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Kirby Larson Interview

Hattie Big Sky


Just this month I had the distinct honor of interviewing Kirby Larson, author of Hattie Big Sky and Two Bobbies:  A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival, as well as some other fiction and picture books.  If you haven’t read Hattie Big Sky, be sure to at least read my review so that the interview will make a little more sense.  And by all means, after you enjoy this interview, be sure to find a copy of Hattie and read it!

Now, without further ado, the Hope Is the Word interview of Kirby Larson:

Hope Is the Word:  Hi, Ms. Larson, and welcome to Hope Is the Word.  Let me just say that I am extremely honored and excited to host this interview!  I have never interviewed an author before, and I am especially excited to interview an author whose book, Hattie Big Sky, was one of my favorite reads last year.

I am interested in how you got started as a writer.  I read in another interview that you first began writing essays for an adult audience, but you eventually began writing children’s books.  Can you share with my readers your journey as a writer?

Kirby Larson:  I have always been a reader and I think that led me to try my hand at writing. My first short story sales were to adult markets but the main characters were generally children. It wasn’t until my children were small and I read them Arnold Lobel’s MING LO MOVES THE MOUNTAIN that everything jelled for me. As soon as we finished that book, I wanted to write a story that would touch other families the way this one had touched mine.

Hope Is the Word:  What is a typical writing day like for you?

Kirby Larson:  If I’m home, I generally start off the day by doing the NY Times crossword puzzle (I feel so smart on Mondays, the easiest day!) and then make a latte and head upstairs to my study. I’m working on two things right now: final edits for a second book with my friend, Mary Nethery and another historical novel. I work at my desk all day, but that includes answering the phone and answering emails and that sort of thing. Lately, I’ve been taking my laptop to a local coffee shop to write, just for a change of pace. (I stole that idea from my good friend and critique group member, Dave Patneaude.)

Hope Is the Word:  One thing I really like about Hattie Big Sky is how many disparate parts are brought together into the one story, much like they are in real life.  For example, we have the element of Hattie being a homesteader and all the hard work she does; the element of the German immigrants and their ill treatment; and the hint of romance between Charlie and the possibility of romance between Hattie and Traft Martin.  Of course, then, there is the overarching idea of family that is developed, as well.  How did you come up with all of these very different ideas to incorporate into one novel?

Kirby Larson:  Wow, to hear you describe it, it actually sounds like I knew what I was doing! Here’s the truth: I didn’t start out thinking I’d write a book. I started doing this research because I was fascinated that my great-grandmother had homesteaded by herself as a young woman. Our family didn’t really know her story, so that led me to read about other homesteaders in the 1915-1920 time period. It seemed like I had enough information to write a story so I thought about writing a homestead story older readers, kind of an older Little House on the Prairie. Then I did more research and learned about the anti-German sentiment. I knew I couldn’t write a book honestly without tapping on that. Basically, all of the elements you brought up grew out of trying to tell this story in as truthful a way as possible. People are complicated, as well you know, so that made the story more complicated. I’m just so thankful I didn’t have any idea about all the things I’d have to deal with when I started out; I might never have written the story, if I had!

Hope Is the Word:  One thing I admired about your writing when I re-read Hattie Big Sky just last week is the great economy you practice with your words.   As a writer, do you have any advice as to how to hone this skill?  I’m thinking particularly of how Hattie is able to distill her experience into a sentence or two in her “Honyocker Homilies” and her letter to Uncle Holt and Charlie.

Kirby Larson:  Thank you for this lovely compliment; as someone who tends to overwrite, I will really cherish this observation. When you look at the pages of Hattie Big Sky, you do see my words but what you don’t see is how they were shaped by so many wonderful people: my critique group here in Seattle (Bonny Becker, Kathryn Galbraith, Sylvie Hossack, and Dave Patneaude;) by my Write Sisters (Tricia Gardella, Helen Ketteman, Mary Nethery, Ann Whitford Paul, Dian Curtis Regan, and Vivian Sathre); and by my amazing editor, Michelle Poploff. All of these people read the manuscript, poking and prodding at it — and at me! — until it was the best it could be. (Though, honestly, if given the chance,  there is still some tweaking I’d like to do!)

Hope Is the Word:  How do you pronounce ‘honyocker’?

Kirby Larson:  I say, “hawny-awker”.

Hope Is the Word:  I know that Hattie is modeled after your own great grandmother, right?  Can you elaborate on how much of what happens in the novel is actually based on your great-grandmother’s life?  Hattie seems so mature for her sixteen years; was your great-grandmother this young when she became a homesteader?

Kirby Larson:  As I mentioned above, aside from learning that my great-grandmother did indeed homestead by herself in eastern Montana, I knew very little about her actual story. I was able to send to the National Archives and confirm that she had filed a claim near Vida, and that she did prove up. She was about 20 at the time. Because this was so intriguing to me, I began to read other homesteaders’ diaries and journals and was completely caught up in the stories I read. As to Hattie’s age in the story, a 16-year-old then had a lot more responsibility than a 16-year-old now. I read stories about 8-year-olds being left to run farms for days, while their parents went to town. So I felt comfortable making Hattie 16.

Hope Is the Word:  What process did you use for researching this historical novel?

Kirby Larson:  The research process was messy and circular and included going to Montana three times, digging around in assorted archives (including the Montana State Historical Museum) and reading everything I could get my hands on. This process has taught me to search out the bits of treasure in bibliographies; it also taught me how important primary resources (that is, letters or diaries themselves) are.

Hope Is the Word:  How is the process for writing a novel different than the process for writing, say, a picture book?

Kirby Larson:  Well, Hattie certainly required more research, but I think picture books are actually harder to write than novels. It took me four years to research and write Hattie Big Sky but it took me ten years to write my picture book, The Magic Kerchief! I spent more time plotting Hattie, however, than I generally do for a picture book.

Hope Is the Word:  Your descriptions of Montana really make it sound like you’ve spent time there.  Have you?

Kirby Larson:  I took three research trips there, once traveling by train; spending about a month in all there. I will confess that my trips were in spring and summer seasons; I never braved winter there!

Hope Is the Word: Hattie Big Sky would make a terrific movie.  Are there any hopes of this?

Kirby Larson:  One can always hope, right?! If this happens, I will be sure to let the whole world know.

Hope Is the Word:  Lastly, do you have any hobbies?

Kirby Larson:  Well, before writing became all-consuming, I was a quilter, like Hattie and Perilee. I don’t do that anymore, but I do knit, garden and watch the birds in my backyard. I also take lots of walks, do yoga and talk my husband into taking me out to dinner as often as possible.

Hope Is the Word:  Thank you so much for taking the time to share a little bit about your life and your writing!

Kirby Larson:  Thank you! Your questions were thoughtful and thought-provoking; I enjoyed our time together very much.

Sigh.  This is seriously one of the highlights of my life so far.  I loved this book so much, and to think, now I’ve actually corresponded with the author!  Thanks to Provato Marketing for the opportunity to participate in their winter blog tour.  You can also check out Kirby Larson’s website here.

It’s going to be hard to go back to regular life now.  ; )


9 Responses

  1. Nicely done on the interview, Amy! It is also fun hearing the background story of Ms. Larson. I particularly enjoyed learning about how this book was researched. Thanks BOTH for sharing!

  2. Kirby Larson was my first instructor with the Institute for Children’s Literature. She left to go on to teaching a masters class in writing, but I’ll always be grateful for the mentoring she gave me. This was a great interview; thanks for the insights!

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. It’s always inspiring to hear the mix of work and intention and grace that go into making a story that flies by itself. Thanks for sharing this great interview.

  4. GREAT interview Amy!!!!

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