Megan McDonald: Both works of historical fiction required enormous amounts of research, though there was much less of a written record for Jamestown, 1607, than there was for the Santa Fe Trail, 1848. Since Shadows in the Glasshouse was a mystery, the historical information was more of a backdrop, while the plot was centered on a Whodunit type of mystery. In All the Stars in the Sky, the history was much more central — I used historical fact and detail to create the actual plot elements. And of course, writing in diary form was completely different from weaving a mystery plot. The diary form is much more personal, and the human story — what's happening INSIDE the characters — is pivotal. Both were fascinating to create, and I enjoyed working on both for different reasons.
RFA & EST: You've said that you knew you wanted to be a writer for children when you heard editor Richard Jackson speak at a conference. What did he say that inspired you?
MM: I always wanted to write for children, as long as I can remember. But it was sitting in that dark audience and hearing Richard Jackson speak that made me feel it was possible — to actually get a first book read, noticed, considered, published, from out of the slush pile. He said, even after years in publishing, that he was always looking for new talent, and that discovering new writers was one of the best parts of his job as editor. The possibility stirred something in me, made me feel like it could happen to ME.
RFA & EST: Would you tell us how you researched All the Stars in the Sky?
MM: Research for me is messy, and wonderfully serendipitous. For every individual "fact" or "historical detail" that I go off and seek purposefully, a handful of others find me, fall in my lap, like a gift. The starting place for me was that I had "lived" some of this history. I spent a season working for the National Park Service at Bent's Old Fort in La Junta, Colorado. I was a living history interpreter there, and it really brought the history and time period to life for me. This is where I first discovered Susan Magoffin's diary, which was central to my research, and to the plot of the book. Florrie's mother, and her stay at Bent's Fort, is loosely based on Susan Magoffin's experience. I was also able to draw on my own personal experiences — eating pemmican (bluck!), tallow candle races, searching for white hearts (the glass beads in the book) — and make them Florrie's. I also surrounded myself with at least 150 books, read every diary account written by a woman that I could get my hands on, consulted primary source material at university libraries, and made a trip back to Santa Fe, for research, but also to experience the sights, sounds, and smells first hand, so that I'd later be able to hold them in my imagination. For me, looking at a wagon rut in the old trail is equally as important as knowing what flowers would have bloomed along the trail, or how many days it took to get from Arrow Rock to Council Grove.
RFA & EST: In your acknowledgments you thank your sister Melissa, a historian. How did she help with your research?
MM: My sister Melissa McDonald is a historian who specializes in women's history, which is to say she was very helpful in identifying women's issues, perspectives, and contributions from a social historian's point of view. Though women's accounts of the Santa Fe Trail at the time are few, the things they write about and the way the write it are completely different from accounts written by male traders and soldiers at the time. The women's accounts are much more attuned to everyday small details. She first put me onto the seminal research of Marc Simmons, (Women on the Santa Fe Trail: Diaries, Journals, Memoirs) which provided me with an extensive bibliography of sources. We discussed lots of issues, and she read the book in manuscript form several times and gave me invaluable feedback. Not to mention all those academic articles she photocopied for me!
RFA & EST: In the Historical Note, you cite the 1846 journal of Susan Magoffin. What was the most interesting or surprising fact you learned from reading her diary?
MM: I guess the most surprising thing to me was how brave she was — her sense of adventure about it all — storms, dangerous river crossings, wild buffalo, wagons crashing down mountains — you name it! She seemed to take it all in with such a wide-eyed, positive attitude, rather than complaining bitterly all the time about being far from home and loved ones and the comforts of home. She also wrote quite descriptively, sometimes poetically.
RFA & EST: The artist, Mr. St. Clair, is an interesting character. Was he patterned after a real artist who traveled the Santa Fe Trail sketching everyday life?
MM: Yes. He was patterned after John Mix Stanley, who was mentioned in a footnote in Susan Magoffin's diary. The Smithsonian issued a catalog of his paintings, calling them "accurate portraits painted from life of 43 different tribes of Indians, obtained at the cost, hazard and inconvenience of ten years' tour through the southwestern prairies, New Mexico, California, and Oregon." The note goes on to say that all but five of them were burnt by fire on January 24, 1865. This inspired the character of Mr. St. Clair, as well as Florrie's interest in art and, sadly, the fire. As visual artist, observer, and recorder, his was such a different role from the others who traveled the trail. His famous painting "A Buffalo Hunt on the Southwestern Prairies" is one of the few that survived.
RFA & EST: Throughout Florrie's diary she records stories and legends she hears various people tell. Aside from the Mexican legend of La Llorona, are the others traditional tales or ones you created?
MM: They are traditional tales. For example, since Mr. Ryder is of Irish descent, he tells the well-known Irish folktale of Finn McCoul and the giant Culcullin.
RFA & EST: Initially Florrie's diary was to be titled All the Beds in Heaven. Why was it changed to All the Stars in the Sky?
MM: That was the publisher's decision... both, I think are poetic, and lovely. The original, All the Beds in Heaven, was based on a quote from Marian Russell's diary. She traveled the Santa Fe Trail several times as a girl, and, years later in her memoir, remarked on the wonders of sleeping on a feather bed, which she likened to all the beds in Heaven. For me, it evoked the feeling of having slept on the hard, bumpy ground for months — then imagine how it must feel to finally get to sleep on a feather bed!
RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of Florrie's diary one question after they finished reading your book, what would that question be?
MM: What do you think it would have been like to be Florrie? To live when she did and how she did? To have to leave your friends and set out on the trail for a new life?
RFA & EST: What is the one thing you hope young readers will take with them from All the Stars in the Sky?
MM: Above all, a good story. Also an appreciation for American life in a completely different setting and time from their own.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.