The Kelly O'Connor McNees Interview
Today’s interviewee is a Chicago author, teacher and editor who is celebrating the recent release of her second historical novel. In Need of a Good Wife tells the story of mid-19th century mail-order brides who are shipped off to Nebraska, and follows up on The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. Kelly brought me Taco Bell Doritos® Tacos Loco shortly after my son was born, so she is also my hero. You can learn much more about her, and find information about her readings and appearances, here.
Which of your two books was more difficult to write and edit?
They were both hard in different ways. With the first novel, I was writing it for myself alone, at my own pace, with no hope that it would ever be published. I was afraid to tell anyone I was doing it — it seemed like such a ridiculous thing for a person to attempt, as if I were trying to build a hovercraft in my garage. So it was hard to keep going sometimes. The second time around, I had a little more faith that things would work out, but I had to write it much faster and with the sense that people were looking over my shoulder. I’m thinking the seventh novel or so is probably where it’s at. I’ll let you know.
What’s a historical period you’d love to write about?
I’ve been on this 19th century kick (my next book is set in 1835), but 1920s Chicago seems like it could be fun. In general I find a good strategy for fixing a boring scene in any work-in-progress is to take away the characters’ booze and see what happens.
What’s the difference between good and bad historical fiction?
Bad historical fiction happens when an author decides to “teach” readers about a particular period or historical event, or when he feels he must prove how much research he did by including a massive amount of historical detail that is irrelevant to the story. If you are writing a novel, your job is to tell a story. You might set that story in the past, or that story might be inspired by a real person or event, but researching till the cows come home will not give you a novel on its own. Good historical fiction evokes an era—its zeitgeist, its particular food and clothing, perhaps—but, as in all good fiction, the narrative must be driven by well-developed characters who are in trouble.
What are some of the most fun ways you’ve researched your books?
Most of the research involves locating books that are out of print. I am going to nerd out here and say that I totally love how it takes 15 minutes to take the escalator to the upper floors at the Harold Washington Library, because you get to read all the quotes on the walls that remind you why well-funded public libraries are absolutely crucial to a democracy. You feel you are on a mission, like you are participating in something. Of course, many historical societies and libraries have digitized texts, and you can find them online very easily. This saves a lot of time, but you don’t really get to feel as virtuous.
If you ordered a bride by mail, what qualities would you want her to possess?
I would like her to be good with children, particularly babies; be willing to get up for all night feedings; change diapers, do laundry, cook, grocery shop and vacuum. Oh, wait — that’s the maid/cook/live-in nanny I’ve been meaning to get from the Imaginary Store where they don’t cost anything.
What advice do you have for writers with new babies on how to find the time and the brainpower to write?
Live-in maid/nanny. Seriously, I think that you just have to accept that there is going to be a lot of crying (mostly your own) and a lot of stress and exhaustion and insatiable hunger and rage and laundry, but also tremendous love and exhilaration, and all of that fuels your writing in the long run. It’s just that in the short run it is going to be a miracle if you get a couple sentences down. So keep your expectations low, and go easy on yourself. I’d happily lie down in traffic for my daughter, but I’d probably do it with slightly more enthusiasm if she would consider sleeping through the night sometime soon. Someday (I’m told) the world will right itself again.
You help other writers with their manuscripts and query letters. At what point in your career did you realize that you could help other writers with their books?
I worked as an editorial assistant and then a freelance copyeditor (while doing other jobs too) and through the work learned some things about how books can be put together, what makes a book work, and how to figure out what’s wrong with a book that isn’t working. I am also a voracious reader and a writer myself who thinks about these things all day long. In days gone by, writers found agents and the two of them worked together to hone just the right project for submission. But now agents are so busy that most of them feel a project must be close to perfect before they will take it on. That developmental work interests me. I should say too that not all the writers I work with are pursuing traditional publishing. Some just love to write and want to improve their craft. Some will self-publish or publish with a small press. There are many more options now than ever before. For my purposes, the end goal doesn’t really matter. It’s the work itself.
Of the characters you’ve written, which do you think you’d dislike most if they were a real life person?
Well, Bronson Alcott would be kind of a drag to live with. He didn’t drink and he was a vegan. He didn’t even eat root vegetables because he was afraid a few worms might get killed in the process of digging them out of the soil. Which means he would probably be cowering in the corner sipping tepid water or something while I had to kill those giant centipedes we have in Rogers Park. Do you know the ones I’m talking about?
Are there any everyday practical applications that come from being married to a physicist?
Well, he gets all the jokes on Futurama, so there’s that. He also once engaged in a physics/math throwdown to prove to our landlord that it was impossible our electric bill had doubled in one month. Our rent was supposed to include utilities, but the guy was trying to pass on an increase he claimed was caused by the fact that in the fall the water in the pipes is colder, and therefore the water heater uses more energy to heat it up. Bonkers, right? My husband wasn’t having it. He did the calculations and mailed them in with the rent check because, as he says, “the thermal properties of water are well established.”
What was your first rejection letter for?
This is a sad story, actually. When I was in middle school, a kid in my class was shot and killed when he was mistaken for his father, who was a heroin dealer. The kid was the class clown — we weren’t close friends or anything, but everybody loved him, and it was deeply upsetting when, one day, he just wasn’t there anymore. But since I wasn’t close with him, it didn’t seem appropriate that I should feel grief, exactly. So I didn’t know what to do with what I felt, and that led me to write an essay about it. And submit it to the fiction editor at Seventeen, who said, “This is not fiction!” Which is how I learned to follow submission guidelines.
How does it feel to be the 329th person interviewed for Zulkey.com/WBEZ?
Like I’ve placed some serious pressure on #330.