Interview with Linda Johnston, Editor and Illustrator of Hope Amid Hardship: Pioneer Voices from Kansas Territory

Dan: Good morning, Linda, and welcome to the Extra Gravy Interview Show,  a somewhat irregular feature on Biscuit City, going out to all our readers and listeners on the Biscuit City Network. Welcome to our newly renovated glass-enclosed observation post.

Linda: Thanks! I’m glad to be here. I must say that the observation post is smaller than I expected.

Dan: I’ll admit it is cozy, but serviceable. Anyhow, I first met you at one of our Write by the Rails meetings which were held Monday evenings this summer. You had a manuscript copy of a portion of your book and I think it’s accurate to say everyone there was blown away by it. How did you get the idea for such a book?

Linda: When we lived in Kansas about twenty-five years ago, we lived close to an historic site on the Santa Fe Trail, just outside Kansas City. I was a guide there and one day while waiting on a group, I saw the diary of a pioneer woman on a shelf in the library. She had traveled the trail, and I became interested in similar diaries, particularly women’s stories.

I could identify with moving and leaving everything familiar behind since we had moved so much with my father in the Air Force and then after we married. My story, in a sense, was the same story as the pioneers.
 I continued to research and read pioneer diaries off and on for the next twenty years.  Although I had always wanted to do a book, five years ago I became serious about it and took a writing class at NOVA.  I did research at the Library of Congress and at the Kansas Historical Society when I visited my daughter who was in school at the University of Kansas. 

I should say that I also became interested in diaries kept by men. They were exceptionally observant and many wrote very well. Some of their script is beautiful as well.

My book tells my story as well. I am interested in art, nature and in the emotions of moving and going to a new place. They’re all there in the book.

Dan: It’s unusual for a book about pioneers to focus on the positive experiences in their lives. Why did you take that approach?

Linda: I asked myself, what did I want my readers to know about these pioneers? What was life like for them on the frontier? How did they cope with what they encountered? How would I have dealt with similar circumstances?  I went back to Kansas every year and found a few more diaries that intrigued me each time.
These people have become very real to me and an important part of my life and of my story. We’ve traveled together all these years.

The original diaries are time machines—they’re a direct connection to the past. When I hold one of them, I’m touching someone’s life.
I want to tell the readers about one man, Samuel Reader, who kept an illustrated diary from the time he was 14 until he was 80. That covered the span of years from about 1855 until 1915. Imagine having such a record of your life!  I have a photocopy of Samuel’s self-portrait above my computer.

Dan: How do people react to your book, generally?

Linda: People are enthusiastic about it and interested in it. It’s so personal, I want people to like what I’ve done. I’ve been fortunate to be able to sketch and paint. I keep travel journals and I illustrate them, which is what people did before the advent of inexpensive cameras.
So many people are turned off by history, but this is a book for those folks who normally would not pick up a book about history.  It shows a different perspective.   It’s the personal story of real people and their lives. I wanted to make history personal. It’s taking a look “between the ticks on the time line.” Anybody can read about people who made history: I want to write about people who are history.
I want people to understand that these pioneers had the same emotions, struggles and heartaches as we do. The context of their experience and understanding it are everything.

Dan:  Did you find a publisher while you were working on it or did that happen before you started?

Linda: Last October, I was at a Women Writing the West conference in Seattle.  Those attending had the opportunity to sign up and meet with editors and publishers who were presenters at the conference in order to pitch a book.  I did just that.  I met with Erin Turner, from Two Dot Books, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press.  I thought targeting the regional imprint of a larger press would be a good fit for my book.  As it turned out, Erin loves Kansas history and has written two books on Kansas herself.  Also, I had had some experience talking about my project at a few other conferences and that proved helpful.
So, I prepped for my presentation. I had props—a picture of Samuel Reader, a leather covered diary and some of my paintings. I felt at ease with her and we connected. I sent my manuscript to her and touched base at Christmas and New Year’s. In March I got an email that she was interested in my book and needed some additional material, which I sent immediately. She sent a message that she was going to pitch the book to the publishing committee the next day.
She emailed me that afternoon after the committee presentation to tell me that they wanted to publish the book. I was so excited!
They sent a contract, and I hired an attorney to review it. That was costly, but it was worth every cent.

Dan: Please tell us about your trip to Kansas this summer to gather more information. You also did something when you discovered the graves of some of the people mentioned in your book. I thought that was very touching. Please be sure to tell us about that.

Linda: Last spring I received a grant from the Kansas Historical Society to complete my research.  I made a trip to Kansas in August to do that.  While I was there I gathered more information and met some fascinating people.  I also visited the gravesites of several of my writers, including Samuel Reader.  The experience was important and very special.
 We don’t usually hear the words, “pioneers” and “fun” used together. But they, like us, did have good times as well as bad.  That’s why the book is called Hope Amid Hardship.
 One settler, Joseph Savage, went to Kansas in 1854.  He went back to New England the following spring to get his wife and five children. . . He went back to New England, remarried, and returned to his farm in Kansas.  His experience shows the character of many early settlers.
That strength, along with hope for the future, got them through difficult times, including droughts in 1856 and 1860.  During that time, settlers received aid (clothing, money, and other supplies) from eastern states.  This helped them survive as well.
Another woman emigrated there, was homesick, and didn’t want to stay.  Her father-in-law would not allow her to leave, so she stayed. She wrote poetically about the wildflowers and nature, and although she might have been “sad and sorrowful” one day, the next day she went to church and recorded that Kansas had invigorated her and that she had never felt so good, that it was a “fairy land.”

Dan: Please tell us about some interesting people you met in the course of doing this book.

Linda: I got in touch with Bill Griffing, who had posted some of his ancestor’s (James) letters online.  James lived in Manhattan, Kansas Territory.  Another of my diarists, Thomas Wells, lived in Topeka but moved to Manhattan in 1870 and lived next door to James the rest of his life.  The two families became lifelong friends.  I was delighted to learn that two of my favorite writers were dear friends. After all, these are people that I have come to care about.  This illustrates the network of relationships that characterizes a society.

Dan: You have an interesting way of working on the book. Would you describe how that happens?

Linda: I paint for a week and then I write for a week, every day, eight to ten hours a day.

Dan: I might add that the paintings are charming and lovely. What sort of projects do you have planned in the future?

Linda: I might like to do a book on Pike’s Peak.  Many settlers traveled from the Kansas Territory to search for gold there.  I would also like to do a children’s nature book, maybe on nature journaling.  I participate in a writing workshop for fourth and fifth graders each summer and really enjoy that.   
As part of my book project, I would like to encourage kids to keep a journal and understand that their everyday lives are a part of history.  I will incorporate this into my website, which is my next big project once I have turned in my final manuscript.

Dan:  Wow! That’s quite a list. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Linda: I feel very blessed that this project is coming to fruition and involves all the things that I enjoy.

Dan: When does your book come out?

Linda: The launch date is August 13, 2013.  The book will be published by Two Dot Books, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. I’ve already got the caterer lined up for the release party!

Dan: I want to thank you for being our guest today, for an informative, far-ranging interview. We’re looking forward to seeing your book when it comes out. I’ll put a notice here when it does with some information about how our readers can get a copy. We wish you the best in your work!
 We’ve been talking with Linda Johnston, editor and illustrator of  Hope Amid Hardship: Pioneer Voices from the Kansas Territory. It’s a beautiful book and one that I look forward to reading
This has been the Extra Gravy Interview on the Biscuit City Program, brought to you on the Biscuit City Network. Stay tuned for more interviews at irregular intervals. And so we bid you a fond farewell from the glass-enclosed observation tower.
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