Author Squared: Kelly O’Connor McNees & Wendy McClure
Kelly O’Connor McNees
Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everytihng in between!
Kelly: Wendy, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books depict the day-to-day tasks that filled the “pioneer life” in the 1880s, especially the work typically done by women. Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, while set in long-settled Concord, Massachusetts, during the Civil War, also features details of 19th century young women’s routines: sewing, knitting, embroidering, taking firewood and blankets to the poor, baking, and generally working to make the home a “haven.” Anyone who tried to take my washing machine away would have to pry it from my cold, dead hands—and yet I read these books with a fascination and a sense of longing. What is the deal? Why do we love to read about this stuff?
Wendy: Oh yes—I always find these details and tasks so reassuring somehow. And I remember a line I read in Barbara Walker’s introduction to The Little House Cookbook, something about how all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s extensive descriptions “seemed to compel participation.” In the case of the cookbook, of course, it’s actual hands-on participation, but I think any engaged reader becomes a kind of participant just by following along. These descriptions have such an intimacy to them, because through them you inevitably inhabit Laura or one of the March girls and find yourself daydreaming in their kitchens. I know I can recall butter-making with Ma Ingalls almost as vividly as my own memories of helping my mother peel potatoes.
As for that longing you mentioned—maybe it’s because on some level we recognize that we’re not truly there, that there’s a boundary we can’t fully cross, even while we know we don’t really want to sew seams in muslin sheets. We know, though, that we’re at the edges looking in.
Which leads me to my question to you, Kelly, since you created so many of those descriptions of domestic rituals in your own novel: What were the challenges in writing those scenes? Did you feel like you were actively creating this world—or, as a writer of historical fiction based on real people—simply entering it? Or to put it another way, what side of that divide between reader and character is the writer on?
Kelly: Whoa, Wendy. That is deep.
I think in historical fiction there is a fine line between immersion and suffocation. Just the right amount of carefully selected detail and context and atmosphere can create a vivid world. But too much of this—too much exposition and description of every object, gown, and housekeeping chore that might seem foreign to a modern reader—and we are overwhelmed by the weight of it all. Too much of this and the story gets lost. I felt as the writer I was always walking that line, trying to figure out when to expand on something (like the scene that goes into great detail about how Louisa and Anna make candles) and when to scale back to keep the story moving forward, to maintain the tension that makes characters real people to us. I think I succeeded some and probably failed some at that task. It is an ongoing negotiation. But you don’t want the reader to see that struggle—you want to polish the story to a high shine so that the way it is appears seems to be the only way it could have been—if that makes any sense! So I would say I wanted it to seem as if the reader and I were just entering this world that already existed, when in fact I had to work very hard to create it in a particular way.
Speaking of craft, I have a question about your approach to memoir. A novel offers the writer ultimate control—we can change and shape every single detail. But nonfiction in its commitment to truth is much more like life: messy and asymmetrical, it can resist a tidy narrative. And yet your true story is such a compelling read! I want to know how you did it! When you first made a list of the places you wanted to visit and the people you wanted to meet in your efforts to examine the connection you and so many of us share with the Little House books, I imagine you had some idea in mind of what you would find and perhaps an idea of what shape the book would take. But as you went through the journey, I imagine that some of those expectations were thwarted. Was it difficult to make the book adapt as your understanding of Laura culture changed and deepened? Were there any experiences that worked out so differently, you couldn't include them? What dictated the structure of the book?
Wendy: It's been a strange process, Kelly, trying to shape lived experience into narrative, especially with this book. With my first memoir, I’d had a few years’ perspective on the events I was writing about, and time served as a very good editor, filtering out irrelevant details.
It was definitely harder with The Wilder Life, where I had less time to ruminate on every experience AND I went into every trip knowing I’d be writing about it a month or two later. Sometimes I really had to struggle with my own instincts when I did all these things, especially when they were weird and uncomfortable (as with the weekend with the end-times-obsessed folks). I had to decide whether it was better to doggedly stick it out for the sake of the book, or just go with my gut. Usually I wouldn’t know whether or not I made the right decision until I went back and tried to write about it later. Thus some of things I did for the sake of the book got left by the wayside—getting fitted for a corset, for example—because in the end it just didn’t feel interesting enough to be worth recollecting.
And then there were experiences that didn’t turn out anything like I’d hoped but were extremely crucial. De Smet, South Dakota, was one of the most important destinations in my homesite trips, and yet I left early. For lack of a better phrase, something “wasn’t working” about being there—something didn’t feel right—and after one full day there, I found myself impulsively hitting the road instead of staying another night like I’d planned. About an hour after I left, I thought, “what did I just do?” I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d blown it, that I’d made a huge mistake. It was hard to go back and write about it and figure out my reasons for leaving, but it was extremely useful, too, and I’m glad I let go of my expectations.
Speaking of expectations: What happens when your characters change course on you? Do you have a sense of where someone’s story is going, or do they take the lead? I only have to worry about myself as a protagonist, but I imagine that with fiction it’s much different . . .
Kelly: Fiction writers tend to fall into two camps: planners (the outliners) and pantsers (the writers who fly by the seat of their pants). I’m always a little embarrassed to admit this for some reason—maybe it feels a little like cheating—but I am a planner, in writing and in life. I can’t go to the grocery store without a list, and I can’t start a novel without an idea about what’s going to happen. That said, even when I do have grand plans for my characters, sometimes they surprise me. One of the characters in a novel I am working on right now recently did this. Rowena is an upper-class woman who, because of her husband’s death in the Civil War and her father’s deteriorating mental health, has lost all her money and is trying to figure out what to do with her life. I knew she would be pretty angry about what happened, since it was completely out of her control, and I knew she would start to resent her friends who continued to live comfortable lives. But I wasn’t sure exactly how she would express what she was feeling. Then one day I was writing a scene in which a friend comes to visit, and out of nowhere, Rowena steals a brooch off the woman’s coat as she hangs it up in the hall. I thought it was an isolated incident, but a few scenes later she was stealing again. I had not planned for this, but Rowena has a mind of her own.
Those little surprises happen, I think, when the character becomes real enough to be a whole person who (strange as it sounds) really is capable of acting independently of your will. The trick is to have a plan but a loose plan, so that the characters can change it.
Last question for you, Wendy—what are you working on now?
Wendy: I’d love to say I’m working on a book, but the truth is that I’m working on planning my wedding next month! But at my job at Albert Whitman and Company, we’ve just launched our young adult imprint, so in between all the craft store shopping excursions, I’m still getting my new-book excitement fix in. Hoping that once the dust and the petals settle, I can start on something new, the way you are.
Kelly: Oh, boy. Planning a novel has nothing on planning a wedding. Wishing you and your sweetie a lifetime of happiness, with lots of time for reading and writing!
Thanks Kelly and Wendy!
Kelly O'Connor McNees is a former editorial assistant and English teacher. Originally from Michigan, she now resides with her husband in Chicago.
Wendy McClure has been writing about her obsessions online and in print for nearly a decade. In addition to her 2005 memoir, I'm Not the New Me, she is a columnist for BUST magazine and has contributed to The New York Times Magazine. McClure holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She lives in Chicago, where she is a senior editor at the children's book publisher Albert Whitman & Company.