Susan Wittig Albert
Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the novel, A Wilder Rose, the true, untold story of the writing of the Little House books.
Her award-winning fiction, which has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, 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: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days and Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place, published by the University of Texas Press.
She is founder and past president of the Story Circle Network and a member of the Texas Institute of Letters.
This interview focuses on her most recent novel, A Wilder Rose, the true story of a daughter who transformed her mother from a farmer's wife and occasional writer into a literary legend.
Read Linda Hoye's review of A Wilder Rose for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
Posted on 11/01/2013
Tell us about your own background as a writer and a ghostwriter.
I began my career as a writer when I was still in my teens, writing young adult magazine fiction. College and grad school led to an academic career—and several textbooks and academic books in my field, medieval literary and literary theory. In the mid-1980s, I left the university and began my commercial writing career in young adult series. While about a third of my work was original, many of the 60+ novels I produced (alone or with my husband, Bill Albert) were written under series pseudonyms, such as Carolyn Keene, Franklin W. Dixon, Francine Pascal.
I moved into genre fiction—mysteries—and nonfiction in the early 1990s. I've written 50+ books since then, all of them original work, some of them bestsellers. Bill and I coauthored a dozen Victorian/Edwardian mysteries—so I think I know a little something about team writing.
Very true. What first drew you to Rose Wilder Lane's story and what led you to this research?
The eight Little House books, written under the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder and published by Harper, were my favorite books when I was a kid. I read them over and over.
In the early 1970s, when I was in grad school, I read what Harper called "the ninth book." It was a shocker: clumsy, amateurish, and simply not in the same class as the rest of the series. In the introduction to the book, I read that Laura had a daughter, Rose Wilder Lane—and that Rose had been a bestselling writer in the 1920s and 30s. I had to wonder what role Rose had played in the writing of her mother's books, so I began to collect her books and articles and find out as much about her as I could.
The research trail led to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, where her papers are archived, and to an acquaintance with her biographer, William Holtz.
Why do you think Rose Wilder Lane's voice in Let the Hurricane Roar is less immediate than the one in the Little House books?
The voice of the Little House books (the voice Rose created) is the voice of a storyteller who is speaking (not writing—it is an oral voice) to a group of listening children gathered around her. It is a warm, easy, and comfortable voice, with a vocabulary and syntax perfectly suited to children who are the age of the child-character, Laura. The speaker-listener relationship is close and immediate. This is why these books are so beautifully suited to reading aloud, as many parents know.
But that's not the voice of Rose's Hurricane. That's the voice of an author who is writing the story for adult readers, in adult language, with an adult vocabulary and much more complex syntax. Hurricane is a book that we read with our eyes. It isn't easily read aloud. The writer is in one place, the reader in another—not in the same space (as in the Little House books). That translates to a formal distance between the writer and reader. And that's why it seems to lack "immediacy."
That's very insightful. Can you briefly explain how you blended fact and fiction in this book?
Writing fact-based fiction is a challenge. The time, place, circumstances, events, and the characters are already factually established—they happened, and you can't change that (unless you're writing an alternate history). I start with the facts first, then try to read between the facts to find the motivations, the impulses, the subtexts, the hidden conflicts, the unspoken thoughts and emotions. There's a lot of interpretation in this search, and a great deal of fiction in the final product. But I can only fictionalize and interpret so far as the facts will allow.
When I first began writing A Wilder Rose, I was stuck for a long time on the question of how to tell it. It had to be from Rose's point of view, because Laura left so little trace of her inner life. But how to begin the story—and where to end it? The story came unstuck (if I can put it that way) when I thought of Rose actually telling the story to Norma Lee Browning, her young friend and writing student. That gave me a frame for the narrative. And it gave me a voice: Rose's story-telling voice.
How did Rose make her mother's story so loving when there were so many issues between them?
Rose was a professional writer who was used to working with difficult ghostwriting jobs—like the five (maybe six?) books she wrote for Lowell Thomas in 1932 and 1933, at the same time she was working on the first three books of the Little House series. She simply took her mother's drafts and rewrote them, just as you (Lynn) would take a manuscript from a less accomplished writer and rewrite it for publication.
The two women didn't work together, except in a limited way, in a few limited instances. (Beginning with Book 4, for instance, they only worked by letter, not face-to-face.) Rose worked alone on each manuscript, essentially, rather than with her mother. When she was finished with her rewrites, she gave or sent the manuscripts to her mother, who submitted them as Rose had written them. Their relationship issues just didn't seep into the books, because (for the most part) the production of the books lay outside their relationship.
That makes sense. They were about a time before Rose was born. How do you think the two women would feel about your book?
How would they feel about A Wilder Rose? Laura would sniff disdainfully and say "It's only fiction—and we know what fiction is" (That's essentially what she wrote to the De Smet newspaper editor about Rose's bestselling novels). Rose would likely be offended at my intrusions into her privacy, although I believe (or perhaps I hope) that she would honor my intention and my effort to understand her.
Helen "Troub" Boylston seemed like an exceptional friend. Is there any indication they were more than "just friends" or did their tight bond exist because of their mutual independent spirits?
Their friendship began as a mentoring relationship—Rose helped Troub with her writing—and continued when they decided to travel and live together. There is absolutely no documentation of a physical intimacy between them. However, Helen did not marry after her friendship with Rose ended. Both Rose and Helen were friends of other women who were involved in same-sex friendships. And the letters they exchanged—which would allow us to understand better the basis of their friendship—are missing. What happened to them? Are they locked away somewhere? Were they destroyed? If so, destroyed by Rose, or the man who inherited her literary estate? We don't know the answers to these questions.
That said, what is very clear is that, for more than six years, these two creative, adventuresome, independent women derived a great deal of pleasure in each other's company. They enjoyed a relationship that was mutually supportive and caring. Whatever else it was really doesn't matter, does it?
Of course not; you suggested their deep devotion effectively. What advice do you think Rose would give aspiring writers and what advice would her mother give? Do you agree with their advice?
I believe that Rose would say: Write, write, write. Read your stuff critically, mark it up, and rewrite, rewrite. Write every day, no matter how hot it is, or how tired you are, or how discouraged you feel. Send your stuff out. Don't be disheartened when it comes back—rewrite and try another market. Oh, and be sure to keep a day-to-day diary of your various writing projects, to document the projects you've been engaged in. And to satisfy the curiosity of the researchers who may come along and want to know what you were doing on a particular day.
Laura would say: Tell the story you have to tell, as well as you can tell it. It's okay to use a yellow lined tablet and pencil, if that's all you have available. And if you need help to get your story published, it's very good to have a daughter who is a professional writer.
What are you working on now? Where can readers learn more about your work, and Story Circle Network?
Right now, I'm working on another mystery in one of my two ongoing mystery series published by Penguin/Berkley. (I haven't yet gotten used to saying Random-Penguin/Berkley.) I continue to be an active volunteer with the Story Circle Network, an organization that supports women memoirists. Readers can find out about the organization (and our 2014 national conference) at storycircle.org.
Thanks so much for sharing your insights and observations with us. The combination of Laura's stories and Rose's expert editing, shaping, and polishing have given the world a series that keeps a female perspective of the Old West alive. Thanks for sharing the story behind the story.
To learn more, visit Susan Albert's website and the A Wilder Rose website.