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Author Interview and Giveaway

Earlier this week I reviewed Shelley Tougas's book Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life (linked to review). I enjoyed the book so much I reached out to Shelley and asked her a few questions about her newest book. She has generously even offered a giveaway of the book!
Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life was such an enjoyable book to read that I reached out to Shelley to ask a few questions about her just-released book. I'll get right to the interview since you've already read my review of the book (right?). Be sure to read to the end because Shelley Tougas has generously offered a giveaway of the book!
Shelley Tougas

Little House Companion: When did you become a fan of the Little House books?
Shelley Tougas: I started reading them in elementary school. I remember asking for the series as a Christmas present in third grade. I watched the TV show, too, but I’m not sure which came first for me—the show? The books? I think it was the books, because during every TV episode, I was sure to inform my mother whether the plot had actually happened in the books and whether characters were real or made up by the show. I didn’t know until I was an adult that the books themselves were novels based on her real life. Laura herself invented characters. Nellie Oleson didn’t exist in real life. She was created to represent a couple of “mean” girls Laura knew.

LHC: I love that even as a child you noticed how different the Little House on the Prairie television show and the Little House books are. What inspired Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life? 
ST: When I was a kid, I wrote pioneer stories. Clearly Laura has been influencing me for a long time. Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life is contemporary, so I obviously ruled out historical fiction. I decided I’d rather write a parallel story.

LHC: The parallel story certainly works! When Charlotte’s mom uproots the family to live in Walnut Grove, Charlotte is more than a bit frustrated, which is obvious from the title. Was it difficult or fun to write from Charlotte’s frustrated perspective?
ST: It was fun to develop the contrast between Charlotte’s frustration and her mom and sister’s sunny outlook. Charlotte’s mother, Martha, is very much like Pa – footloose, upbeat, always looking for the next lottery ticket. Like Pa, she races out of town in the middle of the night to avoid a debt collector. Charles Ingalls actually did that when they lived in Iowa. Laura rarely reveals anyone questioning Pa’s decisions, some of which were definitely questionable. Occasionally Ma will say something like, “Oh, Charles,” and you read between the lines as an adult. For example, they could’ve stayed in Wisconsin where they were surrounded by supportive family members and had a functioning farm. They had an attic full of food and plenty of game for hunting. But Pa had to move. They returned to the farm after a miserable experience on the prairie and then left it a second time. (The order of the books doesn’t reflect reality. Laura was two during “Little House on the Prairie, and she wrote it based on memories of family members.) I wanted Charlotte to be the cynical voice that was missing in the series, the voice of adult readers. What were they thinking?

LHC: Please tell us how your visits to Walnut Grove, Minnesota helped you write this book. Were any of your characters based on real people?
ST: I lived in Mankato, Minnesota for 20 years, so I'd been to Walnut Grove a few times. It's a small town - about 800 people - and it's very Laura-centric. There's not just a single museum. It's a complex. There's a reconstructed sod house, an old school house, an old church and more. Plus there's the dugout site near the town. In the summer the community puts on a pageant with a musical production about the town's history and the Ingalls family. I wondered, what's it like to grow up in a town like that? A small town with such an interesting identity? That question inspired the book. At one point, I'd reached out to one of the pageant organizers in Walnut Grove to observe auditions for the show and meet with some of the kids who were involved. I wanted to spend a lot more time in town since I'd only been there a few times. But I changed my mind. I’d been a journalist, and I was afraid I’d fall into journalism mode. My story was fiction. I didn’t want to be stifled by reality. (How could I create a mean school principal if I met the real principal and thought he - or she - was fabulous?) My memories, with some help from Internet research, were sufficient. I actually hit a deer while driving home from the pageant and nearly totaled my car. My daughter and her friend were recording themselves on an iPad when it happened – we got to listen to the crash (and my swearing) over and over. Trust me, it was memorable.

LHC: What made you choose Walnut Grove for the setting instead of one of the other Ingalls homesites?

ST: That’s a great question, because there are so many sites, and I’ve been to all of them. Walnut Grove really stands out for me. First, it’s truly a diverse town despite whatever perceptions you might have of southwest Minnesota. The part in the book about the population being a quarter Hmong is factual. Second, the museum complex and the annual festival are so impressive. I certainly don’t mean to pit sites against each other, because they all have wonderful things to offer, but Walnut Grove is close to my home in Mankato, so I feel a kinship with it. Since I lived near there, I literally laugh when I see the TV show, which was shot somewhere in California and looks nothing like the Minnesota prairie. I also love that the owners of the Ingalls’ dugout site allow members of the public to look at it, even though it’s private land. That’s incredibly generous. Finally, Laura never named Walnut Grove as the town in “On the Banks of Plum Creek.” She literally never wrote the words in the book. Call my novel a karmic clarification!
Shelley and her husband, Michael, at Laura's home in Missouri.
LHC: As a child, I remember wondering where Plum Creek was. I'm thankful to know now! Your story-telling skills are amazing. You included history beyond Laura Ingalls Wilder, yet the book doesn’t feel like a lesson. How did you decide what parts of history to mention in this book?
ST: I didn’t want to romanticize pioneer life or westward expansion. It was a hard life. As hard as Laura makes it sound in her novels, it was much, much harder in reality. Her actual memoir (“Pioneer Girl”) is often downright bleak with glimpses of domestic abuse, depression, alcoholism, which were among the issues faced by isolated settlers. I wanted to explore the consequences of westward expansion, too, from the exploitation of Chinese laborers in building the railroad to the removal of Native Americans from their land to environmental destruction via the Dust Bowl. It was really challenging to weave all that into a contemporary novel, especially because there’s so much content, and not have it feel like I was hitting readers over the head with a hammer. I asked other writers to read it and guide me in that regard. Ultimately, my editor had the final say, and I trust her judgment. When she thought I nailed it, I was comfortable.

LHC: Where can fans connect with you?
ST: I’m at online
And Twitter, too: @ShelleyTougas

LHC: What else would you like to tell Little House Companion readers?
ST: I’m equally fascinated by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s daughter. If you like Laura’s story, keep reading. Rose defied gender roles of the time, traveling the world and working as a real estate agent and a writer. In fact, for a period of time she was one of the country’s highest-paid writers. She developed some strong political views as she aged. She essentially quit writing/working to protest Social Security and Roosevelt’s New Deal. She simply wasn’t going to participate in it. Historians consider her among the “mothers” of today’s Libertarian Party.

Shelley, thanks so much for sharing some of the back story to Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life! That was such fun! And thank you for providing a book for one lucky Little House Companion reader!

Please enter the giveaway using the Rafflecopter gadget. (You'll need to be at the Little House Companion blog to do so.) This is limited to US residents. You may enter through Thursday, November 16. (It ends at midnight on November 17.)

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