Here’s how I did it: with a lot of help. There might be only one name on the front cover of my books, but countless people help make them happen. Like Arnold Lobel, whose Ming Lo Moves the Mountain moved me to try my hand at writing for children. Or like my father-in-law, who so believed in my dream that he gave me an IBM Selectric typewriter. Self-correcting! Or like my husband, who, long ago, expressed his confidence by listing “writer” on the occupation line next to my name on our 1040 tax form. This essay would go on for volumes if I named each person to whom I owe thanks, but I wouldn’t be writing at all without my Write Sisters: Tricia Gardella, Helen Ketteman, Mary Nethery, Dian Curtis Regan, Vivian Sathre, and Ann Whitford Paul. And I certainly wouldn’t be writing historical fiction without a much-needed boost from author Karen Cushman.
But my biggest helpmate was my beloved maternal grandmother, a woman who, at age 14, ran away from home to get married. When the Great Depression hit, she was raising four daughters on her own. Often, she worked two jobs to support her family, trading her sewing skills for dance lessons for her girls. She was a single parent, undereducated and unstoppable.
By the time I came along, Grandma had taught herself to paint, and she often invited me into her studio, giving me my own canvas and brushes. My rendering of a golden retriever might have looked more like a cantaloupe, but she never demeaned my efforts. She’d just say, “That’s interesting. Keep going!” Her responses taught me the first lesson of being a writer: that no matter how bad it looks, you’ve got to get that first draft down. Later, she taught me to sew, sternly ordering a redo when the plaids didn’t match at the side seams. Here’s the second lesson she taught me about writing: It takes a lot of work to get a story stitched up just right.
Grandma wasn’t your warm and fuzzy kind of grandma, but I knew she was proud of my first book. And my second. And so was I! In fact, in 1997, when I had five books under my belt (or under contract), I thought I had it made.
Then the universe erected a huge road closed sign. For seven years, nothing I submitted was published. Nothing. I even received a rejection for a 10-word story from Babybug magazine. I was devastated.
As if that weren’t enough, my darling grandmother—who hadn’t let anything stop her from achieving her dreams—was walloped by Alzheimer’s. Not only was I losing the work I loved, I was also losing a precious person I loved. No one would have blamed me for curling up in the fetal position and staying there for the next few years.
No one except my grandmother. Despite her disease, it’s clear to me now that she wasn’t about to let any granddaughter of hers wimp out. One day we were folding towels, and out of the blue she said, “You know, the only time Mom was afraid was in the winter when the wild horses stampeded.”
Me: “Grandma, what are you talking about?”
She was at the stage in her disease when she couldn’t remember what she had just said.
But what she had just said was something I couldn’t forget. We were city folks; when on earth would my great-grandmother—“Mom”—have come into contact with wild horses?
The statement accomplished just what I am sure my grandmother hoped it would. It made me curious. It made me wonder. It made me roll out of that little ball.
There were questions to be answered. One answer astonished me: my great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks, homesteaded all by herself as a young woman on the eastern Montana prairie. During the snowy winters, her slapdash nine-by-12 claim shanty would morph into a mere mogul on the rolling prairie. A bump that a stampeding wild horse might run over, only to crash through Hattie’s flimsy tarpaper roof. Add in temperatures that dipped far below zero and the nearest neighbor living miles away, and you’ve got some pretty good reasons for being afraid.
My wondering at Hattie’s accomplishments, as well as those of other early-twentieth-century homesteaders, propelled me through four years of research, including reading countless journals, diaries, and old newspapers and taking three trips to Montana. Inspired by my great-grandmother’s courage and my grandmother’s spunk, I wrote my first historical novel, Hattie Big Sky. Hattie’s story resonated with a lot of readers, many of whom wrote me demanding that I continue her saga.
A few years back, thanks to such nudgings, I revisited Hattie and discovered I’d missed her. That I wouldn’t mind spending a little more time with her. So her adventure continues in Hattie Ever After, a story in which a stubborn young writer gets by with a little help from her friends.
Just like me.
Kirby Larson (pictured at right) is the acclaimed author of the 2007 Newbery Honor Book, Hattie Big Sky. The sequel, Hattie Ever After, is being released this week. She is also the author of The Fences Between Us and The Friendship Doll, among other books.