Monday, April 17, 2023

Q&A with Frances Altman




Frances Altman is the author of the new biography Destiny's Daughter: The Life of Mary Edwards Walker, Maverick Suffragist, Doctor, and Medal of Honor Recipient. Altman's other books include Escape to Freedom. She has worked as a journalist, a public relations professional, and an educator.


Q. When did you decide to write a biography of Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919)?


A. Back in the early ‘70s I was a stay-at-home mom writing middle grade biographies for T.S. Dennison for their Men of Achievement series. I found a filler about Walker and thought she would be a good topic.


I sold an article about her to the Dayton Leisure magazine, hoping to persuade my editor to start writing about women. But by that time Dennison had folded. But coincidentally I met another writer who had written about Walker’s book Hit. I was intrigued and just kept finding interesting tidbits about her so kept building a file.


Q. How did you research the book, and what especially surprised you in the course of your research?

A. I moved on to writing for community newspapers in the Chicago area but I also kept reading Walker biographies and searching encyclopedias.


On a business trip to New York I took a day and went to Syracuse University Library, where Walker’s papers were archived. Rather, they were stored in cardboard boxes that you could rummage in. The librarians there copied numerous stories about her that I had not known previously.


I started writing a middle-school bio. Biographical series were still favored by school libraries. I kept getting rejections.


I moved on into corporate communications with National Hot Dog Council, Allied Signal, and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Mary Walker had been imprisoned there and my interest returned. I walked on similar cobblestone streets to get a feel for the period. That was when I began to feel that this could be a women’s interest book rather that a middle school.  


Research methods have changed too. So much is now digitalized. But also, Walker memorabilia is scattered. Her cane displayed in Richmond. A shawl from Queen Victoria elsewhere. I like to quality a fact with two references. So much of what I was finding was repetitious of other writings.


Q. How was the book’s title chosen and what does it signify for you?


A. Years ago the title was Dr. Mary and it changed a time or two as I mailed it out. Last year as I finished the book during Covid it seemed like destiny had played a part in this woman’s life--so I chose Destiny’s Daughter.


Q. What do you see as Mary Edwards Walker’s legacy today?


A. Following the Civil War Walker became a dedicated suffragist. But she went beyond just advocating for women’s voting rights. She was not a great orator but urged women to think for themselves, to recognize self-worth, to wear comfortable clothing and shoes and consider careers.


Over 150 years ago she wrote about all of these things in her book Hit. I feel it is still good advice we can remember and use today.


Q. What are you working on now?


A. At the moment I’m still completing my marketing plan for this book. I want to thank you, Deborah, for doing this interview. I do have two and a half unfinished novels in my computer waiting to be rewritten and edited. That’s the hardest part of being an author.


Q. Anything else we should know?


A. Recently I’ve gone back to writing shorter pieces. Pen in Hand Literary Magazine published an essay and "Learn to Listen" is a piece published this month by Women in Higher Education. For the moment I’m just enjoying this book bonus to a long career. You might say it’s today’s gift.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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