I read Kenmore, Washington author Kirby Larson’s Newbery Honor-winning book Hattie Big Sky when it came out in 2007. The story of 16-year-old Hattie, who moves to Montana by herself to try to prove up on a homestead claim left to her by her bachelor uncle, completely captured my heart, and I hand-sold it to everyone I could. Not too long afterward, I got to meet Larson at a regional booksellers’ conference, and she was every bit as charming and humble as I could have wished Hattie’s creator to be.
I waited to see if a sequel to Hattie Big Sky (HBS) would be forthcoming, but after a couple of years, I figured Larson had left the story where it was. Imagine my surprise—and my delight—in February of this year, when I was shelving books and discovered Hattie Ever After, the long-awaited sequel. Naturally, soon after touching the book for the first time, I grabbed it to take home and read. When finished, I had so many questions for the author that I thought I would see if I could get some of them answered for myself and other curious readers. I caught up with Larson by email for this interview. Want more? Larson maintains a website: kirbylarson.com, and a blog: kirbyslane.blogspot.com.
AM: The end of Hattie Big Sky seems to leave the back door open for a sequel, yet you wrote that you had no intention of writing another book about Hattie. What made you decide to continue her story?
KL: Everyone else seemed to think the way you do about the ending of Hattie Big Sky but I certainly didn’t. I loved the ending and thought I had left Hattie in a good place. My readers, however, had a different opinion and after hearing from hundreds and hundreds of them—including one young woman who wrote that I’d left her hanging like “an upside-down question mark”—I softened my no-sequel stance. A few years ago, I re-read HBS and fell in love again with that character, making the decision that if I could find a satisfying dramatic question for her to resolve, I would forge ahead with another book about her.
AM: Hattie Big Sky was based partially on your great-grandmother’s homesteading adventure. In your Author’s Note to that book, you said that your great-grandma actually proved up on her homestead claim. Does that mean that Hattie Ever After is not at all based on later events in your great-grandma’s life?
KL: Not one whit! After leaving Montana, my great-grandma moved to Idaho to help her sister and brother-in-law run a fish camp (she cooked). That’s where, at age 37, she met and married Raymond Wright, recently widowed with four little kids. I do not doubt that the real Hattie would have had wonderful stories to tell, but she wasn’t one to talk about herself.
AM: At first I wasn’t sure if I’d like Hattie Ever After as much as Hattie Big Sky because I enjoyed the rural setting and the homesteading aspect of the first book so much. But I was soon captivated all over again by Hattie. Why did you choose to move Hattie to a big city, and what have reader responses to this been?
KL: Honestly, I didn’t plan to send Hattie to the big city! My initial intention was to send her on a cross-country road trip but she fiercely resisted my plans. When I realized that writing those Honeyocker Homilies for her hometown paper had awakened a fresh dream, I knew she had to go somewhere where she’d have lots to write about. I don’t honestly remember how I zeroed in on San Francisco— but that decision was certainly influenced by my finding a great 1919 map of the city, along with a terrific old book on early journalism in California.
AM: Part of what I love about Hattie is her voice. It’s a great mix of poetic and down-to-earth. How did you develop it?
KL: Thank you for that compliment. Hattie’s voice was born from hours of reading diaries and journals, especially those written by women homesteaders, by reading old newspapers and by writing letters, in Hattie’s voice, to all the characters in the first book until I felt I had a good handle on her. That being said, a dear friend from high school wrote me after reading HBS to say that she could hear me in Hattie’s voice.
AM: In HBS, Uncle Chester writes to Hattie that he’s been a “scoundrel” when he leaves her his homestead in his will. But we—and Hattie—don’t find out anything about what he meant until HEA. Did you have any idea what Uncle Chester was referring to when you were writing the first book?
KL: True confession: I have NO IDEA why I wrote those words in the first book! Uncle Chester wasn’t a fully developed character for me except in terms of his life in Montana; I really hadn’t thought about where he’d come from or what he did before trying his hand at homesteading. In a way, that was a blessing: that serendipitous addition was the first stepping stone into the second book.
AM: I loved Hattie’s running conversations with “the Almighty” in the first book, where she told God all about her daily life. You toned the faith element down in HEA. Was there a specific reason for this?
KL: That’s an interesting observation. I can see where you might feel that way, however. In the first book, because Hattie is pretty much alone out there on the prairie, her conversations with God were a great way to help the readers know what she was thinking and feeling. In the second book, she’s around plenty of folks so I was able to use those other interpersonal relationships to show her thoughts and emotions.
AM: The title Hattie Ever After is sort of a pun that gives us a clue the story will turn out well. But I wasn’t at all sure while reading it. Without giving away the ending, can you tell us if you knew all along how the story would wrap up, or if you considered any alternate endings?
KL: I knew there was only one way for the story to end, but I wasn’t sure about the timing or the “trappings” of the ending. That jelled for me as I began to more fully understand her reporting experiences.
AM: The Hattie books are excellent crossover novels. They’re sophisticated enough for adult readers, yet wholesome and engaging for middle readers. I handsell them to everyone from age 8 or 9 up through teens and adults. Was it your intention to have them appeal to a wide age span?
KL: I was so surprised and delighted when I heard from “adult” readers who had connected with HBS; and I was equally surprised to hear from readers as young as 8 or 9. As a writer, I have no control over who will read my books and, please don’t take this in the wrong way, I don’t think about readers as I write. I simply try to focus on being as true to my character and her story as I can be. I’m a firm believer in my friend Nancy Pearl‘s observation that, “There are 50 books every person should read, but it won’t be the same 50 books for every person.” I feel so blessed that both of Hattie’s stories seem to be on so many 50 book lists!
AM: What’s next? Hattie’s story, as much as I love her, seems finished, unless you’re going to take her on an Anne of Green Gables-type life odyssey. I know you came to really enjoy historical research while writing the Hattie books. Do you plan to write more historical fiction?
KL: Historical fiction has me completely under its spell—in the fall, I will have the first of two middle grade novels, Duke, set in WWII. Both books feature dogs (the second book comes out in fall 2014). And I’m working on a quirky book that is historical fiction, but in the vein of A Series of Unfortunate Events. And I have about five more ideas I’m eager to tackle! (No rest for the wicked.)