Best Books of 2013: A Literary Legend's Hidden Life


Photograph of Susan Wittig Albert courtesy of the author.

Susan Wittig Albert is no newcomer to publishing. With several best-selling mystery series to her name, including The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, The Darling Dahlias and China Bayles, Albert has made a career in stories. But there was one story she could not convince any publisher to take on. 

“This book has had several lives,” Albert says of her first self-published novel, A Wilder Rose. Her research into Rose Wilder Lane's work on Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books began more than two decades ago. The book tells Lane's story largely in flashbacks, as she fills in an eager young protégée on the family obligations that brought her world-traveling days to an end and brought her back to her parents' Missouri farm for much of the 1930s. Lane tries to maintain her own writing career and separate herself from her occasionally demanding mother—she even draws on her love of home-building to set her parents up in a second house on the property when her royalty checks come in—but as Lane's rewritten versions of Wilder's tales of her pioneer childhood become best-sellers, her own writing, friendships and independence yield to the world of the Little House books. 

This mother-daughter conflict does not dominate the book, though, and Albert also captures Lane's own personality, particularly her dedicated libertarianism, the driving force behind her own impassioned writing about contemporary farmers' lives and her opposition to all government intervention. The book leaves the reader with a full picture of Lane as a journalist, novelist, businesswoman and caretaker whose life was as compelling and dramatic as the stories she rewrote for her mother.

Albert originally planned to write a creative nonfiction book about Lane's role in developing her mother's iconic series, but her agent, Kerry Sparks of Levine Greenberg, found no takers when she submitted the manuscript to editors.

The rejections fell into two categories: “They thought that the size of the potential audience for this was small,” Albert says—there had been several academic works written about Lane but nothing for a general audience—or else there was interest but from publishers who wanted a different version of the story, one that maintained the legend of Missouri housewife Wilder as the primary author of the books. “I always thought we put books out to make people think,” Albert says, but she found little support when she decided to challenge one of the deeply held literary myths of the 20th century.

As the rejections piled up, Albert collected the editorial feedback she received and incorporated it as she rewrote the narrative, this time as a novel. Although she considered submitting the manuscript again, several questions of timing convinced Albert that self-publishing was the right path for her book.

First, there was the time she had already put into the project. “I really want this story out there,” Albert notes. Second, the South Dakota State Historical Society Press announced its plans to publish an annotated edition of Pioneer Girl, Wilder's manuscript memoir that served as the basis for the Little House books, and Albert wanted her book to appear at the same time. (Publication was scheduled for this summer, but in February, the press announced that the book would be delayed.)

Finally, Levine Greenberg launched a program designed to support its authors across publishing platforms, and Sparks was open to self-publishing. “Kerry said, 'OK, how do you want to publish this?' ” Albert says, and the process began.

She decided to make the book available across platforms and distributors in order to reach both individual and institutional customers. Paperback and e-book versions will be available through Amazon's CreateSpace, while Ingram's Lightning Source will produce a hardcover version that Albert hopes libraries will add to their collections via distributor Baker & Taylor. “Because my work has been in libraries all over the country,” she says, she hopes libraries will be interested in acquiring A Wilder Rose as well, so accommodating that market was essential.

With production decisions made, Albert is now focusing her efforts on marketing and promotion. She is already adept at connecting directly to her readers, something she has done since the days when All About Thyme, her China Bayles newsletter, was printed and mailed four times a year to fellow herb enthusiasts. Today, the weekly newsletter is online, and Albert maintains an active social media presence and a blog, Lifescapes.

A Wilder Rose also has its own website, where a reader's companion will be available for download, offering a window into Albert's considerable research. “It's the facts that document my fiction,” she says.

A Wilder RoseOther aspects of marketing have been more of a learning experience. For instance, her publishers had always taken care of securing blurbs for her previous books. “Self-publishers really have to put some thought into that,” Albert says. But enthusiastic endorsements have not been hard to come by:  Little House scholars, including William Holtz and Anita Clair Fellman, are fans, and Kirkus gave the book a starred review, calling it “pitch-perfect....Albert has written a nuanced, moving and resonant novel about fraught mother-daughter relationships, family obligation, and the ways we both inherit and reject the values of our parents.”

Albert has also reached out to online reviewers, sending copies of the book to selected book bloggers and making the book available on NetGalley, where she has seen reviewers' enthusiasm spread: As NetGalley reviewers post their comments on GoodReads, Albert has noticed A Wilder Rose on a steadily growing number of the website's to-be-read lists.

Although early critical and popular reaction has been largely positive, Albert is prepared for her detractors as well: “I'm expecting some push back from the Laura industry,” she says. “I'm expecting some people to say, 'Oh, she's trashed Laura.' ” But readers who are open to learning the real history of the Little House books will find, not a hatchet job but, the story of a professional writer who spent her life balancing her own work with the juggernaut she helped her mother create, as well the ebb of the pioneer generation, the nature of family and houses of all sorts. (Particularly astute readers will notice several mentions of Kirkus Reviews founder Virginia Kirkus, who was one of Wilder's early editors.)

For Albert, writing A Wilder Rose was a special opportunity. “To a writer, a story like this comes along only once in a lifetime,” she says. But although Albert wants readers to understand how much Lane's story matters to her, she is not turning her back on writing mysteries. “I don't want to diminish that work,” she says, and fans can look forward to plenty of upcoming volumes in her ongoing series. As for continuing to publish her own work, that remains a possibility. Albert is working to regain the rights to some of her early books, and she looks forward to bringing them back into print in the future.

Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller in Massachusetts.


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