Everyone welcome Carole Estby Dagg, author of The Year We Were Famous, a young adult historical novel set in 1896. The Year We Were Famous is a fictionalized version of a real cross-country trek made by Carole’s great aunt from Spokane, Washington to New York City. In the novel, Clara and her family are about to lose their farm, and to save it, she and her mother decide to walk across the country in hopes of earning 10,000 dollars.
1. Hello Carole. Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to stop by Damsels in Regress to talk with us. First off, I have to know—did you make up the curling iron, or did your ancestors really bring that along with them!? (Those scenes made me laugh! I loved them. In fact I think the scene with the curling iron and Indians was my favorite scene in the book!)
Yes, Clara and Helga really did bring a curling iron with them, and I found one in an antique store which was probably much like the one they used, with a wooden handle and a narrow metal rod (about 3/8”) with a clamp that would have been heated on a wood stove. I haven’t had nerve to try it though!
Amazing that you mentioned that particular episode, because it was a couple lines in a Minneapolis newspaper article about demonstrating the curling iron to Native Americans that prompted me to give up the idea of writing a non-fiction book (which, as a long-time librarian I thought I could write) and attempting fiction (which I didn’t think I could.) The raw fact ‘they demonstrated the curling iron’ was nothing compared to what it must have been LIKE to demonstrate the curling iron to a group of Native Americans. It was one of the first scenes I wrote for the book, nearly fifteen years ago, and about the only one which has changed very little over the years.
2. I recently wrote a novel based on real events. I found, like you, that I had to alter the story. I know that while your novel is based on a true story, you added many fictional characters and events. Was it hard for you to fictionalize the story? Did you resist at first, or where you always open to it? How hard was it to decide what to fictionalize?
Yes it was hard to fictionalize. After all, Clara and Helga were real people, my own great-aunt and great-grandmother, and I was hesitant to put thoughts in their minds and words in their mouths that they might be offended by. The longer I worked with the material, though, the more they became ‘characters’, with my own invented back stories and motivations. Most of the pivotal events were based on snippets in the newspapers (flash flood, being lost in the Snake River Lava fields, spraining her ankle, meeting President-elect McKinley, curling iron) but I made up other events and characters to help connect the dots between known events.
3. I know I get attached to certain scenes in my novels that end up getting cut. Was there any one particular scene that you especially loved but didn’t make it into the final novel?
There were at least half a dozen scenes I was reluctant to cut. I spent weeks researching and writing each of these scenes: meeting with widow in the Pennsylvania coal country; a stay with the Amish; most of the blizzard scene in Oregon; a stay with a freed slave who had a soddy in Nebraska; a meeting with Molly Brown, who had just built her fine house a couple blocks from where Clara and Helga would have checked in with the governor; a whistle stop encounter with Annie Oakley (my research put Clara and Buffalo Bill’s wild West show in the same place at the same time in Nebraska.) I cut at least 200 hard-won pages, but I have to agree with my early editor, Jennifer Wingertzahn, that the pacing is better without any scene that doesn’t move the overall plot and character development forward.
4. There is a ton of detail in your novel, from farm life to the railway to the women’s suffrage movement. I was really impressed with how seamlessly you worked in all this information. Just how much research did you have to do?
YEARS! I once estimated that I had wading through at least six million words of background reading, but as a retired librarian I didn’t mind. The danger, in fact, was putting off writing while I read just one more book about rattlesnakes, President McKinley, Nellie Bly, Buffalo Bill, dime novels, the suffrage movement, habits of bears, frontier cures for blisters, various native American Indian tribes, biographical information on the Indian agent on the Umatilla reservation and the photographs he took, or history of Salt Lake City (yes, there really was a bagel shop then!)
The research itself, however, was only the first step. I usually have to live with it for a couple years and a dozen re-writes as it gradually goes from an information dump to the stage where my main characters are living on the scene with that information and I can work bits in naturally, as the character moves through the action. It was painful—truly painful—to toss 99% of my research and just use the bits that were essential to the story.
5. I have to ask! If you’d been in your Great Aunt Clara’s shoes, would you have walked across the country?
A bookworm doesn’t build up the stamina Clara had as a hard-working farm girl. But if I had been as strong as Clara I would have been tempted, especially if my parents urged me to go.
6. Can you tell us a little bit about your next novel? Do you have another historical planned?
My next novel will also be about Clara—more fiction than fact, because Clara disappeared for over twenty years after the walk. After spending 15 years thinking about her, I couldn’t help wondering what she did during those missing years. I’ve also started another historical fiction with an entirely different cast of characters and setting.
7. Finally, I’m always curious to know what other authors are reading. What books are on your to read list? And do you have a favorite historical novel?
Don’t make me choose one favorite from 60-odd years of reading! Let me waffle by telling you what I’m reading now, The Passages of H. M.; A Novel of Herman Melville, by Jay Parini.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!