Interview with Kathleen Wilford about Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt

Shari: Hi Kathleen! I’m so excited to chat with you today about your debut novel, Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt, which just released on September 1! Tell us about your book, and what led you to write this story!

Kathleen: Thanks so much for having me on MG Book Village!

Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt is set in Kansas in 1875, the year after the grasshoppers devastated the state. My main character, Cabby, is an “outdoor kind of girl,” more interested in farming than fashion. Cabby’s struggling homestead is her first real home, and she’s desperate not to lose it, even if that means accepting a housemaiding job at stuffy, high-class Ashford manor. She’s also a bit naïve and has what her mother calls an intemperate tongue. These qualities get Cabby in trouble when, hoping to save her home and get out of a job she hates, she hatches an improbable matchmaking scheme between her romantic older sister and the young lord of Ashford Manor. When her rash plot backfires, Cabby must use her voice to stand up for herself, a Native American friend, and her entire community threatened by land-grabbers.

As for what led me to write this story: When I learned that British aristocrats had founded a settlement on plains of Kansas in the 1870’s, I imagined a young homesteader going to work at one of the grand homes of the settlement. And the character of Cabby was born. 

Shari: Cabby Potts sounds like such a fascinating character, full of schemes and plans, but with her heart in the right place.  Was there a particular inspiration for her character, and what do you like most about her? 

Kathleen: You’re right, Shari. Cabby is impetuous and quick to draw conclusions, and she tends to leap before she looks! But, like you say, she has a big heart and would do anything to save her family and her home. She was inspired by some of my favorite literary heroines, Laura Ingalls and the pioneer women of Willa Cather. Like them, Cabby doesn’t care about “frippery,” and she’s eager to get her hands in the dirt.  

Shari: HIstorical fiction requires some research to get the setting and details just right.  Would you tell us about your research process? What drew you to this period of history? Were there any fascinating factoids you came across during your research that didn’t make it into the book?

Kathleen:My book is based on the true story of the Victoria settlement in Kansas, so of course I began with learning everything I could about that. In general, I like to begin with books that situate the time period I’m studying in a larger historical context. I follow that up with more specific books and then with primary sources. For Cabby Potts, I consulted homesteader journals, 1870’s editions of the Dodge City Times, an 1841 book by Dr. Samuel Sheldon Fitch called Diseases of the Chest (fascinating, trust me), Mrs. Beeton’s book on the duties of a housemaid . . . etc.! Since I work for Rutgers University as a writing instructor, I’m lucky enough to have access to the rich depth of primary materials owned by the university. I think primary sources are key not only to authentic details but to the language of the times.

Several experts also helped me with questions, and of course, Google is great for filling in details. 

I learned so many fascinating tidbits of information in my research, many of which I couldn’t include in the book but would be happy to tell you about sometime! Some facts that DID make it into the book: people used to believe that walking on the prairie could cure consumption (tuberculosis)—housemaids were not allowed to whistle in the house—dried up buffalo dung was burned for fuel.

One fact that got me thinking was that fully half of all homesteaders didn’t make it and never “proved up” on their claims. We tend to romanticize homesteading on the prairies, but it was brutally difficult.

Shari: What is your favorite part of writing a book? 

Kathleen: Well, my least favorite part of writing a book is outlining—in fact, I just can’t do it. I have an idea of beginning, middle and end before I write, but it’s not a detailed outline.

My favorite part of writing might be revising, oddly enough. I like going over and over a sentence, polishing the style, working on voice, finding just the right words. I also love the research process but have to avoid going down too many rabbit holes. 

Shari: What has been the most surprising aspect of your debut publishing experience, and how would you describe releasing your story into the world?

Kathleen: I didn’t know what to expect in the publication process, so all of it has been surprising, challenging, and exhilarating! I’ve been so grateful for the help and generous support I’ve received, beginning with my publisher, Michele McAvoy of Blue Bronco Books. I’m especially impressed by librarians, who are always working to keep up with new releases and are willing to read and promote new books. And fellow writers have helped by reviewing and boosting as well. The writing community is the best!

Shari:  If readers enjoy Cabby Potts, what other books do you think they will enjoy?

Kathleen: If they love prairie/pioneer stories: Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park, May B by Caroline Starr Rose, and classics like Caddy Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink.

If they love all things British: A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus, The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and classics like the Narnia books.

If they love historical fiction with funny, spunky heroines: Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, and The Summer We Found the Baby by Amy Hest. 

Shari: What are you reading these days?

Kathleen: I was able to pick up some great ARC’s at the ALA Convention in DC (so much fun to sign books there!), including The Secret Battle of Evan Pao, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang and The Last Mapmaker, by Christina Soontornvat. And I have a long middle-grade TBR!

Shari: Can you tell us what you are working on next?

Kathleen: Well, I have some irons in the fire, but most of them are unformed at this point. I hope to settle down to writing this fall.

Shari: Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing, and what is one thing you’d like young readers to know about you?

Kathleen: Readers can connect with me on my website: https://www.kathleenwilford.com/ 

Or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kathwilford

A couple of things people might not know about me:

I was born in a place that no longer exists: The Panama Canal Zone, Panama. (The Canal Zone was once a U.S. territory but was formally returned to Panama in 1999.) I also lived in Costa Rica and Colombia. I can speak some Spanish, but I’m rusty. 

I love to mow the lawn!

Shari: Thank you so much for joining us at MG Book Village to chat about your book.  I can’t wait to read it!

Kathleen: Thanks so much for having me!!

Kathleen Wilford was born in Panama and has lived in four different countries and three different states—but never in Kansas, where her book is set. She studied literature at Cornell University and at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she now teaches writing. When she’s not teaching or writing, Kathleen can be found outdoors, chasing her disobedient dog.

Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt is Kathleen’s debut novel for kids.

Shari Sawyers is a School Librarian in Texas. You can read more about Shari at the MG Book Village “About” page.

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