews

Thursday, September 13
Interview at Jorie Loves a Story


During the Blog Tour we will be giving away a copy of Lilli de Jong to one lucky reader! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on September 13th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

Lilli de Jong Paperback

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