Interview with Kathleen Wilford, Author of Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt

Gotta start with the elevator pitch: Tell us about Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt in one sentence. 
A sod house, a grand manor. A mystery, a matchmaking scheme. A tale of the prairie with humor and heart and a touch of romance.
(I know that’s three sentences!)
Anytime I see historical fiction, I figure there has to be some kind of backstory about the inspiration. What brought you to this topic?
I ran across a book called Prairie Fever, by Peter Pagnamenta, and I was intrigued to learn about the British aristocracy’s fascination with the American West. Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt is based on the true story of Victoria, Kansas, an enclave of British aristocrats in the 1870’s. Victoria was designed as a “community of culture and refinement” where “the arts and graces of life” could be imported straight from London.
I couldn’t imagine a bigger culture clash than between the English nobility and hardscrabble American homesteaders. I pictured an outdoorsy 12-year-old girl forced to work as a housemaid at a grand English manor, and the character of Cabby was born. Trying to save her family’s struggling homestead, Cabby plays matchmaker between her pretty, romantic sister Emmeline and the rich young lord of Ashford Manor. What could go wrong with that scheme?
I love the pacing of the Duchess of Dirt. By page 11, we already know about Cabby’s family’s money problems, we see her at her new job, and we meet Lord Ashford. The main elements of the novel are there really quickly–the reader doesn’t have to wait for them. Did you find it difficult to maintain that kind of quick pacing throughout?
Thanks for saying that, Holly. I wanted to grab readers right away and keep them turning pages. I trust I succeeded. Plotting is always a labor of love for me, since I don’t make a detailed outline, so the book went through many revisions.
What was your research like? Did you find out something that completely surprised you? 
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, Duchess of Dirt, 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, I’m lucky enough to have access to the rich depth of primary materials owned by the university. 
As for things that surprised me, how much time do we have?? I learned so many fascinating tidbits of information, 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 surprising fact that informed my book: 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. 
Smack Dab’s followers are frequently writers themselves. Any tips for balancing fact and fiction for the young audience? 
Maybe the most important thing I kept in mind: historical fiction is fiction FIRST. Include facts only as they serve to advance the story or illuminate character, emotion or atmosphere. Otherwise, it’s nonfiction.  
What do you love about this period of history?
I’ve always been fascinated by pioneer literature, from Willa Cather to Laura Ingalls Wilder. My life is so easy compared to women who endured life on lonely prairies, living in sod houses and struggling to keep themselves and their families alive.
I have to say, I love that Cabby’s a housemaid–especially considering the struggle so many parents have getting their kids to keep a single room clean! Did that play into your choices here?
Ha, ha, I never considered inspiring kids to clean their rooms! But I’m an outdoor kind of person myself and would much rather mow the lawn than vacuum my house. So I sympathize with Cabby.
I love your language throughout: phrases like “scolding mood” that give the book a historical feel. But at the same time, Cabby might also shout out “Hey!” which makes the historical setting feel not so far away. Other than overall tone, how do you make an era so long gone feel vibrant and important to young readers? 
I think young readers enjoy immersing themselves in a different world or time period, and part of that is language. Reading a lot of primary sources helped me find my tone and dialect. I hope readers will get a kick out of the contrast of dialect between, say, Lady Ashford and Bub Skyler, who uses words like “hornswoggling,” which means deceitful. At the same time, as you say, authenticity has to be balanced with relatability.  
You include so many topical issues: haves and have-nots, some racial issues (Cabby’s Native American friend)--so often, historical fiction tells us more about who we are now. What current messages do you hope young readers take away from Cabby’s story?
I hope kids will enjoy a funny, fast-paced story with lots of drama! Beyond that, I hoped to give readers a clearer picture of the homesteading life. Along with showing how difficult the life was, I wanted readers to see how race and class prejudices infiltrated even supposedly egalitarian rural America. Cabby wakes up to this prejudice as she forms a friendship with Eli, a half-Kiowa boy. She finally learns to use her “intemperate tongue” to stand up for him, her family, and her whole community. In Cabby Potts, I tried to portray a funny, feisty girl growing into more awareness of her world, with all its imperfections. She learns to use her voice to make that world a better place, something I hope we all can do.
What’s next?
I have some irons in the fire, but they’re pretty unformed at this point.
Short bio:

Kathleen Wilford was born in Panama and has lived in four different countries and three different states—but never in Kansas. 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.
Connect with Kathleen at
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Ordering info is on my website or:
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  1. O!! How interesting! I love historical fiction, and this one sounds really interesting!!


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