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Thu Feb 06 2014

Wendy McClure's Wanderville: An Interview

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It happens to everyone, from time to time: we encounter a piece of American history we never dreamed existed. Wendy McClure's new book, Wanderville, tells the tale of three youngsters sent to Kansas on an "orphan train" at the turn of the twentieth century. The orphan train movement, for the uninitiated, sent orphans and homeless children (and sometimes children with parents who were alive and well) out west to foster homes on the lookout for a new addition to the family, and sometimes just an extra pair of helping hands. Founded by the Children's Aid Society, whose only desire (naturally) was do-gooding, the orphan train movement lasted from 1853 through 1929: a staggering stretch of American history. McClure's characters, however, take matters into their own hands and jump train; on the run, they encounter another orphan train refugee who introduces them to Wanderville, a town he's created from trees, rocks, and his imagination.

The book rings deeply true when it comes to the serious business of childhood imagination, and its ability to conjure up a different world with just a few materials at hand (while reading, I had a sudden, vivid childhood memory of "running away" with some Lincoln Logs to build a fire in the wilderness, otherwise known as the empty lot around the block). Imagination inevitably meets reality, but in Wanderville, the children are gifted with the delightful agency to change their circumstances that you can only find in children's literature.

I recently had the good fortune of sitting down with McClure to discuss Wanderville, writing, editing, and orphans. A children's book editor whose previous books include the memoirs I'm Not the New Me and The Wilder Life, which follows her adventures as she taps into her inner Laura Ingalls Wilder, McClure is also a. pretty rad and b. owns a butter churn. As the interview begins, we're discussing McClure's upcoming visit to an elementary school to promote the book, and how she plans to create an enticing presentation for the students.

So what are some of your ideas?
Looking at photos, putting on my 1904 hat--I might get a bowler. I looked up and collected bits of turn of the century slang--certain weird phrases, like "huggermugger" and "how's your poor feet", and I'll have them try to guess what they mean.

What is "huggermugger"?
It means sneaky. Or underhanded.

You hug someone, and then you take their belongings.
Yes! And a handkerchief is "snottinger".

You edit books for the Boxcar Children series, you wrote a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and now a book about turn-of-the-century orphan trains--it seems like you have an affinity for days gone by. Would you say that's true?
Yes, and it kind of grew on me. A few years ago, I wouldn't have said that I was into historical fiction. I'm a 21st century lady all around, but I think the Wilder Life, and re-reading all of the Little House books, sort of plunged me back into a fascination with the past. Around the same time, I unearthed a bunch of family history I hadn't seen before--all of these old photos, dating back to the turn of the century, so I was trying to find out out more about how they lived. That really helped awaken things. I started talking to my agent about ideas.

What arrow specifically pointed to orphan trains?
The idea of kids on their own, having an adventure--that's what drew me to it. The rule that I've always gone by as an editor is that the kids are on their own. I guess it was really two things coming together--one was that feeling of independence, and then also looking at history and thinking, "It's been rough on kids!"

I'd never heard of the orphan trains before I read Wanderville.
Yes, and the orphan train era lasted over seventy years.

From 1853 to 1929--it's crazy to imagine this extending from the pre-Civil War era through the stock market crash. When you sat down to plot out what was happening, did that come to mind fully-formed, or did you come across something in your research that you built upon?
The orphan trains were sort of the starting point, and then from there I got into the adventure. As far as I know, there's no documented account of kids jumping off an orphan train. Sometimes they did run away from situations. There's already some great non-fiction out there about the orphan trains, including some books that interview the last generations of orphan train riders, of whom there are just a couple left. There's a whole range of stories. Some kids went from household to household; some kids wound up in a happy home; some kids wound up just working and being the hired hand.

So the trains would stop in a town, and the children on board would actually be examined.
Kids are reading dystopian stories about things like this, and this really happened! Though it is a bit of a historical re-imagining. One of the really awful things is that these kids were encouraged to forget their families. That was the thing that really threw me. A lot of the kids weren't even orphans. When I was a kid, I was sort of grimly fascinated with the whole orphan thing. And when you look at classic children's literature and then at kids today, it's a weird sort of confluence. Because in the past, it wasn't too unusual to be an orphan, in an era before social services, with high mortality rates. It just became a literary convention--"Of course you're an orphan!" But modern kids won't just accept that. We would get kids all the time writing in and asking what happened to the Boxcar Children's parents.

So is this the first in a series?
Yes. I'm just finishing up book two, and I'm honestly hoping that book three will get them to the St. Louis World's Fair.

What are the big differences between writing a memoir and writing a children's book?
Writing fiction has been very different. I think I started with my editor's mind at first, and then as I started to work, I let the writer in. And it's kind of the opposite with non-fiction. With non-fiction, I'll just blurt stuff out, and I think flail around a little bit before my editorial side takes over and figures out what I'm doing. It's definitely a different process. And it's been kind of nice to be working in a different mode. There's something really giddy about working in fiction.

You can do whatever you want!
In book two, I have two of the characters fight with each other, and it's like--ooooh, they're fighting! Somehow, with the fact that I'm shaping it myself, there's more surprise. I would hear people talking during NaNoWriMo--"My character just did something crazy!"

And now you know that's a real, true thing that can happen.
That's a real, true thing that can happen. And with non-fiction, the aha moments are more insights. It's still story-telling, because you're telling yourself a version of reality in one way, and sometimes with a memoir you have to force yourself to tell it another way, and then you discover something.

Can you ever completely shut off the children's book editor voice in your brain as you're writing?
I think I'm able to. When you're writing, even when you're working on an outline, it's still the E.L Doctorow analogy of the headlights--you're only seeing what's in front of you. Even though I know where I'm going with the plot, in the writing I'm going paragraph by paragraph and sentence by sentence. I just have to write the next one. And a lot of what I have to do as an editor is look at something and make a decision about it on the basis of reading twenty pages. A lot of it has to do with figuring out, as an editor, what you have time for. Knowing that it's me, I'm writing, it's my time, is kind of a relief. I just go ahead. It's a relief knowing that someone else will decide about this, and giving that up. I still do learn things about being an editor from being a writer. Even things like how positive you should be in an editorial letter!

Writing this particular book, you have this historical structure you're working within, and you have to keep referring back to that. As you were writing, did you keep in mind that outline--"I know this needs to be set here" and "These are the kinds of shoelaces they wore!" and then just write within that?
The outlining helps me stay on task with writing a children's story, because there was the feeling that this could get grim. And I knew I wanted to start with them on the train, and have that be the backdrop they're working against, and then I had to figure out a way to get them off the train and away. You might be talking about world-building.

Or how, with something like this, there's an established reality that you're trying to write within, and you have to make sure that it aligns with the fictional aspect.
You could just endlessly look up pictures, or find out how they talked or what they wore, but I think it's better to write and just reach when you need it. At the same time, spend some time immersing yourself in the world, and having things come to you. I think at one point I was going to have book two set in 1903, and at one point they're at the Kansas City Depot, and I was trying to figure out what month it was, and so I'm looking stuff up about the Kansas City Depot, and it turns out that there was a flood there in 1903. And then it's like--oh, no! I have to get the trigger for the flood! Some of those are what they call "trotting horse details". I have a lighter touch with it, too, based on my experience of reading manuscripts where all of the actions and dialogue are skewed towards conveying historical information. "It's the Civil War, Pa!" You reach for a cup. You don't reach for the tin cup with the historically accurate details.

 
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