Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Q&A with Angela Dominguez

Angela Dominguez is the author of Stella Díaz Has Something to Say, a new novel for kids. She has written and illustrated a number of picture books for kids, including Maria Had a Little Llama and Sing, Don't Cry. She was born in Mexico City, grew up in Texas, and now lives on the East Coast.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Stella Díaz Has Something to Say? 

A: It originally began as an idea for a picture book. It was a simple story of a little girl at an aquarium learning to overcome her shyness, but it didn’t quite work. The critiques I received all asked the question: why was Stella so shy? And why can’t she talk to someone from school? Without a publisher interested, I gave up on Stella. 

Still, the story stuck with me. I even had one of the drawings of Stella hanging over my art desk for months. I empathized with her. I too was painfully shy growing up. 

Luckily, I began illustrating chapter books. I fell in love with the stories and the voice of those characters. Soon my nonfiction shelves were being replaced with middle grade novels.

Those books gave me the inspiration to expand Stella into a narrative filled with my own experiences. I realized much of my shyness originated from struggling with speaking English and feeling caught between two worlds and two cultures.

These realizations helped me build a complete and much longer story for Stella. I filled in the rest with food that I love from my culture, memories from my childhood, and a recent obsession with aquatic creatures.  

I eventually showed my 7,000-word manuscript to my editor, Connie Hsu, over coffee. Thankfully she saw the potential. From there, I worked on it with Connie for several months without a contract.

Because this was my first middle grade, the manuscript had to be really tight. She also had me expand the story--almost three times the length! Luckily once the publisher saw it, they acquired it. The whole process was truly a labor of love. 

Q: How would you compare your writing process with a middle grade novel to your experiences writing and illustrating picture books?

A: The words were the main focus rather than the art. In a picture book, the words and art are a perfect duo that supposed to play off or enhance each other. The art in Stella is more of an accent. It was a way to break up the book so that's it's a little more fun and easier to read for young readers.

Thankfully, when it came to drawing the pictures I had the characters already designed from the original picture book dummy. I just had to age them up a bit in the drawing. The cover took several rounds, but I’m overjoyed with the way it turned out. 

Q: The book includes the theme of immigration. What do you hope readers take away from Stella's experiences, especially given that immigration is such a huge issue right now?

A: I have three big hopes. First, that kids after reading Stella will learn to empathize with someone who comes from a different place. That they realize that immigrants are not outsiders and instead see them as a potential friend. 

Second, I hope that immigrants who read the book feel a little less alone. I remember the first time I read The Buddha of Suburbia in college. It deals with immigration and outsider themes. It really opened my eyes and made me realize that feelings I had were not unusual. I kept thinking I would have loved to have read something like that when I was younger.

Lastly, I hope the book piques readers' curiosity about Mexican culture and they search out some of things I mention in the book. 

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I have tendency to read quite a bit of middle grade novels or nonfiction. I would say a few of my favorite middle grade authors are Kate DiCamillo, Erin Entrada Kelly, Susan Tan, E.B White, and Roald Dahl. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Currently, I’m focusing on illustrating. I’m working on three picture books all in various stages. I hope to start writing again by summer on more middle grade ideas. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have a new picture book coming out in March called How Are You?¿Cómo Estás?. Other than that, I had a blast writing this book and I hope that I’ll be able to do more. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 31

Jan. 31, 1872: Zane Grey born.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Q&A with Dara Horn

Dara Horn is the author of the new novel Eternal Life. Her other books include A Guide for the Perplexed and All Other Nights. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the City University of New York, and Harvard University, and she lives in New Jersey.

Q: You note that you read a number of news stories about companies seeking to solve the issue of immortality--but that the people involved in the stories were mostly men. What made you decide to create your immortal character Rachel?

A: Exactly that. It wasn’t just these “life extension” enthusiasts (not all of whom are men, but the most flamboyant “I’m going to live forever!” ones mostly are). It’s also the entire literary history of the idea.

Immortal characters are nothing new in literature, right? Tuck Everlasting, The Highlander....the Epic of Gilgamesh....immortality and the quest for it is a theme as old as literature. But what’s weird about those stories is that they’re almost never about fertile women. And when you swap out that 2,000 Year Old Man for a 2,000 Year Old Mom, the whole story changes.

My main character Rachel has been married dozens of times and has had hundreds and hundreds of children—and outlives them all, which makes immortality less fun. Once I switched the gender on the typical story, so many differences between men’s and women’s historic experiences just became so obvious, and the character became someone really different from anyone I’d met in other books.

Q: What sort of research did you do to create the historical scenes in the novel, particularly those that take place 2,000 years ago?

A: As an observant Jew, I was already quite familiar with that period; things like the ancient Temple rituals, the failed Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem are things that are really vividly memorialized in traditional Jewish texts.

In writing the novel, I did go back to a number of these texts, including parts of the Talmud that describe this period, and I also re-read the works of Josephus, a Roman Jewish historian who wrote about these incidents in great detail.

But a lot of it also comes from the city of Jerusalem itself, which is a city with so many physical layers that simply going below street level means going back in time.

Several of the book’s key scenes take place inside Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a water tunnel carved 3,000 years ago to protect Jerusalem’s water supply from an Assyrian siege. Today you can walk through this tunnel as a tourist, with a flashlight and water shoes. It’s like you are traveling through time instead of through rock.

Q: What do you think the story says about the relationships between parents and children?

A: There is a kind of parenting culture today that often promotes an illusion that what we do for our children directly affects the kinds of people they become—not merely in providing for them physically and emotionally (which does matter, of course), but that you can train them to emulate your manners and so forth.

I have enough children myself (four) to know that you really have no control at all, and when you think you do, it’s probably just a coincidence.

My main character has had so many children that she sees the precise limits of what parents can do for their children. She experiences the unfathomable pain caused by not only a child’s death but also by less dramatic and more chronic losses, rejections and disappointments—and she encounters the unmovable reality that a parent’s love remains undiminished by any of the above.

I don’t think there’s much more you can actually do for your children beyond loving them. But that’s more than enough.

Q: The novel includes many references to technology. How do you see the impact of that technology on the issues you tackle in the novel?

A: Yes, I wrote about Bitcoin before it was cool! And gene therapy. Those two technologies in particular wind up being pivotal to the plot, in ways I won’t describe to avoid spoilers.

But what was exciting for me in writing about these cutting-edge technologies was filtering them through my immortal character’s perspective. The reality is that everyone always thought they were living in modern times; everyone was always amazed by their brand-new technologies that were about to change the world, even when those technologies were things like... wheels.

Rachel, my main character, looks at her son’s work in currency mining and her daughter’s work in genetics and can’t help being reminded of other children, like the one who created a mechanical water clock, or the one who figured out how to rub moldy bread on a wound, or the one who opened a bindery for books when everyone was still reading scrolls.

The fear of technology comes in part from a failure to take the long view and see how durable human nature is, for better and worse.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Believe it or not, I’ve actually written a TV show. After I finished revisions on this book, I had an amazing idea for a TV series—an idea so good that I can’t believe it doesn’t already exist. To my astonishment it doesn’t, so I wrote the pilot and developed the first season myself. If you know people in the industry, be in touch and I’ll be happy to tell you all about it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Dara Horn.

Jan. 30

Jan. 30, 1912: Barbara W. Tuchman born.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Q&A with Andrea Jarrell

Andrea Jarrell is the author of the new memoir I’m the One Who Got Away. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Harper's Bazaar. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area. 

Q: Over how long a period did you write your memoir, and did you write it in the order in which the chapters now appear?

A: Certain lines in the first and second chapters of the book I wrote almost 20 years ago. Back then my plan had been to write a novel-in-stories with some of the characters loosely based on my parents.

I put those stories aside for about another decade and was working on other projects. Eventually, I came back to them when I shifted to writing personal essay and memoir. Some of those true lines from the early stories remained — elements of what would grow to be my memoir.

I began working on the book in earnest in 2012. I wrote and published essays for about two years that became the core of the book. It took another two years to revise these previously finished essays so they would work in the book, as well as to write additional chapters and craft a cohesive whole.

Q: How did you choose the book's title, and what does it signify for you?

A: The title evolved from the first chapter, a version of which appeared in Full Grown People as a stand-alone essay called, “The Getaway.” The chapter weaves together the story of a woman who did not escape her abuser and the story of my mother and I who did get away.

But while we physically “got away” from my father we did not escape our complicated relationships with him. Neither did we leave behind the impact of those relationships on the rest of our lives.

The book is about how one’s parents’ shape us but how, ultimately, we are in charge of who we become. The questions I try to answer are: How do desire and desirability empower and endanger girls and women? How do we make ourselves both safe enough and vulnerable enough to love and be loved?

It’s about my escape from the old patterns of our family. When I first told my mother the title she said, “That’s perfect.”

As I have spoken with readers I’ve been fascinated by their interpretations — all of which are also true: They see that I also get away from old limitations and expectations I once placed on myself.

I love that some readers have pointed out that I don’t get away at all but rather through my own growth manage to bring my loved ones with me to a new place for all of us.

Q: The book focuses in detail on your relationships with various family members. What does your family think of the book?

A: My husband and children love the book. It has been a lot harder on my parents. From the start my mother has been very supportive of me, my writing, and the book but she was not sure she wanted to read it. She knew its content and helped fill in gaps and details for me but she didn’t know if it would be too painful to read.

She has now read it and while it has been painful for her she continues to be very proud and supportive, telling others about the book and attending my events.

I was not looking for my father’s approval of the book but I didn’t want it to damage our mended relationship. When I talked to him about it shortly before it was released, he said he knew he “had done bad things” and that he was proud and happy for me about the book. I’ve been very lucky to have such a supportive family.

Q: Who are some authors you especially admire?

A: Here are many of the writers who I read for pleasure and to study their craft: Jo Ann Beard, Bernard Cooper, Andre Dubus, Jennifer Egan, William Maxwell, Jill McCorkle, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Mary Oliver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Dani Shapiro, Megan Stielstra, Elizabeth Strout, Elizabeth Tallent, Abigail Thomas, William Trevor, Claire Vaye Watkins.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve begun to chase the next book: another work of narrative nonfiction that will again be episodic. I’ve always been enamored by the juxtaposition of short narratives that together become more than the sum of their parts — each piece enlivening another piece like adding another log to the fire until it roars.

Q:  Anything else we should know?

A: Given that I have published my first book at age 55, some might call me a late bloomer. Lately, I’ve been thinking about this idea of late blooming.

The interesting thing to me is that I’ve bloomed late not because I suddenly discovered writing and decided to try and publish a book. I am a late bloomer in that I finally stopped sabotaging myself and did the work needed to make my author dream come true.

I’ve been writing about this and giving talks about how this change came about — what I did to stop the self-sabotage.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 29

Jan. 29, 1860: Anton Chekhov born.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Q&A with Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Vanessa Brantley-Newton is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Grandma's Purse. Her other books include Don't Let Auntie Mabel Bless the Table and Let Freedom Sing. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Grandma's Purse?

A: I have been illustrating children's books for a long time now and while I really enjoy doing the illustrations for other people’s books, I knew that there were stories that I wanted and needed to share with children as well.

My Grandma Bert was a character that made a big impression on my life. She was a very tall, dark, well-dressed and hilarious woman. She made me laugh with her crazy antics and such.

She was from Beaufort, S.C., Low County and she was Gullah. Gullah people are from the low country area of South Carolina and Georgia. They are often called Geechee or Gullah Geechee! They are descendants of African slaves who arrived on the islands of Beaufort, S.C.

They have retained more of their African culture than most African Americans through food, music, and language--a language called "Gullah," and my Granny spoke it and my family still does to this day.

She was always carrying a purse. She was a fisherman and even while she fished would dress up for it. With earrings and a nice shirt and sometimes wearing pearls with her waist-high hunting pants and boots.

She always had something interesting in her purse. Maybe a fishing lure, candy, a scarf for her head, or the Bible, and of course, red lipstick. The kind that stays on for days and days. The kind that little girls like me wanted to wear just like Mimi. It was like dye.

Whatever was in there it was always interesting to me. She had some stuff that I can't talk about! She would put me or my sister on her lap and show us pictures of my mom and dad or my Grandpa Snookie.

We were taught that it was very impolite to go into a woman's handbag without asking, so that was the first rule to getting in there. It was a way of us spending time. No iPad. No cell phone. No bells and whistles. Just a moment of sharing, and it made for a wonderful story.

Q: Do you usually come up with the story first or the illustrations (or work on them at the same time)? 

A: Funny that you should ask! I had to do the pictures first. The picture brought back the story to me. It is not always this way, but when you are dyslexic, words can become the enemy of the vision that you see in your head. I always tell my story through my pictures first.

It just makes sense to me this way. There where times when I would try to write it down first, but not on a regular [basis,] and I would measure myself by others who write first and it just wasn't me. I had to figure out what worked best for Vanessa and seeing the vision or illustration first helped.

Q: Is your illustrating process different when you're working on your own authored books as opposed to those written by someone else?

A: Yes indeed!! I give myself permission to share my own stories in a way that I can't do with someone else's. I can create characters that are different and strange and look like my people. I can be wild and free and try things that I have never tried before with them. It's very freeing indeed!

Q: Who are some of your favorite children's book illustrators and writers?

A: Ezra Jack Keats will forever be my favorite, but there is an A-list. Beatrice Alemagna, Eric Barclay, Steve Bjorkman, Fiep Westendorp, David Catrow, Catia Chien, Alex T. Smith, Tammi Sauer, Liz Garton, Thelma Godin, Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, Ed Fotheringham, Bill Brown500, Mary Blair, Quentin Blake, Robert Clifford, the Provensens, Tom Feelings, Laura Hughes, Mo Willems, and a host of others.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on the second book for Hannah Sparkles and another book by my friend Derrick Barnes called King of Kindergarten, and then I am working on another book written by me called Jewel. It is my version of the Madeline character only she is a girl of color.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Diversity is at the heart of what I do. Not just diversity for brown children, but for all children. Children come here as clean sheets of paper and we get to write a message on them. I want to write the message that Ms. V sees you and loves you just as you are and to remind you that you get to write on others [so] write with kindness.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Vanessa Brantley-Newton.

Jan. 28

Jan. 28, 1873: Colette born.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Q&A with Victoria Chang

Victoria Chang is the author of the new book of poems Barbie Chang. Her other books include the poetry collection The Boss and the children's picture book Is Mommy?, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Kenyon Review and American Poetry Review. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Barbie Chang?

A: I wrote all these poems in first person initially. One day, the name "Barbie Chang" popped into my head and I thought that was funny, paradoxical, and frankly impossible because Barbie is the iconic American dream female and a Chang, well, isn't.  

I changed all the poems to third person with the character of Barbie Chang and then I worked on the poems for another year--changing the person really opened up the poems for me as a writer.

Q: Can you say more about the role you think Barbie plays in societal assumptions and also in your collection?

A: As I mentioned above, she's the image of perfection. In my mind, that image was never reality, and this has been changing but society has been slow to change. And I suppose my book is a kind of exploration of that, deconstruction of that.

Q: In a review of Barbie Chang in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kristina Marie Darling writes, “Victoria Chang’s new collection, Barbie Chang, reveals, visibly and poignantly, the ways that ‘looking’ can be symptomatic of what is most broken and dangerous in our culture.” What do you think of that?

A: I think that this is a smart statement. That review was very well-written and thought out. I think of this as the looking at women in our culture as toxic--the objectification of women. And the idea of seeing is a something I explore in this book too--how POC and women are often invisible.  

So it's this interesting paradox--POC and women want to be seen, but most of the time, not in the ways that society and others see them.

I've been debating with some people on FB who think it is their right to write from the perspective of anyone they want: "dogs, horses, pilots," including the stories of POC.  

This is also a problem of "looking" that Darling talks about--who has the right to look, who has the right to tell these stories, who has the stories? Well, we do. And that's how #ownvoices emerged on Twitter.

Q: Barbie Chang includes two sections titled “Dear P.” How do you see those parts of the collection connecting with the other poems?

A: The middle sequence of sonnets were older poems from before my prior book, The Boss, in a manuscript I chose not to publish.  

And the end Dear P. poems were written after I put the middle ones in. I don't know why I put them in at the time, but in retrospect, I think it was to complicate the manuscript that was all in the same form.  
I think adding these made the book more expansive and mirrored my own ideas about intergenerational racism and how racist views and closed-mindedness get passed down from one generation to the next.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A series of prose poems called OBIT. A few are online and I've begun letting them out in the world. I'm almost finished, I think. They are in the shape of obituaries and what I call a distillation of grief after my mom passed away.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, gosh, I don't know. I am a generous person. I like generous and loyal people. I can't stand competitive and jealous people more than anything (and there are a LOT of those people in the literary world). I like chumming around with people who lift each other up.  

I can be very quiet and very passionate and outspoken at the same time. I can change my mind in a heartbeat. I'm very pleased about how the younger generation is breaking open the literary world/poetry on Twitter even though initially I was afraid of them. I love change like this but can also intellectually deconstruct it without getting emotional.  

I am very ambitious for the work and as a woman, no longer apologize for being ambitious for the work. In general, I am very ambitious and no longer apologize for that either because I never see any men apologizing and only see people cut down women for being so.  

I am always interested in the new, the original, the inventive, across all art forms and people. I'm sure there are lots of other things about me and my writing that would interest only me, so I'll stop here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 27

Jan. 27, 1931: Mordecai Richler born.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Q&A with Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is the author of Read! Read! Read!, a new book of poetry for kids. Her other books include Every Day Birds and Forest Has a Song. Her blogs can be found at Sharing Our Notebooks and The Poem Farm. She lives in Holland, N.Y.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A: I love reading, and I often write in my notebook about things I have read and books that have changed me. In a way, Read! Read! Read! is a collection of reading memories from around our family’s home and in our history. For example, the guinea pig of “Googling Guinea Pigs” was based on the guinea pig of our Georgia’s third grade class (and was really named Cleopatra!) 

I do keep collections of words in my notebook, and sometimes these words inspire poems. Long ago I read Charlotte’s Web to our children partly to prepare them for sadness in life. Everyone in our house reads way past bedtime. You can often find someone stretched out in front of the heater with juice and a newspaper here, and we love books about dogs and all animals. So really, Read! Read! Read! is like a family reading scrapbook. 

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?

A: My biggest hope is that a child will read the book and say, “That’s just like me!” I wish to celebrate – with all readers – the many gifts of reading.

Q: What do you think Ryan O'Rourke's illustrations add to the book?

A: I adore Ryan’s art. It is full of joy and whimsy and dark and light in all of the right places. Ryan has captured these many moments of reading in ways that I never could have dreamed, imagining for us a staircase, treehouse, and even a dog made from books. I find his illustrations to be magical and at the same time, full of heart. My friend Barry Lane says that the big guinea pig alone makes the book worth the price!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment, I have my finger in a few project pots…but I don’t talk about them much because then I will be less likely to do the work. Somehow, talk makes the writing feel finished even when it’s not yet begun…so I’ve learned. However, I love sharing poems at my blog The Poem Farm every Friday. In this place, I find many small collections of poems that sometimes grow into books. 

I have two books coming out in March: Dreaming of You with Boyds Mills Press and With My Hands: Poems About Making Things with Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

And as April is around the bend, I am still trying to decide what this month’s Poetry Month Project will be. Each year since 2012, I’ve chosen a daily poem project and invite classrooms of children to play along and join in.

Questions for Editor Rebecca Davis: How was the title of this book selected?

A: We wanted a title that would convey the concept of the whole collection and also pay tribute to its spirit. First, we looked for titles amongst the individual poems but those titles seemed too specific to the subject of each poem (“Reading Time,” “Cereal Box,” “Word Collection,” etc.). Eventually, we settled on Read! Read! Read! because it is broad, applying to the whole book, and it also captures the enthusiasm and love for reading that is its heart.

Q: How did you decide on the order of the poems?

A: The poem “Reading” seemed like an anchor poem to me, because it’s profound and so beautifully portrays the essence of reading. I wanted it to start off the collection—to come even before the title page. 

Once that was decided, it seemed natural for the next poem to be “Pretending”—a poem about learning to read—and then to dive into the morning poems. Similarly, it seemed natural to end with the nighttime poems. In between, the collection needed to range in mood and emotion.

Certain poems seemed to naturally belong together (like the two poems related to traveling: “Maps” and “Road Signs”; or the two poems about reading materials that arrive by mail: “Birthday Card” and “Magazine”). 

The poem that speaks about what reading does to your heart—“An Open Book” is at the heart of the collection, exactly halfway through the book. With a beginning, middle, and end, the rest of the poems seemed to fall into place naturally.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You can learn about Ryan O’Rourke’s process for illustrating Read! Read! Read! here:

You can see the book trailer for Read! Read! Read! here: 

I feel extremely lucky and grateful to spend good portions of my time writing…when we write, we learn more about the world and about who we are and who we might become.

Thank you to Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press for donating a copy of Read! Read! Read! to a commenter on this post!

Thank you so much for inviting me to your online home, Deborah. It is a pleasure to visit.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 26

Jan. 26, 1905: Maria von Trapp born.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Q&A with Caroline Fraser

Caroline Fraser is the author of the new biography Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a finalist for the National Book Critic Circle Award.  She also has written the books God's Perfect Child and Rewilding the World, and was on the editorial staff of The New Yorker. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Q: What first got you interested in writing a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder?

A: I first thought about it seriously when I was working on the chronology and notes for the Library of America edition of the Little House books, which I edited. As I was writing those materials, I kept coming across such fascinating stuff in the history she lived through, and it made me want to learn more. 

There were all these tantalizing clues in the letters she wrote to her daughter, Rose, about the Dust Bowl and the Depression, about the history of the locust outbreaks and drought on the Great Plains, and even the ways in which her work for the federal government, as secretary/treasurer for the National Farm Loan Association, somehow evolved into her disdain for the New Deal.

The more I learned, the more I felt readers might respond to the historical background of Wilder’s life. There was a moment when I was writing a note about the “Minnesota massacre,” as Wilder calls it in Little House on the Prairie, when I was reading about the history of the U.S. Dakota War of 1862. 

And I just thought, Wow. Why haven’t I heard about this? Why haven’t we all heard about it? It’s one of the most dramatic moments in American history.

Q: How did you research the book, and what do you see as the key differences between her actual life and the life she depicts in her books?

A: I first started doing research on Wilder when I wrote a long article for the New York Review of Books, back in 1994. That was a review of William Holtz’s book, The Ghost in the Little House, a biography of Rose Wilder Lane that argued that Lane was the real author of the Little House books. 

I was skeptical about that, so I borrowed the microfilm of Wilder’s drafts of The Long Winter, among other things, and looked at how involved she was in writing—and editing—of her own work. 

To be sure, Lane was indispensable. The books probably would never have been published without her professional connections, as well as the crucial editing she did on every volume. 

But we have Wilder’s original drafts (or at least the ones that have survived), and they’re the foundational texts of the books. She wrote the books. Lane edited and revised. During the course of working on that article, I visited De Smet, South Dakota, for the first time, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to see the other home sites. 

That article inspired the Library of America to reach out to me years later to edit their new edition of the Little House books, and I was able to continue the process, for instance, visiting the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library to see the Lane and Wilder papers. 

When I began working on Prairie Fires, the first thing I did was drive around the country visiting the various sites. 

First, I drove to the Little House on the Prairie site near Independence, Kansas, and then on to Mansfield, Missouri, for the first of several visits. On another trip, I drove from Minneapolis to Pepin, Wisconsin, and then to the various home sites in Minnesota, Iowa, and back to De Smet. I also went to Malone, New York, where the Wilder family farm is. 

It’s so fascinating to see these places in person—Malone, for example, is so far north, only a few miles from the Canadian border—and it really helps to see how landscape influenced the lives of these families. These places are remote and fairly isolated, which would play a critical role in the challenges the families faced.

As for the critical differences between Wilder’s life and the books, if I had to narrow it down, I’d say it’s how very difficult their lives were. Reading the books as a child, you’re aware of this, but you also have a strong sense that everything will work out. 

In real life, of course, things didn’t always work out. There were accidents, deaths, debts, droughts, failures. The odds were stacked against the small farmer. Charles Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder were so desperately undercapitalized that they really could never succeed, even on a subsistence level. 

Q: What did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: I was very surprised to learn about Rose Wilder Lane’s early newspaper career and her involvement in yellow journalism. 

That, to me, opened up all kinds of fruitful questions about how Wilder and Lane viewed autobiography and memoir as genres that were infinitely malleable. The two of them really didn’t see much of a distinction between fiction and nonfiction, in some ways, and that’s how the Little House books became an experiment in autobiographical fiction. 

We’ve gotten so comfortable with the books that we’ve forgotten how unusual it is to write autobiographical novels about your own life in the third person. And in a very unusual twist, Wilder and her daughter would insist that everything in the books was “true,” even though they knew it wasn’t.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Laura and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane?

A: Tumultuous, in a word. They were like chalk and cheese, in a lot of ways. Laura was careful, frugal, and anxious about the future, while Rose could be mercurial and headlong and quite a spendthrift. 

People in Mansfield described Rose as “Bohemian,” a reference to what they may have considered her loose morals—she was very much a “New Woman,” autonomous, independent, flying in the face of an older generation’s moral code. That had to have grated on her mother, living in a conservative southern rural town. 

And yet, despite their differences, the women were almost suffocatingly close in some ways. Today, we would say that they had no boundaries. They were often living in each other’s pockets at Rocky Ridge farm, where Lane was heavily involved in her mother’s work (and I’m not sure Wilder could ever have prevented that, even if she wanted to). 

Their financial lives were completely entwined. Their political beliefs evolved in tandem with their dismay over the New Deal and loathing for the Roosevelts and Harry Truman. 

Ultimately, I think they loved each other but at the same time couldn’t stand each other, something that reflects the complexities of many mother/daughter relationships.

Q: What do you think accounts for the ongoing fascination with the Little House books, and what do you see as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s legacy today?

A: Wilder has come to embody our pioneer experience. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were once male icons of that chapter of American life, but through the Little House books, I think Wilder has become our quintessential image of frontier settlement. 

And that’s an interesting legacy, because the image promoted by the Little House books suggests that homesteading was a success, when of course the reality was far more complicated. 

And her legacy keeps evolving—first there was the television show in the 1970s and ‘80s, with its own distortions. And we’re continuing to have important discussions about racism in the books, about the portrayal of Native Americans, about the domestic role of women. 

I think what we’re left with is the fact that books have been endlessly influential and they’re still inspiring us to reexamine our own history.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m doing a lot of talking about Laura: In December, I did some bookstore appearances and a lot of radio interviews (with more over the coming weeks). And I’m looking forward to giving talks at upcoming conferences and book festivals this year. I have some ideas for another book, but it’s going to take a lot more work before I know about that.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We’re in the process of working on materials for book groups, so look for those coming soon on the Macmillan website. I’m also getting ready to post research photos and other stuff at So if you’re interested in seeing more pictures of the landscapes and people described in the book, please check it out. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb