Q&A With Self-published Susan Wittig Albert
Author: Karen Schechner
December 3, 2013
This boom in self-publishing (according to Bowker’s latest figures, 391,000 books were self-published in 2012, a 59 percent jump from 2011) has launched a revolution in reading—and writing. The questions that arise when talking about self-publishing are about quality. Of course, for some titles, the “quality” is that of a first draft. But so what? Many writers have stopped talking about writing a book and now have actually written one. There’s tremendous value in sitting with a topic long enough to write an entire book about it, even if that value is to the writer alone. And with self-publishing, there can always be a second, fifth, or 23rd draft.
With so many blogs and review sites (full disclosure: I’m the senior Indie editor at Kirkus Reviews) fueling the movement, the bar is rising and the quality is noticeably improving. There will undoubtedly be new, thrilling work. There are already a number of excellent indie titles, including LGBT titles. And of course there were all those famous queers who self-pubbed ages ago: Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf. Today, books that might have never left an author’s hard drive are appealing to readers and the market. With the relatively recent loss of LGBT publishers (Alyson, Carroll & Graf), that’s happy news for queer readers.
The abundance, however, sometimes makes the best reads difficult to find. This sea of books is already the greatest obstacle for LGBT authors trying to stand out. To cast some light on recommended LGBT indie titles, Lambda Lit continues its monthly Q&A with self-published authors and professionals. This month, Lambda Lit speaks with Susan Wittig Albert about her novel A Wilder Rose, the true, untold story of the writing of the Little House books. Albert’s fiction includes mysteries in the China Bayles series, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries she has written with her husband, Bill Albert, under the pseudonym of Robin Paige. She has written two memoirs, and she is founder and past president of the Story Circle Network and a member of the Texas Institute of Letters.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I live on 31 beautiful acres in the Texas Hill Country, with my husband and a changing assortment of chickens, cows, geese, dogs, and cats. I’m a fulltime writer with two current, ongoing mystery series (the China Bayles mysteries, The Darling Dahlias) and two completed series (the Robin Paige Victorians, coauthored with my husband; and the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter). I’ve also written two memoirs, several nonfiction books, and over 60 YA novels. Other than writing, I spend my time reading, gardening (a huge challenge, in our multi-year Texas drought), and doing fiber work.
How would you describe A Wilder Rose? Historical fiction?
It’s fact-based biographical fiction set in the 1930s, which makes it historical fiction, as well. Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was well-known, popular, and highly-paid magazine writer of the 1920s, as well as a ghostwriter (for the journalist Lowell Thomas), a biographer (she wrote fictionalized biographies of Jack London, Charlie Chaplin, and Herbert Hoover), and travel writer. A Wilder Rose describes her life and work during the years of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, focusing especially on her unacknowledged participation in the writing of the Little House books that bear her mother’s name. She had the connections to get the books published and the writing skills to reorganize and polish her mother’s drafts. If it hadn’t been for Rose, the books would never have been published.
You’ve traditionally published in the past. Why did you decide to self-publish this time?
Kerry Sparks, my agent at Levine/Greenberg, shopped a version of the book to about 35 editors. They were interested, but most of them wanted to suggest major changes in the way I handled the characters. Some thought that fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder might be distressed by the idea that Laura was not the sole author of the Little House books; others thought that the market for the book was too small. Numbers count, in the book business.
I could have reshaped the characters to suit an editor, but biographical fiction can set up some fairly substantial limits in the way real people can be presented. And in this particular case, I had a true story to tell. I didn’t feel comfortable making Rose more conventionally appealing or making Laura more like the author some readers might expect. In other words, I needed more creative control over the book than I was likely to get if I went with a legacy publisher. I felt confident that many readers would be interested in the real story of the real Laura and Rose, without cosmetic changes. Bottom line: I wanted to do this book my way.
Add to that my interest in the fascinating new world of self-published books, where authors who are willing to take risks can come up with new ways to tell stories. I felt that A Wilder Rose was the right book to take a chance on.
How would you advise authors interested in self-publishing?
I’d suggest building a base in social media before you start planning on self-publishing a book. Then do your homework. There’s a lot to learn about book production and marketing, and there are plenty of self-published authors who have been there, done that, and are willing to share their experience. Figure out what you want to do, connect with them, and start asking questions. Then dig in and write the best book you can write.
You unearthed fascinating information about Rose Wilder Lane; Laura Ingalls Wilder; the Little House books; and the publishing industry, including details about Virginia Kirkus, the Saturday Evening Post, and what was then called Harper & Brothers. What was your research process like?
A Wilder Rose was a long time in the making. In one sense, it began when I was a kid, devouring the Little House books—I practically memorized some of those chapters. Later, when I was in grad school, studying literature, I began to be interested in Rose’s work, then made the connection to the books that bore her mother’s name.
But that meant that I had to read everything that both women had written, including Rose’s unpublished diaries and Rose and Laura’s unpublished letters. I made several trips to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, where Rose’s papers are held, and borrowed Laura’s manuscripts (in microfiche). I transcribed Rose’s 1928-1938 diaries (83,000 words!), and used that as the fact-basis for the novel. I also dug up as much information as I could about what was going on during those chaotic years—the Depression, the climate disasters, the New Deal (to which Rose and Laura were opposed), the faltering publishing industry, and so on.
I also relied on the work of other Wilder/Lane researchers. Bill Holtz’s fine biography of Rose, Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane, answered a number of questions for me, as did the work of John Miller, Anita Fellman, and others. Altogether, I’d say that the process of researching this novel was like doing the research for a Ph.D. dissertation—a dissertation that ended up as a novel.
For readers who want to look into that research material more deeply, I’ve written a Reader’s Companion. It will shortly be available as a Kindle book.
In A Wilder Rose, Rose lives and travels with a woman she nicknames Troub. They certainly seem to be a couple, though that’s never explicitly stated. Do you have any insight into their relationship that you didn’t include in the book?
We know some things about the relationship between Rose and Troub (Helen Dore Boylston, who went on to write the Sue Barton, Nurse and the Carol Page, Actor series for girls) is this. We know that Troub first appeared in Rose’s life as a mentee who wanted help with her writing; that the two women traveled and lived together for over six years (1925-1932); and that they exchanged letters when they were apart. They were obviously deeply fond of one another and presented themselves as a couple to their friends.
Among those friends were other same-sex couples, such as Mary Margaret McBride and Stella Karns, whose relationship endured for many years. And in the late 1930s and 1940s, Troub was a friend and neighbor of the actress Eva Le Gallienne, who once told a friend that love between women was “the most beautiful thing in the world.”
I must also add that Rose’s mother, Laura, was clearly unhappy about her daughter’s affection for Troub—and that Troub’s presence in the house may have been one of the contributing factors to Laura’s decision to accept Rose’s offer to build a “retirement cottage” for the Wilders. We can’t know for certain, however, whether that dislike stemmed from jealousy, from suspicion, or from a worry about what the neighbors might think (one of Laura’s great concerns). It may have been for the same reasons that Laura disliked Rose’s other friend, Catharine Brody, who stayed at the farm for months at a time after Troub left.
But we don’t have the documentation that would allow us to say with certainty that Rose and Troub had a physical relationship. There is nothing like the remarkably tender and revealing letters exchanged by Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, for example. The letters that Rose and Troub exchanged no longer exist; or, if they do, they are privately held. Troub left no journals, and Rose’s references to Troub in her diaries and journals give no hint of anything beyond a deep affection.
My own personal feeling is that the two enjoyed a physical intimacy during the years they spent in Paris and Albania and in their first couple of years at the farm, when they were renovating the old farmhouse with the intention of living there together. But the challenges of the Crash and the early Depression years changed things between them. Rose felt burdened by the financial support of her parents and the need to stay at the farm. Troub, a free spirit who took adversity lightly and couldn’t understand the hold Laura had over Rose, wanted the two of them to leave and go to New York. By the time Troub ran out of money and left for a nursing job on the East Coast, Rose was ready to let her go.
What are you working on now?
I’m doing the research and some preliminary writing on a 1940s love/espionage novel set in England and North Africa—again, involving real people. I won’t be able to finish the book this year, however, because I have contract obligations for another couple of books in my two mystery series.