Author Sue Houser strives to preserve New Mexico’s history and traditions through her fiction and nonfiction. Her newest release, Wilmettie (Texas Tech University Press, 2020), is children’s historical fiction inspired by her grandmother’s homesteading experience. Visit Sue at SueHouser.com and on her Amazon author page. To learn about her earlier books, read SWW’s 2017 interview.
What would you like readers to know about the story you tell in Wilmettie?
Wilmettie is the story of a young girl and her family who travel from South Central Texas to homestead in New Mexico Territory in the early 1900s. This historical fiction was inspired by the real life homesteading experiences of my grandmother, Willie Mettie Wright Williams. Her stories have been embellished, but historical events accurately fit the time period and the locations.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
In the first versions, I tried to keep the family stories intact. It wasn’t very exciting. I needed a little more drama and adventure, so I elaborated on various incidents. Some family members didn’t approve, so I shelved the manuscript for a few years. From time to time, the story nagged at me. So I expanded the family stories, but I changed the characters’ names. When my cousin recently asked what his name was changed to, I said, “You’ll have to buy the book and find out.”
Tell us how the book came together.
This has been a long process. About 20 years ago, I was searching for a children’s story and remembered conversations about my grandmother, at 10 years of age, leaving her grandmother in Texas and what a traumatic experience it had been for her.
I first wrote about her as a picture book, then a chapter book in several versions. Then, for ten years, it sat in the drawer. Three years ago, a friend suggested I turn it into historical fiction. Something clicked. I was free to write the story. The research was fun. I spent a year and a half re-writing and submitted it to Texas Tech in October 2018. I received a positive response right away.
How does the setting impact the story and the characters?
I guess the journey would be the setting. Sometimes dangerous, sometimes boring, sometimes exciting. Often challenging. Wilmettie struggles with feelings of resentment for being uprooted from her comfortable life and for the dangerous conditions they face. But the challenges force her to find inner strength and become a self-confident person.
Why will readers connect with Wilmettie, the main character in your book?
Wilmettie lives a comfortable life until she is thrown into a situation she didn’t choose. Her stepfather doesn’t mistreat her, but their relationship is strained. She holds onto feelings of homesickness and resentment. In time, she realizes her own inner strengths. She becomes accepting of the situation and embraces her new life.
What makes Wilmettie unique in the children’s market?
There have been a number of children’s books about covered wagon journeys over the famous Oregon Trail and the gold rush of California. But I have not found any children’s books about homesteaders coming to New Mexico Territory during the early 1900s, a fascinating time in our state’s history.
What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
My grandmother moved away when I was five, and I only saw her for brief visits. But in writing about her experiences, I somehow feel closer to her.
Any upcoming writing projects?
I heard a story ― maybe true, maybe not ― that Al Capone hid out in New Mexico for brief periods of time in the 1920s. I am doing some research. We shall see. Maybe it could be another children’s historical fiction.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.