Pop culture aficionados may know Wendy McClure from her column in Bust magazine, which delves into contemporary concerns such as the public’s obsession with the behavior of young celebrities and how 2013 was Hollywood’s “The Year of the Boobs.” Others may remember her Pound blog and the resulting 2005 book, I’m Not the New Me, which chronicled her efforts to lose weight. In a second memoir, 2011’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, she explored her obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Books. She also maintains a day job as an editor at Albert Whitman and Company, where she is in charge of The Boxcar Children series. Now McClure has donned yet another hat – children’s novelist – with the publication of Wanderville (Razorbill, Jan.), first in a historical fiction series set in 1904. She spoke with PW from her Chicago home about the pleasures of immersing herself in earlier eras, the importance of building authentic historical voices, and the challenges of navigating among different genres.
The concept of children fending for themselves plays a large part in Wanderville, as it does in The Boxcar Children. How influenced is Wanderville by your work on Gertrude Chandler Warner’s series?
Oh, definitely very influenced. I know that kids are always looking for adventure stories and I know kids like reading about independence. When you’re a kid, the idea of being on your own is almost subversive. As an editor, I often have to guide authors to avoid the tendency to include adults watching over the kids.
Really? Do you find authors are reluctant to leave kids alone in scenes?
Yes. That’s not where the kids’ heads are! A lot has to do with perspective. If you haven’t fully inhabited the right perspective for writing for kids, you might keep the adults in too much. Of course, there are times when you need to have the reassuring presence of an adult, but I generally try to get adults out of the way as much as possible.
Whenever I’m reading children’s fiction as an editor, I always pay attention to how parents are portrayed in the story, because often those are the spots where the adult author tries to insert him or herself. If, two pages into the first chapter, the eight-year-old protagonist is suddenly going on about her dad’s decision to get his real-estate-agent certification, then clearly there’s a problem with perspective.
At the same time, though, when writing Wanderville, I had to be careful not to be too “classic” when it came to writing about these independent kids. In a lot of the older books, orphan protagonists never seemed to dwell on the loss of their families; their attitudes reflected a harder social era. But modern readers – and especially kids – are more emotionally attuned. The idea of the stock “tough orphan kid” who is free to go wherever just doesn’t ring true to them. My editor, Gillian Levinson, really pushed me to make this side of my characters more visible, to have each of them think about their memories and to have them carry their experiences with them through their adventures.
The children in Wanderville are taken out of New York City to the Midwest on an orphan train. How did your interest in the orphan trains come about?
I knew about the orphan trains years ago – in one of the Boxcar Children books one of the character’s background includes the orphan trains, and then I saw a wonderful PBS documentary about them. Once I started reading about them, I saw how large-scale an operation it was, and how much uncertainty there was. The phenomenon of the orphan trains was so multilayered: it began with such good intentions, but at the same time, kids were sometimes exploited for labor. I found myself experiencing a wide range of emotions when reading about the orphan trains.
In the world of children, it was unprecedented, which is what inspired me to explore it from the kids’ point of view. And then, so many children’s stories start with children being sent away, so it was a good concept to start from.
Can you describe your research process for this book?
First, I read all I could about orphan trains. There is some really good kids’ nonfiction out there. For example, Andrea Warren’s books We Rode the Orphan Trains and Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s Story. I read adult books, too, and then I found some actual recordings of orphan train riders talking about their experiences. I’m also doing some family history right now, and I came across a big cache of photos of my family from around the turn of the 20th century and became immersed in those while working on Wanderville.
For the New York part of the story, I visited the Tenement Museum in New York, and I watched the wonderful Ric Burns film on PBS, New York: A Documentary Film. Then I looked at a lot of Jacob Riis photos from the 1800s, from the book How the Other Half Lives, and also found work by Lewis Hine, who is known for photos of kids working – in mills and tenements and on farms, picking berries and things like that. The National Archives has lots of archived material posted on Flickr, and I spent a lot of time looking at that material, too.
Your previous book, The Wilder Life, also involved extensive research. How did that one come about?
That book was the result of rereading the Little House books for the first time in 30 years. I was afraid to go back to them; I was afraid they wouldn’t be as good as I remembered – but they were! They blew my mind. Then I found out I could visit all the home sites from the book, and that there are museums at each site, so I did.
I was obsessed with the books as a child, but I never thought to ask my parents to take me to the sites, to the museums, etc. As an adult I realized I could visit them, so I said, “Let’s go!”
How long did it take to do all that travel?
I made a one-week trip to the Midwest, and then several weekend trips. But besides the travel, I also immersed myself in replicating all the activities the family engaged in. For example, I bought myself a butter churn and made butter. I would say that, all in all, it was a solid six months of immersion in that world. I kept saying one day I would write a book about all this and a friend finally said: “Write it!”
And then was it easy to sell?
Yes, I have a great relationship with Megan Lynch at Riverhead [who edited I’m Not the New Me] and she was excited about it. A lot of people got it right away, in fact – people who grew up in the 1970s watching the television show.
Did your research process for Wanderville differ from that of The Wilder Life?
With Wanderville, the immersive experience continued. A great moment was when I was working on the first draft of Wanderville while at a writing festival in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, promoting The Wilder Life. I could hear the trains going by at night, and I would go look at the photos at the Old Courthouse Museum on Main Street, where I also found some orphan train stories. In fact, there’s an orphan train museum in Concordia, Kansas – the National Orphan Train Complex – that I still want to get to.
How about the writing process: how does it differ for the different genres you work in?
For fiction, I plot and work from that – that’s the editor in me. The first time doing a draft is the hardest, but then the editor in me can take over. For nonfiction – especially memoir, there is a lot more flailing around. Actually that’s true for both genres! With nonfiction, life is the outline. The short nonfiction pieces are the hardest for me. Often there’s something I want to write about, but I don’t know why. I don’t find out why until I begin writing. When I’m working on something every day and get stuck, I take a notebook and just scrawl.
The voice in Wanderville is very different from the voice of your essay and memoir work. How do you handle going back and forth between the different voices?
It helps to be working on things at different times. I have to compartmentalize a lot. I try to set aside time for just one project. It’s the hardest, as I said, when doing the first draft. I haven’t been doing much nonfiction since working on Wanderville, except for the Bust columns. Those columns give me a little break from living at the turn of the century.
Also, some of my research includes reading prose of the Wanderville era – 1901-1904 – and that really helps to build the voice. I read old newspaper clippings and articles and I immersed myself in the McGuffey Reader that Frances [in Wanderville] reads. I make word lists from the older writing, and note old phrases, such as “go saw your timber.”
What first drew you to writing?
I’ve been writing forever – since I was a kid. First I drew pictures, then I had the feeling, when I was about eight or nine, that I was going to become a writer. I felt there was an inevitability to it that I dreaded. One of my friends had a sign on her bedroom door that noted “her name, writer.” I thought it was dumb, but I also saw it was me.
At first I wrote stories, but from junior high on I wrote poetry, and that continued into graduate school. I earned my MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers Workshop. At Iowa you had to decide what you were, so I decided I was a poetry writer. But the poetry stopped a few years after I left Iowa; it didn’t feel like me anymore. When I started blogging, I moved into nonfiction – something I never dreamed I would do.
How do you balance your work as a writer and as an editor?
Sometimes I have to cut my editing hours a little to write, but again, it’s compartmentalizing. I can’t work on my novel on my lunch hour, like some people can do. I work at work and I write at home. I write on weekends, and right after I get home from work. If I leave the writing to the last thing at night, it doesn’t get done.
That’s a very full life.
People say that, but it doesn’t seem remarkable to me. Most of my authors have day jobs. And my writing routine comes from years of coaching people on how to make time to work on revisions.
Are you pretty disciplined as a writer, then?
Not enough! But it gets done. I like to think I’m pretty good on deadlines. Having a schedule where you have to fit things in helps a lot. And I find that airports are great places to work, especially when you can’t get wifi!
More books are coming in the Wanderville series; are you also working on more memoir-style books?
There are a couple of projects I’m trying to develop between Wanderville books. The family history I mentioned earlier might be the topic of some adult nonfiction for me.
Can you give a hint of what future books in the Wanderville series will hold?
I’m revising the second book right now, and there are lots of hobos in it. I had a blast doing the hobo research. I found a great book from 1892 called Tramping with Tramps by Josiah Flynt – – a personal memoir of traveling with hobos that is very colorful. It’s a great source for pre-Depression-era hobo life! And I hope to get the kids to the St. Louis World’s Fair in one of the books.
What do you find fulfilling about these two very different genres: pop culture and vintage literature?
That’s such an interesting question. I would say that both are about time; pop culture is about what’s happening right now but you can also get incredibly nostalgic looking, say, at Lindsay Lohan just a decade ago. I think it’s about seeing history happen in two different ways. For both pop culture and historical fiction, you can take it very seriously but it can also be very irreverent. For example, if Laura Ingalls Wilder were on Twitter, what would she be tweeting about that would be the equivalent of tweeting about Beyoncé’s latest album? I guess it’s the idea of – not exactly time travel – but watching time happen.
Wanderville by Wendy McClure. Razorbill, $16.99 (Jan.) ISBN 978-1-59514-700-4