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Chicago Author Spotlight: Wendy McClure

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 13, 2011 8:20PM

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The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie comes out tomorrow, April 14.
Before Wendy McClure got sucked into rereading the Little House on the Prairie series, she was doing a lot of different writerly things. The Oak Park born-and-raised writer is a children’s book editor and, in 2005, published a memoir about her experiences with Weight Watchers, I’m Not the New Me. Her collection of disturbing and mostly disgusting 1970s Weight Watchers recipe cards, which she had discovered in her parents’ basement and uploaded online for all to see, also increased her celebrity a bit.

Then, in 2008, she stumbled across a copy of Little House in the Big Woods, and once she started reading it, she couldn’t put the book down. When her boyfriend brought home a used set of the whole series he had found at a record store, there was no turning back. Wendy found herself rediscovering the same fascination for Little House that she had had as a girl reading the books. She decided to further explore her passion for the books and visit the various sites, homesteads, log cabins and museums around the country that honor the Wilder family. What followed is The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, McClure’s journey in the footsteps of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family.

As readers follow McClure to homestead sites in towns such as Pepin, Wis. and De Smet, S. D., she shares her experience of meeting fellow Laura fans. McClure also took the time to sift through a lot of Laura Ingalls biographies, articles and essays —┬áthere are more than you'd think — and share with her readers the particularly interesting and juicy bits. The book is pleasant and informative read, and it'll be of interest to anyone who was ever inspired by the Little House books as a child to desire a sun bonnet or spend just one night sleeping in a trundle bed.

McClure has several events in Chicago lined up over the next month; the first is tomorrow at Barnes & Noble, 1441 W. Webster Ave., at 7 p.m. We had a chance to chat with her about how she came to write the The Wilder Life.

2011_04wendymcclure.jpg Chicagoist: There is a surprising amount non-fiction literature and research that’s been done about the Wilder family. How does you book differ from all the biographies and and articles written about Laura Ingalls Wilder?

Wendy McClure: There had never been a travelouge about visiting the sites. The biographies are great, but they’re definitely academic. And so I wanted to write about just the fan's experience. People kept asking me if I was going to be doing research. And I said no, I'm kind of going from the fan's perspective.

C: Did you decide to write the book before you started visiting the different sites and museums, or vice versa?

WM: It was all kind of happening at once. I reread the stories for the first time in decades in 2008. And I had never gone back to them. I was afraid they wouldn’t be as a good as I thought they would be. I'm a children's book editor and you read a lot of historical fiction as an editor and I thought I would know what to expect. But when I finally got around to rereading them, I found one book of Little House in the Big Woods from my parent's house. I started rereading the set. Then this whole summer I was rereading them, I was telling everyone I was going to write a book about it while going around to all the sites. It wasn't like I was into it my whole life.

C: Yes, I was really surprised that there were so many site you could visit, so much Laura memorabilia... I never had any idea that there was so much of this fan culture surrounding Little House on the Prairie.

WM: A lot of it had to do with the TV show. Once the TV show debuted, a lot of places slowly began to establish themselves. But a lot of places didn't have much of the stuff before the '70s.

When I was talking to other Laura fans, I discovered there were a lot of people who reread the books every year or every two years. And I guess I am going to become one of those people. I was trying to write about things I was hoping people would remember the books. I definitely think they're worth rereading.

C: So you’re a children’s book editor and you have written other books. How was this different than your other work? Was it more challenging?

WM: It was and it wasn’t. It was involved in a lot of things I like to do: reading and critiquing stuff and sometimes making fun of stuff and letting myself geek out about something. I was really fascinated by the way we look at the books. Even things like our view of past as filtered through things like the American Girl dolls. It was part of the pop culture critic in me.

There was a point where I was working on the book, where I was doing all these different kinds of research: reading about what really happened with the land policy at the time in Kansas and at the same time I was reading about the history of the TV show and how the producer stopped being involved at a certain point in time and just all these weird things. Some of it made it in the book. A lot of it was just of interest to me. But I remember going to this party and realizing as I was talking to people about this stuff and being freaked out because I felt like I couldn't talk about anything else. People would ask about how the books were going and I wanted to talk about something else.

C: To be perfect honestly, when I started reading The Wilder Life, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it was going to be a bit of a dry reenactment of how was it was to live during the time of Laura Ingalls Widler. But instead I found your writing very humorous and entertaining, and was interested by your commentary on different things. Did you know from the beginning how you were going to write it?

WM: I like to think it's really mostly about just going back to the books. I didn't want it to be one of those experiment books where I go live in a cabin. I played with the idea of doing that and I realized that wasn't what I wanted to do when I go into the world of the books. Just because our lives are so different, I didn't want it to be an endurance thing. I didn't want to go out and it to be about me living about living without electricity or something. I think people project their feelings about simplicity to the books. But I love the Internet! I love technology. It was more that I wanted to learn more about the books. I'm glad I know how to make sourdough starter, which is something I learned. There's a few things I think I'm going to try or keep doing from time to time. But I'm not making a big lifestyle change.