100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

There is some media buzz about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, now that we’re approaching its hundredth anniversary on March 25. This has made me remember doing the research for Ashes of Roses. It was one of the hardest books I've ever written, partly because I'm terrified of fire. I remember hearing stories as a child, about this terrible fire that had killed so many young women – some of them in their teens. I thought that it had taken place in the Flatiron Building, because it was shaped like a triangle. Oddly enough, my publisher, Henry Holt, is now in the Flatiron Building. It wasn't until I started the research that I realized the fire happened in the Asch building off Washington Square.

I was also convinced that most of the girls in the fire were Irish, so I gave my main character my Irish grandmother's name, Margaret Rose Nolan. Again, research proved me wrong, and I learned that most of the girls in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were Jewish, Italian, or from various Eastern European countries. I thought I would have to rewrite the whole beginning of the book, until I found “Anna Doherty, Irish immigrant” on the list of survivors. That allowed me to have my character be one of the very few Irish girls in the factory, which made her even more isolated.

A terrible thing happened when I was in the middle of revisions for my editor, Christy Ottaviano. I was watching TV on the morning of September 11, and saw the first World Trade Tower burning. I called Christy, thinking she might be ready to head for the train, unaware that the city would be tied up with traffic because of this fire. By the time I reached her, the second plane had hit, and we both knew that this would not be a mere traffic jam. While on the phone, we both watched in horror as people started jumping out of the towers. Because of the similarity to the Triangle Fire, where young girls jumped to their deaths from the factory windows, neither Christy nor I could work on Ashes of Roses for several months.

When I had completed the book, I was going to be in New York City, so I made arrangements to deliver it to Christy in person. As I was heading home on the train that afternoon, I saw a newspaper headline about the Triangle Fire. Rose Freedman, the last surviving worker from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire had died that day. She was one hundred and seven years old.