Can you tell us a little about your book:
The Year We Were Famous is based on the true story of Clara Estby and her suffragist mother who packed satchels with compass, maps, first-aid supplies, journals, pistol, and curling iron. Their goals: to walk four thousand miles from Washington State to New York City by November 30, 1896 to win a $10,000 wager that would save the family’s farm – and to prove women could do it.
What genre would you say your book is and how did you choose it?
I started out to write a non-fiction book about the walk, but even as a librarian I couldn't find enough information. The facts were sparse, but what fodder for the imagination! One-liners from newspaper articles included reference to having to shoot a man who threatened them, hanging onto bushes to avoid being swept away in a flash flood, meeting president-elect McKinley in his home, and demonstrating their curling iron to Indians they camped with. I went to plan B: historical fiction.
Did you find it difficult to write about your family? Will the reaction to audience feel even more personal than characters you make up?
I could have my made-up people do or say anything, but I was much more circumspect with Great-aunt Clara and Great-grandmother Helga, especially in my early drafts. I finally pushed through the reluctance to attach dialog and feelings to them by thinking of them as more than just Helga and Clara – they were iconic representatives of the New American Woman.
How much of the book is fiction?
Clara and Helga were real. The walk was real. All the adventures were inspired by brief references in newspaper articles, but I made up the details. I also made up people such as Clara’s suitors, reporters, people they stayed with, and Miss Waterson to bridge plot gaps and connect the dots between known facts.
You did a lot of research hoping that one day you would write a book. Did you ever feel like giving up or think you should stop collecting? How much of that research became useful?
I put off writing for several years while I collected more and more information, and finally faced the truth: I was afraid to write. That’s why I became a librarian instead of setting to be a writer fifty years ago. But just
because I didn’t know how to write a book from the beginning didn’t mean I couldn’t learn, so I took classes, joined SCBWI, attended workshops, and began to fill spiral notebooks with doodles and drafts.
I was rejected 29 times over a period of eleven years, but I considered each rejection as a sign that I needed more practice. Sometimes I put the manuscript away for a month or two before tackling it again, but I was always thinking about it. What kept me going besides my inherited Norwegian stubbornness was the thought that because of the way their trip ended, all the notes for the book Clara and her mother intended to write were destroyed. I was obsessed with reconstructing the book they never wrote.
|Carole's writing space|
Which part would you say you enjoy more? (Reading, Writing, Research)
Background reading is the most reliably fun. Research can play out like a treasure hunt and is also fun. On a good day when the muse is with me, writing is beyond fun—like a runner’s high, perhaps? Unfortunately there are more plodding days than muse-inspired days, but you don’t know which days are going to lift you to the clouds until you make yourself sit down and write.
From all the research how did you narrow down what would go into the book?
During my early drafts when I had all that research in the front of my brain, I scattered big clumps of it everywhere. Periodically I would review the research that pertained to a scene and revised until I was using the research to enter the scene with Clara but writing in only the bits I needed to move her through the action.
If you had to convince someone to pick up your book what would you say to them?
Back in 1896, Clara Estby and her mother were so desperate to save their farm that they walked an average of 25 miles a day for 232 days, stopping only to earn money to replace their shoes or the clothes on their backs. The traveled with just what would fit in small satchels—not even a change of clothes or a blanket—and depended on Providence, the kindness of strangers, and each other to survive.
Carole's website with more historical background: www.CaroleEstbyDagg.com